by Ron Miller
Chapter 1
Themes Of American Culture
Before we can fully appreciate the cultural significance of holistic education movements, we need to understand the cultural roots of mainstream American society. Without this understanding, holistic education appears simply as a gentle "child-centered" approach which seems too "romantic" to address the educational demands of our society. But a critical understanding of the dominant American worldview, which I will present in these first three chapters, reveals that holistic education is a profoundly radical movement which we need to take far more seriously than we have so far.
How shall we describe this vast, complex worldview that is American culture? One of the distinctive features about American history is that a worldview which was new in the eighteenth century - Enlightenment rationalism and republicanism - here encountered a huge, sparsely populated continent rather than an entrenched social order of monarchy, aristocracy, and established churches, and so had an opportunity to thrive. The American myth proclaims that this frontier-nurtured culture is uniquely democratic, egalitarian, and free. Early historians of education assumed this was so and sought to demonstrate that public schools embodied the uniquely American democratic faith.
There is much truth behind this myth. The United States has been a dynamic, open, mobile society which, to a great extent, has offered individual rights and opportunities denied in many other parts of the world. Millions of immigrants have come to this country seeking relief from oppression and poverty, have wept at the sight of the Statue of Liberty, and have become grateful, loyal citizens. However, the full truth is far more complex, and historians in the twentieth century, especially since the culturally unsettling 1960s, have taken a closer look at the many crosscurrents and undercurrents of American life. It turns out that the worldview which moved the founding fathers and which has evolved over two centuries is not entirely democratic, tolerant, and liberal, but contains other elements as well.
For the purposes of this study, I will pay particular attention to how this worldview has restricted the possible meanings of human experience - how it has served as a cultural limit to the growth and expression of our ate possibilities. Certainly the cultural themes I will discuss have contributed in positive ways to people's lives, but we can acknowledge their value without celebrating them blindly. We need to recognize that in important ways they have also been barriers to further human development, and that it is a major task of the emerging cultural transformation to overcome these barriers.
Protestant Christianity
The colonies had been settled by an overwhelmingly Protestant population. Indeed, many colonists had emigrated from Europe in order to establish a more purely Christian society (according to their definition) than they could find at home. Protestantism has continued to pervade American culture. The "Great Awakening" of the mid-eighteenth century and the
second Great Awakening" at the turn of the nineteenth were major cultural events which left a lasting impression on the evolution of American society. Historian Warren Susman claims that
No analysis of American culture makes any sense if it fails to realize that this
was from the start and largely remains a Protestant nation in which the role of
religious ideology in the shaping of other ideological positions is key. (Susman
1984, 56)
Other, more secular cultural themes, such as Enlightenment philosophy, commercial expansion, and political agitation also characterized late colonial and early national society. But as Susman argues, each of these themes had close ties to the Protestant worldview.
In some ways this religious heritage has contributed to the democratic ideals of American culture. The Judeo-Christian tradition emphasizes the moral and spiritual dignity of the person; if the human being is made in God's image, then every person has value. Protestantism, with its emphasis on the moral responsibility of the individual, has had a significant impact on the evolution of democracy as we know it. Nevertheless, American Protestantism - indeed, Christianity in general - is an exceedingly complex social phenomenon which incorporates many diverse ideas and groups of people. Christian ideals have been interpreted and applied in many, often contradictory ways. It is my belief that American culture has been deeply influenced by a theme of Christian theology which has sought to control and even suppress inherent human possibilities; this is the "Fall/Redemption" theology of St. Augustine, which has been fervently adopted by the
Calvinist, Puritan movement in Protestantism (Fox 1983; Karier 1986,34). In American culture especially, this "orthodox" Protestantism is characterized by particularly narrow and pessimistic view of nature and human nature. In several ways, this view has had an important influence on mainstream American education.
Most basically, the orthodox tradition has emphasized an utter separation between the material and spiritual realms - between natural and supernatural, profane and sacred, human and divine, person and God. The material world is "fallen," meaning non-sacred; it is the realm of depravity and sin.
Consequently, human nature is seen as a never-ending battle between the "fallen" state of our physical being and the elusive ideal of divine grace. In relation to the absolute perfection of the divine, the human being is, in the words of many an orthodox minister, a "poor worm." To the Puritans, the person was by nature a seedbed of depravity and corruption, and in order to deny the personal, physical self, they practiced intense, guilt-inducing introspection (Bercovitch 1975,15-23; Karier 1986; Roszak 1973, chap. 4; and Roszak 1978, 89-90).
According to Charles Leslie Glenn, in a recent study of American education from an evangelical perspective, orthodox Protestantism teaches that sin is an inborn "corruption of human nature cutting man off from God and from his own happiness." The individual cannot redeem oneself because we are all tainted by original sin; rather, we must accept Jesus Christ as our Savior and wait for God to bestow grace as He chooses (Glenn 1988, 48,132).
This extreme Calvinist pessimism was challenged in the eighteenth century by the rising influence of secular rationalism and in the nineteenth century by romantic influences. Indeed, Glenn's main argument is that these secular and romantic trends were embraced as the religion of American public education (This is the basis for the fundamentalists' complaint that the religion of "secular humanism" permeates the schools.) I will discuss the role of religion in public education later; the important point here is that despite these liberalizing trends, orthodox views of nature and human nature have remained embedded in American culture. First of all, secularization and public education did not extinguish the vitality of orthodox sects. Even Glenn recognizes, in numerous references, that the orthodox were "greatly in the majority among the population" during the formative years of American culture; that "in fact evangelicalism was evolving and expanding rapidly". that "powerful revival impulses ... were shaping American Protestantism" - and that orthodox leaders were confident "that they spoke for the nation." Orthodox Protestantism continued then and continues now to be an active force in American culture (Glenn 1988, 150, 162, 182, 195).
Furthermore, this hostile attitude toward nature and human nature has permeated the American worldview well beyond the boundaries of the orthodox sects themselves. The mistrust of the natural human being, of the physical body, of esthetic pleasure and sexuality, has remained a constant theme in American culture (not unchallenged, certainly, but nevertheless pervasive). Because the "Fall/Redemption" theology has had such an impact on Christian thinking, even the liberalization of American religion had its limits, and the growing influence of Roman Catholicism did not challenge this basic separation of the human from the divine. It has been left to small dissident sects in American Christianity - such as the Unitarian movement led by William Ellery Channing, the Creation Spirituality movement of the present-day Dominican teacher Matthew Fox, and the Quaker tradition - to reject the natural/supernatural dualism and reclaim a spirituality of the whole person. As we will see, such movements are closely related to holistic educational approaches.
Believing that human beings are cut off from the divine and are, instead, moved by innately evil impulses, American culture has become highly moralistic; it is commonly believed that a rigorous moral code, and vigilant enforcement of social mores, standards of behavior, and civil laws are all that stand in the way of social upheaval and anarchy. As some historians have observed, American politics and reform movements have traditionally defined social problems as problems of personal morality and discipline, and therefore have often failed to address the ideological or economic sources of social conflict. This moralistic approach has chronically prescribed religious authority and education rather than consider fundamental institutional change to remedy serious social problems.
This moralism is further reflected in the traditional Puritan attitude toward work and success. Work is seen as a necessary discipline of the naturally slothful human being. Therefore, those who undertake this discipline most diligently exhibit a superior moral status, and are consequently favored by material prosperity. Private property is, in this sense, sacred. Poverty - the absence of property - is not attributed to social factors specially given the presumably open opportunities available to all) but is seen as the inevitable result of personal moral failure.
Another general tendency in American religion is its emphasis on intellectual debate and interpretation (often literal interpretation) of scripture, creeds, and catechisms. It is true that various sects have sanctioned emotional conversion experiences and genuine moral sentiment. But overall, American religion has relied more heavily on conceptual, verbal, and doctrinal paths to truth than upon those which are more subjective, aesthetic, contemplative, or mystical. This emphasis on authoritative texts and creeds has had a profound effect on the educational practices of our culture. When religious beliefs encourage a more personal or mystical communion with the divine, ideas of education are vastly different.
Finally, American Protestantism has always been charged with a sense of mission, a deeply held belief that America was the New Jerusalem, "the city upon a hill" which would bring forth God's kingdom on earth. Robert Handy observes that "from the beginning American Protestants entertained a lively hope that someday the civilization of the country would be fully Christian" (Handy 1984, ix-x). Converting others in the national community was an urgent task; there was a sense that if they failed to build a holy commonwealth, God would judge them severely. When the western frontier was opened to massive migration in the nineteenth century, Protestant sects hastened to send ministers, Bibles, inspirational tracts, and circuit riders to the wilderness to ensure the perpetuation of Christian morality.
For this reason, we should be skeptical of the historical thesis that the frontier inspired a self-reliant democracy in the American character. The pioneers did not experience the frontier with innocent awe but through the filter of their Protestant worldview. In this view, the pioneers had to be even more vigilant than the settled kinsmen they left behind. Nature was a howling, Godless wilderness; the Indians were uncivilized pagans; the land existed to be tamed; and the community must be bound by a strict moral code or degenerate into lawlessness. Thus, while the frontier may have dissolved some of the pioneers' previous class distinctions in an economic or social sense, it did not erase the moralistic Puritanism of their ancestors. American culture - on or off the frontier - has not encouraged true self-reliance in a moral or spiritual sense, because it disdains nature and so mistrusts an unconverted, uncontrolled, undisciplined human nature.
Scientific Reductionism
In the so-called Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, the "natural philosophy" of Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, and Newton became firmly established in Western thought. According to this view, nature is a system of lawful regularities, best understood through reason - the careful use of induction and deduction (ideally expressed through mathematics) rather than subjective experience. Truth is not tested by personal revelation but by actual effectiveness in practical use. Knowledge of natural laws would give humankind power to control physical events - the highest aim of science. Applied to human affairs by Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and others, the scientific worldview was a major underpinning of the republican vision which moved the American revolutionaries and founding fathers. In an important book, Individualism and Nationalism in American Ideology, Yehoshua Arieli says the Enlightenment taught that
man was capable of reshaping himself and his social life according to the dictates of reason and could reflect in his society the harmony of the laws which maintained the universe. (Arieli 1964, 110-111)
In this sense, the scientific worldview offered a more progressive social philosophy and a more optimistic image of human nature than did orthodox Protestantism. The Baconian-Cartesian movement was in part a response to the religious warfare that had torn Europe, a hope that a universally valid method of gaining truth would supplant endless doctrinal strife. Those who were most enthusiastic about the scientific worldview, such as Jefferson, Franklin, and Paine, argued that "unalienable" natural rights applied to all men, and thus called for a broadly democratic society with limited concentrations of political, social, or religious authority. The view that a rational scientific approach is the most authentic means for achieving a humane, democratic society was echoed over a century later in the thought of John Dewey and taken up by the Humanist movement.
But in a very important sense, the scientific revolution was not so much a repudiation of Protestantism as a secularized extension of it. Scientism retained the religious dichotomy between matter and spirit. The material world is ruled by impersonal, amoral laws, not by any transcendent, self-creative purpose; the spiritual realm is wholly supernatural, and thus not the concern of science. The scientific emphasis of reason over subjective, mystical experience was an exaggeration, but not a rejection, of mainstream Protestant epistemology. The early scientists could - and did - pursue their rational approach towards nature while remaining devoutly religious in their personal and social beliefs. And except for the most implacable Biblical literalists, a religious American culture could accommodate and even complement the rise of scientism.
During the early, formative years of American culture, in social and political thought the secular view remained subordinate to the Protestant. Few of the founding fathers took the natural rights philosophy to its democratic extremes. In general, the ruling Federalists retained what Arieli calls a "Protestant nationalism" which was jealously protective of public morality and order. The more radical followers of Enlightenment ideas such as Paine, who attacked Christianity directly, were unpopular, and the violence of the atheistic French Revolution gave conservatives a rallying cry for purging whatever influence the radicals did have. Some historians suggest that conservatives' horrified response to the French Revolution led directly to the wave of revivals which comprised the "Second Great Awakening." So even as the Enlightenment radical Jefferson was elected to the Presidency in 1800, American culture was reembracing Protestantism, delaying a more secular worldview for well over half a century.
But after the middle of the nineteenth century, the scientific worldview became more aggressive and pervasive. Religion began to share its central cultural role with a consuming scientific positivism; it was believed, with ever greater fervor, that the scientific method could solve all the riddles of the universe and all the problems of society. This echoed the hope of the Jeffersonian republicans - except that nineteenth century science, freeing itself from all religious concern, veered toward materialism, the belief that an reality is essentially physical matter (which is measurable and manipulable) without any spiritual, transcending force. It became more mechanistic, preuming that natural events are produced by lawful cause-and-effect relaionships rather than any overarching purpose. And it became more reductionistic, seeking to explain phenomena by breaking everything into component parts and measuring the pieces. By the early twentieth century, even the human sciences had become positivist, and still today behavioral and quantitative approaches remain the preferred methods for studying human and social problems. As scientism has moved alongside religion as a dominant influence on American culture, the result for society, as we will see in Chapter Three, has been the "culture of professionalism," which is actually a serious erosion of the Jeffersonian democratic faith.
Restrained Democratic Ideology
Still, even before the rise of elitist professionalism, American culture had always harbored a tension between radical Jeffersonian ideals and far more conservative principles. Historians have debated which ideology was the most basic in the formation of American culture. While Louis Hartz (1955) and "consensus" historians claimed that an individualistic liberalism, based on John Locke's ideas, pervades American culture, other historians, such as Gordon Wood (1969), have argued that the more conservative ideals of classical republican virtue were very influential. Charles Beard and progressive historians earlier in this century argued that the founding fathers were opportunistic businessmen. Clearly, there has been an ongoing conflict between conservative elements - represented by the Federalist, Whig, and Republican parties, which are oriented to commercial expansion, traditional morality, and obedient citizenship - and liberal elements - inspired by Jefferson, Jackson, and various populist movements, which tend to emphasize personal freedom and opportunity.
Although both tendencies are represented among mainstream, patriotic Americans, the differences between the conservative and liberal elements should not be taken lightly. These are different ideals of social order, based on different images of human nature. In conservative/republican thought, human excellence is limited to a select few, who naturally tend to rise to economic and social prominence and who should be entrusted with guiding the affairs of state and society. The masses, especially immigrant masses not schooled in national traditions, are often feared as subversive elements. Excessive liberty granted to individuals is seen as a dangerous threat to the social order. Therefore, freedom must go hand-in-hand with discipline. The welfare of the community - the common good - supersedes the personal freedom of the individual.
Liberal democratic ideology, on the other hand, argues that most (if not all) people have the potential to conduct their own lives and do not need to be controlled from above. If people were free from economic, social, and religious injustice, they would, willingly, be hard-working and moral citizens. While this ideology is arguably the majority, mainstream view of American culture (it is certainly the core of the American myth), there is no question but that it is held in check, and in certain periods seriously compromised, by the more conservative tradition. Throughout American history, large numbers of people, notably women, African-Americans, nonAnglo-Saxon immigrants, native Americans, and children, have been denied the "natural rights" promised to them by the liberal ideology. Conservative attitudes toward poverty and other social problems, strongly influenced by Puritan Protestantism, tend to be moralistic rather than sympathetic toward those who fail to attain prosperity or power. As we will see, the ongoing tension between conservative and liberal interpretations of democracy is reflected, and has played a major part, in the development of American education.
American culture, however, has never accepted extreme doctrines of either the right or the left, because the core values of capitalism are shared by the vast majority. In fact, perhaps more than any other theme, it is capitalism that defines the identity of American culture. It is the almost unanimous acceptance of capitalist ideology - by the worker as well as the entrepreneur, by the followers of Jefferson and Jackson no less than those of Alexander Hamilton - which distinguishes the United States from most other nations. The vast majority of Americans eagerly defend capitalism both for its effectiveness (it has, after all, produced unprecedented material prosperity for the nation) as well as for its moral virtues (to a large extent capitalism does reward ingenuity, initiative, and effort, and the economic freedom it engenders is historically related to the political freedom offered by democratic government).
But in significant ways, capitalism also places limitations on human experience. First, let me state that what follows is not a Marxist or socialist critique. My concern here is not ownership of the means of production, but with capitalism as an all-encompassing worldview, a body of beliefs that involves far more than economic considerations. As a worldview, capitalism involves the belief that nature exists to serve human needs and wants; consequently inventiveness and audacity in taming nature are highly valued, and quality of life is measured in terms of how quickly raw nature is converted to human use - the gross national product. Furthermore, capitalism involves the belief that there are no inherent limits to human progress and comfort; therefore, the most ambitious and wealth-producing entrepreneurs are widely honored, and technological innovations are almost always welcomed. Another core belief is that in an open society there are no unfair barriers to opportunity; it is only one's own talent and initiative that determine one's status (the life of Franklin and the stories of Horatio Alger are thus important myths in American capitalism).
Capitalism as a worldview is based on meritocracy, that is, an almost unchecked competition between individuals for social and economic status. And the standards for measuring success are overwhelmingly materialistic, whole realms of human experience, notably the esthetic, emotional, and spiritual, do not count as qualifications for the job market or as emblems of achievement. Capitalism promotes individualism and self-assertion in social and economic terms, but places far less value on self-understanding, critical intelligence, or spiritual discovery. Practicality and productivity are more important than contemplation or inner questing; meditative practices are disdained as "contemplating one's navel." Intellectuals have long complained that American culture is "anti-intellectual" and hostile to the life of the mind; ruled by an unrelenting competitiveness, American culture is suspicious of contemplation that does not demonstrate its immediate practicality. Just as the religious tone of the culture encourages practical moral discipline rather than mysticism, capitalism demands tangible results, not inward seeking or self-realization.
Capitalism is closely intertwined with the other themes of the American worldview as well, including the restrained democratic ideology of American culture. On one hand, capitalism does propose, and often provides, opportunities for social and economic advancement. Class distinctions are not imposed by law or custom; the meritocracy invites aspirations and achievement by anyone who is capable. Certainly there is truth in the Franklin/Alger myth. Yet it cannot be denied that the competition for wealth and status results in some highly undemocratic consequences. If clever entrepreneurs represent the heroic ideal of American culture, it is not surprising that we have robber barons and corporate raiders, men (generally white Protestants) with enormous concentrations of wealth and power. Today the richest 1% of the population control something like 30% of the national wealth. It is considered normal for a corporate executive to be paid twenty or fifty or even a hundred times what most of his employees make. This is far beyond the personal success to which Franklin or Alger's heroes aspired.
Under corporate capitalism, only a small number of people can reach this pinnacle of success, no matter how many people are talented or motivated to succeed. Capitalism preaches democracy for all, but clearly some people enjoy more actual democracy, in the form of more access to quality education, more influence on economic and political decisions, more freedom to pursue happiness and personal meaning, and more opportunities to acquire still further wealth.
This is not a call for a revolution or legislation to forcibly guarantee equality. That misses the point, but we ought to reconsider seriously the cultural beliefs which allow us to place such incredibly disproportionate values on the worth of entrepreneurial cleverness versus even the most diligent physical work, and which allow us to accept placidly such concentrations of wealth and leisure when over 20% of our nation's children are growing up in poverty. The point is that capitalism as a worldview does not sufficiently address the extreme effects of its cherished meritocracy. The conservative version of capitalism accepts these effects as perfectly natural;it assumes that only a select few can actually attain the pinnacle of success because human nature is lazy and untrustworthy; those few who discipline themselves to achieve should be amply rewarded, and the mass of people should simply be content to share in the general prosperity by respecting private property and the rule of law. During the surge of corporate industrial expansion in the late nineteenth century the doctrine of Social Darwinism was used to justify the extreme polarization of society; to some, natural law dictated the survival of the fittest, and it was considered healthy for society's failures to be weeded out altogether! (Hofstadter 1955b).
The liberal version of capitalism has been more generous, asserting that there is room for everyone to succeed - if not a particular individual, then surely one's children. Society's major obligation, then, is to provide education in order to equalize economic and social opportunities. Significantly, the liberal capitalist view shares with the conservative the belief that social problems and cultural discontent are best solved by stimulating personal ambition and increasing individual opportunity, rather than by radically questioning the cultural values that may be their root cause. Consequently, the use of education as a panacea for social and cultural problems is a consistent pattern in American history.
One of the root cultural causes of modem social problems is that capitalism, in its materialist urge to control nature, is aligned with scientific reductionism and technocracy. This materialism is a major source of personal spiritual alienation and the disintegration of family and community life. All industrial age cultures - even socialist countries - share this faith in scientism and hence share its social problems, but in American culture, Protestant teachings give materialism (ironically enough) a distinctly religious fervor; the moral and vocational responsibility of the individual, the discipline of work and saving, and the sanctity of private property clearly distinguish capitalism from socialism, and they are especially pronounced in American culture. Historian Bernard Wishy has observed that "the will for righteousness and will for success ... [a] complex play of moralism and materialism" have been strongly ingrained into the American character (Wishy 1968,20). 1 believe that a genuine concern for human potentials and their attainment must include a penetrating analysis of such a religiously sanctioned materialism.
Finally, an unusual urgency is given to all these cultural themes because they are so completely tied to national identity. Unlike European countries, in which national loyalty is inherited through deep-seated historical, mythical, religious and artistic traditions, to be "American" is to overcome such given distinctions in order to identify oneself deliberately with a certain body of ideals: the American worldview, or as it has frequently been called, the "American Way of Life." In the writings and speeches of early American leaders, a deeply felt conviction was expressed again and again:
This society was unique, absolutely different from all the historic societies. Only here had the universal rights of man been translated into a living reality. (Arieli 1964, 78-79)
This self-righteous nationalism has had positive as well as negative connotations. Since European societies were considered to be corrupted by tyranny of church and state, by poverty, ignorance, and superstition, emerging American nationalism was a secular restatement of the Protestant urge to create a holy commonwealth, a model society to inspire the rest of the world. Early Americans, religious and rationalist both, were exhilarated by the sense of being on the verge of a monumental human experiment. Paine captured this feeling in Common Sense:
We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest, purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again. (in Arieli 1964, 72)


American nationalism has, ever since, had an aggressive, missionary tone. According to the American worldview, no other nation offers humanity a better example to follow.

The negative meaning of nationalism, however, is a nagging insecurity. Other nations have ancient traditions and to be a citizen is to have a lifelong motherland and a secure national identity. Americans, however, are people who have surrendered their ancestral ties to come to the new world. They need to prove their loyalty to a set of abstract ideals. Seen in this light, assertive nationalism is a defensive gesture to reassure Americans that they do, indeed, belong to the national community. Furthermore, especially in the early years, the ideals themselves needed to be proven: not since antiquity had citizens forged a successful republic. The American experiment was not an assured success. As a result of this insecurity, American culture has generally mistrusted foreign cultures and periodically resorted to xenophobic crusades against immigrants and dissidents. This has taken the form of federal laws, political parties, outright violence, and the notorious Congressional "unAmerican activities" investigations. And, of course, education has been a major weapon in these crusades.
I would argue that these five themes - Protestant Christianity, scientific reductionism, restrained democratic ideology, capitalism, and nationalism - are defining characteristics of the common, middle class American worldview, the "consensus consciousness" through which most Americans interpret their experience of the world. If there is a common thread which ties these themes together, it is the need for social discipline. Despite the emphasis on "liberty," "freedom," "independence," and "individualism" in the American myth, the dominant worldview actually does not trust the spontaneity and self-expressive creativity of the individual. The proper beliefs and proper ways of acting which lead to social and economic success are predominantly moral, rational, entrepreneurial, and "professional"; in short, they impose rational discipline on the deeper, more impulsive, intuitive, mystical, and emotional aspects of human nature.
Certainly all cultures impose discipline and a degree of conformity; in many ways American culture is individualistic - even atomistic - in comparison to more traditional cultures. But this individualism is almost exclusively economic, competitive, and superficial. The issue here is American culture's pervasive mistrust of the deeper subjective facets of human experience. Specifically, American culture does not value the truly spiritual element of human life. By "spiritual" I mean a receptivity to the more subtle, interior aspects of existence: a search for deeper meaning to existence than is offered by the intellect or by social convention alone. The American worldview imposes a moralistic, materialistic, rational discipline on this inward receptivity; in this culture, the truly spiritual is dismissed as "mystical" and "romantic." The holistic paradigm is an effort to regain this essential element of our being.
Obviously, American culture is far more complex than this brief sketch has indicated. These five themes are by no means a complete description of our worldview. But for the purpose of understanding the foundations of American education, I believe these particular themes are especially evident in the early history of American schooling.

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