Sykes notes, “The Cardinal Principles, which are voluble to the point of tedium on every aspect of schooling, dismissed scholarship with a single sentence: ‘Provisions should be made also for those having distinctly academic interests.’ And that’s it; the commission offered no further comment, suggestions, or guidelines.” The academic aspect of education was thereby treated as “an afterthought.” This philosophy quickly became deeply entrenched—indeed dominant—in the schools of education and teachers’ colleges.
Contrast the Cardinal Principles with the NEA educational guidelines of 1893, a mere twenty-five years earlier. In that year, the Commission of Ten, headed by Harvard’s Charles Eliot, spelled out the reasons for academic training:
As studies in language and in the natural sciences are best adapted to cultivate the habits of observation; as mathematics are the traditional training of the reasoning faculties … so history and its allied branches are better adapted than any other studies to promote the invaluable mental power which we call judgment.
Presumably, Eliot and other commission members recognized the same truth later expressed by philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
But study of history in American schools was about to be eviscerated. Before the CRSE, most high schools offered (even required) a four-year development in history that covered ancient, European, English, and American history. But now, the CRSE created a new field called “Social Studies.” History, according to the new curriculum designers, had little if any social purpose. Social Studies would.
The CRSE was composed of sixteen (later seventeen) committees. The Committee on Social Studies was headed by Thomas Jesse Jones, a noted advocate of industrial and trade education and one of the first to use the term “social studies.” This new field was a farrago of elements, including some history, but focusing on “social efficiency, or teaching students the skills and attitudes necessary to fit into the social order.”
Civics, ostensibly a study of government, was regarded as a part of this new field, but it was altered to fit the new social activism. It was now not so important for students to know how the president was elected as it was to know the duties of the community dogcatcher. The Committee on Social Studies, which Jones chaired, wrote:
The old chronicler who recorded the deeds of kings and warriors and neglected the labors of the common man is dead. The great palaces and cathedrals and pyramids are often but the empty shells of a parasitic growth on the working group. The elaborate descriptions of these old tombs are but sounding brass and tinkling cymbals compared to the record of the joys and sorrows, the hopes and disappointments of the masses, who are infinitely more important than any arrangement of wood and stone and iron.
Readers of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead will recognize in these words the sentiments of archvillain Ellsworth Toohey and his Marxist ideology. Observe the emphasis on the masses or the collective, the disdain for knowledge of the activities of kings and rulers, including, in some cases, their life-giving achievements, and the scorn for knowledge of the great men who have created original arrangements of wood and stone and iron—arrangements that have lifted man from caves to hovels to comfortable homes to skyscrapers.