Writing in 1949, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., warned that the rise of authoritarianism across the globe represented “more than an internal crisis for democratic society.” Authoritarianism, he declared, “signified an internal crisis for democratic man.” According to Schlesinger, there potentially was “a Hitler, a Stalin in every breast.” Many U.S. political leaders and public intellectuals in the twentieth century shared that dark vision. So, too, did many American educators, the men and women responsible for public primary and secondary education. The specter of foreign authoritarianism shaped the curricula and pedagogical practices of schools across the country for most of the twentieth century. 

Between World War I and the end of the Cold War, teachers and theorists of education discussed at length the dangers of “authoritarian” educational systems abroad and how schools in a democracy ought to diverge from them. Education policymakers proposed and implemented waves of reforms to align curricula with the goal of making students firm democratic citizens in a world where democracy seemed under constant threat.

During this period, education policymakers reenvisioned the school as the frontline of defense against authoritarian ideology. The Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954 and the National Defense Education Act of 1958 expanded the role of the federal government in public schools, which had traditionally been run exclusively by state and local authorities. An explosion in high school enrollment accompanied this shift. In 1919, only 31 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds were enrolled in high school. By 1980, enrollment had reached 90 percent. High school graduation rates rose from 16 percent to 71 percent during this same period. As a result, the school became an avenue through which policymakers could reach the vast majority of U.S. citizens, allowing them to enlist public education in the ideological contest with authoritarianism. By building a model of education that emphasized critical thinking and a humanistic view of individual freedom, U.S. policymakers explicitly tried to eschew educational practices they considered to be “indoctrination,” “propaganda,” or “authoritarian.”

But this approach to education began to change once the threat of authoritarianism seemed to diminish in the 1980s. Educators began to place the needs of the market over the imperative of civic-mindedness. That turn has gradually transformed the role of schools in American life from incubators of democratic citizens to engines of economic aspiration.


American educators first began to discuss the perils of authoritarianism during World War I, with the rise of an aggressive, expansionist Germany under the helm of Prussian Kaiser Wilhelm II. When the United States entered the war against Germany in 1917, U.S. scholars cast “Prussianism” as an authoritarian ideology, and they denounced its centralized approach to schooling and governance; the United States, on the other hand, administered schools locally. Studies of German schools published during the war, such as Victor Friedel’s The German School as War Nursery and Thomas Alexander’s The Prussian Elementary Schools, described how the Prussian schoolmasters had distorted German life and steered German culture toward the imperialistic goals of the state. As Alexander, a professor of education at the George Peabody College for Teachers (Vanderbilt University), explained in 1918 “the Prussian is to a large measure enslaved through the medium of his school . . . his learning instead of making him his own master, forges the chain by which he is held in servitude.” By contrast, he argued, American education ought to take a more student-centered approach in accordance with “the democratic principles for which we are aiming.” As one teacher, Helen Louis Cohen, wrote during the war, she no longer required her students to conduct “individualized recitation,” an approach she associated with Prussianism. Instead, she introduced what she called “socialized recitation,” an early version of classroom discussion that she thought integral to education in a democratic society.

World War I also witnessed the Russian Revolution, which brought the Bolsheviks to power—a momentous event that provoked both alarm and curiosity among U.S. educators. John Dewey, the United States’ foremost educational philosopher, visited the Soviet Union in 1928 and published his impressions in The New Republic and as a book the following year. Dewey noted “an immense amount of indoctrination and propaganda in the schools,” but he held out hope that Soviet education would still lead to “the awaking of initiative and power of independent judgment.” He was inspired by the Russians’ collective sense of purpose but was disturbed by the ideological one-sidedness of their curriculum materials. Throughout his career, Dewey preached that critical thinking was the most important element of education in a democracy.

The specter of authoritarianism shaped U.S. curricula for much of the twentieth century. 

In the same period, American educators became more aware of the rise of fascism—as exemplified first by Benito Mussolini’s Italy and then by Nazi Germany. The American writer and teacher Gregor Ziemer surveyed the educational techniques of the Nazis in the years leading up to World War II. His 1941 book, Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi, reached a wide audience and formed the basis of both an animated Disney film of the same name and the 1943 movie Hitler’s Children. “In Nazi Germany, the ideal of self-sacrifice, of dying for Hitler, has taken on proportions that to an outsider would seem sadistic perversion,” Ziemer warned. To meet the formidable threat of Nazi education, he concluded, U.S. schools would need to become more vigilant and rigorous by stoking more enthusiasm for democracy. “We hear it said that Hitler’s methods and Hitler’s techniques have no place in American Schools. Of course not!” he wrote. Nevertheless, Ziemer pondered, perhaps some indoctrination in the service of democracy might be warranted as a counterweight to the “remarkable efficiency” of Nazi education.

After World War II, U.S. educators conflated fascism and communism as totalitarian ideologies that sought the complete economic and social immersion of the individual into the apparatus of the state. They considered totalitarianism a product of modern technologies and institutions: industrialization, broadcast media, propaganda, surveillance, and centrally controlled public schooling. In a 1949 study of education in the Soviet Union, the educational theorist George Counts related how the Communist Party “is engaged with great energy in systemically building, in the minds of young and old alike, two great myths—one about themselves and their country and the other about the rest of the world and the so-called camp of capitalism.” From World War II until the end of the Cold War, U.S. educators would fixate on the threat of communist totalitarianism and its system of education. That perception of a menacing ideological foe shaped the curricula of U.S. schools.


U.S. educators on both the political left and the political right defined the ideal of democratic education as the deliberate avoidance of propaganda, indoctrination, and top-down authoritarian pedagogy and administration (in their internecine strife, they would often accuse one another of supporting these un-American ideas). As the National Education Association insisted in 1929, “The main purpose of propaganda is to teach what to think, while the guiding purpose of education is to teach how to think.” That same year, the educational scholar Wayne Soper argued, “The function of education is to acquaint the individual with a variety of opinions, doctrines, or courses of action so as to equip him intelligently to do his own thinking and to select his own courses of action.” By contrast, the objective of authoritarian teaching was “to gain acceptance of a particular opinion, doctrine, or course of action under circumstances designed to curb the individual’s freedom of action.” U.S. educators sought to build a curriculum that avoided the pitfalls of authoritarian education. Social studies textbooks in the 1930s, for instance, began to include discussion questions, presenting their material as matter to be interrogated and not just memorized. In 1937, Teachers College (Columbia University) opened up the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, which sent monthly bulletins to its 6,000 subscribers.

After World War II, educators launched a comprehensive revision of the curriculum, funded by the National Science Foundation. The “New Math” shifted the focus of math education from computation to creative and conceptual thinking. As the historian Christopher Phillips explained, the New Math was meant “to cultivate habits of thought more consistent with the image of the ‘open’ creative American minds than that of ‘closed’ inflexible Soviet minds.” Similar reforms in science education emphasized lab experimentation and the application of knowledge over memorization and rote learning. In the social studies, the nation’s leading cognitive scientist, Jerome Bruner of Harvard University, designed the controversial anthropology unit Man: A Course of Study, which also emphasized creative and conceptual understanding over memorization. Bruner’s curriculum was implemented in 1,700 schools. “One thing seems clear,” Bruner explained in 1960. “If all students are helped to full utilization of their [thinking] power, we will have a better chance of surviving as a democracy.”

However, even with the general acceptance between World War I and the 1980s that schools in a democratic country should teach “how to think, not what to think,” educators remained divided on several issues. They fiercely debated whether the proper curriculum should be based on the traditional liberal arts, on social issues, on the methods of the academic disciplines, or on a more open-ended exploration of students’ values and morals. The consensus on teaching “how to think, not what to think” held for decades because its vagueness allowed American educators a great degree of flexibility in devising and implementing curricula while still adhering to a general conviction that democratic education must diverge from authoritarian education. Educators of various political persuasions never wavered from the notion that the school was an important, perhaps the most important, institution in preserving and facilitating democratic life. They believed that their work had global implications.


That national consensus began to unravel with the publication of an influential 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education titled “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.” President Ronald Reagan appointed the commission to create a road map for educational improvement and reform. The report argued that the primary threat to U.S. global dominance was not ideological but economic, because democratic nations and U.S. allies such as Germany, Japan, and South Korea represented potential challenges to the United States’ economic future. “A Nation at Risk” did not stress the importance of teaching critical thinking skills and made no reference to a pedagogy that promoted democracy in the face of authoritarianism. Its message was clear: the primary purpose of the U.S. school was to prepare students for the workplace and only secondarily to prepare them for citizenship.

Driven by media reports of the United States’ dismal performance on international assessments, education policymakers embraced the goals of workforce preparation and international economic competition as the overarching purposes of U.S. schooling for the next 30 years. In response, many states implemented rigorous academic standards and annual standardized testing. Over time, Americans began to view the school as more of a means toward personal economic advancement than as an indispensable ingredient in a national, civic project to create a nation of free-thinking individuals.

Without authoritarian regimes to serve as foils to democratic life, especially after the Cold War ended in 1991, the civic function of education has receded even further, overshadowed by an emphasis on “college and career readiness”—the major focus of the recently adopted Common Core Standards in mathematics and English/language arts. The Common Core Standards do not remotely recognize social studies/civics as a standalone subject. Instead, they frame the social studies as a subtopic within “literacy in history/social science, science and technical subjects,” demonstrating how marginalized civic education has become since the end of the Cold War.

With authoritarianism on the rise around the world, an unsettling rise of authoritarian rhetoric at home, and a growing mistrust of mainstream media, it is time to move civic education back to the heart of the curriculum. Today’s media and ideological landscape is far more complex and misleading than ever before, and as political rivals accuse one another of “indoctrination,” “propaganda,” and “fake news,” students must sort it out themselves. Authoritarianism abroad may have bedeviled the United States in many ways, but it allowed educators to place thoughtful civic education at the center of the curriculum. Policymakers must restore that mode of thinking and teaching to the position it once held.

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