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A. E. Bestor Jr. (1908–1994)

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After establishing himself as an academic historian, Arthur Eugene Bestor Jr. achieved national renown during the 1950s as a critic of Progressive education. In the 1920s Bestor attended the Lincoln School at Teachers College, Columbia University. He received a Ph.B. and Ph.D. in history from Yale University in 1930 and 1938, respectively. In 1959 Bestor earned an LL.D. from Lincoln University. After serving as an instructor at Yale, Bestor taught at Teachers College, Columbia University (1936–1942); at Stanford University (1942–1946); at the University of Illinois (1947–1962); and at the University of Washington (1962–1986). Three phases characterize Bestor's academic career: historical scholarship; Progressive education criticism; constitutional scholarship.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Bestor investigated the history of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century utopian socialism in the United States. In his most important work on this topic, Backwoods Utopias (1950), Bestor traced the development of communitarian societies from their sectarian origins in the 1660s through their demise as secular experiments in social reform during the mid-nineteenth century. Bestor demonstrated that commitment to voluntarism, experimentalism, social harmony, faith in reform, and group procedures characterized this uniquely American brand of communitarian socialism. He contrasted the communitarian approach to reform with individualist, gradualist, and revolutionary approaches. Influenced by his father's political progressivism and activism, particularly manifest in his leadership capacities at Chautauqua, Bestor considered communitarian societies a model for social reform–"a method for social regeneration of mankind." (1950, p. 7)

Bestor won notoriety, however, not for his serious scholarship, but for his popular criticism of Progressive education. The teacher shortage that followed World War II resulted in an increase of enrollments in education courses and a corresponding decrease of enrollments in liberal arts courses. Tensions between the two faculties emerged at many institutions, including University of Illinois, where Bestor was teaching. Bestor aimed his initial attack on Progressive education for a lack of academic standards, and specifically, at advocates of "life adjustment" education on the faculty at the University of Illinois. Bestor eventually broadened his critique from life adjustment education in particular to Progressive education writ large.

In Educational Wastelands (1953), Bestor charged that professional educationists had "lowered the aims of the American public schools," particularly by "setting forth purposes for education so trivial as to forfeit the respect of thoughtful men, and by deliberately divorcing the schools from the disciplines of science and scholarship" (pp. 8, 10). For Bestor, the traditional liberal arts curriculum represented the only acceptable form of secondary education. He claimed that Progressive educators, "by misrepresenting and undervaluing liberal education, have contributed … to the growth of anti-intellectualist hysteria that threatens not merely the schools but freedom itself." (p. 11)

Bestor articulated his ideal high school curriculum in The Restoration of Learning (1956), where he prioritized, in order of decreasing importance, the functions of the secondary school as follows: (1) intellectual training in the fundamental disciplines, which should be geared to the serious student and targeted at the upper two-thirds of ability; (2) special opportunities for academically superior students; (3) balancing programs for the top third of students with programs for the bottom third; (4) physical education; and (5) vocational training. Of lowest priority, Bestor considered, were extracurricular activities; his priority was the further education of top students and retention in school of the least able. For Bestor, secondary education existed almost exclusively to serve the academically talented, even at the expense of nonacademic students.

Inspired by the experience of the communitarian utopians he had studied, Bestor discarded the protocols of academic discourse and employed rhetorical tactics and even methods of propaganda in his attack on Progressives. In Educational Wastelands (1953), for example, he assigned pejorative nicknames to Progressive educators, such as "curriculum doctors," "life adjusters," and "curriculum engineers" and dubbed Progressive education "regressive education." (p. 44). Although academic responses to his criticism appeared, Bestor refused to issue rejoinders. Faculty at the University of Illinois attempted to block publication of his criticism because of its lack of academic integrity, and even scholars sympathetic with his critique disapproved of his methods. Bestor published extensively in professional journals and popular periodicals, and his views garnered wide exposure. Despite his political liberalism, however, Bestor's criticism resonated with conservative opponents of Progressivism and public education. Over time, Bestor adjusted his views to accommodate his increasingly conservative audience.

As the Sputnik crisis brought an emphasis on science and mathematics to education reform, Bestor's advocacy of the liberal arts became obsolete. After earning a law degree in 1959, Bestor returned to serious scholarship and devoted the remainder of his career to the study of constitutional history. Bestor analyzed sweeping historic developments such as territorial expansion, slavery, and the Civil War, as well as their interrelationships, in terms of how they influenced and were influenced by constitutionalism. In contradistinction to his educational criticism, Bestor wrote his constitutional history in a dignified, scholarly tone.

In the midst of the "excellence" educational reform movement of the 1980s, a second edition of Bestor's Educational Wastelands was released. Its main text was unchanged from the first edition, but the second edition was notable for the retrospectives written by Clarence J. Karier and Foster McMurry, and, in a new preface and a supplementary statement, for Bestor's resolute commitment to the positions he struck thirty years earlier. To document "that educational standards are still endangered as they were in 1953, and that deterioration remains unchecked" (p. 227), Bestor uncritically presented a litany of purportedly damaging findings about American education, which had been alleged in the 1983 report, Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Bestor had changed neither his stance on, nor his tactics for, criticizing the public schools.



BESTOR, ARTHUR E., JR. 1950. Backwoods Utopias. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

BESTOR, ARTHUR E., JR. 1953, revised 1985. Educational Wastelands: The Retreat from Learning in Our Public Schools. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

BESTOR, ARTHUR E., JR. 1956. The Restoration of Learning. New York: Knopf.

BESTOR, ARTHUR E., JR. 1964. "The American Civil War as a Constitutional Crisis." The American Historical Review 49:327–352.

WELTMAN, BURTON DAVID. 2000. "Reconsidering Arthur Bestor and the Cold War in Social Education." Theory and Research in Social Education 28:11–39.

WENTWORTH, MARLENE M. 1992. "From Chautauqua to Wastelands: The Bestors and American Education, 1905–1955." Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


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over 4 years ago

Bestor uncritically presented a litany of purportedly damaging findings about American education, which had been alleged in the 1983 report, Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Bestor had changed neither his stance on, nor his tactics for, criticizing the public schools.

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almost 6 years ago

Thank you for this informative article. The informtion was very helpful when writing a Charater Profile for a History of education class.

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about 6 years ago

Thnak you for the wonderful article on Bestor. I heard his name as a girl and now I am glad that he challenged progressivenism.