Theodore Brameld (1904–1987)
A philosopher and visionary educator who developed the reconstructionist philosophy of education, Theodore Brameld spent a lifetime working for personal and cultural transformation through education. Influenced by John Dewey's educational philosophy, Brameld urged that schools become a powerful force for social and political change. He welcomed reasoned argument and debate both inside and outside the classroom. After completing a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Chicago in 1931, Brameld taught at Long Island University and spent much of his career at New York University and Boston University.
In the 1930s Brameld was drawn to a social activist group of scholars at Teachers College, Columbia University, including George Counts, Harold Rugg, Merle Curti, and William Heard Kilpatrick. Counts especially influenced him profoundly. Writing in The Social Frontier, a journal of educational and political critique, Brameld argued for a radical philosophy that focused analysis on weaknesses in the social, economic, and political structure. From this analysis came constructive blueprints for a new social order that challenged social inequities like prejudice, discrimination, and economic exploitation. These issues were addressed in Minority Problems in Public Schools, published in 1945.
Placing abundant faith in the common person, Brameld considered democracy the core of his educational philosophy. In 1950 he asserted in Ends and Means in Education: A Midcentury Appraisal that education needed a reconstructed perspective and suggested reconstructionism as an appropriate label to distinguish this philosophy. Many of Brameld's ideas grew out of his experience in applying his philosophical beliefs to a school setting in Floodwood, Minnesota. There he worked with students and teachers to develop democratic objectives. Insisting that controversial issues and problems ought to play a central role in education, he considered no issue out of bounds for discussion and critical analysis.
Brameld never wavered in his conviction that philosophy must be related to real-life issues. Philosophers as well as educators must act decisively on their values, he affirmed. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s he remained defiant and courageous in the face of intimidation and harassment by the forces of McCarthyism that tried to muffle his resolute voice.
Starting in 1950 with the publication of Patterns of Educational Philosophy: A Democratic Interpretation, Brameld developed his cultural interpretation of four philosophies of education: essentialism, perennialism, progressivism, and reconstructionism. He viewed essentialism as an educational philosophy concerned mainly with the conservation of culture; perennialism as centering on the classical thought of ancient Greece and medieval Europe; progressivism as the philosophy of liberal, experimental education; and reconstructionism as a radical philosophy of education responding to the contemporary crisis. In his writings throughout the 1950s, Brameld maintained that reconstructionists–like progressivists–opposed any theory that viewed values as absolute or unchanging. Values must be tested by evidence and grounded in social consensus.
Brameld continued to refine his philosophy in his many publications. In 1965 a small but influential book, Education as Power, appeared in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, and Korean editions (and was reissued in 2000). Education as Power clearly and concisely outlines many of the major tenets of reconstructionism.
Education has two major roles: to transmit culture and to modify culture. When American culture is in a state of crisis, the second of these roles–that of modifying and innovating–becomes more important. Reconstructionism, Brameld affirmed, is a crisis philosophy; the reconstructionist is "very clear as to which road mankind should take, but he [or she] is not at all clear as to which road it will take" (2000, p. 75).
Above all, reconstructionism is a philosophy of values, ends, and purposes, with a democratically empowered world civilization as the central goal of education. Social self-realization, "the realization of the capacity of the self to measure up to its fullest, most satisfying powers in cooperative relationship with other selves" (2000, p. 93), is the capstone of reconstructionist theory and practice, but Brameld also pays attention to politics, human relations, religion, and the arts in his philosophy. A commitment to existential humanism remains constant. Defensible partiality, a central concept in reconstructionism, suggests a search for answers to human problems by exploring alternative approaches and then defending the partialities that emerge from a dialectic of opposition.
Brameld's abiding interest in the concept of culture led him to write a scholarly volume, Cultural Foundations of Education: An Interdisciplinary Exploration (1957), that demonstrated his debt to influential anthropologists. Following this came application of his theoretical framework to Puerto Rican culture and education in The Remaking of a Culture (1959), and application to a study of a Japanese fishing village and a segregated community in Japan: Culture, Education, and Change in Two Communities (1968).
One of Brameld's last books, The Teacher As World Citizen: A Scenario of the 21st Century (1976), provides a visionary outline and culmination of many of his lifelong hopes and beliefs. Written as if looking back from the eve of the year 2001, the teacher-narrator recalls global transformations of the preceding quarter century. Radical changes have occurred, especially establishment of a World Community of Nations based on a global Declaration of Interdependence.
Brameld's conception of the utopian spirit as a realizable vision of what could and should be achieved was influenced greatly by scholars like Lewis Mumford whose comprehensive organic, ecological, and humanistic philosophy had a profound influence on Brameld's reconstructionism. Some critics found Brameld's educational philosophy too goal-centered and utopian while others were disturbed by his advocacy of teachers as social change activists. Still others criticized his early interest in Marx, as well as his ongoing critique of the capitalist value system. Brameld's unpopular commitment in intercultural education and education for a world community in the 1950s was more widely embraced as multicultural and global education a half century later.
After becoming professor emeritus at Boston University in 1969, Brameld taught at Springfield College in Massachusetts and at the University of Hawaii where he continued to write, conduct research, and become involved in community change initiatives. As he did throughout his professional life, Brameld wrote letters to the editors of newspapers and worked on articles for scholarly journals. Brameld participated in demonstrations against nuclear power and enjoyed spending time at his home in Lyme Center, New Hampshire and traveling around the world as an instructor with World Campus Afloat (a study-abroad program now known as the Semester at Sea).
Theodore Brameld died in October 1987 in Durham, North Carolina, at the age of eighty-three. The Society for Educational Reconstruction (SER), founded in the late 1960s by Brameld's former doctoral students and others inspired by his ideas, continues to sponsor conferences and symposia focusing on various dimensions of the reconstructionist philosophy of education.
BRAMELD, THEODORE. 1971. Patterns of Educational Philosophy: Divergence and Convergence in Culturological Perspective. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
BRAMELD, THEODORE. 1976. The Teacher as World Citizen: A Scenario of the 21st Century. Palm Springs, CA: ETC Publications.
BRAMELD, THEODORE. Archival Papers. Special Collections of the Bailey/Howe Library, University of Vermont, Burlington.
BRAMELD, THEODORE. 2000. Education as Power (1965). San Francisco: Caddo Gap Press.
CONRAD, DAVID R. 1976. Education for Transformation: Implications in Lewis Mumford's Ecohumanism. Palm Springs, CA: ETC Publications.
ROBERTS, SUSAN, and BUSSLER, DARROL, eds. 1997. Introducing Educational Reconstruction: The Philosophy and Practice of Transforming Society Through Education. San Francisco: Caddo Gap Press.
SHIMAHARA, NOBUO, and CONRAD, DAVID R. 1991. "Theodore Brameld's Culturological Vision: Profile of a Reconstructionist." Qualitative Studies in Education 4:247–259.
STANLEY, WILLIAM B. 1992. Curriculum for Utopia: Social Reconstructionism and Critical Pedagogy in the Postmodern Era. Albany: State University of New York Press.
DAVID R. CONRAD
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