Lawrence Arthur Cremin Essay

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Lawrence A. Cremin, one of the most important historians of U.S. education, served as a faculty member and administrator at Teachers College, Columbia University, for more than four decades. His three-volume history of education in the United States, titled American Education, examined the development of education from the colonial period to the late twentieth century. The second volume, examining the period from 1783 to 1876, received the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1981.

Cremin’s other books included The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876–1957, which received the 1962 Bancroft Prize in American history and is recognized as the definitive history of American progressive education. His final book, Popular Education and Its Discontents, examined the expansion of American education and its resultant successes and problems.

A graduate of the City College of New York, Cremin received his Ph.D. in history from Columbia in 1949. He began his career at Teachers College, Columbia University, and in 1961 became the Frederick A. P. Barnard Professor of Education. He also held a joint appointment in Columbia’s history department. After a number of administrative positions, he became the college’s seventh president in 1974, during a period of declining enrollments and fiscal problems. A strong supporter of disciplinary approaches to the study of education, Cremin shifted Teachers College’s historical commitment from an interdisciplinary foundation of education approach to a more discipline-centered approach in philosophy, history, and the social sciences. By the end of his presidency in 1984, he had developed significant new programs, restored financial health, and reestablished the college’s distinctive position. He returned to teaching and research in 1985, while also becoming president of the Spencer Foundation.

Cremin’s approach to educational history expanded the historical study of American education through a more multidimensional analysis than previous school-centered approaches. Through an examination of other institutions and agencies that educate and international educational trends, he provided in-depth analyses of the evolution of education in the larger context of society. Unlike earlier histories of American education, which uncritically celebrated its successes, Cremin provided a more comprehensive, balanced, and critical view. Nonetheless, his work is associated with the democratic-liberal school of U.S. educational history, which views the development of U.S. education as an extension of democratic and meritocratic processes.


  1. Cremin, L. A. (1961). The transformation of the school: Progressivism in American education. New York: Vintage.
  2. Cremin, L. A. (1972). American education: The colonial experience, 1607–1783. New York: Harper & Row.
  3. Cremin, L. A. (1977). Traditions of American education. New York: Basic Books.
  4. Cremin, L. A. (1980). American education: The national experience, 1783–1876. New York: Harper & Row.
  5. Cremin, L. A. (1988). American education: The metropolitan experience, 1876–1980. New York: Harper & Row.
  6. Cremin, L. A. (1990). Popular education and its discontents. New York: Harper & Row.

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