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.”