To understand the community as the primary setting for learning a broadened perspective on education is required. Lawrence Cremin, Pulitzer prize winning historian of education and former President of Teachers College Columbia, provides such a perspective with his ecological model of education.

As a first step in Cremn’s (1976) theory, schooling is removed from the center of the American theory of education and consideration is given to the “relation of various educative interactions and institutions to one another and to society at large” (p. 24).

This alternative theory of education, appropriately titled the “Ecology of Education” (p. 25), conceptualizes education as a variety of related institutional configurations of educative and social interactions. These “configurations of education,” as Cremin called them, vary between and within communities as they are influenced by the social structure and historical patterns of a particular group of people.

For example, in Protestant American communities of the 19th century the configuration of education generally included “the white Protestant family, the white Protestant church, and the white Protestant Sunday school along with the common school” (p. 36).

A second key argument Cremin makes is to point out that the expansion of schooling in the United States was matched by an expansion of learning outside the schools, including newspapers, television, youth organizations, libraries, electronic media of many varieties, museums, camps, etc.

This vast expansion of learning provides the settings for the many more varied ecologies of education that came into existence in the 20th century.

In Cremin’s writing, including his magisterial three volume history of American Education (1970, 1980, 1988) community is the primary setting for learning, within which schools are one important element. Cremin himself noted the obvious and “inescapable relationship between the concept of the configuration of education and the concept of the community” (p. 33).

Cremin’s arguments, and the substantial research which is at the foundation of his work, suggest that addressing educational shortcomings in American society through school reform alone will never have the effect desired. Cremin has demonstrated that much of education takes place outside of schools and that the enormous wells of creativity and learning are family and community-based. If we continue to ignore these with a narrow focus on school reform, then we do so at our own peril.



Cremin, L. A. (1970). American Education, The Colonial Experience, 1607-1783.

Cremin, L. A. (1976). Public Education.

Cremin, L. A. (1980). American Education, The National Experience, 1783-1876.

Cremin, L. A. (1978). American Education, The Metropolitan Experience, 1876-1980.