Education's Semi Sacred Canopy

David Wiles, Eaps 760

In 1959 Thomas Elliot wrote a startling article in the American Political Science Review. He declared that public education politics were akin to other parts of the public service sector. This assertion was novel because the long standing ethos of considering educational politics as different in kind, as opposed to degree, from other governmental politics. Elliot pointed out the obvious; educational activities consumed better than a half of the municipal and state government budget and politica l scientists should get interested in such a center of resource allocation. In the mid 1960's Laurence Iannaccone added the crucial step of being a professor of educational administration and declaring there was a "politics of education." Thirty years later hundreds of professors claim politics of education their academic speci ality and the American Educational Research Association has legitimized a new division called Educational Politics and Policy. It seems almost impossible to imagine a time when education and politics were considered a "vinegar and oil" type of policy dis cussion.

The reluctance to admit that public education was as "political" a situation of governance and management as any other part of the public service sector can be attributed to what Peter Berger coined the "sacred canopy" over schooling activities. The religious connotation plays less to the historical allegiance to Protestant Christanity by public schools (Old Deluder Satan to the beginnings of the 20th century) and more to the "cocoon" or blanket of isolation and immunity from external scrutiny t hat educators achieved. Laurence Iannaccone referred to professional educators as the "polite priestcraft." It was polite in the sense that no internal controversy was discussed before "outsiders" (meaning the public). It was a priestcraft in the sense that the rites of initiation and passage into the ranks were highly normative.

What created this tendency to operate under a semi sacred canopy? Some point to the original schooling situation within the colonies. Each town or local community hired their own "schoolmarm" to teach their children. Literacy was to become knowl edgeable about the basic laws of and to read the Bible. By the mid 1900's expectations for elementary teachers had grown into a code of allegiance and behaviors that rivalled induction into a religious order.

Others point to a curious modification of the political machine demands for personal loyalty, but to the meanings of professional educator between the late 1880's and the mid 1920's. In the 1880's educational administration declared itself separa te from both the teaching professional legacy and from the citizen relationship of governing through the local board of education. Educational administrators embraced the "factory" features of school organization and production. Further, development of state legislation about educating and stipulation of the public school function allowed administrators to claim an interpretative expertise. There was a code of "administration" to be mastered, but at a level of abstraction much more than an actual stipu lation of what school managing actually meant. For example, school administration knowledge would be closer to Gulick's POSDCORB "principles" than Taylor's efforts to actually document "time-motion" relationships.

Over time, this separation of public education modified the semi-religious connotations of identity to what Raymond Callahan called the "cult of efficiency." The isolation of education from the rest of the public service sector became an argument f or classic bureaucracy and those who "specialize" in the schooling function Was the semi sacred canopy strong? When FDR was attempting to reconstruct the United States economy during the Great Depression he did not turn to the public school and higher education systems. Although it is debatable, I would argue that FDR felt it would be easier to effect real wholesale change by creating brand new organization as opposed to convincing school people to go along with massive reform efforts.

Finally, the disintegration of the "canopy" protecting public education from external influence coincided with the erosion of the "lighthouse" status of the big cities as having the best public education systems in the country. Given the 1980's na tion at risk and the continual assertion that the worst public education takes place in big cities, it is hard to remember that one half a century ago the very best in public education academics and educator professionalism was identified with the largest cities. The shredding of the canopy began during and immediately after World War Two and continues to this day.


  • Jack Culbertson, " A Century of Educational Administration" in Norman Boyan (ed.) Handbook of Research on Educational Administration (1988);
  • Raymond Callahan Education and the Cult of Efficiency (1962);
  • Laurence Iannaccone, The Politics of Education (1967);
  • Lawrence Cremin The Transformation of the School (1964);
  • Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy critique;
  • Paul Peterson School Politics: Chicago Style (University of Chicago Press, 1978).