Publication Date

July 26, 2018

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

We are at a crossroads in the way we think about American public education. Its basic institutions and purposes are now contested; its future uncertain. In some states, the common school systems we take for granted may not exist a decade from now. Advocates of school choice argue that parents should be empowered to choose schools that reflect their family values, while many policy makers are interested in education primarily for its economic rather than its civic purposes. The primary purpose of education seems to be private gain, and we may soon see most schools privately managed. We have reached a crisis unseen perhaps since massive resistance—when some southern states and districts opted to close their public schools rather than integrate. In such times, we need to learn from the past to take charge of the future.

An abandoned high school classroom.

The future of American public education is uncertain, writes Johann N. Neem. Freaktography/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

But when I turned to the past for guidance, I discovered that historians offered little hope. From the 1960s through the 1980s, historians portrayed America’s public schools as unmoving monoliths—large bureaucracies immune to pressure, serving any interest but those of democracy. To those on the New Left, they prepared a culturally uniform and disciplined workforce for an industrial capitalist economy, stifling individuality and creativity. To those on the New Right, they undermined local control, taking power away from citizens and handing it over to the government.

Whether from the left or right, the scholarship had an anti-institutionalist bias that left little room for optimism. Both sides got much correct: the emergence of large bureaucracies did displace meaningful local control; public schools were often biased against religious, ethnic, and racial minorities; and too often teaching was centered on discipline rather than free inquiry. But if the only lesson that history can teach us is that institutions discipline and punish, then there is no possibility that they might also nurture or develop human capabilities.

Today, however, we live in a different historical moment. The achievements of the generations that built public schools between the Revolution and the Civil War now appear fragile and tentative. Institutions, it turns out, cannot be taken for granted. And when we turn to the words of public education’s advocates, we find that they can remind us of public schools’ civic and humanistic purposes.

The primary purpose of education seems to be private gain, and we may soon see most schools privately managed.

The revolutionary generation understood that republics are among the most precarious of political regimes. Unlike empires—which have lasted hundreds of years—in 1776 there were few examples of long-lasting republics. Ancient and early modern political theory—the foundation of what we know as liberal education—told the Founders why: republics depend on ethical, intelligent citizens and leaders. That’s why Thomas Jefferson argued that public schools were vital to “rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty.” The primary motive to expand public education was to offer citizens the kind of liberal education in the arts and sciences that had once been for the elite.

Succeeding generations expanded their thinking about the purposes of liberal education beyond citizenship. For education reformers in the 1830s and after, it was also about developing Americans’ human capabilities. No one put it more clearly than the Rev. William Ellery Channing in his sermon “Self-Culture” (1838). Every person deserved an education “because he is a man, not because he is to make shoes, nails, or pins.” He argued against those who proclaimed that liberal education “is needed for men who are to fill high stations, but not for such as are doomed to vulgar labor.” Whether rich or poor, in the professions or on the docks, each person is “a son, a husband, father, friend, and Christian.” (Today, of course, we’d use gender-neutral language; even at the time, most public school advocates promoted access for both sexes.)

As time went on, a third aspiration animated advocates of public education. In a society divided by religion, ethnicity, party, and wealth, public schools would “harmonize the various discordant elements that are found in society” as students “sympathize with and for the other,” according to the superintendent of schools in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, in 1854. Immigrants would learn Americans’ “customs, assume their manners, and become homogeneous with them.” “The equality upon which they would be placed at the public schools, and the discipline which they should there receive, would Americanize them in the shortest possible time.” Public schools had to be diverse, not just in terms of ethnicity and faith, but also wealth. To Horace Mann, often labeled the founding father of American public education, bringing together rich and poor was one of the most important functions of public schools. If rich parents could “turn away from the Common Schools” and choose to send their children to “the private school or the academy” (a charter school of the era), then the poor would end up with a second-class education.

In the 1850s, reformers believed public schools had to be diverse, not just in terms of ethnicity and faith, but also wealth.

Today, the civic has been replaced by the economic. According to the Common Core State Standards, adopted in most states, the primary purpose of public education is “college and career readiness.” Given that college education is also becoming increasingly vocational, this is a shift away from the kind of liberal education that earlier Americans had considered essential for democracy and human flourishing. And, at a time when many argue that students in a multicultural society need a culturally relevant education, and when a growing number of religious conservatives agree with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that families should choose schools according to their faith, we might remember that public schools exist not just to affirm our diverse values and identities, but also to weave shared ones.

Because we are privatizing the purposes of public education, it is no surprise that we are privatizing the institutions that provide that education. It was one of the fragile achievements of the generations between the Revolution and Civil War to develop institutions that, for all their well-documented failings, considered education a public good. In our era of uncertainty, the past offers many cautionary tales, but it might also remind us of why we have public schools in the first place.

Johann N. Neem is professor of history at Western Washington University. This essay draws from his recent book, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (2017). This essay is adapted from a talk he delivered at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, as part of the Washington History Seminar, co-sponsored by the National History Center of the American Historical Association and the Wilson Center’s History and Public Policy Program.

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