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This lavishly illustrated companion book to the acclaimed PBS documentary, School, is essential reading for anyone who cares about public education.
"This book takes you through the history of how the idea of public education began, to where we are right now. . . . It's so beautifully done, judiciously done, and I'm really proud to help it along."
CARL F. KAESTLE
The public school as we know it was born in the mid-nineteenth century. Its founders called it the "common" school. Common schools were funded by local property taxes, charged no tuition, were open to all white children, were governed by local school committees, and were subject to a modest amount of state regulation. They arose through two decades of debate prior to the Civil War in the Northeast and the Midwest of what is now the United States and, later in the nineteenth century, in the South and the West. But to understand those debates we must go back to eighteenth-century colonial America. There we can see how people handled education without public schooling.
In eighteenth-century America, the institutions closest to our public schools were the short-term schools supported by towns in the northern British colonies. Town meetings often voted to provide elementary schooling for ten or twelve weeks a year. They often favored boys over girls and charged parental fees to supplement the town's support. While this may seem like some partial precursor of the public schools, it is important to note that if we think of education more broadly conceived and not just as schooling, the colonial mode of education was very different from that of the late nineteenth century. Across all the colonies—French and Spanish colonies as well as in British America—schooling was less important in the education process than it was in the later, industrial world. These societies were largely agricultural. Work was learned on farms and plantations. Families carried most of the responsibility for children's learning, along with churches, neighbors, and peers. Not only was schooling less important and thus not very extensive, but in general it was not free, not governmental, and not secular. Some free education was available in the church charity schools of East Coast cities, the mission and presidio schools of the Southwest, and the town schools of the northern British colonies, but in many areas these schools were scarce and transitory. To the extent that education involved schooling, parents were responsible for it. They hired tutors, sent their toddlers to "dame schools" for the ABCs, joined other parents to support subscription schools, sent their children to a mission or charity school, or voted in town meetings to support schools on a year-to-year basis through a combination of parental fees and town support. Or they did nothing about schooling.
These arrangements meant that family wealth, race, and gender had a strong impact on how much formal education a child received. But did this colonial mode of education work well in these eighteenth-century societies? It did, in the sense that education was not a controversial public issue, and the education levels required of the work world were modest. The people who had a say in such matters—mostly male property owners—thought that leaving education in the hands of parents and churches was appropriate. Still, dynamic forces in the eighteenth century encouraged more schooling and more literacy. In the British colonies, Protestantism encouraged popular literacy, as did the cash economy that gradually spread outward from commercial cities. Political and economic tensions with England increased, and the colonists avidly read English and continental theorists on the nature of republics and balanced government. These passions spawned newspapers and political pamphlets. The franchise gradually expanded among white males, and by the time of the American Revolution, rudimentary literacy levels (measured crudely by the ability to sign one's name) were about 90 percent among white men and at least 60 percent among white women.
The idea that schooling depended on local and largely familial initiatives was a tradition firmly embedded in the colonies at the time of the American Revolution, but this colonial mode of education had proven capable of expansion. Nonetheless, some of the famous political leaders of that era—notably Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, and Noah Webster were concerned about the uneven nature of schooling in different communities and anxious about the educational needs of the new nation. They thought that schooling should be not only more widespread but also more systematic and more publically supervised. They argued that the survival of the young republic depended upon educated citizens who could understand public issues, who would elect virtuous leaders, and who would sustain the delicate balance between liberty and order in the new political system.
Beneath the spirited discussions about these ideas, the colonial mode of education persisted, unperturbed. When Jefferson's plans for a state system of education in Virginia were rejected by the legislature, he complained about the "snail paced gait" of education reform. Rush's plans met a similar fate in the Pennsylvania legislature. New York State used profits from some public land sales to support local schooling in the 1790s, but when the money ran out, the program ended. Connecticut similarly distributed some funds from the sale of its Western Reserve lands, and Massachusetts had a weakly enforced 1789 law directing towns to provide elementary schools. The conditions in the new republic did not dispose people to change the way they educated their children, despite the rhetoric of their leaders about the fragility of the new government. The colonial mode of education was working well enough for most voters, and they did not want more government involvement in this matter.
By the 1840s, things had changed dramatically. The states of the Northeast were undergoing an industrial revolution. The number of cities in the region with a population of more than 10,000 increased from three in 1800 to forty-two by 1850. Textile production shot up. Canals and then railroads crisscrossed the area and the nation. Immigration swelled, bringing large numbers of Roman Catholics to a predominantly Protestant nation. These factors formed the necessary preconditions for the creation of public schools. The pace of change and the urgency of new social problems fostered the development of new institutions.
The force of the changes was most visible and severe in the coastal and industrial cities, where alarmed reformers of the early national period adopted various approaches to problems of poverty and vice, some copied from England. The dominant mode was represented by nondenominational charity schools and tract societies, which treated poverty as a defect of character, not a defect of the system. Charity schools targeted the poor as a separate group, and they were governed by independent boards, not the government. In these respects they did not resemble public schools. On the other hand, in large cities like New York and Philadelphia, these charity schools were organized into centrally supervised systems, and they literally became the public schools in the mid-nineteenth century. At that point they attempted to move beyond their poor constituents to attract the children of more affluent parents. School reformers of that day denigrated the charity schools for isolating the poor, but they admired the highly organized urban systems that had evolved from them. This admiration of large, bureaucratized urban school systems was a staple among educational reformers for over a century.
Perhaps it is not fruitful to argue about whether the "true" prototype of the common school is the urban charity school of the early nineteenth century or the small-town school of colonial New England, but it is worth noting that in the Northeast there was a direct institutional connection between schools for the moral education of the urban poor and the public schools of the mid-nineteenth century. Some of this same impulse to address and regulate social deviance can be seen in the Whig Party's espousal of state institutions beyond the urban context, a repertoire that included not only canals, railroads, normal schools, and common schools but also prisons, almshouses, and insane asylums.
Although the Midwestern states were newer, more agricultural, and less densely populated, they joined in the common school movement. Many settlers had migrated from the Northeast, so they brought with them traditions of ad hoc town schools, but they also debated and ultimately adopted the more ambitious and governmental approach of the common school reforms. In doing so, they cited both eastern models and changes in other Midwestern states. Their region partook of the dynamic economic developments of the day: a transportation revolution that fostered national markets, the growth of cities, and the presence of large numbers of immigrants. These developments raised issues about moral education, common public values, and education for economic expansion. Towns competed with each other to develop their institutions, hoping to become county seats and rail centers. A heady mixture of capitalism, republican government, and religious diversity brought much conflict to antebellum America, but it also produced institutional innovation.
These conditions were necessary but not sufficient to establish the rudimentary state common school systems. That development took leadership and two decades of political struggle. Many voting Americans opposed the intervention of state government into the process of education, even in the 1840s and 1850s. People in small rural districts feared the interference of the state, as did some religious groups. The Congregationalists in Massachusetts and the Quakers in Indiana continued to shape the curriculum of local schools with their distinctive beliefs. The fears of these various opponents were well founded. Common school reformers moved gradually to force the consolidation of small districts into larger town systems and to eliminate sectarian religious practices from the schools, urging instead a more generalized Protestant version of Christianity. Party polities played a role as well. Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, and many other school reformers were Whigs, and many Democrats looked upon the common school reform as a Whig invention. They criticized its centralizing features as "Prussian" and argued for local control. Urban Catholics complained about the Protestant biases of the fledgling public schools, providing yet another source of opposition and a reproach to the reformers' claims that public schools were "common" to all.
Thus the debate was long and hard fought, in each state. In 1840 a predominantly Democratic opposition mustered 43 percent of the votes in the Massachusetts legislature in an effort to oust Horace Mann and abolish his position. Two years later a similar challenge in Connecticut succeeded, costing Henry Barnard his job. In some states, legislation to encourage consolidation of district schools was passed, then repealed, then passed again, over a period of years. Nonetheless, by 1860, across the Northeast and the Midwest, state laws established the position of state superintendent of instruction, with responsibilities to publicize educational causes and exemplary practices, collect and summarize statistics on education, and administer the new education laws of the state. The linchpin of the movement was laws requiring property tax support for free schools. Many states also encouraged or required district consolidation; some provided a modicum of state aid to the towns and support for teacher institutes. Some supervised teacher licensing; others provided county supervisors to oversee school practices.
Some earlier historians celebrated this achievement as a great victory for democracy, and they chastised its opponents as ignorant or mean-spirited. More recently, other historians have emphasized the negative side—the use of schools for cultural conformism, the continued inequalities, and the racism in the system—and they have characterized its opponents as victims. I look on the mid-nineteenth-century invention of public school systems as a highly contested development, politically fragile at the time, ultimately durable, and imperfect. It widened access, nudged schools toward longer sessions, and encouraged professional development. More important, it established the practice of using local property taxes to support public schools, eliminating tuition payments for parents but bequeathing to us a system that results in drastic variations in school expenditures across communities. The mid-nineteenth-century "common" school displayed not only financial inequalities but also cultural biases, racism, and gender discrimination, values challenged but still dominant in that day and beyond.
The common school movement moved education more fully into the public sphere and made it amenable to public policy. State system builders and urban centralizers seized the opportunity. While they attempted to coexist with local control, they also used legislation and supervision to encourage values they prized even more: free access to elementary and secondary education, a modest equalization of resources across localities, the assimilation of a diverse population, moral education for a stable society, more extensive education for a more complex economy, and the training of citizens in patriotism, political knowledge, and public affairs. Still, the policy choice was for a continuing compromise between central authority and local control a uniquely American compromise. It was not divinely ordained, and it was not perfect. All systems have price tags. A majority of Americans opted in the nineteenth century for state-regulated school systems that retained a large measure of local control and funding. Other nations have more highly standardized national systems of education. Critics of the public schools in America today have urged the government to go in the opposite direction and subsidize more variety and choice among schools.
In my opinion, we don't profit much by arguing about whether the invention of public school systems was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. We have the benefit of hindsight, but we can make judgments only through the lenses of our own values and experiences. Hindsight helps us look at the common school movement's best impulses and its greatest failings and see them not as immutable but as experimental. We can then examine today's public schools and attempt to fashion ways to make them more equal, inclusive, and effective for the kind of education we need in the twenty-first century. In our society, the way we provide common public schooling is inherently a compromise—a balance between competing, legitimate values. We must therefore strive continually to find a creative balance between local and central direction, between diversity and standards, between liberty and equality.
Excerpted from School by . Copyright © 2001 by Sarah Mondale and Sarah B. Patton. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Part 1||1770-1900 The Common School||11|
|The Educated Citigen||19|
|Part 2||1900-1950 As American As Public School||63|
|"You Are an American"||71|
|Part 3||1950-1980 Separate and Unequal||123|
|"Why Don't You Go to School with Us?"||131|
|Part 4||1980-2000 The Bottom Line||173|
|A nation at Risk?||183|
|About the Authors||223|