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.
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.