From early on in the history of the United States, free public education has been part of the American identity. President John Adams captured the idea in 1786 as follows:
“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”
Adams laid out principles that carry through to today: every person should be educated; schools should be maintained at the public expense (not through private charity); and schools should be everywhere there are people.
Despite Adams clear declaration, there has been vigorous debate throughout American history about the purpose of public education. Different stakeholders in our schools emphasize different objectives. The State, religious orders, revolutionaries, parents and employers have sought different outcomes, and therefore have pressed public schools to emphasize different educational objectives.
The State (Federal, State, and Local Governments) has often emphasized the importance of schools as national glue, a place where citizens should be educated on their rights and responsibilities as Americans. And schools should propagate American ideals, values, and stories. The State wants schools to create loyal citizens who are ready to contribute to civic life.
Religious orders have wanted schools to propagate values and belief systems, and public schools in fact were infused with protestant Christian influences well into the 20th century (this is one cause for the emergence of Catholic private schools as an alternative). For much of our early history, American educators assumed the Bible would be taught in school. As a country, we have made a rapid move in the opposite direction in the last 50+ years as court cases and public opinion have closed the door on propagating religious beliefs in public schools.
Revolutionaries in all eras have seen our youth as a sea of impressionable young minds who could bring on future social change. For social reformers, schools are the place to train the next generation about various injustices in order to remedy those problems as the young reach adulthood. If you can’t convince adults to change, instead change their children.
And companies have wanted schools to teach job skills and produce trained workers ready to serve on the production lines of American industry. And since everyone eventually needs a job, some educators have said schools should focus less on academic pursuits and more on the practical skills that will lead to gainful employment. Why not have the public schools provide that vocational training?
(Much more can be found on the history of American public education on Wikipedia here)
So now that we have done a quick survey of four trends in educational philosophy, we are ready to move on to the present. What do we want from our schools in the 21st century? Check back on Thursday for Part 2.