Power from the Past: American Public Schools
Contributed by Len Howzer
Educators -- especially people involved with American public schools or who work in and for institutions modeled on the public schools -- are staunchly introspective regarding the form education has taken in the United States; the structure they support and actively encourage with their labor.
The public school system has its critics to be sure, but until we have a full panorama regarding the founding and societal functions of these institutions, it is probable that our analyses will be at best incomplete, and, at worst, damaging to the common good.
In order to equitably examine the public schools, let us first briefly consider the positive aspects of the centralization of educational power in the United States.
Prior to the middle of the 19th century, the population of America consisted of free men, slaves, indentured servants, and, indigenous peoples.
Who we today identify as our 'founding' fathers enjoyed relatively uniform concepts regarding who they were, and why they preferred these shores as opposed to those they or their immediate forbears had abandoned.
Even though it is commonly held today that early American governing bodies and the individuals who composed them were advocates of freedom of expression, they were, nonetheless, the progeny of Western European culture. That culture claimed ownership to a lengthy record of punishing criticism of government, using profoundly final methods. (Aaron Burr was tried in the English tradition of "constructive treason," which was a holdover from the British practice of executing subjects who verbally or otherwise suggested that the current government was somewhat less than top flight. "Constructive" meaning 'not overtly treasonous,' but close enough for the pike.)
More to the point, and to add flesh to the argument, both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are touted in twentieth century literature as champions of free expression. However, Jefferson was the author of several letters encouraging the arrest of citizens who criticized American government generally, and his policies in particular. Franklin served as court prosecutor of persons who openly published documents critical of government initiatives.
Said differently, eighteenth and early nineteenth century Americans were free to publicly express views regarding decisions of elected assemblies, provided those views coincided with the general direction in which those bodies were leaning.
This kind of quasi-free freedom was tolerable, so long as the great majority of free men were unified in terms of cultural heritage. This cultural unity made possible the creation of a community of colonies and, later, a loose confederation of states.
However, this relatively unified American cultural face changed dramatically during the latter half of the nineteenth century as peoples from other than Western Europe began emigrating to the United States in response to opportunities that were said to be available in the United States as a consequence of the American Industrial Revolution.
With millions of immigrants from diverse cultures arriving on America's shores during the period 1850 through the first decade of the twentieth century, and with the freeing of slaves, the abolishing of indenture and other measures, the Country faced a rapidly changing social consciousness.
Never before in its history had the United States been so severely challenged in terms of maintaining order through central government while preserving some semblance of Constitutional freedom.
Many of the millions of immigrants to the United States after the civil war placed family and religion far ahead of allegiance to any particular ruling authority.
In addition, immigrants, Native Americans and former slaves were not positioned to quickly adopt a comfortable faith in the governing priorities of America's founders, governing bodies which were composed largely of men steeped in traditions other than their own.
It is important to understand the dynamics existing during this critical period. (Note: in countries, such as in today's Iraq, where family and tribal loyalties remain primary, central government has been forced to manage with something less than a delicate hand.)
In other words, the political and business leaders of nineteenth century America were well aware of the importance of providing immigrants with experiences that would encourage their acceptance of a relatively uniform American consciousness, a consciousness that had to be somehow imposed without causing an uncontrollable popular rebellion.
The objective, therefore, of the leading minds of the time in the United States was to weaken the bonds of clan, religion, race, etc, by way of this as yet still theoretical shared American experience.
Stated differently, the historical record suggests that the 'ruling' classes in America were distressed by the millions coming to 'their' shores who weren't necessarily supportive of the existing American power structure. Prominent families and factions were anxious to perpetuate their ability to govern and to enhance, rather than detract from, their societal advantage.
The common experience that was formulated by the legislative classes to provide a national consciousness was, of course, our universal system of public education. Such a system would perform the tasks of both promising new arrivals a better life for their children, and provide a unity of thought based on successful Western European social experimentation.
From the wings of the American historical stage we now introduce Horace Mann and John Dewey, both of whom had been heavily influenced by Prussian scholar-educators, thinkers who believed that Prussian educational methods were instrumental in knitting together the Prussian people in a way so as to effectively oppose the onslaught of other cultures, for example, Napoleonic forces at Waterloo.
Mann and Dewey, geniuses in their own right, understood the advantages that would accrue to the Country by providing the newest segments of the population with a universal experience. Compulsory public education, as in Mann's Massachusetts, was bitterly opposed by more than 80% of the population. It was imposed, however, sometimes with the use of the military.
This common experience, over time, had its intended effect. Familial, religious and ethnic loyalties were weakened, and, by the middle of the twentieth century, it was taken for granted that the system of American education inspired by Dewey and Mann, had achieved, at least in part, its intended unifying goal.
The question today in the first decade of the twenty-first century is whether this weakening of subgroup bonding, especially family, has survived beyond its usefulness. Perhaps compulsory education in America has swung so far to one side of the cultural equation so as to be deleterious to the survival of the Nation itself.
If we as a people have substituted other kinds and more effective means of Americanizing our population, e.g. mass media, it may be appropriate for us to revisit our thinking regarding compulsory education. In many communities in the United States, traditional family has seemingly become disposable. (For instance, a remarkable 70% of all new marriages entered into on the Island of Manhattan end in divorce.)
If indeed we now are beginning to suspect that strengthening family bonds is becoming critical to the preservation of a unified, peaceful, governable, and economically viable Nation, forced activities that move families in the opposite direction may need to be reviewed, and new models adopted.
Perhaps in the area of compulsory public education, it is time for us to consider alternatives.