What is the Purpose of Public Schools?
The purpose of public schools has been a topic of debate throughout American history. In order to define what the purpose of public schools is, there must be a clear understanding of how some of the ideas of early reform progressed into helping develop the standardized education of today in which all American children, regardless of race, sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or religion have access to government funded education. From colonization to present day, public schooling has been reformed many times with the purpose to improve the success of the American people and to propel one of the world’s youngest democracies to be one of the most influential nations worldwide.
Education was not always a concept meant for the masses. Literacy specifically was only meant for priests and monarchs who governed by the Bible. After the Protestant Reformation, Protestant families were encouraged to teach their children how to read, making the Bible accessible to all white Protestants. This doctrine was brought to America with early American Protestant settlers. The purpose of education during this time was to teach the Bible and indoctrinate early Calvanist views of total depravity and predestination to children. However, boys would be taught academics while the girls were taught how to be obedient, domestic wives.
As the colonies grew, there was more need of schools, and different religious communities began to hire teachers. This posed a problem for the poor who could not afford to send their children to the school house. As the American Revolution approached, the purpose of public schooling shifted only slightly from religion to growing of a nation. Many of America’s founding fathers had opinions about education even though at this time education was not part of national politics, rather left to individual communities. Ted Brackemyre, author of Education to the Masses, states that “Washington [George] saw the importance of educating the American public as a means to grow the country economically, but also to create a well-informed populace to participate in America’s newly founded democracy.” (Brackenmyer 2016). Even though our founding fathers knew that education was important in bringing up future generations to protect the freedoms that they fought for, Dana Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars (2014) points out that, “The U.S, Constitution did not mention education as a right (it still doesn’t) and school attendance was not compulsory.” (pg. 13). As the nation grew, and new territories expanded west, the debate over how much control a newly formed government had over these new territories grew, “The years following America’s independence from Britain in 1783 did little to change the American public education system. Education remained a responsibility of individual families and local communities, not a duty of state or federal governments.” (Brackenmyer 2016). This debate set the stage for the government’s involvement in public school reform as it pertains to the purpose of public school.
With the westward expansion of the United States “Congress issued the Land Ordinance of 1785, ordering each township established in the new western territories to have space set aside for a public school: “There shall be reserved [a] lot… of every township, for the maintenance of public schools.” (Brackenmyer 2016). It became apparent that the conditions of these schools were extremely poor had little to no resources, thus leaving a rift between the rich and the poor. If the United States was to be a true democracy by letting all citizens vote (white men at this time), then these citizens should be educated. As “Jefferson [Thomas] argued that democracy required all the citizens of a populace to have sufficient education so that they could be well informed and vote accordingly. Jefferson did not, however, want to infringe on the rights of parents or local communities to educate their children. Instead, he proposed that everyone could be educated in the way they saw fit as long as they passed certain national examinations.” (Brackenmyer 2016). Massachusetts State Senator Horace Mann also believed that in order for a person to be able to vote responsibly, they should be able to recognize good moral character. Mann played a huge role as an education reformer and worked to introduce standardized education, “Mann’s idea of a common school was one that was open to all classes of Americans and would serve to break down class distinctions. As Mann argued in this report, a system of common education was the best way to ensure social and national unity.”(Brackenmyer 2016). During this time the purpose of public school was to educate to the preservation of democracy. However, as the United States continued to grow with an influx of immigrants from many religions, the freeing of African American slaves, and the movement of the Native Americans, new laws were passed in order to preserve human rights. All Americans had a duty to pay the taxes to support these public schools. This created a problem for those paying taxes to support schools that taught religions not similar to their own, thus marking the beginning of the public school system that we recognize today.
The foundation of early education in America had deep religious ties. America has changed through time due to growth and acceptance of other cultures and religions. In order to provide a culturally inclusive education in America today (as influenced by the definition of democracy) the purpose of public education is to provide all American children the opportunity to be able to contribute to the upward propulsion of American society as a whole.
Brackemyre, T. (n.d.). Education to the Masses: The Rise of Public Education in Early America. U.S. History Scene [blog post]. Retrieved from http://ushistoryscene.com/article/rise-of-public-education/
Goldstein, D. (2014). The teacher wars: A history of America’s most embattled profession. New York: Doubleday.
Patton, S. & Mondale, S. (Producers), & Mondale, S. (Director). (2001). School: The Story of American Public Education [Documentary] . United States: Stone Lantern Films. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL00795BC38B4368D4