In order to grapple with the issues, it is important to define one’s terms. What is an education? (Interestingly, in five years of doctoral work in education – even in a field where “What knowledge is of most worth?” was lifted up as the most important question – I was never in a class where people were allowed to discuss what an education – or a “good education” – actually was.) Depending on what one values, or what one’s society values, a good education can mean various things. There was, however, a consensus in the early days of American independence about what sort of an education was to be desired for all citizens.
In the Northwest Ordinance and Land Ordinance of 1787, Congress set up a process for organizing townships across the area that would soon be the States of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. One section of land in each township was to support a school. This is the first national expression of a desire for all citizens to have some kind of more or less equal educational opportunity. We can define what sorts of things were to be taught in this as-yet-unrealized system by the reasons given for its creation. Two goals were in the public mind in creating any kind of public education system: to enable everybody to earn a living, so that they would not become a burden upon the community; and to teach the founding principles of American law and government so as to create a pool of voters, jurors, and officers capable of securing American liberty. So the ability to read, write, do math, and other skills of value to employers constitute the economic argument for public schools. The creation of a pool of citizens who understand their rights and the functioning of their government is the political argument for public schools.
These are not the only possible goals for a public education system. The first public education system in the American colonies was in Massachusetts, which set up public schools to teach literacy, so that everyone would be able to read the Bible. For those who desired to go on to higher education in the Nineteenth Century, a knowledge of Latin was considered essential, so Latin was often included in public school curricula, though not everyone took the subject; even among those going on to study classical languages and literature in college, it was always acceptable to learn your Latin from the village parson, assuming your school didn’t teach the subject.
Now, though some localities thought it was their duty to offer schools operated out of public monies, others had a different view. The rural South was notoriously slow to create State schools, and thus restricted education to those who could afford to attend private schools or hire private tutors and governesses. Other States were willing to spend the money, but didn’t want or know how to create a new State bureaucracy to do it. The first public education system in New York was a program offering grants of money from the State to anyone who would start a school. This left the actual organization and conduct of schools to private initiative. The mere fact of public funding would fit the goal of offering schooling for all the State’s children.
Slowly, the idea of the American Public School as we know it today took hold on all the various States. This idea came largely from the work on one man: Horace Mann, to be precise. He was hired to fill the nothinburger job of Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education. Year after year, he authored an annual report on the state of education in Massachusetts. His ideas of what constituted success in public schooling gained credence, and eventually, “the Massachusetts model” of schooling became a national standard, through the tireless efforts of “Mr. Secretary.”
The Massachusetts model was more than just a curriculum to teach certain knowledge and skills, however. Integral to the way Horace Mann saw schooling was a view of the nation’s family life. Mann and his cohorts saw parents as the problem of American society. Children learned all kinds of bad habits and stupid ideas from their parents; it was the school’s job to intervene on the State’s behalf and correct these habits and ideas. If the State was given a free hand in teaching the children – which is to say, if the professional cadres of teachers were given a free hand in teaching the children – then they would make the children better able to care for themselves and their country, despite the squalor and bigotry of their parents. Public schools have made war on parents and their values ever since.
Lest you think this merely conservative cant, let me give you an interesting fact to chew on. Massachusetts set up a reform school for children shortly after developing their public schools on Mann’s model. “Incorrigible” children – those who stole or otherwise got in trouble – could be sent there as an alternative to putting them in jail. Ah, but children could also be taken away from their parents and sent to reform school for truancy, too. Not sending your children to school was seen as evidence of being unfit parents, you see. And yet, some children were taken from their parents’ custody and sent to reform school in Massachusetts before the Commonwealth passed its first act requiring school attendance. So, parents weren’t actually required by law to send their children to school, but their children not attending was considered proof of parental neglect which would allow the State to take them and make them attend: a perfect Catch-22.
A “we know better” attitude was all-pervasive under Mr. Secretary and the schools he inspired. Teachers gained status as professionals under the State’s aegis and saw “knowing better” as their proper work. Back to New York: when the State of New York finally got around to organizing its own schools under the Massachusetts model, the Roman Catholic Bishop of New York asked which translation of the Bible would be used in class. (This is the early Nineteenth Century; everybody assumed the Bible would be a set text.) The Protestant schoolmen of early America viewed Catholicism as a savage and ignorant creed, so of course, the King James Version would be the text required in every school. The Bishop offered a compromise: in districts where the majority of schoolchildren were Catholic, the Douay Bible would be used; in Protestant-majority districts, the KJV. No, came the answer. To compromise with error was unthinkable. It would be KJV all the way. In response, the Bishop of New York and other East Coast RC bishops created their parochial school system in competition with public schools, in order to safeguard the right of their families to have their children taught in a manner conforming to their religious background.
Now, from the point of view of “what knowledge is of most worth” it shouldn’t matter who’s doing the teaching, so long as the most important stuff gets taught. As long as everyone is enabled to support one’s own family and is able to participate in American society so as to uphold the government and keep us free, who cares where one went to school? By all means, tax everybody to provide schools for whoever wants to attend them. But if others want to send their kids elsewhere or teach them at home, who cares?
Ah, but the people who run public schools care – a LOT. For it is not enough that everyone should be economically and politically able to run their lives without burdening or bothering their neighbors. The heirs of Horace Mann see themselves as charged with a priestly function to form the children of the nation into a particular kind of citizen, valuing certain things in certain ways – in defiance of their troglodytic parents. To which the rest of us might say: who died and made you king?
Meanwhile, some of the parents and teachers most vociferous in their denunciation of alternative schooling are also those who live in the more exclusive zip codes in the nation, and their “public” schools are a far cry from those that other people’s children attend. They have lots of extracurriculars and advanced placement classes, their campuses are in good repair, and their teachers have many advanced degrees. They assume that poor children or rural children are getting the same quality of education in their public schools, and therefore don’t need alternatives; furthermore, for the government to assist poor kids with getting access to alternatives is a betrayal of the American ideal, a petty treason that requires that everybody be locked into this system that favors some and condemns others. This is not only bad educational theory. It’s unjust.
A final thought. I went to public schools. I had a reasonable education there. I’m not complaining about what I was given to learn. But even as a kid, I understood that the Great Goddess Nonsense, that stalks all large, bureaucratic organizations, was the patron deity of education policy. So, I’m not crusading against public schools; I just don’t see them as a font of virtue, the questioning of which renders one unfit for polite company. There are lots of ways of getting the job done, and nothing particularly sacred about beans, buses, bullies, and basketball.