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Diane Ravitch's Blog: Anya Kamenetz: The Attack on Horace Mann’s Historic Vision of Public Schooling

Anya Kamenetz is the education reporter for NPR. This brilliant essay appeared in the New York Times. Kamenetz explains why public schools are the essential foundation stone of our democracy.

For the majority of human history, most people didn’t go to school. Formal education was a privilege for the Alexander the Greats of the world, who could hire Aristotles as private tutors.

Starting in the mid-19th century, the United States began to establish truly universal, compulsory education. It was a social compact: The state provides public schools that are free and open to all. And children, for most of their childhood, are required to receive an education. Today, nine out of 10 do so in public schools.

To an astonishing degree, one person, Horace Mann, the nation’s first state secretary of education, forged this reciprocal commitment. The Constitution doesn’t mention education. In Southern colonies, rich white children had tutors or were sent overseas to learn. Teaching enslaved people to read was outlawed. Those who learned did so by luck, in defiance or in secret.

But Mann came from Massachusetts, the birthplace of the “common school” in the 1600s, where schoolmasters were paid by taking up a collection from each group of households. Mann expanded on that tradition. He crossed the state on horseback to visit every schoolhouse, finding mostly neglected, drafty old wrecks. He championed schools as the crucible of democracy — his guiding principle, following Thomas Jefferson, was that citizens cannot sustain both ignorance and freedom.

An essential part of Mann’s vision was that public schools should be for everyone and that children of different class backgrounds should learn together. He pushed to draw wealthier students away from private schools, establish “normal schools” to train teachers (primarily women), have the state take over charitable schools and increase taxes to pay for it all.

He largely succeeded. By the early 20th century all states had free primary schools, underwritten by taxpayers, that students were required to attend.

And that’s more or less how America became the nation we recognize today. The United States soon boasted one of the world’s highest literacy rates among white people. It is hard to imagine how we could have established our industrial and scientific might, welcomed newcomers from all over the world, knit our democracy back together after the Civil War and become a wealthy nation with high living standards without schoolhouses.

The consensus on schooling has never been perfect. Private schools older than the nation continue to draw the elite. Public schools in many parts of the country were segregated by law until the mid-20th century, and they are racially and economically segregated to this day.

But Mann’s inclusive vision is under particular threat right now. Extended school closures during the coronavirus pandemic effectively broke the social compact of universal, compulsory schooling.

School closures threw our country back into the educational atomization that characterized the pre-Mann era. Wealthy parents hired tutors for their children; others opted for private and religious schools that reopened sooner; some had no choice but to leave their children alone in the house all day or send them to work for wages while the schoolhouse doors were closed….

Meanwhile, a well-funded, decades-old movement that wants to do away with public school as we know it is in ascendance.

This movement rejects Mann’s vision that schools should be the common ground where a diverse society discovers how to live together. Instead, it believes families should educate their children however they wish, or however they can. It sees no problem with Republican schools for Republican students, Black schools for Black students, Christian schools for Christian students and so on, as long as those schools are freely chosen. Recent Supreme Court decisions open the door to both prayer in schools and public funding of religious education, breaking with Mann’s nonsectarian ideal.

If we want to renew the benefits that public schools have brought to America, we need to recommit to the vision Mann advocated. Our democracy sprouts in the nursery of public schools — where students grapple together with our messy history and learn to negotiate differences of race, class, gender and sexual orientation. Freedom of thought will wilt if schools foist religious doctrine of any kind onto students. And schools need to be enriched places, full of caring adults who have the support and resources they need to teach effectively.

Without public education delivered as a public good, the asylum seeker in detention, the teenager in jail, not to mention millions of children growing up in poverty, will have no realistic way to get the instruction they need to participate in democracy or support themselves. And students of privilege will stay confined in their bubbles. Americans will lose the most powerful social innovation that helps us construct a common reality and try, imperfectly, to understand one another.

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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She is the Co-Founder and President of the Network for...