New Articles Affirm the Public Purpose of Public Education

The school year has begun all across the country. My husband and I just returned from driving to and around Montana, where in small towns and tiny rural communities we observed children walking to school, waiting for the school bus, or playing at recess on the playgrounds of public schools—usually the best built and best maintained buildings in the area.  As this school year begins, after two COVID years and a wave of far-right attacks on public schools and schoolteachers, there has been a recent outpouring of important commentary in the press about the essential role of public education in America. Here are some samples.

The centerpiece of a NY Times series of essays on the public schools is by Anya Kamenetz, an education reporter for National Public Radio. Kamenetz describes the role of Horace Mann’s formulation of the idea of public schooling as America’s ideal democratic institution: “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.” “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… The consensus on schooling has never been perfect… But Mann’s inclusive vision is under particular threat right now…  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.”

The Washington Post recently published a reflection by Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. Zimmerman believes our understanding of ourselves as a society underpins the way we think about our public schools: “We don’t have a shared story of America’s past anymore — and that’s a problem.” “(O)ur battles over history now blaze as never before. Over the past two decades, historians and activists have raised new questions about the larger purpose and meaning of America. Instead of simply bringing new actors into the same triumphal story, they have asked whether the story is a triumph — and for whom. This isn’t just a matter of what Jefferson would have liked. It’s instead a question of whether we should like Jefferson, a man who enslaved human beings and fathered children by one of them. Such challenges sparked predictable outcry from Republicans, especially after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Claiming — falsely — that Obama was born in another country, the tea party movement and other conservatives rallied to defend “American exceptionalism” in schools. In practice, that often meant purging textbooks of material about slavery, Native American displacement and anything else that seemed to put the nation in a negative light. All of these tensions exploded during the presidency of Donald Trump.”  Zimmerman concludes: “American history is far muddier than either side will admit. It combines the noble ideals that the right wants to emphasize and the oppressive reality that the left insists upon including. Good history teaching involves both perspectives, and — most of all — it requires students to make sense of them. That’s not to say we must give “equal time” to Holocaust denial or other plainly false claims. But we do need to acknowledge that equally reasonable people use the same facts to come to different views of our shared past.”

In another profound piece for the Washington Post, Paul Waldman captures all the ways the privatizers and other far right ideologues are working to undermine confidence in the public schools by exploiting the fears of American parents who worry that they’ll lose their children to somebody else’s values: “The conservative campaign against education is many things. As a political matter, it’s about intensifying the culture war so moral panic drives Republican votes. As a policy matter, its long-term goals include dismantling public education. As a personal matter, it’s often motivated by fear that the American system of education is a threat to people’s children — that the wrong ideas, even ideas themselves, are impossibly dangerous. On that last point, conservatives are absolutely right: Education is indeed a threat to many things they believe.”  “(T)he more conservative you are, the more likely it is that education will lead your kids toward experiences and beliefs that differ from yours — not because your kids are being victimized by propaganda, but just because of the nature of becoming educated… The threat is real. Conservatives can’t keep their kids from having their minds opened forever. And they know it.”

The Washington Post recently featured a piece from Adam Laats, professor of educational history at the State University of New York in Binghamton. Laats examines the history of school culture and curriculum wars to offer a more hopeful perspective on today’s battle to ban so-called “divisive topics,” what far-right ideologues call Critical Race Theory, and any reference to sexual identity: “These tactics — extreme as they are — are only the latest in a century-long conservative effort. Since the 1920s, conservative boycotters have pledged that no tactic is too extreme to keep children safe from school curriculum.”  Laats recounts the story of the explosive 1974, Kanawha County, West Virginia school battle over so-called controversial books being assigned for classroom reading. Despite threats to the superintendent and school board, “In the end, despite all the heat and anger, the protests failed. For one thing, families were not willing to keep their children out of school. By the third week of September, almost all students were back in school. When it came down to it, most families — even ones who might have considered themselves fairly conservative — valued school more than they valued activists’ pleas to boycott the books…. Conservative leaders seemed authentically surprised. They had assumed that their views about literature, racism and sexuality were shared by the vast majority of Americans… To their chagrin, Moore (the instigator) and her allies learned the hard way that they, in fact, were the ones who were out of touch with mainstream thinking…Right-wing anger was real. Conservative anxiety was powerful. And the resulting threats were dangerous. But conservative assumptions were out of step with reality.”

In “School Is for Making Citizens,” part of the recent NY Times series, Heather McGhee and Victor Ray, professor at the University of Iowa—both authors of recent books on the importance of honestly confronting our history—argue convincingly for the importance of resisting today’s far-right attacks on honest teaching and inclusive curriculum: “Why do we have public schools? To make young people into educated, productive adults, of course. But public schools are also for making Americans. Thus, public education requires lessons about history — the American spirit and its civics — and also contact with and context about other Americans: who we are and what has made us. That broader purpose is currently under attack… Fortunately, our shared American history offers models of the kind of education that can unite students and communities to produce a solidarity dividend — a positive public good that we can create only by working together across racial and socioeconomic lines. Black people in Jim Crow Mississippi lived under racial authoritarianism so strict and violent that it is hard to imagine today. But lies and omissions about history were essential to the program of Jim Crow subjugation. Lost Cause mythology, which downplayed slavery as a cause of the Civil War, replaced factual history. Students, regardless of race, were taught that Black people were inferior. And many white employers thought Black people should learn only enough for proficiency in menial Jim Crow jobs. That’s why the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee sent volunteers to the Mississippi Delta during the 1964 Freedom Summer, to found schools in poor Black communities that offered a truthful education that was explicit about racial oppression and the denial of political rights…. The broader civil rights movement helped transform the nation — in ways that even benefited the white Southerners who were so deeply opposed… (C)ivil rights gains helped create more robust economies and local democracies, benefiting all citizens. These gains were possible precisely because people learned how to confront the nation’s failures…  Every student deserves the kind of myth-shattering and empowering education that the Freedom Schools provided. Such education doesn’t shy away from America’s ugly truths and contradictions”

Heather McGhee and Victor Ray affirm inclusive public schools which improve opportunities for all children and expose students to the complexity of a diverse society. Their writing harks back to the ideals of Horace Mann, who understood public schools as the institution which can best form individuals capable of grasping and undertaking the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy.

It is important that today’s attacks on public schools, on school curriculum, and on the honest teaching of history have drawn such a response from historians and experts on the institution of public education in America.  Please take some time to read and consider these important resources.

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2 thoughts on “New Articles Affirm the Public Purpose of Public Education

  1. Pingback: New Articles Affirm the Public Purpose of Public Education — janresseger | David R. Taylor

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