Conservative Historian

A Brief History of American Education: Part I – Purpose and Public Schools

November 01, 2021 Bel Aves
Conservative Historian
A Brief History of American Education: Part I – Purpose and Public Schools
Show Notes Transcript

Our relationship with public education is very much in the news today.  What were the beginnings of that education and how should we consider our role today?  

A Brief History of American Education: Part I, Purpose and Public Schools 

November 2021


“If we get public education right, everything else will follow. But if we get it wrong, not much else will matter.” Steve Kagan


The philosophy of the school-room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next. Abraham Lincoln


“The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed a standard citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.” H. L. Mencken



According to the National Geographic Institute, “On April 23, 1635, the first public school in what would become the United States was established in Boston, Massachusetts. Known as the Boston Latin School, this boys-only public secondary school was led by schoolmaster Philemon Pormont, a Puritan settler. The Boston Latin School was strictly for college preparation. It was modeled after the Free Grammar School of Boston, England. The English school taught Latin and Greek and was centered on the humanities. Some of the Boston Latin School’s most well-known alumni include John Hancock and Samuel Adams. Benjamin Franklin was a dropout! The Boston Latin School is still a fully functioning public school, with students enrolled in grades 7-12. However, it has changed with time, becoming coeducational in 1972 and moving locations several times. It is now in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood. Admission to Boston Latin is very competitive and is limited to residents of the city.”

Four years later, the first free taxpayer-supported public school in North America, the Mather School, was opened in Dorchester, Massachusetts.  


When one travels in Japan, China, or any European city, it is immediately evident how young America is in comparison. But these schools, founded over 400 years ago, managed the same issues that we struggle with today.  


For example, the espousing of political belief within the four walls of a school was not entirely unknown to these colonists. As noted directly from the Boston School website, “In 1760, Lovell’s son James was appointed usher. He was an ardent patriot, whereas his father was a strong loyalist. They taught from desks at opposite ends of the schoolroom and voicing opposite political convictions; they typified many a Boston family in those trying times.”


The children who did receive instruction were educated through a hodgepodge of arrangements: Church-supported schools, Local schools organized by towns or groups of parents, Tuition schools set up by traveling schoolmasters, Charity schools for poor children run by churches or benevolent societies, Boarding schools for children of the well-to-do, “Dame schools” run by women in their homes, Private tutoring or homeschooling, and Work apprenticeships with some rudimentary instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic.


This type of education was typically the status up until the war of Independence, which broke out in 1775. According to the Department of Education website, “The Founding Fathers maintained that the success of the fragile American democracy would depend on the competency of its citizens. They firmly believed that preserving democracy would require an educated population to understand political and social issues and participate in civic life, vote wisely, protect their rights and freedoms, and resist tyrants and demagogues. Character and virtue were also considered essential to good citizenship, and education was seen as a means to provide moral instruction and build character. While voters were limited to white males, many leaders of the early nation also supported educating girls because mothers were responsible for educating their children, were partners on family farms, and set a tone for the virtues of the country.  


This brings us to Horace Mann, born in the 8th year (1796) of the new republic and, appropriately, the first year featured a competitive presidential election. Mann often called the father of the Common School, began his career as a lawyer and legislator. When he was elected to act as Secretary of the newly-created Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837, he used his position to enact major educational reform. He spearheaded the Common School Movement, ensuring that every child could receive a primary education funded by local taxes. His influence soon spread beyond Massachusetts as more states took up the idea of universal schooling.

  Mann’s commitment to the Common School sprang from his belief that political stability and social harmony depended on education. Mann advocated for creating public schools that would be universally available to all children, free of charge, and funded by the state. Mann and other proponents of common schools emphasized that public investment in education would benefit the nation by transforming children into literate, moral, and productive citizens.


And this gets us to that Menken quote of which I started this podcast. Menken rejected the egalitarianism at the heart of public education, implying it is more indoctrination than learning. So what is the fundamental role of education? Is it to train kids to be functional in society? If so, the emphasis would be on core learnings such as reading, math, science, history. It would also include more technical aspects such as preparing meals and learning about health. 

All of these are certainly in the curriculum today. But then there is the other stuff, the items not just elucidated by Mann but even by George Washington, “The best means of forming a manly, virtuous, and happy people will be found in the right education of youth. Without this foundation, every other means, in my opinion, must fail.” Abraham Lincoln stated, “Education does not mean teaching people what they do not know. It means teaching them to behave as they do not behave.” In a surprising rejection of the reading, writing arithmetic view. I am pretty confident that most progressives would struggle with the “manly” part of the Washington quote but not with the sentiment. 


What is critical race theory if not a misguided attempt at creating greater social harmony among minorities? Misguided because central to the idea is that systemic racism, put in place and maintained by whites, must be destroyed. What systemic racism looks like in the CRT world is a bit hard to pin down, but the denigration of white students is a hallmark. One of the dozens of these examples comes from a piece in the Daily Caller from Bradley Stein, “A high school English teacher at an elite Englewood, New Jersey, prep school submitted her resignation letter on Tuesday in response to the school’s embrace of critical race theory. In her resignation letter, submitted to the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR), Dana Stangel-Plowe slammed the Dwight-Englewood School for engaging in activities such as segregating light-skinned teachers by putting them in a “white caucus” group and threatening to replace white faculty members with people of color. Critical race theory holds that America is fundamentally racist yet teaches students to view every social interaction and person in terms of race. Its adherents pursue “antiracism” through the end of merit, objective truth and the adoption of race-based policies.” 


Adults intuitively understand that children can take on the belief systems that are taught. This has been true for millennia. Mann proposed to make the government, through public school education, the provider of funding, and ultimately, the arbiter of what that belief system was to be. One of the reasons for the once substantial prevalence of private catholic schools was to provide a religious-based alternative to the visions of Mann and his acolytes.  


We see this concept today spotlighted in the Governor’s race for Virginia. In the Virginia gubernatorial debate, Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe insisted that parents have no role in directing their children’s education and doubled down in a subsequent media interview. McAuliffe, a former governor of Virginia and longtime Democratic operative, issued this pronouncement after asking whether “protections for transgender students” should be determined at the state level or in each school district. Responding first to the question, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin raised the issue of “school systems refusing to engage with parents,” offering the recent example of parents in Fairfax County, Va. As a result, they were unaware of sexually explicit content in books available to children at the school library.

“You believe school systems should tell children what to do,” Youngkin said to McAuliffe. “I believe parents should be in charge of their kids’ education.”  In response, McAuliffe said, “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions,” adding, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Asked in a subsequent interview whether parents should have buy-in on a school’s curriculum, McAuliffe doubled down: “Listen, we have a board of ed working with the local school boards to determine the curriculum for our schools. You don’t want parents coming in every different school jurisdiction saying, ‘This is what should be taught here’ and, ‘This is what should be taught here.”


An adherent of Mann, and his philosophy that education should be used not as training for adulthood but rather to teach specific values, then McCauliffe is not necessarily wrong. But in this regard, it is strictly McCauliffe’s values that prevail. One knows that if teachings in Virginia schools included course work and instruction on the importance of gun ownership, the negatives of big government, issues with open borders, and the morality of abortions, McCaulliffe would be inciting parents to act against their school boards faster than one can say planned parenthood. Hopefully, the word hypocrisy is still on vocabulary tests in English classes, but I expect they have been replaced by terms such as privilege and dog whistle.   


The first public school in the U.S. was established in 1821. By 1867, public education in the U.S. received a significant boost: The Department of Education was established. Andrew Johnson inflicted many ills upon our nation, especially the rejection of Lincoln’s precepts in reconstruction. The DOE, in nationalizing what should be a local issue, is one of them. Not surprisingly, the Department itself is a little more sanguine. “Although the Department is a relative newcomer among Cabinet-level agencies, its origins go back to 1867, when President Andrew Johnson signed legislation creating the first Department of Education. Its main purpose was to collect information and statistics about the nation’s schools.” 


The department page laments its secondary role at first, “However, due to concern that the Department would exercise too much control over local schools, the new Department was demoted to an Office of Education in 1868. Over the years, the office remained relatively small, operating under different titles and housed in various agencies, including the U.S. Department of the Interior and the former U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services).” Like a more current president I could name, Jimmy Carter was one of those presidents for whom the job was simply too big, but not too big to throw a massive sop to those who paid to get him elected. “In October 1979, Congress passed the Department of Education Organization Act (Public Law 96-88). Created by combining offices from several federal agencies, the Department began operations in May 1980.”


Around the time the DOE was created in the Andrew Johnson administration, other educational changes were afoot. George Peabody donated 2 million dollars to help public education in the South, and Howard University for African American students was established. By 1870, public schools were present in every state, with secondary public schools outnumbering private schools.


There is simply no way, even in a longer two-part form podcast, I can hit all of the nuances of American education. I have not addressed colleges nor many private institutions, but I would be remiss without a word on postbellum black education in the South. From 1865-1877 African Americans mobilized to bring public education to the South for the first time. After the Civil War, and with the legal end of slavery, African Americans in the South made alliances with white Republicans to push for many political changes, including, for the first time rewriting state constitutions to guarantee free public education. Yet, in practice, white children benefit more than Black children. However, in one of those pivotal years in the history of our republic, 1877, black education in the South hit the wall.  That was the year that reconstruction ended with the withdrawal from the South of federal troops, which had occupied the South since the end of the Civil War Whites regained political control of the South and laid the foundations of legal segregation. 


Today we see calls about the power of the majority. Biden won the 2020 election, the Democrats control the House (barely) and the Senate (is barelyer a word?) and as a majority they should get what they want. In the late 1800s a majority of Southerners wanted to deny black children schools.  That is why we have a Senate and checks and balances and separation of powers.  


And this quickly brings us to John Dewey, who became a highly influential education right as the progressives such as Teddy Roosevelt, and most of all, Woodrow Wilson began their rise. Our next podcast will focus on Dewey on the progressive era’s influence on education.    


In the 1850s, one public teacher’s union was formed and the second during the progressive era. In an early scene in the Star War’s canon best movie, The Empire Strikes Back; there is a moment while the score pumps out John William’s iconic Imperial March. While the music plays, the film shows a series of formidable star destroyers, the backbone of the evil Empire’s fleet. But then a vast shadow covers the destroyers until the camera shows a super star destroyer. Even before he is revealed, we know Darth Vader is coming. That is the Teacher’s Unions’ effect on American Education. A dark presence that crowds out the light of learning. 

But whereas Darth Vader’s Empire made no presence of its ruthless dominance and utter disregard for anything else, our Teacher’s Unions cloak themselves in the false guise of being “for the children” while constantly and consistently acting otherwise.  


The National Education Association (NEA) is the largest labor union and the most prominent white-collar representative in the United States. It represents public school teachers and other support personnel, faculty and staffers at colleges and universities, retired educators, and college students preparing to become teachers. The NEA was founded in Philadelphia in 1857 as the National Teachers Association (NTA). Zalmon Richards was elected the NTA’s first president and presided over the organization’s first annual meeting in 1858. The NTA became the National Education Association (NEA) in 1870 when it merged with the American Normal School Association, the National Association of School Superintendents, and the Central College Association. Congress chartered the union in 1906.

 Also, in contrast to Star War’s evil Empire, there are two of these scourges.  


The American Federation of Teachers was founded in Chicago, Illinois, on April 15, 1916. Charles Stillman was the first president, and Margaret Haley was the national organizer. On May 9, 1916, the American Federation of Labor chartered the AFT. By 1919, AFT had 100 local affiliates and a membership of approximately 11,000 teachers, which amounted to 1.5% of the nation’s teaching force. 

AFT membership climbed during the Great Depression, reaching 33,000 by 1939. During the 1930s, AFT, whose members had historically been primary school teachers, saw influential college professors join the union. Also, during the 1930s, the Communist Party gained influence within the AFT. In 1941, under pressure from the AFL, the union ejected three local unions in New York City and Philadelphia (including its prominent early member, the New York City Teachers Union, AFT Local 5) for being communist-dominated. The charter revocations represented nearly a third of the union’s national membership.


The 1940s were marked by a series of teacher strikes, including 57 strikes from 1946 through 1949. By 1947, AFT had a membership of 42,000. The 1960s and 1970s also saw numerous teacher strikes, including 1,000 strikes involving more than 823,000 teachers between 1960 and 1974.

AFT membership was 59,000 in 1960, 200,000 in 1970, and 550,000 in 1980. In 2017, membership was around 1.6 million, and the union had a due income of $35 million.


The most significant difference between the NEA (National Education Association) and the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) is the historic separation — the NEA is a professional organization, and the AFT is traditionally a union organization. NEA membership is offered to the individuals who are “public school teacher, faculty member, education support professional, retired educator or a student preparing to become a teacher” (NEA). AFT membership is offered to individuals who work in “Pre K-12 school system (public, private or charter), early childhood center, college or university system, healthcare facility or local, state or federal government office.” Unlike the AFT, the NEA remains unaffiliated with the labor movement. However, the NEA’s involvement in politics can be more significant.


Yet, the net effect is the same whichever organization we are discussing. Teachers are paid by taxpayers mainly through property taxes. 

Teachers are part of dues-paying unions that take the money and do two things: protect their members at all costs regardless of performance and take the dues money and hand it to Democratic politicians. Take the city of Chicago, for example. When Lori Lightfoot, the current mayor of Chicago, sits down to negotiate with the teacher’s unions over pay, hours, working conditions, classroom size, etc., she is dealing with the very people who give her money to stay in office. In a sense, she is negotiating with her boss. No less a figure than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of the best friends unions ever had, stated of public sector unions, “All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service,” he wrote. “It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations.”


Not surprisingly, the size of the NEA was small until Wisconsin (being from the state, I am ashamed to say) became the first state to pass a collective bargaining law for public employees in 1964. Over the next 20 years, most other states adopted similar rules. The NEA reported a membership of 766,000 in 1961. Over the following years, that number would triple. 

In 2006, the NEA and the AFL–CIO also announced that, for the first time, stand-alone NEA locals, as well as those that had merged with the AFT, would be allowed to join state and local labor federations affiliated with the AFL-CIO. As a result, in 2007, at the 150th anniversary of its founding, NEA membership had grown to 3.2 million. This rise directly correlates to the Teacher’s Unions sitting on both sides of the negotiating table.  


In addition to the debate about the role of public education, there is also the debate of parental roles in light of increasing vitriol (though not the exaggerated false claims of violence from the Biden Administration) at school board meetings. 


As the Dispatch writer, David French notes, “The right of parents to opt their kids out of public education has been established since at least 1925. But this brings us to the second true thing. The authority of the parent lies mainly in whether their children attend public school, not in dictating what they’re taught in that school.” French is correct that parents can certainly pull their children from public schools in the localities where they live. He does, however, omit that they cannot omit to pay the property taxes that come with their locations. And it is a double payout. Not only are they paying for that empty seat, but many then have to fork out a large donative to a private school. One genius move by retirement community purveyors such as Del Webb is to remit the paying for schools, resulting in startlingly low property taxes. After all, seniors rarely have k-12 children.  


Whatever the funding needs, however, still does not necessarily dictate the exact involvement of parents. As both a large R and small r republican, I reject the concept of democracy in which the citizens vote on everything. I favor a republic as opposed to a democracy because the vast majority of Americans know little of the details of government. Do we expect a mom in Oklahoma to be conversant on NATO and Ukrainian government aid or the transit operator in New York to be an expert on immigration, tax policy, and land management? What I expect of my fellow citizens is that periodically, once every four years for the federal president, once every two years for Congress, and those elections that occur in off years and include everything from state legislators to governors to mayoral elections. At best, over four years, an American citizen could vote approximately 6-8 times or twice per year. I also expect them to spend some time researching the candidates for these positions. A citizen need not know details of tax policy but should know who wants to raise them and who wants to lower them and be able to navigate through the rhetoric to determine one from another. And part of this election slate is school boards.  


An American citizen should not have to design a specific school curriculum but should discern and vote accordingly, those who would teach our history as it exists, slavery and Jim Crow included. They should also reject those who would use those past sins to denigrate the nation as it exists today. It is one thing to use those sins as learnings for future understanding and another to create division and animosity that will lead to further divisiveness.  


Parents should understand the elements of CRT in terms of this divisiveness, judging people by the color of their skin and denigrating white students. All of these are hallmarks of CRT. The concept of saying that since my child is in a public school, I do not have a say is spurious when one looks at the various roles and levels of government. One of my core conservative beliefs is to keep authority as local as possible. One of the core beliefs of progressives is to keep everything at the national level, including education, and in the case of education, one can see why.

No sentient human would think to dictate to general how-to deploy troops in a far-off war zone. We do, however, elect a Commander in Chief. Few people would tell a state where to deploy troopers on state highways though we might complain when absent. Today voting, like education, is very much on people’s minds, but this too is a state function that progressives would move to Washington. And education is a local issue, meaning that parents have an opportunity for influence nearly impossible when the decision is in Washington DC. All of those million people marches? Where have they affected changing things the way an election can? This is why progressives love national authority, love the fourth branch of government, unelected bureaucrats. And why they hate school board fights. The issue is authority and control. Sure, those marches make the marchers feel good and empowered, but it is illusory. 

Stay home and figure out whom to vote for.  


Those first schools for which I began this podcast, such as Boston Latin, were established by local colonists with specific intents. Though there is no movement to abolish the public school system, local users and payers of these schools should not abrogate their roles as desiring an education they deem worthy anymore than those colonists nearly 500 years ago.