U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Common Schools Against DeVos

Editor's Note

The following is a guest post by Dr. Robert Fitzgerald, a faculty associate at University High School in Normal, Illinois, where he co-chairs the Social Science Department and serves as the Assistant Activities Director for Student Life. This past Spring he was a Fulbright Scholar/Honorary Research Fellow at University College London’s Institute of Education where he worked with the Justice to History Program on inclusive curricular strategies. Fitzgerald’s last guest post was about the legacy of Muhammad Ali in relation to contemporary sports protest. 

For evidence of the assault on public schooling in the United States one need look no further than the language used and suggestions made by our current Secretary of Education. Few can argue against the claim that she has spent the last six months zealously promoting a voucher agenda rather than providing the support schools across the nation are in serious need of. Betsy DeVos, whose confirmation hearings early this year made brutally evident her unawareness of the historic importance of public education in this country as well as her unpreparedness for the position and the challenges it brings, is attempting to subvert an institution enumerated since its inception as essential to not only the development of every individual, but more importantly to the maintenance and survival of democratic society. Readers may go to any one of a number of recent pieces in the blogosphere illuminating what is being done, shrouded in the rhetoric of choice, charters, and change for evidence of this. Regardless of what side of the aisle one might happen to be on, all can agree for better or worse that public education in America is under attack.

The following is a brief historical defense of public education using the rhetoric of a few individuals who saw it important to create and maintain a system of common schools in the first half of the nineteenth century, a critical time in our nation’s history in terms of development. It was a group of enlightened men and women who first considered the value of schooling provided for everyone at the public’s expense as a means of advancing liberty, ensuring stability, and encouraging prosperity. It was they who advocated for these schools in the various state legislatures across the country, convincing those in power of the need for the more general diffusion of knowledge Thomas Jefferson had spoken of a generation earlier. It was they who sacrificed their own personal wealth to publish journals and travel from town to town, speaking to anyone who would listen about the benefits of a common education and the need for public support in the form of taxation. It was they who went to Europe to learn about new pedagogical techniques with the intention of bringing these to the masses upon their return, again, often at their own expense. Most importantly, it was they who believed that the future of the nation would be directly connected to the advancement of learning for all rather than the few who had been privy to training up to the point in time.

The efforts of Horace Mann and Henry Barnard, to name just two, and the institutions they helped create are now on the chopping block. They are in need of a serious defense if they are to survive intact for the next generation of American youth to benefit from as those before them did. Who better to begin this defense than they? What better to look to for encouragement and support than their words? As their fellow common school advocate Newton Bateman once iterated in his 1866 educational report submitted to the Illinois legislature, “Old truths need often to be re-stated and re-argued.” I think it wise we heed the advice of the man once described by Abraham Lincoln as, “my little friend, the big schoolmaster of Illinois.” His words as well are where we should look for a restatement of the principles upon which public education in this country was founded. They provide the buttressing needed to bolster the system in the place rather than break it apart, as Secretary DeVos apparently aims to do. A brief review and consideration of what these three said on the subject should be enough to convince anyone interested in public schooling more than political pandering of its value and importance.

It was while preparing for a lesson and reading from the early volumes of the American Journal of Education, later published at the personal expense of Henry Barnard for almost three decades, where my motivation for this piece emerged. Specifically, it was in an extract from an 1826 speech delivered by New York Governor Dewitt Clinton that my thoughts regarding the importance of public education were confirmed. More than a decade before Barnard and his friend Horace Mann assumed their advocacy roles in Connecticut and Massachusetts, Clinton encouraged his state to consider converting to common schools attended by both poor and wealthy students for, “a strong incentive for the display of talents, and a felicitous accommodation to the genius of republican government.” Such schools, properly funded and outfitted with quality teachers considered as learned professionals, would have extensive benefits. “To break down the barriers which poverty has erected against the acquisition and dispensation of knowledge,” he proclaimed, “is to restore the just equilibrium of a society, and to perform a duty of indispensable and paramount obligation.” Common schools, or “palladiums of our freedom” as described by Clinton, would achieve this more than anything else.

Mann and Barnard, described by one scholar as “ardent crusaders for public education,” put the suggestions of Clinton into effect in their respective states ten years later by successfully lobbying for the passage of legislation creating boards of education to which both were selected to serve. The former, popularly recognized as the father of public schooling in America, eloquently expressed during the course of his career the importance of and need for an educational system both high quality and common. A specific passage from his 1846 report as Secretary of the Massachusetts’ State Board of Education demands inclusion in toto in any piece on this subject:

I believe in the existence of a great, immutable principle of natural law, or natural ethics – a principle antecedent to all human institutions and incapable of being abrogated by any ordinances of man, – a principle of divine origin, clearly legible in the ways of Providence as those ways are manifested in the order of nature and in the history of the race, – which proves the absolute right of every human being that comes into the world to an education; and which, or course, proves the correlative duty of every government to see that the means of that education are provided for all.

Mann, like the other common school advocates of that era, was resolute in his belief that education was, as he asserted, the “great equalizer” and that government was bound to ensure it was afforded everyone in a uniform fashion. His fellow crusader Henry Barnard, who’s outliving of Mann by four decades allowed for an abundant accumulation of assertions on the subject, spoke similarly. “It will be a bright day for our state,” he once proclaimed, “and a pledge of our future progress and harmony as a people, when the children of the rich and the poor are found, more generally than they now are, side by side in the same school and on the same playground, without knowing or caring for any other distinctions than such as industry, capacity, or virtue, may make.”

Like many of his co-advocates across the country, Barnard believed in two important principles. First, that private schools, most often attended only by the wealthy, were detrimental to not only the cause of common schools, but also the developmental opportunities of every individual and the wellbeing of the state as a whole. In his opinion, these were the product of an unwillingness on the part of the wealthy to be taxed for the purpose of educating children other than their own, for whom they were more than willing to provide adequate resources. Second, that the government had an obligation to ensure that all students, particularly those from poor families, were provided an efficient and high quality education on par with their wealthier counterparts so that they too might benefit from the opportunity to develop intellectually. This would require enhanced fiscal support in the form of taxes on the wealthy, which Barnard and other common school supporters across the country were keen to promote. What neither he, Mann, nor others advocated for was the syphoning of resources away from public schools that lies at the core of Secretary DeVos’ program.

In Illinois, the state in which I live and sadly the last in terms of funding disparity between the richest and poorest schools, it was Ninian Edwards, brother-in-law to Abraham Lincoln, who early on championed public education as superintendent of instruction. “Government is bound, solemnly pledged,” he proclaimed in his first submitted report, “to look to the matter of education!  Our children have a right to demand it on the ground of solemn engagement; and if we neglect it the curses of future ages must rest upon us.” Although he pushed hard for much needed improvements, forces within the state prohibited these from being included in the legislation passed at that time. It was his eventual successor, Newton Bateman, whose work concerning public schools in the state would be on par with that of Mann and Barnard, worthy of inclusion here.

Listed by many as one of the great schoolmen of that era, Bateman can rightly be considered the father of public education in Illinois. Submitted in 1860, his first report as superintendent enumerated the fundamental principles upon which schooling in the state was to be provided. These were:

The just moral claim of every child in the commonwealth to an education commensurate with the importance and dignity of his obligations and duties as an upright and loyal citizen; the corresponding obligation of the State to make adequate provision for such an education for all; (and) the inseparable relation of universal intelligence and probity to the strength and perpetuity of a republican government.

Bateman, like Mann and Barnard before him, saw education as essential to living fully and freely. “It matters not where he is or what is to be his future; in whatever clime or country; under whatsoever form of government; whether he belongs to the uppermost or nethermost stratum of society; whether white or black, bond or free,” he proclaimed, “every child of man, born into the world, lifts up its voiceless wail, not only for food and raiment for the body, but also for bread and vestments for the soul.” For Bateman, it was at the expense of the public that this nourishment would be provided equally for all. And like his counterparts, he promoted this unpopular agenda among the wealthiest as a duty rather than restriction upon their freedom. Money from those who are well-off should flow to the schools most in need rather than drained from them as Secretary DeVos’ plan allows. In states like Illinois where fiscal resources for many schools located in communities of hardship are already limited, policies such as those she promotes are the antithesis of what common school advocates championed and could have a devastating impact.

“This first duty of government, and the surest evidence of good government,” Governor Dewitt Clinton asserted in the speech mentioned above, “is the encouragement of education.” He continued, “A general diffusion of knowledge is the precursor and protector of republican institutions, and in it we must confide as the conservative power that will watch over our liberties and guard them against fraud, intrigue, corruption, and violence.” A system of public schooling has been passed down to us that, although not perfect, is designed for a purpose that aims to help each individual, regardless of their station in life, achieve their full potential. Privatization is not the answer nor is allowing resources to be siphoned from those schools most in need, as voucher programs and charter schools allow. In fact, both of these philosophically conflict with the underpinning principles our system of common schools was erected upon. Our public schools are not “dead ends” as described by Secretary DeVos, but rather the life-blood of our society. They should be bolstered, not battered.

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