Did Public Schools Make America Great?

October 20, 2008

by Tammy Drennan


I had a meeting recently in which I and several other people had to solve a problem. My fellow conspirators had already tried to solve the problem, but their solution had not worked. The thing is – they thought it was working.


My job was to explain to them exactly why it was not working and yet looked as if it was.


This is a dilemma that all people who know public schools do not work face. Most people think public schools are working – pretty well, anyway, or at least did work in the past and only need to return to those glory days.


It looks as if they’re working. We’re still a free country, we still have a high standard of living, lots of opportunity, plenty of food and clothing and entertainment, lots of technology… the list goes on.


If schools aren’t responsible for all this, what is? Isn’t that where people are trained to create all this plenty and hope? We don’t actually know, but this is what the “authorities” and “experts” tell us.


Could it be possible that we’re doing so well in spite of schools and not because of them? That something is compensating for what schools don’t do or for the harm they do?


The evidence supports this idea.


Compulsory state schooling took root in the mid-1800s and spread around the country, hindered for a short while by the conditions of the Civil War and finally coming into its heyday in the early 1900s.


Our country was already the land of opportunity for scores of immigrants by that time. Remember that the gift to the United States of the Statue of Liberty from France was to celebrate our centennial in 1876. It was to celebrate the freedom and opportunity we represented and offered to the rest of the world – something we became with education almost entirely in the hands of private individuals who taught their own children, hired tutors and teachers for home study or community schools, and who funded schools for the poor.


Horace Mann, father of modern state schooling, complained in 1846 that “…there is not at the present time, with the exception of New England and a few small localities elsewhere, a State or a community in Christendom, which maintains a system of Free Schools for the education of its children.”*


At the time of this lament, our nation was 70 years old and the beacon that called the world to freedom and prosperity and that offered inspiration and hope for the oppressed and poor of the world.


“By 1940,” according to public school historian Lawrence A. Cremin, “the average American adult had completed 8.6 years of schooling.”** That’s an average of about an eighth grade education 164 years into our nationhood – in school years that were considerably shorter than they are today. By that time, we’d built a phenomenal infrastructure, been through many wars, including a devastating civil war that we managed to emerge and move on from without further bloodshed, and a world war. We’d been conducting vigorous trade with nations around the world since well before our nationhood, and we were making progress in every area that could be called a health indicator for the growth of a free nation.


We were far from perfect, but we were working on it and making steady gains – because we wanted to, not because the state was commandeering people’s children and forcibly improving them.


At this point, the logical person is thinking, “Uh, so what did public schools have to do with all this progress?” It’s a good question, because public school advocates would have us believe that America would be wallowing in a mud pit of backwardness and poverty had it not been for state schooling. That would be the sort of state schooling that hardly existed until after World War I.


Today, we have state schools that literally monopolize children’s and family’s lives and that have taken over almost every area of education that used to be in the hands of parents. Truant officers track down recalcitrant students, schools offer bribes to get students to perform and rewards to citizens who turn in any child making a break for freedom. Our incarceration rate is among the highest in the world, as is the rate at which our citizens medicate themselves and their children for mood and behavior disorders. On the economic front, most families find it nearly impossible to live on one salary.


And yet, Americans keep plugging along. We aren’t as free as we once were. We aren’t as articulate (in spite of the internet), or well-read or fiercely independent or secure in our property. We no longer have the attention span to tolerate a Lincoln-Douglas debate, nor the critical thinking skills to follow the lines of argument. The writings of our founders challenge many of us far beyond our academic skills.


But we have a legacy that was so strong, so compelling, that it still lingers in our souls. For how much longer, it’s hard to say. That may depend on how much longer we offer up our children’s minds to the state for enlightenment.


The moment of freedom will come at different times for different people. It will come when the light goes on and they see they’re being sold a big PR job that reflects what state school advocates want them to believe and not what is reality. Without doubt, many of the PR reps believe their own stories – and many of them will also eventually see reality.


But we can’t hope that some genie will emerge from a lamp and open everyone’s eyes. We must help the process along – sometimes passionately and even vehemently, sometimes gently and patiently.


We must ask questions, offer literature, give of our time to explain, and yes, offer help to those who need it in order to choose freedom. It takes effort. It took considerable effort on my part to simplify my explanations and make them clear and understandable in order to help my “committee members” see my point. I had tried many ways before and met with dismal results. I tried harder and finally met with success, though I have no doubt it will be success that will require reinforcement.


Change takes effort and time and patience – and above all, persistence. Never surrender, said Winston Churchill at a truly dark and hopeless hour. Never give up.


Victory goes to the person who is willing to persevere, to the person with the most to lose. State school advocates stand to lose money, power, sway over public opinion, a captive audience for their many agendas.


The rest of us stand to lose liberty, intellectual and moral excellence, a rich and meaningful culture and a healthy society, the strength of family and community, our children.


The greater loss seems clear to me. Never give up.



* From Horace Mann’s Tenth Annual Report to the Massachusetts State Board of Education, 1846


** From Popular Education and Its Discontents by Lawrence A. Cremin