The Founders set up American public schools for failure. And, by that, I mean they saw free and public education as a central load-bearing pillar of the United States of America, but closed the Constitutional Convention to ale or applejack at the City Tavern in Philadelphia before settling key questions about education’s purpose.
Now, I don’t mean to say that the Founders openly disagreed on public education. They might not have even realized the nuance of difference in what they believed about it. They should’ve asked Ben Franklin to shut up for a minute or two about whatever extremely studied detail of government he was droning on about and had a deeper conversation about schools.
Or, maybe it’s one of those topics they talked about in the City Tavern every night. After all, it looks like they did agree on a point that was likely very important to them.
If you put schools on the federal rather than states side of government, they seemed to think, you’d just be asking for aristocrats to snatch them all up—scowling spinster school marms and all—and use them to consolidate and abuse power. One of the shovels to dig the grave of the Republic, it seems, was schools. Which means that they were also incredibly important to the future of the nation.
Jefferson put it this way:
I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.
So, free schooling would be one way that we would ensure our liberty. But the Founders’ distrust in central government was sharper than their distrust in the dangers of a completely decentralized system. And, what they didn’t realize, was that decentralization wouldn’t stop the aristocrats from using schools to gather power in the long run.
But that’s another post. Back to the point, here.
They agreed, then, on some important things.
Where did they disagree about schools? What’s the argument they didn’t have, toward the statement that might’ve cleared things up for us today?
Consider this by Jefferson, and let’s oversimplify things by calling it progressive:
Education is the cornerstone of democracy. It is the foundation of a free society.
Compare it to this from Hamilton, and try not to hum “Cabinet Battle #1” as we call it—against, oversimplifying—social efficiency:
The prosperity of a nation depends on the quality of its education
What you have right there is the crux of the difference. You can plot each of the Founders somewhere along the line of progressive and social efficiency if you want to.
Progressive education speaks to the need for each citizen to be fulfilled in order to ensure informed and enlightened civic participation, and thus protect individual liberty. Through that, the nation will endure. At its most extreme, though, it can be disruptive for disruption’s sake, conflict-oriented, and totally devoid of practical skill and knowledge.
A purpose grounded in social efficiency results in schools that seek to prepare individuals to be economically successful, under the assumption that this will make for a prosperous nation. Take this to the extreme, though, and you end up with artless education that works only to prepare a compliant workforce of most, while it separates out a few of “the best” to do more.
These don’t have to be mutually exclusive in their more hopeful centrist expressions. Consider the beauty of a society devoted to individual fulfillment that finds, through that purpose, both economic prosperity and civic sustainability.
However, the history of American public education has been a see-saw between these ideas rather than an effort to really explore the middle. And, in important conversations about civil rights and inequity, that straight line twists around into reaction and counter-reaction so that it ends up looking like a pretzel.
Case in point—today, folks on the far progressive side of things consider the self-efficiency folks to be fascists, while the self-efficiency folks think the progressives are Marxists. They’re both reacting to the danger that the Founders saw—an education system co-opted for purposes that aren’t friendly to liberty. But they’re coming at it from totally different beliefs about what schools should do and be.
And, which side is winning? There’s a lot of history over the past 150 years that answers that question pretty decisively. But, just take a look around. We’ve heard an awful lot about how we stack up economically against other countries, and we continue to struggle with a mental health crisis signaled pretty loudly by a lack of individual engagement and fulfillment. Schools still seem intent on separating workers from leaders. Business leaders declare that they have the prescription for school improvement, and it all has to do with individual and national competition in the 21st century.
Perhaps the Founders could have settled all this. Perhaps the beautiful vision of a public school system that solves the future’s problems through a commitment to self-fulfillment in community and a belief that, in guaranteeing that, the nation would have no choice but to be strong and prosperous fell to the bottom of a mug at the City Tavern one night. Perhaps they weren’t even thinking about it all, except to agree that centralized schooling, like centralized anything, was probably dangerous without a whole lot of carefully considered checks and balances.
Today, we sorely need to figure it out.
What’s the value of economic prosperity if there’s no self-fulfillment or protection for universal informed participation?
What’s the value of those noble notions, though, if no one can afford to eat?
The argument between both sides seems to focus on how schools are the problem, but the Founders taught us something. We can disagree, but let’s at least agree that schools are the answer, not the problem.
They’re the answer that we’ve ignored, and that we continue to ignore at our peril.
Dr. Jeff Moore is an educational leader with nearly thirty years of experience in public schools in New Jersey, USA. Here, he imagines a future for American public education grounded in equity, personalization, and service learning.
Jeff writes on this blog as himself, sharing his own opinions, and is not representing or speaking for any school or organization.