The Myth of the Common School

Little Red SchoolhouseThere are at least two misnomers out there today about the beginnings of the U.S. public school system…

1. That it was set up to to bring basic instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic to the children whose families did not have the means to hire tutors or send their children to private schools.

2. That it was set up on the factory model to train workers to work in the proliferating factories of the beginnings of industrialism in the first half of the 19th Century.

Though our public schools eventually adopted the “three R’s” and the factory model of timed classes, bells and such, those were later “innovations”.

The reality of the beginnings of U.S. public schools is quite different, and a fascinating book to read on this subject is The Myth of the Common School, written by Charles Leslie Glenn Jr. in the mid 1980s. The “Common school” being the original name given to the universal one-size-fits-all public schools envisioned and developed by Horace Mann and other education reformers of the early 19th Century.

I happened to read Glenn’s book (which appears now to be out of print) because it was on the list of recommended reading in radical educator John Taylor Gatto’s book, The Underground History of American Education. Glenn’s work tells the story (based on his research and analysis) of the history of the efforts by Horace Mann and others in the first half of the 19th Century to launch the U.S. public school system. That system was set up (at least initially in Massachusetts) not to teach the “three R’s”, but to teach a state-approved version of non-sectarian Protestant Christian values to all the state’s children.

Wrestling with the Mythology of Public Education

Says Glenn about the title of his book…

I use the word “myth” not as a statement about truth or falsehood but as an acknowledgement of the unusual resonance of the idea of the common school. This resonance has been such that empirical research on the actual effect of schooling on beliefs and loyalties has been curiously meager. The common school has functioned above all as a statement of national intention and a symbol of national unity, and those who have laid a hand upon it have, correspondingly, been perceived as disturbers of the peace and of the national dream.

Glenn was notably an administrator in the public education system in Massachusetts in the 1970s and 1980s, where he spent 17 years directing state efforts to achieve racial integration of public schools. He was also notably an evangelical Christian, though a strong advocate for public education. All of this informs his insight into the conflict…

On the one hand, there are those who assert the absolute right of parents to control the education of their children, or to delegate that responsibility to the church or association in which they repose their confidence and by whose distinctive loyalties and beliefs they wish to see their children shaped. On the other, there are those who assert the absolute right of the state (or, in a softer form, of “society”) to control the education of the next generation of citizens in a way that minimizes the difference distinguishing citizens one from another in the interest of national coherence. (pg. 3)

Says Glenn in the book’s preface, about his research into the roots of public education in the United States, and similar efforts in France and the Netherlands that informed and inspired the U.S. effort…

Study of the controversies over public education in the three nations has convinced me that the educational system of a democracy must learn to be far more respectful of the convictions by which parents live and by which they hope their children will also live… The challenge that faces public education in a pluralistic democracy [is] to find ways not simply to tolerate deeply held convictions and particular angles on the truth but to value them and to allow them scope to make their contribution to our life together and to how we educate our children. (pg. xi)

Horace Mann and the Beginnings of U.S. Public Education

Horace Mann was elected to the Massachusetts state legislature in 1827 and quickly became a leading spokesperson for education reform. The state was the most urbanized and industrialized in the country, with rising issues of immigrant laborers and their families and urban poverty. Mann was part of the Boston educated elite affiliated with the Whig Party, which formed in opposition to Andrew Jackson’s newly formed Democratic party. (Note that Jackson was derisively called “Jackass” by his opponents which was eventually adopted and is still today the Democratic Party symbol.) Jackson and the Democrats saw themselves as representing the “common man” and pushed successfully for a more egalitarian society including broadening of white male suffrage over the next few decades.

The Whigs, in contrast, were the party of business interests and the educated elite, and also the party spearheading the social reform efforts of the day, including opposition to slavery and a push for a heightened public morality generally. Mann and his comrades represented those crusading factions of the party. Writes Glenn…

By and large, the promoters of this crusade were “new” men and women, members of social groups that emerged into prominence in the growing cities and provincial centers as commerce and industry developed, but were not themselves directly engaged in either. They were lawyers, clergymen, journalists, promoters of ideas and causes. (pg. 7)

One of those social reforms, championed by Mann and others, was an effort to ensure that all of America’s children were educated in good “American” (read mainstream Protestant) values. This had become a hot issue of the day, due to the burgeoning immigration from Ireland and other more Catholic countries of southern Europe.

The religion of these new immigrants from Ireland and southern Europe had become the focal point of xenophobic nativist concern, and anti-Catholic sentiment was rampant across the spectrum of the more established Protestant community. The perception was that these new immigrants were ignorant, and worse, swore allegiance to the Pope and not to the principles and values of their adopted country, and thus were a growing threat to those principles and values. Since the immigrant labor was needed to fuel the economic engine of the industrializing state, there was a major ongoing campaign to assimilate these immigrants (and particularly their children) into the majority culture.

As a Massachusetts state senator, Mann led the effort for his state to become the first in the U.S. to pass mandatory universal public elementary education laws, and was appointed the state’s first education secretary in 1837. His ongoing efforts over the next decade became the prototype for other states, and by the end of the Civil War in 1865, most every U.S. state had passed comparable legislation.

The launch of mandatory universal public school education in Massachusetts was a major part of that assimilation campaign. Mann, as the head of the state’s first Board of Education, was a key visionary and champion of that effort, and is given historical credit. Mann called the new Common Schools, “the greatest discovery ever made by man”…

Education has never yet been brought to bear with one hundredth part of its potential force, upon the natures of children, and, through them, upon the character of men and of the race… Here, then, is a new agency, whose powers are but just beginning to be understood, and whose mighty energies, hitherto, have been but feebly invoked… Reformatory efforts, hitherto made, have been mainly expended upon the oaken-fibred hardihood and incorrigibleness of adult offenders; and not upon the flexibleness and ductiliy of youthful tendencies. (pg. 81)

Note here Mann’s framing education as something external, “brought to bear”, on the recipient.

Moral Education Rather Than Skill Instruction

According to Glenn, prior to the launch of the Common Schools, elementary schooling in Massachusetts in the first decades of the 19th Century was a local matter. A community would hire a schoolmaster or let one set up a school on their own initiative. The parents generally paid for their children to attend, though the larger community would subsidize the kids whose parents could not afford that fee. The local clergy typically played a role in overseeing the local school, and though schools were not church controlled, they generally included religious instruction. According to Glenn these schools were generally effective in their instructional goals, because, at least in Massachusetts…

Literacy and basic mathematical skills were nearly universal, and those students whose social status or natural ability made secondary education possible were prepared for such further study. It was effective, that is, in providing the instruction necessary for the farmer, craftsman, or small tradesman of the day and for laying a basis for further study for those who were in a position to go on. (pg. 86)

So even though there was an existing population managing to educate itself on the “three R’s”…

The educational reformers of the 1830s and subsequent decades derided such arrangements for schooling as hopelessly inadequate. (pg. 86)

The “education” Mann and other reformers campaigned for was not focused on the “three R’s” or development of a skilled workforce for industry, but the molding of the next generation of American citizenry in the progressive Protestant values of the intellectual elite. That elite feared what would happen to their America if rural parochialism and an array of “sectarian” religious beliefs (including the very foreign Catholicism) were allowed to hold sway. Writes Glenn…

The common school was intended, by its proponents, above all as the instrumentality by which the particularities of localism and religious tradition and (in the United States) of national origin would be integrated into a single sustaining identity. (pg. 9)

Mann’s vision required state development of a singular methodology for public education that would trump all the local community efforts. Writes Glenn…

The reformers were concerned about the diversity of society, especially as more and more groups entered political life, but their overriding preoccupation was with spiritual disunity, the growing gap between their own “enlightenment” values and stubborn vestiges of what they regarded as superstition and fanaticism. It was this that led them to see rural Calvinists and immigrant Catholics as a profound threat to the emerging national society. (pg. 8 )

Glenn summarizes Mann’s agenda for the “common school”…

A program of educational reform, indeed of social reform through education. The heart of this program… is the deliberate effort to create in the entire youth of a nation common attitudes, loyalties, and values, and to do so under central direction of the state. In this agenda “moral education” and the shaping of a shared national identity were of considerably more ultimate importance than teaching basic academic skills. “Sectarian” religious teaching was seen as a major threat to the accomplishment of this program of national unification through common socialization. (pg. 4)

Mann on Religion in Common Schools

Here are some Mann quotes cited in Glenn’s book showing his commitment to Christian teaching in the Common Schools…

From Mann’s Board of Education Third Report to the State legislature, talking about Christian instruction in the Common Schools…

Although it may not be easy theoretically, to draw the line between those views of religious truth and of Christian faith which are common to all, and may, therefore, with propriety be inculcated in school, and those which, being peculiar to individual sects, are therefore by law excluded; still it is believed that no practical difficulty occurs in the conduct of our schools in this respect.

From the Ninth Report

Directly and indirectly, the influences of the Board of Education have been the means of increasing, to a great extent, the amount of religious instruction given in our schools. Moral training, or the application of religious principles to the duties of life, should be its inseparable accompaniment. No community can long subsist, unless it has religious principle as the foundation of moral action; nor unless it has moral action as the superstructure of religious principle.

From the Eleventh Report

It is not known that there is, or ever has been, a member of the Board of Education who would not be disposed to recommend the daily reading of the Bible, devotional exercises, and the constant inculcation of the precepts of Christian morality in all the Public schools.

From the Twelfth Report

I believed then, that religious instruction in our schools, to the extent which the constitution and laws of the State allowed and prescribed, was indispensable to their highest welfare, and essential to the vitality of moral education.

The Roots of Mann’s Crusade

Glenn indicates that Mann’s crusade for moral education was continuing a thread from U.S. Founding Father Benjamin Rush. In the intro to Rush’s article in Wikipedia, he is described as a “father of public schools”, and also that…

He was an advocate for Christianity in public life and in education. In line with that, he advocated that the U.S. government require public schools to teach students using the Bible as a textbook, and that the government should furnish an American bible to every family at public expense. He also said that the following sentence should be inscribed in letters of gold over the door of every State and Court house in the United States: “The Son of Man Came into the World, Not To Destroy Men’s Lives, But To Save Them.” Since such an action did not involve the establishment by Congress of a religious entity (state approved church or sect), he saw no conflict between this and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution…

Glenn indicates that Mann and other education reformers of the early 19th Century were inspired by what Rush had written in 1786…

Our schools of learning, by producing one general and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogeneous and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peacable government… From the combined and reciprocal influence of religion, liberty, and learning upon the morals, manners, and knowledge of individuals, of these upon government, and of government on individuals, it is impossible to measure the degree of happiness and perfection to which mankind may be raised. (pg. 89)

Opposition to the Common School

Mann and his fellow travelers in the intellectual elite of Boston took these ideas of Rush’s to create a standardized religious curriculum for the Massachusetts public schools. But it was a curriculum based on a Unitarian approach to Protestant Christianity that featured a loving God and the ethical teachings of Jesus rather than the original sin and hell and brimstone of the Calvinists and other more orthodox Protestant sects.

Many of these sects opposed this Common School curriculum, though their opposition was mitigated somewhat by their concern about the growth of Catholic immigration to the U.S. and the growing political power of that immigrant community. Mann’s Common Schools, though putting forth this sweetened version of Protestant theology, would hopefully at least wrest Catholic youth away from the faith of their immigrant parents.

Not unexpectedly, the strongest opposition to the Common Schools came from leaders representing the mostly Catholic immigrant communities from Ireland, Italy and other Catholic-majority countries in Europe. With the broadening of white male suffrage during the 1840s, more of these immigrants became voting citizens and organized their communities (as say the Hispanic community is doing today particularly in the Southwest U.S.)

Organized and effective Catholic opposition to Protestant religious curriculum in the Common Schools eventually led to removal of all religious teaching from the public school curriculum. So much so that, ironically, some of the Catholic leaders continued to oppose these schools for the now “Godless” curriculum. Regardless, Catholics continued to develop a strong system of parochial schools around the country that continue today.

Says Glenn…

Schools created deliberately to provide a traditional religious alternative to publicly controlled schools were a reaction to the rise of the nineteenth-century common school with its unifying intent and its nonsectarian but religious content. It was the religious agenda of the common schools, as elaborated by Mann and others, that elicited a demand for schools that served alternative religious agendas… Those immigrant groups that brought with them traditions of European conflicts over the religious mission of popular education, and were therefore clear about the significance of this issue, were especially likely to found and maintain such schools. For the denominations rooted in American tradition, however strongly they may have felt about their particular doctrinal views, there was always an uncertainty about the wisdom of breaking the solidarity of Protestant/American domination of the institutional means of the socialization of immigrants. (pg. 234)

An Enduring Quandary

Fast-forward 174 years since Massachusetts launched its common schools with Mann at the helm. The issue of “standardizing” the U.S. public education system still is at the top of the national education agenda. To that agenda, Glenn poses a very profound question in the introduction to his book…

The continuing conflict, even as the common school has appeared to triumph, raises troubling questions in a democracy. How can the pluralism that we claim to value, the liberty that we prize, be reconciled with a “state pedagogy” designed to server state purposes? Is there not wisdom in John Stuart Mill’s remark that “all that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for molding people to exactly like one another… in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind.” Can government somehow assure that every child is educated in the essentials required by the social, political and economic order without seeking to impose uniformity? (pg. 12)

So I think Mill asked a really good question… If we are a country that believes in and celebrates diversity and our “salad bowl”, shouldn’t we have an education system built on diversity, rather than Mann’s OSFA (one size fits all) vision? Now I am a fervent believer that the U.S. public education system should be rooted in the secular consensus called out in our Constitution as amended, and not be driven by or otherwise supporting religious agendas. But I am equally fervent that we need a public education system that supports a range of profoundly different educational paths, not just the instructional one focused on teaching a standardized curriculum.

I would call myself more of a futurist than a historian. That said, I am fascinated by the narratives of human history. Those narratives, in my opinion, are truly the greatest stories ever told! And, like a pilot trying to navigate a boat up a great river, understanding the currents is critical to charting your course, whether up stream or into the future.

So stay tuned for part two of this series where I look at what happened in the latter part of the 19th Century to really jerk our education system into the factory model. It was more of the same that we see in states today, where schools try to prove that they are effective learning venues using the taxpayers money wisely.

8 replies on “The Myth of the Common School”

  1. Funny how history repeats itself. Mann is back from the grave (without God, of course). All states are moving into common core. I wonder what the hidden agenda is with that!!!!

  2. I keep thinking it is being driven by the tail wagging the dog. The “education-industrial complex” that has such a huge steady market from supplying text books, testing systems and other products and services required by standardization.

  3. I am attending school right now to be a teacher and I personally think the common core can be very good. It encourages skills that students will need to survive in this competitive society. It is very possible to have a common core and encourage diversity. It’s up to the teacher. So I am still an advocate of Horace Mann. He encouraged all children to attend school instead of staying home learning skills that don’t get you far in a competitive society. Also, if you move around a lot, the common core helps students pick up right where they left off.

  4. Leah… thanks for your comment and I hear what you are saying. Common core curriculum highlights important skills that would be useful for young people to know and Horace Mann had a vision of universal public education which was pretty radical for his time.

    My concern with Mann and the core curriculum today is it is all about absolute control by our state governments of what you learn, when and how you learn it in schools. Do we want people to drive their own development or do we want them to surrender that task to bureaucrats in mostly far away state capitols?

  5. This is very helpful to my understanding of the topic! You write this paragraph, though, that I would like more specific information about:

    Organized and effective Catholic opposition to Protestant religious curriculum in the Common Schools eventually led to removal of all religious teaching from the public school curriculum. So much so that, ironically, some of the Catholic leaders continued to oppose these schools for the now “Godless” curriculum. Regardless, Catholics continued to develop a strong system of parochial schools around the country that continue today.

    I am writing a research paper on the subject, and would love to cite that information in it – where did you find this idea?

    Thank you!

  6. J… Charles Leslie Glenn’s book is called “The Myth of the Common” School”. Here is a review by another person…

    The text of the book does not appear to be available on Google Books, but if you like, I can look thru my hard copy and find the page with the quote you referenced so you can cite it… let me know!

    Cooper Zale

  7. This is a fair summary of Mann’s motivations and Benjamin Rush’s.
    But it misses some of the context of public schools in Massachusetts.
    The public schools and seminaries of the 17th century in Massachusetts were entirely designed to advance their neo-Calvinist agenda. Increase Matter, Cotton Matter, Ezekiel Cheever, William Stoughton and their group were vehement and radical protestants who demanded indoctrination into their sect every day and in every way. Just read the “Old Deceiver Satan Act of 1647” which established the requirement that every town of 100 or more build a schoolhouse if you doubt the religious motivation behind early public school laws.
    Horace Mann was NOT a Calvinist and as this author points out he was an exuberant optimist and believer in good works to honor both his religion and mankind. “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity” he said most famously in his commencement address to students of Antioch College (Now their school motto).
    He also recognized that schools were incredibly powerful institutions. His visit to Prussia in 1843 convinced him that schools could teach knowledge that reinforces autocracy, but as usual his sunny optimism won out:
    From the 7th Annual Report (1844): “If Prussia can pervert the benign influences of education to the support of arbitrary power, we surely can employ them for the support and perpetuation of republican institutions.
    A national spirit of liberty can be cultivated more easily than a national spirit of bondage; and if it may be made one of the great prerogatives of education to perform the unnatural and unholy work of making slaves… If a moral power over the understandings and affections of the people may be turned to evil, may it not also be employed for good?”
    Mann was, in other words incredibly optimistic, progressive and righteous and believed that the spirit of progress was aligned with his cause. This was a major departure from the scolding Calvinism of his ancestors whose lawmakers executed Quakers, Unitarians and other milder heretics by the dozen. I don’t think modern conservatives or modern liberals can claim ownership over Mann, but it’s good to see someone writing about what motivated him.
    Bob Lee

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