Only public education, James Bryant Conant said in 1942, could restore the key American ideals of opportunity, democracy, and classlessness.
These ideals were also Horace Mann’s goals for the Common School. Public education was intended to establish equality of opportunity, promote democratic ideals, and, although not right at the beginning when the country was still divided between slaves, native populations, and free men, do away ultimately with divisions of class, race, and ethnic origin.
How much of Mann’s and later Conant’s ideal vision for the schools has been realized? Probably very little, if anything. Equality of opportunity is still far away. Divisions of race and class have been lessened, but only through constant and fierce civil rights struggles, even shooting wars, pretty much on the outside of the schools.
The main result of the common school movement has been to make school buildings and classrooms, along with the home, the principal physical environment of young people during the first 18 years of their lives. It has kept kids out of the economy and off the streets.
Having most everyone (not everyone because of the private school movement) share the same learning environment, even though what was being learned was different for everyone, is probably as close as we have come to creating equality of opportunity.
In regard to the promotion and strengthening of democratic ideals it would now appear that the public schools have done little or nothing. Take just one ideal, one citizen, one vote. More than half of the people, most of whom have attended the public schools and are U.S. citizens and eligible to vote, don’t vote. Furthermore both voters and non voters reveal, when asked, little or no confidence in their elected representatives, in the State capitals as well as in Washington.
And all this is not to speak of what our public school attendees and graduates know of their own country’s history and structures of government. Have the public schools turned them into Thomas Jefferson’s “well informed people who can be trusted with their own government,” and who, “whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice,… may be relied on to set them right.” The answer is clearly no.
However, finally, and on the other hand, we have now, in spite of our schools’ failure to make us well informed citizens, and in spite of what was for Jefferson not possible and never to be, we have somehow managed to establish a state of civilization, and have remained free, while being mostly ignorant.
It would seem that the role of the schools is not to make us into better people or good citizens. Or if it was they have failed at this. Or at least they have not done this up until now. So what is their role?
Probably to take us as we are, provide us for some 18 years with a warm and secure and mostly comfortable environment until it’s time for us to leave and go out into the world and do something on our own. At best the schools are following, although unconsciously, the precept, do no harm. We are probably fortunate that that this is so, for we know the harm that schools, that would change the world by changing the young people in their power, can do.