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The Origin of the Common School Concept

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    Since the formation of the republic, popular education had been an idea waiting to happen. As the colonies prepared for statehood, Jefferson was urging his beloved Virginia to establish a few years of schooling “gratis” to ensure an extension of educational opportunity and at the same time “to rake the rubbish” in search of talent for the young republic (Jefferson 180l, 748). Washington, himself, was concerned that American youth by studying in Europe were “imbibing maxims not congenial with republicanism” and urged the creation of a national university and “a plan of universal education” (Washington 1795, 806).

    Lawrence A. Cremin’s earlier work, The American Common School: An Historical Conception (1951) is still a lucid and valuable introduction for understanding the common school movement from the end of the War of 1812 to 1850. Cremin summarized the turbulent and discordant changes–of what is now commonly labeled the Jacksonian era–as the democratizing of politics, the preserving of social equality, the changing conception of man and society (from a synthesis of liberal Christianity and dynamic democracy), and the rise of economic nationalism and individualist-capitalism (17-19,28).

    Those changes were translated into the anthropolitical concept of cultural “demands” for a new social “equilibrium” (28) producing a political movement for “a new functional, and positive conception” of the common school (47) available to all children–but not compulsory–that would provide a minimum common educational experience of reading, writing, and arithmetic (66). It would be financed and regulated by the community in “the collective” tradition of colonial Calvinism in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (85). Three decades later, Karl E.

    Kaestle (Pillars of the Republic, 1983) reinforced and expanded Cremin’s concepts, emphasizing capitalism along with republicanism and Protestantism as part of the central ideology for the common school: “The world of cash was a world of literacy and numeracy” in an era of economic development (24). These historical themes will help guide us in establishing classroom strategies. Social Progress Education then, beyond all other devices of human origins, is the great equalizer of the condition of men–the balance-wheel of the social machinery….

    It does better than to disarm the poor of their hostility towards the rich; it prevents being poor…. The spread of education, by enlarging the cultivated class or caste, will open a wider area over which the social feelings will expand; and, if this education should be universal and complete, it would do more than all things to obliterate factitious distinctions in society…. The greatest of all art in political economy is to change a consumer into a producer; and the next greatest is to increase the producer’s producing power;-an end to be directly attained, by increasing his education. Mann 1848. 87-89) 1. How would you explain Mann’s use of a “balance-wheel” to describe common schools? Why do you think Mann thought that metaphor would attract support for public schools in the 1840s? 2. How valid do you think “the balance-wheel” argument is today? More or less valid than 1848? Why? 3. What does this selection tell you about Mann’s economic philosophy? Where would you place it on a spectrum ranging from socialism to capitalism? Civic Education In a republican government, legislators are a mirror reflecting the moral countenance of their constituents.

    And hence it is, the establishment of a republican government, without well-appointed and efficient means for the universal education of the people, is the most rash and fool-hardy experiment ever tried by man Its fatal results may not be immediatey developed,-they may not follow as the thunder follows the lightning, for time is an element in maturing them, and the calamity is too great to be prepared in a day; but, like the slow-accumulating avalanche, they will grow more terrific by delay, and, at length, though it may be at a late hour, will overwhelm with ruin whatever lies athwart their path.

    It may be an easy thing to make a Republic; but it is a very laborious thing to make Republicans; and woe to the republic that rests upon no better foundations than ignorance, selfishness, and passion. (Mann 1848, 92) 1. How do you interpret Mann’s comment that “it is a very easy thing to make a Republic; but a very laborious thing to make Republicans? ” Is his statement more or less valid today than it was in 1846? 2.

    How successful do you think public education has been historically in the area of civic education? How successful do you think it is today? How would you evaluate the civic education you have received? What suggestions would you make to the schools about the value and implementation of civic education? Goetz, William W. “The common school: Neglected content in the high school… (Cover story). ” Social Studies 89, no. 1 (January 1998): 5. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed February 14, 2011).

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