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Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America. By Johann N. Neem (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017) 240 pp. $54.95 cloth $22.91 paper

This well-written, accessible book is a broadly conventional survey of schooling in the nineteenth-century United States, focusing on common schools and the campaigns waged to improve them. Drawing upon a range of sources, it covers much of the ground plowed by Kaestle and other scholars during the past half-century.1 Although hardly interdisciplinary and cautious conceptually, it contributes a few additional wrinkles to the familiar origin story of public education.

The disciplinary diversity in this account is best represented by intellectual, political, and social history. The intellectual component is the sturdiest, featured in two opening chapters that describe the various moral, spiritual, and political rationales for creating and supporting public schools. Citing figures such as Channing, Mansfield, and Westlake, Neem paints a vivid picture of the arguments in favor of universal education.2 [End Page 160] But much of the account dwells on the usual suspects in this story, including Horace Mann, William H. McGuffey, Francis Wayland, and the Beecher family.3

The chapter about politics is the most ambitious conceptually, but it is also slightly confusing. Neem employs a basic, community-level definition of social capital to suggest that local initiative was especially critical in the formation and development of public schooling. However, he never formally tests it. Rather, it becomes an explanatory framework for describing why certain reform regimes succeeded, but the evidence is hardly consistent. For instance, Neem notes that Mann’s centralizing initiatives survived due to legislative politics in Massachusetts, whereas Henry Barnard’s failure in neighboring Connecticut reflected a sudden shift in partisanship. Likewise, some Southern states are said to have favored localism in school policy, though others did not. But social capital supposedly existed across the region, at least judging from American Bible Society chapters, and education remained a fairly low priority, despite scattered enthusiasm and evidence of an uptick in the 1850s. Clearly, there was more at play in the success of public schools than the interchange of social capital and localism, as Neem’s own published work suggests.4

The chapter about teachers and students offers an engaging discussion of the women, men, and children involved in schools across the nineteenth century. Neem describes the varied circumstances of instruction and learning in considerable detail, along with the efforts of reformers to improve them. He gives relatively little attention, however, to perhaps the most important single component of change—longer school terms. A brief appendix offers limited additional evidence about the scale and pace of transformation in schooling.

The book represents a substantial improvement over earlier accounts in its treatment of conflict about inequity in the provision of public schooling. Neem highlights the violence directed at schools for Catholic immigrants and African Americans in the context of rising tensions about economic uncertainty, ethnic diversity, slavery, and other issues that roiled the public. Much of this material is familiar, but it is well organized and presented effectively in a single chapter. Special attention is devoted to the African-American quest for improved education. The prominence given to David Walker and Frederick Douglas in this account is unusual for a book about schooling but appropriate given [End Page 161] their own experiences.5 These points naturally cast doubt on the democratic rhetoric highlighted in the book’s opening chapters, producing a tension that Neem addresses in the conclusion.

This generally clear and ample account of the origins of public education draws upon the latest research and a good deal of primary-source material. Neem’s adept treatment of the many conflicts evident at the time, along with the extravagant rhetoric that often accompanied reform, makes this book an attractive option for illuminating this period in American history. Although some of the questions that it raises may require additional exploration, its broad coverage of reform sets the stage for both productive discussion and additional research. Despite its limitations, Democracy’s Schools documents the advance in our understanding of early schooling in the United States, and points to directions for further...

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