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  • State Of The FieldWhat Is the Legacy of the Common Schools Movement? Revisiting Carl Kaestle’s 1983 Pillars of the Republic
  • Johann N. Neem (bio)

Perhaps no one put it better than Ellwood Cubberley who, during the first half of the twentieth century, was America’s best-known education historian. Cubberley had attended common schools in Indiana, taught school, and served as superintendent in San Diego, before becoming an education professor at Stanford in 1898 and receiving his doctorate from Teachers College. In his 1919 Public Education in the United States, written for normal-school students, Cubberley laid down a moral tale. He was on the side of the school reformers. His story told of the heroic efforts of Horace Mann and others to overcome ignorance and resistance to achieve something great: public school systems. As Cubberley put it:

The battle for taxation for education; the battle to eliminate the pauper-school idea; the battle to do away with the rate bill and the fuel tax, and make the schools entirely free; the battle to establish supervision; the battle to eliminate sectarianism; the battle to extend and complete the system by adding the high school and the state university; the struggle to establish normal schools, and begin the training of teachers; the gradual evolution of the graded system of instruction; and the opening of instruction to all grades of women;—these are the great milestones in our early educational history which are of real importance for the beginning student of education to know.1

Note that these are all battles to achieve something, not battles between social groups or battles against something. Reformers like Cubberley believed wholeheartedly that education is a public good in a democracy and thus the state’s responsibility.

Cubbereley’s words, for all their naïveté to our sophisticated critical ears, have a certain promise to them, a certain aspiration that we have lost. We are at a point when public school systems are endangered, when policymakers from right and left are embracing market-oriented alternatives and reducing exposure to liberal education in favor of vocational skills, and when teachers, after two centuries of efforts to achieve professional respect, are under [End Page 342] attack. The achievement of public education appears fragile today, as it did for Cubberley, who was not far removed from the deep political conflicts that accompanied the spread of public education. But for revisionist historians after the 1960s, the public schools did not appear fragile at all. To them, the schools were monolithic soul-crushing bureaucracies. Cubberley saw public schools as America’s most democratic institutions; the historians of the New Left saw something altogether different.

An early sign of changing times was Rush Welter’s 1962 Popular Education and Democratic Thought in America. Welter shared a progressive faith in education’s centrality to democracy. That faith, Welter worried in 1962, was weakening. “The political education of the people has come to seem a visionary purpose,” he wrote, “and because it has been so much a part of our democratic theory, its disappearance threatens democratic theory itself.”2 Welter looked to the nineteenth century to revive our faith. The revisionists did the opposite. And it is the revisionists’ books that are now the classics of the field: Ruth Elson’s Guardians of Tradition (1964); Michael Katz’s Irony of Early School Reform (1968) and Class, Bureaucracy, and Schools (1975); Stanley Schultz’s The Culture Factory (1973); Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis’ Schooling in Capitalist America (1976); and David Nasaw’s Schooled to Order (1979).

When Lawrence Cremin accepted Bernard Bailyn’s call for a history of education that went beyond schools to include families, churches, and voluntary associations, he argued that there existed an “American paideia.” For revisionists, however, there could be no American paideia because there was no consensus. They agreed with Cubberley that the public schools were sites of intense political conflict, but they sided with the purported losers.3 Reading their books, one cannot help but conclude that the major historical lesson from the common-schools movement is that common schools unjustly imposed Protestantism and nationalism on a diverse population; fostered or sustained class inequality; and sought to...


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