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  • Democracy's Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America by Johann N. Neem
  • Mark Boonshoft (bio)
Democracy's Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America. By Johann N. Neem. ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017. Pp. 256. Cloth, $54.95; paper, $22.95.)

Historians do not know how to talk about the common school movement. Conservatives spent the last half century deriding "government schools." Meanwhile, from the Left, Michael Katz and the "revisionist" education historians of the 1960s and 1970s cast public schools as institutions bent on controlling the masses. Thanks to Johann Neem's wonderful new book, we are free of this stagnant debate. [End Page 523]

In the first two chapters of his thematically organized book, Neem recovers the democratic vision of common school advocates. The push for public education began in the founding era, to be sure. For Neem, though, democratic education really took shape in the late 1830s. The later reformers hoped common schools would not only make citizens, but also enable all boys and girls to develop themselves and live a fulfilling life. The Boston Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing made the most powerful case for this idea in an 1838 lecture called "Self-Culture." Neem borrows Channing's term throughout the book. To Channing, "self-culture was the right and duty of every child" because it was "the essence of being American" (15). It fell to others to bring this liberating experience to the masses, namely Horace Mann, who in 1837 became the first secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education.

Common schools aimed at "nothing less than democratizing access to imagination" (18). Reformers designed a curriculum to realize their lofty goals. They conceived of knowledge—everything from the three Rs to the classics—as the "building blocks." On this base of knowledge, students "deepened their appreciation of Creation, enriched their experience of the world and their own inner lives, and developed the higher faculties of their minds" (53–54). Even the supposed bastions of an older style of education reinforced these new values. Historians usually argue that the McGuffey Readers—the most popular schoolbooks of the day, the first of which were published in 1836—inculcated values of hard work and patriotism in passive students. To Neem, the McGuffey Readers helped students learn to "reason, imagine, and love" (46).

All the while, as Neem argues in the book's final three chapters, idealistic advocates of democratic education confronted the realities of "education in a democracy" (76). First of all, localities were already building schools. Mann and others could hardly be reformers if it were otherwise. Drawing on work by Nancy Beadie, Neem argues that reformers regularly relied on this existing social capital. To them, "localism was a tactic for state building" (70). This is precisely why reform proved difficult. People could and did contest the experts. Jacksonian Democracy raised the question: "What role was there for uncommon sense in an era of the common man?" (33). Similarly, Mann and Channing saw education as counterweight to a degrading capitalist economy. Other Americans embraced schooling to help them get ahead in that very economy.

Where the rubber really hit the road was where the ruler hit the knuckles. Reformers envisioned classrooms as temples of self-making. Bored students and undertrained and unsupported teachers alike, though, "saw the schoolroom as a battlefield" (101). Reformers criticized teachers for [End Page 524] continuing to rely on rote memorization and threat of the rod. These complaints undermined their own efforts to make teaching a respected profession through the founding of normal schools.

Ultimately, enough Americans built public schools that the question became how to make them truly common in an increasingly diverse society. At first, the challenge was religious. Reformers believed religion had a role in schools. They settled on nonsectarian Protestant teaching as the way forward. That seemed reasonable to most Protestants, though not to the large and growing population of Catholics. Catholics found public schools alienating, especially in the heyday of nativism. So they built other schools for their children. African Americans took a different tack. Recognizing that public schooling had become a prerequisite to accessing citizenship, black Americans demanded inclusion. More generally...


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