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  • Democracy's Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America by Johann N. Neem
  • David Komline (bio)
Democracy's Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America. By Johann N. Neem. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017. Pp. xiii, 240. $54.95 cloth; $22.95 paper; $22.95 ebook)

Johann N. Neem's Democracy's Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America offers the first significant survey of education in the early American republic since Carl Kaestle's Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780–1860 (1983). Neem explicitly references Kaestle as a model, but his obvious foil is the revisionist historians of the 1960s and 1970s. Whereas Michael Katz and others excoriated the public education system as the product of capitalists interested in social control, Neem views early American schools in a positive light. In a remarkably personal preface, he refers to his experience as an immigrant and how public schools, which were both "diverse" and "very American," united students from all [End Page 108] backgrounds. He states: "The schools were for all Americans, and the schools helped make us Americans" (p. ix).

The book has five chapters. The first two chapters examine ideals, explaining why reformers "wanted to expand access to schooling" and how they hoped such schooling might work. The rest of the book looks at circumstances on the ground, with chapter three focusing on "democratic politics," chapter four on "real-life classrooms," and chapter five on "the complicated realities of a diverse society" (p. 4).

Although Neem traces chronological developments in several places, for the most part he focuses not on change over time but on characteristics of an era. As a result, he often draws on sources from different decades to support a single analytical point. A paragraph on page 67 about the relationship between academies and common schools, for instance, first references a figure who was active in the 1830s and then introduces quotes from, in order of appearance, 1795, 1843, and 1816, concluding with an additional quote that a footnote says comes from 1825. In this instance, Neem references the quote from 1843 to show that its source "agreed" with the substance of the quote from 1795. Neem is able to draw on such diverse data because of his wide reading, documented in the footnotes.

However, despite this breadth, Neem too often relies on quotes found in secondary literature. With the above example concerning a speaker from 1843, for instance, Neem provides this footnote: "James Henry, An Address upon Education in the Common Schools (1843), 24, quoted in Merle Curti, The Social Ideas of American Educators (New York, 1935), 27." But, while Neem correctly cites Curti, Curti unfortunately made mistakes with the pamphlet, beginning with its title, which was actually An Address upon Education and Common Schools. If Neem had pursued this quote further, he would have also seen that in context it actually pushes against the interpretive framework of his paragraph, which, by citing quotes from different decades, assumes a relatively constant perception of the topic at hand. In the context of the original paragraph, and indeed of the whole pamphlet, the author is actually speaking about the transformation in the common schools [End Page 109] that recent reformers have wrought. In this case, at least, Neem's reliance on secondary literature leads him astray.

Elsewhere Neem does highlight the significant change in American schools in this era. It is this change, brought about by the educational reformers Neem praises, that accounts for his positive view of schools. Still, one has to wonder if Neem's vision of the early reformers remains too rosy. While Neem dedicates a whole chapter to the problems common schools presented for minority populations such as African Americans and Catholics, in the book's conclusion he still states that "America's public schools were designed for all Americans, regardless of wealth, religion, or background" (p. 174).

In some ways, this book is very timely. In an era when public schools seem to be under attack, Neem comes to the defense of their original vision. He does so, not in a haphazard political tract but rather in a substantial scholarly book. As...


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