Who is it For? Shining a Light on the History of Educational Inequality in America

One might argue that there is nothing more enlightening than the study of history.  If that is true, then the history of American education may illuminate the way toward solutions to modern day academic ills as much as it may explain the very existence of any perceived scholastic anemia.  To be clear, the educational foundations of the United States rest on one very basic yet difficult question: Who is it for?  The answer to this question has dictated the course and consequence of public schooling in America and should, therefore, be regarded as the fundamental gateway to any and all conversations that seek to lay bare the historical roots of education in this country, as well as diagnose the malady that has left the tree of American education in a state of questionable health.

Before investigating the aforementioned question, however, it is important to first make note of the fact that public schools were virtually non-existent in the United States prior to the beginning of the nineteenth century (because women were charged with educating their children at home).  Those tax supported schools that did exist were scarce because such institutions had the odor of pauperism about them.  Otherwise stated, the wealthy did not need the assistance of public schools, and therefore their necessity was debatable. 

However, a shift occurred in the early nineteenth century as middle and upper class Americans realized that if the poor were not educated, they might become a dangerous, ignorant rabble, armed with the vote. Quickly, taxation for the purpose of education became an insurance premium that the wealthy paid for stability.  Young women, considered uniquely disposed to teaching because of their innate tendencies toward appropriate behavior were employed in one-room schoolhouses across the country to inspire virtue and morality in the youth, lest they turn into the unstable horde that the wealthy so feared. Additionally, considering the significant influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe at that time, many people saw a desperate need to instill "civilized" values in these alien newcomers in order to preserve American democracy and morals.

With all of this said, for some groups of people the end goal of public education seems to have been, historically speaking, to produce a subservient lower class. Arguably, this brief summary of the origins of American public education ignores the valiant efforts of many well-intentioned pioneers and reformers.  Nonetheless, this summary is indeed rooted in history, and therefore must be seriously considered as an explanation for the all-important question, “For whom was public education in America created?”

As illustrated above, recent years have seen historians seek to remind us of the embarrassing and shameful nature of the origins of public education in America, as well as the unhealthy fruit that it has borne.  This movement has been met by serious opposition, specifically from individuals such as Diane Ravitch (2010) who argue “that the public schools [were not] devised by scheming capitalists to impose ‘social control’ on an unwilling proletariat or to reproduce social inequality.”  Instead, Ravitch and her counterparts adopt a much more idealistic and romantic perspective, positing that public education is “a primary mechanism through which a democratic society gives its citizens the opportunity to attain literacy and social mobility.”

While historians might disagree, such disagreement illustrates the first of three ideological paradigms fundamental to understanding the foundations of education in the United States.  Specifically, education will consistently teeter on the precipice of failure when it does not define its stakeholders in such a way that engenders equality.  When a question such as “Whose history should be taught?” are both legitimate and necessary, and when systemic reform is stunted because textbook and exam publishers are considered primary stakeholders, then one might justifiably conclude that the foundations of education are eroding; indeed, they were not firm to begin with.

This conclusion is not shared by the now infamous report, A Nation at Risk (ANAR).  On the contrary, in its opening lines, ANAR claims that the integrity of America’s public education system is the product of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”  While the attribution of failure as a product of mediocrity is an interesting (albeit semi-circular) argument, the more fascinating claim is the connection that A Nation at Risk makes between a healthy educational system and the health of our nation. As previously noted, from the beginning of public education in America, pioneers and reformers in the field of academics implied a significant connection between democracy and education, citing such foundational ideologies as “a free vote cries aloud for free education.”  This is perhaps one area in which many historians and educators would agree – education certainly must prepare individuals for the responsibilities of democratic citizenship in a complex society.  From the beginning, American education sought to spread uniform cultural values and combat ignorance, especially ignorance that would stall the political process.  This serves as the second of three noteworthy points regarding the foundations of American academia: Insofar as education is so closely connected to citizenship in a democratic society, the discussing of education will forever be a political endeavor.

Considering the historical proposition that education has, in the past, been a tool of the upper class used for controlling the American proletariat and is therefore inherently political, one final significant conclusion regarding the nature of educational foundations in the United States seems appropriate: Standards are now a necessity of the highest order.  Federal standards can strive to create the egalitarian movement this country has historically lacked, yet so desperately needs.  Leaving such a task to the individual states is a confederate notion rooted in semi-ancient ideology, wherein individual states feared the tyranny of a strong central government.  Such a confederate approach has engendered inequality and therefore degenerated into a situation where standardized test based accountability (not standards) has become our educational policy. 

As it now stands, individual states determine their own benchmarks for proficiency.  In turn, each state has been left to determine what classroom content is valuable and not valuable, resulting in incredible discrepancies and deficits in learning from state to state within the union.  Particularly, the study of American History has been at the center of this ongoing debate.  It seems critical, therefore, that each state voluntarily submits to national standards.  Only then is it possible that the politicizing of education fall prostrate to the goal of equality.  Only then is it possible for the answer to the question, “Who is it for?” be answered with a resounding, “Everyone!” And it seems appropriate that history teachers lead the way.