Why the history of education matters

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In the mid 1600s, education loosely emerged through church schools and apprenticeship programs, which primarily focused on religious teachings. Education in the 1700s similarly reflected these religious roots — schools were thoroughly protestant and continued to emphasize religious instruction.

In the early years of America’s founding, it became clear that education would be necessary in the survival of a democratic society. However, the liberal and conservative views on education as a tool for nation building were at odds. While liberals believed that education should teach citizens about their rights and liberties under the law, conservatives believed that education should teach citizens to heed the words of the most qualified leaders. In 1786, Benjamin Rush, a founding father of the country and prominent education reformist, created a plan for education that he believed would serve the needs of the emerging democratic society in America. His vision for education was grounded in a strong understanding and supreme reverence for the country. In his essay, “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic” Rush proclaimed that, “man is naturally an ungovernable animal” and in order to carry out the proper functions of the nation such as commerce, agriculture and religious practice, it would be necessary to teach the individual that, “he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property.” Rush’s goal for education was to “convert men into republican machines” so that they could “perform their parts properly in the great machine of the government of the state.”

Although using education as a tool for national unification was widely agreed upon at the dawn of the the country’s founding, it would take another half century until an official public school system would be established in the United States.

Even at the outset of American education, schools were creating a noticeable rift between the opportunities of the rich and the poor — but this outcome was no accident. Schools were created to establish and legitimize a social order in which select individuals could access greater social and economic opportunity while others faced limitations in their social and economic mobility. For those who could afford education, schools offered greater opportunity, but for those who could not, schools promised stagnation and social stability at best. It is important to keep in mind that the roots of education did not create equal playing grounds for all students and families nor have schools ever accomplished this ideal.

Thus, if radical, social justice reforms are to occur in the American education system, a drastic shift in societal and governmental beliefs of the role of schools must take place. Now, we must revisit the question: What are schools for?