A Reviewers Notebook: The Myth of the Common School

Charles Leslie Glenn, Jr., in his The Myth of the Common School (The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, Massachusetts, 369 pp., $37.50 cloth, $13.95 paper), does not use the word “myth” in its ordinary sense as implying something that is untrue. He uses it as a synonym for “idea.”

The “common,” or State-funded, school does not have a hoary ancestry. It is a product more or less of nineteenth-century thinking. Before the French Revolution, private church-connected schools were the norm in most of the Western world.

It was in Jacobin France in the 1790s that the idea that children belonged to the State found its first acceptance. Rousseau preached that doctrine. Education in Rousseau’s thinking should be devoted not only to reading, writing, and calculating but to teaching the child that his life should be led in accordance with the “general will.” This was “hard” doctrine, and, since most teachers in revolutionary France were nuns, the Jacobins had the problem of teacher training to surmount. It remained for Francois Guizot, in the early days of the “liberal” regime established in 1830, to make the State school a real solid thing.

How did the idea of the common school get to the Massachusetts of Horace Mann, who, as the twelve- year secretary of the State Board of Education, made it a personal crusade to establish it as the American norm? As Mr. Glenn tells it, there was a round-aboutness to the percolation of the idea in America. In France, the development of the common school was sparked by a growing anti-clericalism, which had no appeal to a predominantly liberal Protestant United States. But in the Netherlands what Glenn describes as a “soft form” public school agenda emerged in the early Eighteen Hundreds. The two De Groots, father and son, pushed the “soft form” and defended it against both Catholics and extreme Protestants who wanted their own schools. The younger De Groot happened to be the biographer of William Ellery Channing, the Boston Unitarian minister who helped persuade Horace Mann to take on what Glenn calls the “intellectual and moral improvement” of future citizens.

Religion has been the stumbling block in the common school thinking of most Western countries. Mann evaded the block by generalizing the religion he professed to a vague goodness of heart. He visited Prussian and Dutch schools on a memorable trip to Europe in 1843 and was convinced that an American common school could be Christian without sectarian overtones. The Bible could be read in school in a way that would let it speak for itself. Prayer need not be denominational. But religion was pretty much of a second thought with Horace Mann. He wanted his school to be a nationalist bastion, with the students carrying a common image of their country in their minds. They would read the same classics and accept the Constitution of the Founding Fathers.

Pragmatically considered, Horace Mann’s common school was just the thing for Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century. Immigrants were pouring in from Ireland and other European countries. They could not have been Americanized by a score of sectarian church schools, Even with immigrants who understood English there were nuances that would have continued to escape them if they hadn’t been compelled to attend the common school.

The time-and-place justification for the common school in Mann’s Massachusetts, however, cannot be universalized. It has not stood up in the France of the Fifth Republic. in the Netherlands, despite the De Groots, parent choice is now the basic organizing principle of education. And in the United States the private school is now flourishing.

Glenn is equivocal on the subject of the “democracy” of a public school system. Obviously, there is no voluntarism to it when parents are forced to accept it and when the truant officer is part of the town payroll. In Horace Mann’s day there was a broad consensus about the aims of education. “The difference,” says Glenn, “is that in Horace Mann’s day, the moral objectives of the school were essentially congruent with those of the public, but this is no longer the case. Mann drew upon a consensus about right and wrong, that as he often pointed out, was largely independent of the diverse religious convictions of the times. Those who rejected the public schools did so on theological grounds that, except when reinforced by a strong identification with an immigrant church, were of secondary importance. For most parents, as Tocqueville found, sectarian differences in a common Protestant Christianity were cheerfully accepted.”

The consensus on the moral content of education, so Glenn says, no longer exists. But Glenn cannot bring himself to say that the public school must go. He is a pluralist, a believer in the value of diversification, and accepts the competition between public and private education as beneficial. He suggests, in a somewhat enigmatic conclusion, that stressing parents’ choice should not preclude “working with the utmost care to develop a diversity of schooling that offers distinctive approaches to the common goals of our society.” Then, he says, “we can rebuild broad support for public education.”

This is hardly a rousing conclusion. If the common goal of Western societies is to escape from the clutches of socialism, as it should be, it is not helpful to ask that our children should become compulsory wards of the State.

Separating School and State

Leonard Read once said the separation of State and school is just as important as the separation of State and church. I remember saying to him, yes, but such separation won’t come in my lifetime. One is permitted, however, to cherish some ultimate ends. One such end is that education, some day, will become a matter for universal private choice.

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