The education of today’s children will shape the society of tomorrow. Throughout the history of our nation, there have been repeated efforts to reform education to meet the current needs of a developing and changing society. The purpose of education in America – shaping the future through the education of our children – has constantly shifted, depending on what those societal needs are determined to be, and who defines them. One thing seems certain: our educational system reflects the values of the dominant cultural forces that exist in our country and is profoundly impacted by the political, social, and economic interests of the people who hold power in our society. At the earliest period of our nation’s history, the Puritans strove to preserve the primacy of the Protestant religion through the educational system. The Founders sought to focus education on the establishment of a citizenry who would have the knowledge and skills to support the newly formed democracy. During the period of immigration and industrialization, those who pursued the Common School movement were concerned with assimilating the new wave of immigrants into American society. The Progressive Era saw the move away from a teacher-centered educational philosophy and towards the full development of the individual to reach his highest potential, with the understanding that the individual and the society were tightly intertwined. Today, the trend is to disrupt traditional notions of homogeneity, and create out of a multicultural citizenry a nation that is prepared to thrive in the global age. In a review of successive approaches to education over the course of history, we see that different values and beliefs about the direction of our educational system supplant each other, or sometimes directly compete with each other. For this reason, answers to the question of the purpose of education are varied, depending on the roles and experiences of those who weigh in on the subject. We find again and again that the intersection of diverse interests and influences may produce a system which does not best serve those whose benefit should be foremost: America’s children. The following videos, images, articles, books, and cartoons provide a glimpse at different perspectives on the purpose of education in America over time. These artifacts are not meant to propose a definitive answer to the inquiry question: that is impossible. Rather, they are meant to spur further questioning and discussion about the purpose of education in America, whose influences, perspectives, and interests they reflect, and most importantly, how to best meet the needs of all students.
Curated by the following teachers: Kevin Bauer, Julie Cohen, Judith Fiedler, and Kami Tobitt
The First Public School Building
Manning & Loring (Publisher), 1803
The first steps towards an organized educational system were taken by the Puritans in the mid-1600’s. For the Puritans, the purpose of education was to ensure the maintenance of a religious society, to which purpose all children had to be literate enough to read the Bible. The Old Deluder Satan Act, a law enacted in Massachussets in 1647, required that villages inhabited by 50 or more families hire a schoolmaster. This artifact is an image of the first school building constructed using funding from public taxation.
The New England Primer
Manning & Loring (Publisher), 1803
The New England Primer was used to teach young children to read through the use of religious and moral texts, images, and sayings. A version of the Primer was first published in the late 1600’s, and updated versions of the book remained in publication into the 20th Century.
Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania
Benjamin Franklin, 1749
With the founding of a new nation came the concern that the citizenry be capable of ensuring the success of the democratic experiment. For figures like Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, both signers of the Declaration of Independence, American education was to have a more practical flavor that that of Europe, preparing the young for a variety of necessary occupations. In his book Proposals on the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, Franklin lays out his comprehensive views on education, including appropriate diet and moral upbringing, and appropriate academic subjects ranging from from Logic and Oratory to Commerce and Agriculture. Benjamin Rush’s writings emphasized the submission of the individual to the development of American society, writing in Thoughts upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic: “In the education of youth, let the authority of our masters be as absolute as possible…. By this mode of education, we prepare our youth for the subordination of laws and thereby qualify them for becoming good citizens of the republic. I am satisfied that the most useful citizens have been formed from those youth who have never known or felt their own wills till they were one and twenty years of age….. I consider it as possible to convert men into republican machines. This must be done if we expect them to perform their parts properly in the great machine of the government of the state.”
On the Education of Youth in America
Noah Webster, 1790
Noah Webster was an important figure in promoting the Common School movement. His book was intended as an instructive manual for the education of American children. This manual purpose is seen in this quote from the book; “The mode of Education and the arts taught to youth, have, in every nation, been adapted to its particular stage of society or local circumstances.” Webster saw education as unique to the nation and how that nation wanted its population’s character to be shaped. Instilling the high virtues of the founders and not afraid to say what is best for the citizens in the new project of the United States.
School of Love; Compulsory Education in Brooklyn
Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 60, 1880
Following the onset of the Common School Era, compulsory schooling became the law in several states. This article from Harper’s New Monthly magazine is about a compulsory school for truant students. It shows how the purpose of education changes with the circumstances presented in a community.
John Dewey on the Individual and Society
John Dewey, 16 January 1897
Like those who preceded him, John Dewey believed that the purpose of education was to shape society. He, however, believed in using the educational system as a means of instilling new societal values, rather than solely preserving existing values. He placed emphasis on the development of the individual as central in promoting and sustaining an equitable society.
Conservative vs Progressive Battlelines
Lima News (Lima, Ohio) March 5, 1938
Reforms in pedagogical philosophy and practice lead to controversy, This artifact is a short clip from a news artical of the time; it illustrates the opposition between the progressives supporting a child-centered, experiential approach, and conservatives defending the transmission-of-knowledge model.
The Purpose of Education
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jan-Feb 1947
As one of the most prominent leaders of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and influencer of peace relations across the world, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s interpretation of the purpose of education is grounded in his experiences with the misrepresentation of what the educated do with their knowledge. This article, titled The Purpose of Education, focuses on why it is not enough to use education as a tool of entitlement, but to use it for its true purpose- “to think intensively and to think critically.”
Debate: National Standards of History
Brinkley, Alan; Cheney, Lynne; Rose, Charlie | 27 January, 1995
The early 1990’s saw a series of efforts to improve the quality of education, with the purpose of ensuring that American citizens would have the skills to compete intellectually and economically under globalization. Among these efforts was the creation of national standards, establishing grade-by-grade criteria for student achievement. The writing of the standards exposed schisms between those with very different views of the purpose of education: either to preserve American cultural values, or to redefine cultural values. This artifact contains a video of a debate between Alan Brinkley, Professor of History at Columbia University, a supporter of the intial version of the History Standards, and Lynne Cheney, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who argues that the standards present a distorted and negative view of American History and “push the principle of inclusion to such a degree that a new kind of exclusion developed”.
Every Kid Needs a Champion
Rita Pierson, May 2013
In this video Rita Pierson, an educator for over 40 years, discusses the purpose of education from the perspective of a classroom teacher. Her experiences illustrate that the reality of the classroom has very specific human elements, and goes beyond the achievement-based agendas established by those who set educational policy.
Historical Timeline of Public Education in US
Race Forward, April 2006
This timeline depicts the development of public education in the United States from from Colonial times through the 20th century (1647-1998). The information invites the reader to consider whose interests and philosophies had the greatest influence of educational policy at successive stages in history.