What is the purpose of education in America?

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


Ornate Divider

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.



  1. This is a fabulous inquiry question! I love that y’all focused on creating a historical narrative for the purposes of schooling as a function of the state & immigration. It made me think of Laura Donaldson’s work on the Indian Boarding Schools: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1185107?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents and how schooling has been used as a means of identity erasure and explicit teaching of whiteness.

  2. I have never thought much about the history of education in the US, and found it quite interesting…Thank you…My three young adult children were educated on Long Island in pubic school. As I reflect on their successes, what I find at the core are the educators who encouraged, challenged, and brought levity to the every day of curriculum and testing. Rita Pierson’s TED talk was spot on…The present and future of education must never sacrifice relationship between teacher and student for the purpose of more classwork, homework, and testing….

  3. Michael Pantone

    I love the broad nature of your inquiry particularly as it looks back at historical educational practices and the attempts at education reform through the years. It is discouraging to me that although policy makers may talk a big game in reform, our current educational systems, as you state in your exhibit notes, continue to be “profoundly impacted by the political, social, and economic interests of the people who hold power in our society.” This is so easily proven by state testing, this simple action lets us know that we continue to assess students according to the same rubric. I believe we can only take small steps in our classrooms as Rita Pierson does to individualize, customize and humanize students and their instruction. Thank you for provoking this important discussion!

  4. Sometimes we forget how far we have come when it comes to education. In the early centuries there was more focus on religion as seen in some of the artifacts. As time went on education has taken a change. Education is shaping the society we are living in now and the future. The group has done an excellent job in researching artifacts to answer their question about what is the purpose of education in America? In some of the research it was mentioned that what we do in the classroom helps develops our students.

  5. Danielle Van Dunk

    I really enjoyed your exhibit questions and enjoyed you artifacts. Really well thought out exhibit. The question is something I really never thought about. Education has come so far, and we still have places to go. I really liked how you had a wide range of artifacts. The good did an awesome job explaining and answer the question. Amazing Job.