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Common Schools in a Fractured World

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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“Are we still making citizens?” That’s the title of an important essay by Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, in the spring issue of the journal Democracy. Botstein worries that we nowadays “defend education in purely economic terms, linking education to work and productivity.” Instead, we should embrace afresh Horace Mann’s ideal of the common school, where education transforms “private individuals with diverse faiths and origins into equal citizens in a democracy.”

Botstein’s celebration of Mann’s vision is one I wish I could embrace. But it’s too late. The fracturing of the educational system is real, and accelerating. As Botstein notes, the victims are children -- poor and minority children in particular. The question is what to do about it.

Although Botstein identifies many causes -- relativism and the Internet, for example -- his principal villain is the private school. Here, I fear, he and I must agree to disagree.

First, enrollment in private elementary and secondary schools is falling, not rising. Second, although Botstein is correct to note the continuing challenge of school segregation, it’s nowadays largely unrelated to the lily-white academies in the South that he discusses. Schools are more segregated outside the South. The top offenders are New York, California and Illinois – all blue states.

More important, the private school movement in the U.S. begins not (as Botstein suggests) in the opposition to integration in the 1960s, but with the rise of Catholic schools a century earlier. That phenomenon grew out of a perception -- as it happens, a correct one -- that the common schools were dedicated to turning the children of Catholic immigrants into Protestants.

Today’s constitutional understanding that public money cannot be used to support religious education stems largely from that era, as Nativist politicians searched for ways to keep Catholic children in the public schools. And although compulsory education laws grew from a mixture of ideals, many of them admirable, they were also fired in part by a determination to keep the Protestantization movement on track. It took a Supreme Court decision before Catholic parents could escape.

I’m not saying that the common school isn’t a good idea in principle -- only that its history is more complex than what Botstein suggests. And in that history we find a second, larger difficulty. Mann, the great apostle of the common school, was actually rather modest in his ambition. Botstein notes that Mann believed that the common school existed first and foremost to build good citizens, and this is true. But the architecture of that construction mattered.

For Mann, the common school was an extension of, not a competitor to, existing sources of moral authority: the church, the community and the family. He argued for preserving “the Christian element in education,” and worried that Sunday school was available only one day a week. The common school was the place where the lessons of “the Maker” would be reinforced. But the lessons Mann actually proposed were nonsectarian, reflecting values, he seemed to think, on which all could agree. The most important among them, he contended in his 1857 baccalaureate address at Antioch College, was “a subjugation of the bodily appetites and desires.” Good citizens, Mann argued, should be ruled by their heads, not their bodies.

He also saw the common school as an extension of community -- local community. In his 1839 essay “To Teachers,” he suggested that parents sit in the classrooms as often as possible, so that they might be persuaded to approve what their children were being taught. He didn’t envision compulsory attendance. If the curriculum was “odious,” children would quite properly be kept away. The school’s task was to make education attractive.

Moreover, the interests of the family were paramount. Schools, Mann wrote in 1846, must not be in the business of “usurping” from parents “a portion of their rightful authority.” The teacher must not be “a rival” to parents but “their helper, their friend.” The teacher was the agent of the parents, exercising authority on their behalf, much as an upper-class family might assign the same role to a governess or tutor.

In short, Mann’s vision of the common school was very different from what advocates on the left or right tend to think of today. Schools were run by communities, and would subordinate the agenda of the educators to the agenda of the families they served.

This model is rather old-fashioned for today’s conversations. Schools, we tend to think, should serve national, not local, purposes. The controversial Common Core standards are intended to further that goal. I share Botstein’s dismay at our tendency to think of schools (colleges included) as stepping stones on the path to employment and income -- in short, vocational training -- rather than places to nurture good citizens. If the common school could be restored on Mann’s model of localism, of fundamentally serving families rather than interest groups or bureaucracies, I would also share Botstein’s desire to make another try.

Alas, that horse has left the barn. Parents of means are not about to abandon the significant educational advantages they can purchase for their children in the private market. An obvious tool for sharing those advantages more widely would be to provide the means for poor families to purchase similar services. Yes, I am talking about vouchers -- and as a proud graduate of public schools, I wouldn't even mention them, were it not for the fact that I am cursed with a devotion to equality of opportunity. I certainly agree that the ideal of the common school is more attractive. But if Mann’s vision isn’t coming back -- and it’s not -- then vouchers deserve a central role in any discussion about how to combat rising inequality.

Unless, of course, we think that the well-to-do should be able to keep private education to themselves.

  1. There are many excellent discussions of this history, including, for example, the classic treatments by Warren Nord and Charles Leslie Glenn Jr. I have discussed it too.

  2. Presumably the modern common school would not follow Mann’s advice to teach religion.

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Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net