Must public schools be 'common'?

The term “common school”, which once lay at the heart of the education reform debate, is unfamiliar to most Americans now. Yet in the years before the Civil War the “common school movement” dominated education fights.

So what does it mean? Charles Glenn, who wrote a terrific history of the common school movement (The Myth of the Common School, University of Massachusetts Press, 1988) defines it this way: “It refers, on the most obvious level, to the school that all the children of a community attend, in contrast to the schools that churches and religious foundations long maintained.” He continues, “The term refers also, however, to a program of educational reform, indeed of social reform through education. The heart of this program . . . is the deliberate effort to create in the entire youth of a nation common attitudes, loyalties, and values, and to do so under the central direction of the state.”

The leaders of the common school movement were not anti-religious: Most believed that publicly-funded common schools should provide some religious education . . . as they did well into the twentieth century. But the leaders of the common school movement had some pretty specific ideas about which religions taught common values and which did not. Their main target was my own ancestors: the Irish Catholic immigrants pouring into America in the wake of the potato famine. But it won’t surprise Deseret News readers to learn that many educational reformers viewed the LDS church’s teachings as similarly anti-democratic and un-“common”. In fact, the “common school” debate roiled politics in Utah for many years (more to come on that topic.)

For now I’d just like to pose a question. Can we still identify “common attitudes, loyalties and values” — if we ever could? And who does the identifying? Is it the state? Parents? Community groups? School boards?

Let me just note that I’m not trying — at least for now — to kick off another voucher debate. Instead, I want to provoke some discussion about a persistent issue in American education: Does public education require one central, probably government-directed system, or should it not only tolerate but embrace a diversity of approaches?

In my next post I’ll talk more about the birth of the common school movement, but I’d welcome any responses to these basic questions.

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