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The Public in Public Education

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This summer I've spent some of my time in the 19th century. It is one of the pleasures of being a historian that I get to immerse myself in the thoughts and emotions of an earlier time. But my excursion into the past has also helped me think about the current crisis in public education.

The mid-nineteenth century saw the beginnings of what evolved into our public school system. One by one, states began to establish public schools -- or what they often called "common schools" -- funded by public money and open to all children (with caveats: racial segregation in northern states made schooling decidedly separate and unequal while slavery in the south made it impossible and/or illegal for black children to get any formal education).

Even at the moment of their creation, however, the public schools came under attack. Back then the threat came from Catholic clergy who found the common schools suspiciously Protestant. Some demanded that public money be spent to support a parallel system of Catholic schools while others urged Catholic parents to boycott the public schools altogether and keep their children home.

All of this sounds remarkably familiar. Plenty of legislators, goaded by their constituents, continue to scheme to use public money to pay for religiously-based education, and who knows how many parents now keep their kids at home rather than send them to the local schools.

But what struck me was the defense of the public schools offered by those deeply committed to them back then. It was not couched in the language of standardized test scores or personal learning outcomes, but rather in the language of the public good and civic virtue. In a country of immigrants, speaking different languages and carrying different cultural baggage, advocates believed that the public schools could create social and national unity.

Here's how one orator put it to a crowd in an 1853 address: "We are made up of strange, and, as yet, unaffiliated elements ... Now what we need is some powerful and rapid process of amalgamation ... Now, the common school, more nearly than anything else, meets this very necessity. It is framed for the masses. Jews, Greeks, Pagans, Europeans, Africans, Asiatics and Americans, all meet here; and meet in childhood and youth; just when in the formation period."

He wasn't alone. The idea that the public schools served a crucial civic function was widespread. That helps explain why public education is specifically included in so many state constitutions. In the 19th century common schools were seen as central to giving a disparate and far-flung nation something in common, and Americans took considerable pride in them. After all, those common schools, with their free access to all (or mostly all), distinguished America from hide-bound Europe.

We don't talk much about education in these terms anymore. Instead, we talk about whether or not education succeeds for individual students, rather than for larger groups of them. We talk more and more in terms of "me" and rarely in terms of "us." Schools themselves, once a source of tremendous civic pride and seen as part of the glue that held communities together, are increasingly viewed as something to opt out of, at least to judge by the grudging and resentful way people fund them these days.

Part of this shift from the civic to the self simply reflects a larger shift in our culture. Over the last generation we have come to see ourselves as customers in virtually all our relationships and interactions: customers of medical care, rather than patients; customers of government rather than citizens; and customers of education rather than students.

And if you don't like the customer service you are receiving, our economic culture demands that you shop around for a better value. Which might be appropriate if you're shopping for new furniture or consumer electronics, but is proving a lousy way to run an educational system.

We have developed a vast (and burdensome and expensive) apparatus to measure individual student achievement -- Scan-tron bubbles until your eyes fall out. It is, of course, much harder to measure the civic value of education, but I'm convinced that we neglect that at our collective peril.

Because in the end, public schools serve an important function not just for the students sitting in the classrooms. They provide an education for all of us in the importance of public institutions -- when we participate in their life, when we demand that they improve, when we are asked to pay for them. They teach citizenship to grown-ups perhaps even more than they do to the kids. This is what the current consumer-satisfaction model of education neglects.

After all, who volunteers for the PTO of an "on-line academy?" Does such a thing even exist? And what kind of civic lesson do we teach our children when we tell them that their education is entirely personal, divorced from a larger social context and done alone? Will we be surprised if they think of society primarily in terms of "me" rather than "we" when they grow up?

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State University. He is the editor most recently of the book To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government (Oxford University Press).