“Public Schools and American Democracy”: Lecture with Western Washington's Johann Neem


Why did we have public schools in the first place? What was their historical purpose, and why do we seem to be losing faith in them? In introducing the central questions that guided his February 15 lecture at the Kinder Institute, Western Washington University Professor and Chair of History Johann Neem took care to point out that these are not the questions about public education that we are asking today. Our current lines of inquiry or, perhaps more accurately, our current points of deep contention—regarding charter vs. district schools; whether or not teachers’ unions will improve the quality of public education; and about school choice—concern means rather than ends. As he would unpack over the course of his talk, though, there is new perspective and insight to be gained by reinvigorating first-order, origins- and ends-based examination of public schools and American democracy.

“A Republic, if you can keep it”

Understanding the rise of American public schools begins with framing early discussions about the importance of education within the context of widespread anxiety about the fragility of the—of a—republic. With the relatively short-lived Roman republic and the Cromwellian turn toward tyranny in England likely in mind, Benjamin Franklin, commenting on the new government at the close of the constitutional convention, described it as “a Republic, if you can keep it.” People, conventional wisdom of the time dictated, were by nature ignorant, flawed, sinful, and thus subject to the sway of demagogues; for this reason, Prof. Neem noted, many post-Revolution leaders saw the fate of liberty and order as being tethered to schools’ capacity to educate the populace as to why the common good should be valued above their own personal ambition.

This shared belief in the need for education should not, however, be confused for unanimity among early proponents of public schools. On one side, we had Benjamin Rush, who thought that education would protect the elite few against the potentially destructive impulses of the many by producing what he deemed “republican machines”—“common” citizens inculcated in the importance of civic virtue and thus less inclined to be guided by regional, class, and individual interest. On the other side, we had Jefferson, who stressed that diffusing knowledge to all Virginians would be instrumental in holding the governing elite accountable and dissuading them from acting out their more tyrannical urges. Though they may have approached conceiving of the importance of education from opposite directions, figures like Rush and Jefferson ultimately found common ground in the belief that education must be considered a public good because it prepared citizens to govern themselves.

In antebellum America, Prof. Neem went on to describe, citizenship and creative power came to be inextricably entwined, as theorists and advocates increasingly posited that promoting equality, dignity, and self-making required cultivating the “seed bed of imagination” through wide-ranging liberal arts education that would bring forth the treasures of the past and inspire citizens to create worlds of their own. During this time, the relationship being forged between education, citizenship, and equality also became part of a larger conversation about national diversity. Many, but perhaps most notably Horace Mann, saw education as an invaluable tool for bringing together and harmonizing the diverse, sometimes discordant elements of society in a way that would encourage individuals to understand themselves as being with and for others, as well as to grasp the comprehensively negative impact of any form of segregation. Prof. Neem added, however, that two caveats to this progressive vision should be noted: Throughout the south, and in many parts of the north, African Americans were excluded from this educational model of inclusivity and civic cooperation; conversely, many Catholic immigrants called for the formation of separate educational institutions on the grounds that public schools were incapable of teaching religious values.

The emphasis placed on presenting schools as spaces of civic harmony and harmonization emerged from the fear that diversity would lead to the economically well-off abandoning institutions of public learning. As Prof. Neem pointed out in concluding the first section of his talk, though, this concern actually speaks directly to why public schools thrived in the period between the American Revolution and Civil War: because of mobilization at the local level that vigilantly upheld these schools as a necessary investment in the community and a necessarily public good.

“But we know that in the long run, the path to jobs and growth begins in America’s classrooms”

Early American ideas about the purpose of public education certainly spilled over into the 20th century. The post-World War II creation of the G.I. Bill and National Endowment for the Humanities, for example, are emblematic of continued recognition of both schools’ and the liberal arts’ vital civic role (here, helping citizens recognize the difference between American democracy and communism). Still, Prof. Neem argued, growing disenchantment with public education since the fall of the Berlin Wall is simply undeniable, and he devoted the second half of his talk to outlining the factors underlying changing perceptions of and dwindling faith in public schools.

Perhaps most significantly, he described how globalization has produced a paradigm shift in how we think about public education. Specifically, less jobs and greater global competition have led to the civic language with which Jefferson framed schools’ function—the language of preparing leaders and citizens—being bumped by an economic language of college and career readiness. Students have been transformed into educational products consumed by the business community, and developing marketable skills is now prioritized over promoting liberal arts education.

While economic globalization might be the primary driver of changing public perception, there are other factors that contribute to answering the question of “why are we losing faith in public education.” For one, he traced the groundswell of support for charter schools—and the weakening institutional and local commitment to public education that this support implies—back to our spending decades trying, but consistently failing, to better support schools in urban, high poverty, largely minority communities. Prof. Neem added that we have also seen the concerns of history repeat themselves, as increased diversity, coupled with Supreme Court-mandated secularization of the classroom, has resulted in a growing number of religious groups, led by evangelical protestants, opting out of public schools for many of the same reasons that Catholics did in the mid 19th century.

What does mapping the decline of faith in public education tell us? Ultimately, that the concerns of the founding generation haven’t necessarily disappeared and that revitalizing our schools might require revitalizing the spirit with which and the reasons for which this generation embraced them—as places in which we learn to see ourselves in others and as institutions whose care we willingly entrust to our partisan rivals because of a shared commitment to investing in the common good of our communities.


Johann Neem received his A.B. from Brown University and his Ph.D. from University of Virginia, and he currently serves as Professor and Chair of History at Western Washington University and as a Senior Fellow at UVa’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He is the author of Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts (Harvard University Press, 2008) and Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), and his scholarship has appeared in Inside Higher Education, History and Theory, the Journal of the Early Republic, and the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, among other places.