The American School
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The American School

From the Puritans to the Trump Era

Joel Spring

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eBook - ePub

The American School

From the Puritans to the Trump Era

Joel Spring

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About This Book

This current, comprehensive history of American education is designed to stimulate critical analysis and critical thinking by offering alternative interpretations of each historical period. In his signature straight-forward, concise style, Joel Spring provides a variety of interpretations of American schooling, from conservative to leftist, in order to spark the reader's own critical thinking about history and schools. This tenth edition follows the history of American education from the seventeenth century to the integration into global capitalism of the twenty-first century to the tumultuous current political landscape. In particular, the updates focus on tracing the direct religious links between the colonial Puritans and the current-day Trump administration.

  • Chapters 1 and 2 have been rewritten to take a closer look at religious traditions in American schools, leading up to the educational ideas of the current U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
  • An updated Chapter 15 further links traditional religious fundamentalist ideas and the twentieth century free market arguments of the Chicago school of economists to President Trump's administration and the influence of the Alt-Right.

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Thinking Critically about History

My goal is to provide a variety of ways of viewing educational history as a means of sparking critical thinking about history and schools. Consequently, I provide throughout the text a variety of interpretations of American school history ranging from conservative to leftist. Like historians who weave together the drama of the past, consumers of history have their own political and social opinions that they impose on historical events. Readers should ask themselves about how their personal beliefs determine their interpretations of historical events.
This chapter will discuss:
Interpreting school history: From the right to the left.
Purposes of educational history and its effect on public images and emotions regarding schools.
Themes in American educational history.
Globalization framework.
The effect of cultural and religious differences on schools.
Religious debates in U.S. schools from the colonial era to the present.
Schools and the culture wars.
Schools as managers of public thought.
Racial and ethnic conflict as a theme in school history.
The role in educational history of equality of opportunity and human capital.
Globalization: consumer and environmental education.


Is there a correct interpretation of historical events? A correct and precise historical interpretation is often difficult to arrive at given the wide range of lives and events during any particular time period. For instance, we know that there was an eighteenth-century American Revolution against England which had a profound effect on the development of schools. But why was there a revolution? What did people in the colonies think about the revolution? What were the concerns of European settlers, Native Americans, and enslaved Africans concerning the Revolutionary War? What was the effect of American independence on educational developments? These and a host of other questions are debated among historians with answers often reflecting the political and social opinions of the particular historian.
Many readers of history assume that there is a correct interpretation of history. This attitude is often a reflection of studying a single standardized American history text in elementary and high school. History is often presented to young students within a single interpretative framework with little suggestion of the existence of alternative historical interpretations.
Consider the debate, as I discuss in Chapters 3, 4 and 5, over why public schools were created in the 1830s and 1840s. Historians might agree on dates and personalities involved in historical events, but they might not agree about motives. Were public schools established to ensure that all citizens would be able to protect their political and economic rights? Were public schools established to protect the power of an elite by controlling the economic and political ideas taught to students? Were public schools established to ensure the dominance of Protestant Anglo-American culture over Native American, Irish American, and African American cultures? Were public schools necessary to ensure the education of the whole population? These questions raise issues that are debated in the writing of history. All of these questions have been asked at the creation and expansion of public schools.
Historical debates about schools are reflected in current educational concerns. Today a concern, as it was in the nineteenth century, is about whether schools will end poverty. Many other debates from the nineteenth century are reflected in today’s struggles over educational policy. Should today’s public school curriculum attempt to promote a single national culture or multicultural society? What social and political values should be taught in today’s public schools? Should public schools supplant parental power or should parents be given a wide variety of choices such as home schooling and alternative institutions? Will education strengthen the answer to global economic competition? Should public schools teach values that might be in conflict with home values? What knowledge is most worth teaching? By engaging in an intellectual dialogue about historical interpretations, readers should be able to clarify their opinions about educational institutions and about the relationship of education to other institutions and to social events.


History can serve multiple purposes. It can be read and taught to establish or strengthen a person’s identification with a nation, community, family, ethnic group, religion, or other social group. Or it can serve a moral purpose by condemning or admiring certain historical events. History can be approached analytically, wherein the historian or student tries to discern why historical events took place. And finally, history can serve social and political purposes such as creating loyalty to a government or preparing citizens to actively participate in social change. The history of American schools can serve all of these purposes.1
This book emphasizes an analytical approach with the goal of educating a reader who will have the knowledge to actively participate in improving educational policies. This analytical approach encompasses issues of both identity and moral judgments. Regarding identity, after reading this book, school staff, students, parents, and other citizens should be able to walk through an American school and identify the historical origins of present school practices. Sometimes there is a gasp of recognition on the part of the student of school history, “Oh, that’s why the schools do that!” Consequently, readers who have attended or are working in American schools might find their identity with American schools strengthened. “Whenever we hear that history ‘tells us who we are,’ ” write Keith Barton and Linda Levstik in their study of the variety of reasons for teaching history, “we are dealing with some version of the identification stance.”2 In other words, current conditions can be seen as mirroring past events.
There is also a moral element to an analytical approach that often leaves the reader with mixed feelings about the past. The reader might approve of certain aspects of school history, such as educating the informed voter, providing equality of opportunity in the labor market, improving public health practices, or fighting crime. On the other hand, the reader might find other aspects of school history morally offensive, such as the denial of education to enslaved Africans, the attempt to use education to destroy Native American cultures, the Protestant religious bias of early public schools, or racial segregation.
In other words, the history of American schools will cause mixed emotional responses. It is not just a history of heroines, heroes, and triumphant accomplishments. Yes, there were those who dedicated themselves to schooling the public for the common good. But there were those who believed schooling could serve their own personal or group interests by educating compliant workers and voters, destroying cultures and languages, and perpetuating their own power.
The answers to historical questions have implications for a person’s future choices and actions. The answers shape images and feelings about the past. Many people do not remember the details of history, but they do develop images and emotions about past events. For instance, the attitudes and feelings about public schools of a person who concludes that public schools were established to protect the political and economic rights of citizens will be quite different from the attitudes of a person who concludes that public schools were established to protect the political and economic power of an elite. Or if a person concludes that the establishment of public schools was necessary for the education of all children, then that person’s attitudes regarding privatization of schools will be quite different from those of someone who concludes the opposite.
Thinking about history involves an intellectual consideration of conflicting interpretations, emotions, and images of public schools. For example, at an early age a person might be taught a history that is designed to foster an emotional attachment, in the form of patriotism, to the political and economic organization of the United States. Later in life this person’s emotional feelings about the United States might be challenged if the person reads a critical history.
One’s knowledge, images, and emotions regarding the past have an impact on future actions. Individuals often make decisions based on what they believe to be the historical purposes and goals of an institution. The varieties of interpretations presented in this book provide readers with an opportunity to think about past events in a manner that might influence their future actions. As suggested, these differing interpretations might elicit conflicting feelings of approval, outrage, or disbelief. Readers will probably be supportive of those interpretations that support their own social and political values.


Though this book contains a variety of historical interpretations, it is dominated by what I consider to be important historical themes. Any historian cannot write about all the events and actions of a population in a given 24 hours or in a century. The historical writer must report on those events that they think are important. Therefore, I have selected certain themes that I consider important in the history of schooling. These themes are my interpretative perspective.
Consequently, I have written thematic chapters rather than a purely sequential account. Because many of the chapters are thematic and cover similar periods of time, at various intervals in the book I provide time lines to help the reader understand the sequencing of events. In the remainder of this chapter I will elaborate on the following historical themes.
Globalization: Both the colonization of North America and the development of American schools occurred and continues to occur within the framework of a global society.
A major part of the history of U.S. schools involves conflicts over culture and religion.
Schools are one of many institutions that attempt to manage the distribution of ideas in society. I call this process ideological management.
Educating immigrant populations has been a central concern of American schools.
Racial and ethnic conflict is a central issue in U.S. history and in educational history.
Economic goals are central to the evolution of U.S. schools.
Consumerism and environmental education are pressing issues in the evolution of human society.


The development of American education was part of European imperialism which involved not only the colonization of the Americas but also European expansion into Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world.3 In their quest for control of foreign lands many of these imperial powers attempted to impose their schools, culture, and languages on local populations. Education as a form of cultural imperialism was aided by Christian missionaries who spread European ideas about schooling and culture.
In North American colonies missionaries hoped to use education to convert Native Americans t...

Table of contents