Since it’s beginning, public school has been used as a tool to teach children what the previous generation feels is important. During colonial America the first schools were created as a way to teach children how they could read and write, but for religious reasons. It was believed every person should be able to read the Bible, so that is what was taught, and nothing more. It did not last for long, however. The Puritans quickly moved it towards being a way to form an elite class of future leaders, and children from rural communities received less of an education (Brackemyre 1).
After the Revolutionary war, new ideas for what public school should be used for emerged. Thomas Jefferson became a huge advocate for the education system and constantly pushed for educational reforms. He believed children needed a good education, “so that they could be well informed and vote accordingly” (Brackemyre 1). However, Jefferson did not believe women were meant for this. He believed they should only be given three years of education in order to prepare them for marriage (School: The Story of American Public Education 2/6). Although Jefferson was met with opposition, other leaders agreed with him. Both James Madison and Dr. Benjamin Rush pushed for a more centralized public school system over the elite schools (Brackemyre 1).
During this time parents and leaders also used public school as a way to encourage and transform children into being more American, after leaving their British roots. In school, children would learn about America from the Blue Back Speller created by Noah Webster. It became known as the “American textbook” and eventually led to the Webster’s Dictionary. The textbook was also used as a way to move towards more American spellings and pronunciations of British words (School: The Story of American Public Education 2/6).
The next big change did not start until the nineteenth century, with what was called the Common School Period. Because children from the upper and middle classes had previously been separated, public school during the early and mid 1800’s was used as a way to put children from both classes together and to help them form a bond (Brackemyre 1).
Throughout the Common School Period the public education system also went through a feminism movement. Catherine Beecher and Horace Mann were significant leaders in this movement (Goldstein 15). Mann accomplished much during his work to make the profession better for teachers and for improving schools. He believed, “that public education would turn America’s children into responsible and civically minded citizens” (Brackemyre 1). Beecher’s focus was more on female students, and she believed girls could learn more than just the typical education the older generation thought was useful. In the past they had only been permitted to learn how to sew, to be a good religious woman, and other such things that would help her to be a good wife and mother. Beecher believed girls were capable of learning the same subjects as boys, such as languages and mathematics, so she created a school where that was possible (Goldstein 17-19).
Despite this belief in the importance of leaning languages, mathematics, and sciences, Beecher and Mann did not put a lot of focus on the academics when planning curriculum. They, along with politicians and other leaders, focused more on what was needed for the younger generation to become successful voters and workers. The student’s morality was thought to be of higher importance than an academic education, and influenced their studies (Goldstein 27-28).
Since then these ideas have changed. Although morality is not considered unimportant, the main focus of education is intelligence. Students are taught based off what has been proven to be useful for the last generation, which means the specific topics taught are constantly changing. This is the purpose of public education. To be used by the previous generation, in order to teach students what is believed to be of importance.
Brackemyre, Ted. “Education to the Masses.” US History Scene. 11 Apr. 2015. Web. 30 Aug. 2015. Accessed at: http://ushistoryscene.com/article/rise-of-public-education/
Goldstein, Dana. The Teacher Wars. New York: Doubleday, 2014. Print.
School: The Story of American Public Education. Online Video clip. YouTube. 5 October 2011. Web. 31 August 2015