The Purpose of Public School

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

horace mann

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34 thoughts on “The Purpose of Public School

  1. Annalissa, I really enjoyed reading your blog this week! The overall flow of the blog was easy to follow and the points you made were spot on. I find it interesting that we both pointed out how Thomas Jefferson promoted education, but only for men. I’m sure you remember reading this, but he also left out other races other than white; which is unfair. Do you think that Jefferson promoted education just so he could get more votes? I feel this way and touched on it in the blog that I wrote. I talked about Mann and Beecher as well, and they were good promoters of education, but not for some people. Good job on your blog!

    -Megan Coppedge

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    • Megan, first off, thank you! I do agree with you in that Jefferson may have been promoting education in an attempt to increase his votes. As you said in your post, Jefferson benefited from what he was doing, however, he never took authority away from the parents, which I suspect made them like him even more. It was very unfair how his main focus though was on white male children. I do remember reading about this, and I believe that if he had pushed for children of color and girls getting a better education, it would have hurt him in the elections, which could be part of why he did not promote it.

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  2. I’d first like to say your first post was really drawn to your post; It is what I hope to get close to in my blog. With that being said, I find it weird that even though our founding fathers and many people in history want our nation to be an educated nation there isn’t any national requirement for education. I believe even Dana Goldstein even said so in the introduction of her book. This is frustrating because without a universal education requirement, there isn’t a universal education plan. The main issue I’d like to bring up is that not every school takes the same credits or classes as others. This makes it hard for some students who would like to go to certain schools. Their programs, whether or not for the same major or area of study, would need different classes and other prerequisites. Do you think our founding fathers would agree to the system we have now or would you think they would interject with a more unified education system?

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    • Thank you Linh! It is rather ridiculous that after all this time, the right to an education is still not included in the Constitution, especially considering children are required to attend school by law. I agree that it is a problem that not all school have the same courses. One public school to another can be incredibly different! Part of that may have to do with the fact that schools are a state system so what each state feels is important, is what is taught. I think our founding fathers would disagree with our school system. Partly due to them wanting a more unified system, but also because of who all is allowed into school. I do not believe they would approve of the fact that education is available to everyone, rather than just white males.

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  3. I agree that the previous generation uses education to teach us what they deem as being ‘important’. My only issue is that older generations tend to get stuck in teaching things that are, to them, ‘important’ and ‘necessary’. Many of these methods- such as state testing, mock state testing, pre-mock state testing etc.- are no longer useful in todays generation, however they believe that if it worked for them, it will work for the new generation.

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    • Unfortunately, it is a big problem. What was important for the previous generation, is not necessarily as important for ours. Which means we are not learning what all we need, and is apart of today problems. Society has changed so much just between our generation and the last, and the school system really needs to change with it, or students may be unprepared when they leave the school system

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  4. I love how flowy and organized your blog post was! I got a lot out of it. I’m totally up for public education, but what about if at some point in the school day their is a set period of time that a student has the option to pray, or practice their religious beliefs? Although it would arise much controversy, but do you think it would cause discrimination like in the 19th century? Just a random thought I had.

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    • Thank you! I personally believe having a time set for prayer, or another religious practice, would be a wonderful thing. I feel that there would be controversy from parents, especially for those who are not religious. It could be seen as a way of forcing religion on people. But for those who are religious, as long as there was no bias and all religions could practice, I think it would be welcomed.

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  5. Viewing your answer to the compelling question this week was focused on overall morality and intelligence of students within a school system influenced by both Horace Mann and Catherine Beecher. This lead to beliefs that having an educational foundation for men and women would shape us as a unified country. I agree with the general idea that the purpose of public schools is to teach information that has proven to be correct as stated in your blog. Transcending information has never been the overall goal since the early nineteenth century. Mann and Beecher were leaders in our very structured public school system that remains today. At that point in time structure was the ideal way to organize education, reflecting on public schools in society today do you think they would have changed anything?

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    • I do believe that Mann and Beecher would have a lot to say over how todays public education system is run. Considering their views were very different on who should be in school, for how long, and what was taught, I think they would try and change many of those things back to fit what they had believed was important.

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  6. Hi Annalissa,

    I loved your post. It was very well written and organized. I agree that Jefferson had a personal agenda when he was making educational reforms. He also left many of the decisions to the parents. Do you think that was a political move to keep votes in his favor? I remember reading that Beecher believed women could learn to do more than just sew. She also believed that women would actually make better teachers than men especially when it came to teaching other women. Thank you for sharing.
    -Sarah Combs

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    • Thank you! I do agree that Jefferson’s involvement in education reforms may have had to do with keeping the votes in his favor. If you look at the first reply, by Megan, she also commented on her belief that Jefferson did this for political reasons. As you said he did leave many decision to the parents, which I believe also had to do with keeping political favor.

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  7. Nice job on your first blog post! You are one of the brave two who actually chose to post this week. However, I did notice some grammatical errors. Don’t mind me, I just have a pet peeve about gammer (even though I am dyslexic and probably make ten times the mistakes anyone else makes). The first issue I saw was a matter of tense. Your post lacked a constant tense in some sentences ( ex: is vs. was) and keeping past or present separated/organized. The second thing I noticed was that there were a few missing camas here and there. This is not a biggy, but when they were left out, the sentence became a little wordy and it made it difficult to understand/read. But your content was phenomenal! I loved all of the points you made and agreed with everything you said. I do, however, wish that school wasn’t just past generations deeming what is worth learning. And, to jump from what you said in the beginning of your blog, I think the leaders of the new free world wanted people to only learn the bible and be able to vote, to keep them stupid. I feel that since they limited education so greatly, they wanted limit the people’s rights. If they were unaware or uneducated, they could not rise against the authority. Do you agree? Or disagree? and why?

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    • Thank you!! And I am glad you pointed our my grammatical errors. Keeping words in the same tense when I write is one of my biggest struggles and I may not have noticed those mistakes. I will defiantly work on that for my next one! I honestly had not thought about the education system being used to only learn the bible and other basic knowledge, as a way to keep people stupid, as you said. However, now that I think about it, I agree with you. I think by keeping people informed, but only to a certain point, would keep things in favor for the politicians. If people were less aware they would be unable to argue or fight the government. Thank you for pointing out that possibility!

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  8. Hi. I love how you addressed this week’s question of What is the purpose of public schools? by giving a brief but amazing summary of what public leaders thought school was supposed to be. I have added a link to an article that is written by Doug Tuthill about changing the way we define “public education”. He address the same thought I had as I searched for a term for public school and all online dictionaries stated that public schools were schools that were funded by the public and talks about how this is an incorrect definiton. Mr. Tuthill’s article is very similar to your blog in laying out the history of how school had been defined through the ages. However he hits different areas in history which are a great add on to the points you have made. He ends with “If history is any guide, this redefinition will be one of many over the next 300 years.” which to me is incredibly true. As we grow so does everything around us and we should adjust accordingly

    https://www.redefinedonline.org/2012/12/a-better-way-to-define-public-education/

    Crystal Phariss

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    • Thank you. After reading Tuthill’s blog I do agree with that being a definition for public school. But I believe that there are many ways to define it, and no single definition may work. I do really like where Tuthill talks about how school transformed to a “one size fits all” form of education, to a learning environment that is more “customized” to fit each child’s needs, which is a very important part of education today. Thank you for sharing that blog!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Annalissa,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your post and got a lot out of it! Seeing as this is our first week of posts you set a great example for how we should be writing these! That being said there were a lot of thought provoking points you addressed in your blog. One that particularly stood out to me was the point you addressed in regards to the original formation of the public school and its purpose being religious teachings. What’s so interesting to me to think about is the kind of ‘swap’ America has had as to what is appropriate and what is not. What I mean by that was when the public schools were originally formed many races were excluded and in some cases not even allowed to attend; meaning race was the problem. In today’s world, religion is become an increasingly sensitive issue and at some schools students aren’t even allowed to say “Christmas” because it has the word “Christ” in it. So, the major ‘swap’ being that discrimination by race was okay then and is completely forbidden now as well as the entire premise of schools being religion then and it is now something that cannot really even be discussed in schools. It’s just an interesting thing to think about. Obviously, discrimination in any facet is heinous; but, I wonder why religion is now such a heated topic?

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    • Thank you, to be honest I was rather nervous writing this blog without having seen other examples. I agree that it is very interesting how society has done a very big swap in the school system. As you said discrimination is a horrible thing, but before discrimination was mostly based on the races. Now days discrimination includes gender, race, as well as religion. I think this is why religion has become so sensitive in schools. You mentioned that some schools cannot say Christmas because it has the word Christ in it and is a christian holiday. But many classrooms have in the past put up mini christmas trees or decorations that are connected to that holiday. I think some can see this as a form of discrimination, that the christian holiday is being put above other religious holidays. And discrimination is such a big thing that people are trying to get rid of any form of it and I believe this includes religions.

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  10. Great job! Your post was very well written and I enjoyed reading it. Isn’t it crazy how long it took for education to become an important thing in our society? I like how you talked about how people like Jefferson saw education, seeing as educating kids to vote right for the most part. While Jefferson was trying to get education reform, I believe it was just to get himself votes. Also, the fact that women weren’t included in it is astounding. It took Beecher coming out years down the road to get women even thought of to be in the education field. That is just crazy to me. I also like that you said the purpose of education is teaching what previous generations think is relevant. We surely do not learn the same things in high school today that were taught in high school back in the 50’s. (I’ve seen school work my grandparents had to do, it was totally different) Great first post!

    –Sean Beach

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. Several other people have commented on the idea that Jefferson invested in the education reforms, for the purpose of getting more votes, which I believe to be a very good possibility.It was very astounding that women were not allowed to have as much schooling an men, but they were granted three years of education. I also find it shocking that people of color were not at all included in his ideas. Educating people of color was practically illegal in some places and it took even longer before they were allowed to attend school, which was just ridiculous.

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  11. I like your point about the purpose being mainly intelligence more so than morality. I think that is very true and I never thought about it in that aspect. Now that you mention that, it makes think a lot more. The school system that we use today is one we adopted from Mann called age grading. This was mostly discussed in “Education of the Masses”. Reading your post put some things into perspective for me and why the school system is set up this way. I believe that it was set up like this on purpose so that in your early years you are taught more about morality and as you grow and mature into an adult you focus on intelligence. You mentioned that children were being conformed through the school system having to shake their roots and learn that of the American. I think that actually still happens today. I see a lot of foreigners move to America from all over the place and instead of embracing their culture they tend to conform to American customs. I wonder, if that is done subconsciously due to the history behind it? Very great post! Also, love the organization of your blog very neat and colorful!

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    • I agree with you on the thought that the education system is set up the way it is so that students learn more about morality as their younger and the focus of their education changes to intelligence as they get older. While writing about children conforming to the American culture, I hadn’t really though about how that practice was still affecting us today. I think you may be right in that it has to do with the fact that we did that for a long time, and are still doing it, even if we don’t realize it. And thank you, I’m glad you liked it!

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  12. Annalissa,

    I do agree that in today’s educational system the main priority is to improve our student’s intellectual ability, but I sense that there is still a bit of limitation to what the board of education wants our students to learn. For example, freshly graduated high school students complain that they know absolutely nothing about paying one’s taxes or balancing a checkbook. I do agree that one should be able to excel in reading in writing but in this day and age, learning the essentials of being a successful everyday independent American should also be taught right along with math, science and history. I cannot help but wonder why this issue has yet to be evaluated by our school board. Although, judging by what Dana Goldstein quoted from Dr. E. Schlee in her book, The Teacher wars (page 43), “…too many American teachers relied solely on rote lessons from textbooks”, which was said in the late 1800s, and comparing it to the written (at times mandatory) curriculum that the board of education gives to our teachers suggests that we haven’t progressed much with the way we teach students within the past two hundred years. In order to progress forward, teachers must be advocates for themselves in the what and how they teach their students because they are the ones that are “down on the floor” working and learning with the leaders of tomorrow.

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    • Thats very true. I remember graduating from high school and having no idea how to write a check or pay a bill. Even though we are taught what the previous generation deems as important, it is a problem that we are not learning some very essential skills needed to be successful. Those things could be taught by teachers without the prompting from the curriculum, but its so important that it really should be included in the average education. Thank you for bringing up that point.

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  13. Great post! Thomas Jefferson on the one hand wanted everyone to learn in their own way & didn’t want to take educator’s rights away (Brackemyre 1). He just wanted everyone to be able to pass national tests (Brackemyre 1). However, on the other hand, he wanted a national public education system (Brackemyre 1) which would imply that he would be infringing on the very rights he wanted to preserve. I find it very interesting that he would say one thing but push for the opposite; maybe he didn’t realize what he was doing, maybe he changed his mind, or maybe he had hidden agenda. I wonder what he would think of the Common Core.

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    • Jeffersons actions did seem to be rather confusing, with him doing and saying different things. And it is hard to say why he did it, but I feel, as you said, it may have to do with a hidden agenda. Several people have commented that it may have to do with him trying to win political favor. By saying he wants to help, but not taking any authority away, he was most likely able to win more votes.

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  14. Hi Annalissa! I’m sure you will be getting several comments this week since there were only a few who blogged but I think your post was spot on. I totally agree with your closing statement that education evolves as our generations evolve. Public Education, to me, is much more than just teaching what seems to be important at that time. Horace Mann saw the purpose of education as some sort of “social unity” to bring people together. I see education like this, a diverse world to dive into that shapes our futures. We learn so much from public education that most people don’t really think about. Not just the basic math, science, history, but we gain social and life skills. You did a great job organizing your post and I really look forward to reading your future blogs!
    – Darci

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    • Thank you, and yes I have gotten quite a few comments but I am enjoying getting all of the feed back. I really like your perspective of public education. We truly do learn a lot of our life and social skills while in school, which helps make us who we are. Thank you for sharing that!

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  15. Annalissa,
    Great blog post!! Lots of great information shared. Loved reflecting back on this from the end of the semester to the first week! It was a great refresher! I love how you focused on the morality from Horce Mann and Beecher. I am a sucker for public school as it being free for all children and gives each and everyone equal opportunities to be successful academically. Jefferson had a good ideas in order to establish a decentralized school system. He has created the lasting impression on our school systems today. Jefferson was so strong will for demanding that man accept the change that was taking place during his plan for public education. Do you think that Jefferson would be an individual or embedding life skills/daily skills into school life? I think many do take public school for granteed because our era has never lived without public schools. Have you every thought what our world would be like without it? There would be no progress in our world.

    Madison Frazier

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I really enjoyed your blog post! You highlight a lot of points on why the public schools were made and how they have transformed from public to private. You mention that public schools are now used as a tool to teach what the past people feel they should know. Although public schools do preach what the past generation wants, public schools are also for moving forward. The idea of families wanting their children to be more Americanized than what British culture used to teach them, is a good example of how our schools are moving forward. The different stories that Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann used to tell, was to allow the public school system to improve and learn from past mistakes. We teach history to inform our students about the past mistakes and how people overcame them. This is exactly what public schools reach for today, but they also teach students to look towards the future as well.

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  17. Hi Annalissa, I enjoyed your blog and saw a lot of key points made. I think a great way to look at the past of public school and what purpose it serves it to start at the very beginning. I think Goldstein said it best in the beginning when she said “Public school teaching had become the most controversial profession in America.” There were different types of people who wanted different things but how to do figure out what the RIGHT thing to do is? Jefferson claims to be for educations but only supported men? His ideas were made with a closed mind and heart as he did not consider the multiculturalization of education. Beecher stood up for women’s rights as a teacher but she also was for the religiousness in public school. All these thoughts and opinions of early people are what led to education being what it is today. I believe what all these people meant with good intentions of having a public school to educate equally and freely.

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  18. Hi Annalissa, what a wonderful blog post, very thorough. I agree with you that schools have fallen into a rut of just teaching what has previously been taught. Things have adjusted slightly to the times, but basic concepts have remained essentially the same. I found it interesting when you pointed out the link to education and elitism. This rings true today with private schools and Ivy League educations. Funding within school systems can greatly affect the resources available and the quality of education received. One progression you pointed out was the inclusion of women in the education plan. Women couldn’t vote or hold prestigious positions within the community, so why include them? Many decisions made concerning progression were politically motivated. This was a great read at the end of the semester and provided a great break down of what we learned.

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  19. Annalissa, I really enjoyed reading your blog post again, and it was a nice refresher to the content from the common schools movement. Your post was full of dense information presented in an interesting way. I like how your brought up the idea of parents sending their children to school to help them become more Americanized. I think this is an aspect of the first schools that I never really considered, but is so true. With the gain of independence from Great Britain, so many families had to relearn their way of life. They had to learn how to survive without British help, and how to stand on their own. Having their children go to school and learn about all the hardship they went through to get to where they are probably helped this kids have a sense of pride in being an American, something that we need more of in today’s society. Thanks for presenting this new aspect to the discussion!

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  20. Hi Annalissa,
    I really enjoyed reading your blog post. I think you did a good job covering key points from that week. I really like that you said education changes as our generations change. I think that is very important because every generation has new tools available to help individuals learn as well as new ideas on the public school system. If we do not allow schools and education to change as time goes on we will not be able to provide the best education for our students.

    Liked by 1 person

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