I recently read Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America by Johann Neem, which in its title delivers the bedrock myth of public schooling: that it is essential to building harmonious, well‐informed, citizens of a democracy. And it’s not just in the title that Neem waxes poetic about the public schools. In his preface he briefly recounts his experience as an immigrant child in Bay Area, California public schools, concluding that “by democratizing access to the kind of liberal arts education that was once reserved for the few, the common schools prepare all young people to take part in the shared life of our democracy.” Neem echoes the rhetoric of Horace Mann, the “father of the common school,” who in the 1830s and 40s brought a missionary zeal to promoting largely uniform, free public schools in Massachusetts.
The problem is that once you delve into the reality of public schooling, it does not at all match the rhetoric. To the credit of Neem and many other historians, they do not duck the reality, even if they seem to ultimately let the rhetoric get the better of them. Neem’s book is focused on pre‐Civil War education, so he may have a different view of later public schooling, but towards the end of the book he offers a sober take on the reality of common schooling: