Common Schools and the Nationalistic Aims of Public Education in the U.S.

This article is part of a project that critically analyzes the historical and present day purposes of U.S. public education. Related articles focus on the history of Secondary Education, the undemocratic nature of Local Control and the finacialization of education via Impact Investing, Social Impact Bonds and Personalized Learning. The point of this project is to further expose the underlying social control function of U.S. public education and the interests it has consistently served over time, which cannot be extracted from the undemocratic nation-state it was designed – and continually redesigned – to preserve. 


Over the past forty-years federal and state education reform policies intended to marketize, privatize and ultimately financialize the U.S. public education system have spurred significant resistance across the political spectrum. Often galvanized by claims that reform policies undermine public education as a vital institution of U.S. democracy, many liberal and progressive public education advocates call to “save our schools” and return them to their original common good purpose. Within this “good ole days” or “Make America Great Again” narrative, romanticized notions of the Horace Mann Common School movement are often referenced. This origin story is premised on the belief that the current attack on public education is therefore an attack on American freedom and democracy, which implies that the United States was founded to be an egalitarian society, and as such, public education was intended to safeguard the nation’s liberatory aims.

In a 2014 interview with Bill Moyers, education historian Diane Ravitch advanced this tale when expressing her concerns about the future of public education by claiming, “I believe it is one of the foundation stones of our democracy: So an attack on public education is an attack on democracy.” In a 2013 blog posting, Jeff Bryant of the Education Opportunity Network claimed, “the earliest advocates for public schools – Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Horace Mann – all agreed that democratic citizenship was a primary function of education.” In 2016 the National Education Policy Center’s Gene V. Glass rhetorically asked if Horace Mann were alive today, “would he be lobbying Congress or Albany or Sacramento to secure big contracts for some corporation?” Glass answered his own question by affirming, “I think he would be alarmed by what is happening in this country to our public education system.”

Democracy is a slippery concept, particularly within the United States, where democracy serves as a hegemonic pillar of the nation’s intersecting structures of capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism and heteropatriarchy. Of course, it goes without saying that these structures of domination are incompatible with substantive conceptualizations of democracy, in both theory and practice. Those who are compelled to resist 21st century education “reforms” understandably do so because they believe these policies are harming children, families, communities and education workers. Yet, it is also vitally important for those of us who seek substantive social change to critically examine our history so as to not reproduce myths about the origins of universal public education in the United States. Doing so also allows us to disrupt insidious myths about American democracy. In fact, when we take a critical look at the true objectives of Mann’s Common Schools and the “equalizing” and “education for democracy” narratives attached to them, we discover they have more in common with the objectives and rhetoric of today’s corporate education reformers than many would like to admit.

The nationalistic origins of universal public education

In the U.S. and Europe, compulsory mass education was born out of the marriage between nationalism and industrialization with regard to the utility of instilling a common cultural and national identity within the citizenry and workforce of the ever expanding U.S. empire. The American Revolution spawned an ideological creed that affixed human value to Protestant and free-market notions of individual self-sufficiency and individual merit, enacted by patriotic commitments to strive for moral improvement through one’s labor power. In the first decades of the 19th century, this edict, along with the solidification of modern political parties, industrialization, increasing immigration and the expansion of universal white male suffrage led large numbers of industrialists, state legislators, clergy and civic leaders to recognize the utility of a basic education for the white masses. The nation’s founding “minority of the opulent” had already foreseen the necessity of state supported schools for the purpose of building and maintaining their envisioned social order as the nation’s borders expanded and its population increased. These beliefs and concerns would soon culminate into efforts to establish a mass education system that was universal (common), publicly funded, state mandated, standardized and staffed by trained and disciplined teachers.

Within industrialized nations, compulsory mass education serves as an essential instrument in cultivating dutiful citizen subjects who will consent to (or champion) the demands and interests of those in power. Citizenship is therefore attached to duties and expectations relating to the maintenance, success and preservation of the nation-state in both domestic and international affairs. As a principal instrument of nationalism, mass education instills in children, as future citizens, a homogenous national identity and unequivocal loyalty to the nation-state – as an idealized and hallowed homeland – often attached to a transcendental authority. Essentially, it equips embryonic citizen subjects with the skills and worldview that enables them to eagerly participate in, or passively acquiesce, to a nation’s sources of cultural, political and economic power.

In the U.S., a state supported mass educational system was constructed as a means to transform white settler-colonists into citizens (yet restricting suffrage rights of white women) based on the ideological and legal dictates of white supremacy, capitalism, heteropatriarchy and Christian doctrine. To safeguard these undemocratic structures, citizenship in the U.S. was attached to a mythical belief that all citizens are endowed with a legal right of parity of participation in most aspects of political, economic and civic life. Foundationally, this duplicitous project required the construction of a uniform and standardized system of schooling in order to produce a common fidelity to the nationalistic aims of the opulent white elite. Schooling would thus deeply ingrain those aims as cultural scripts, disseminated as unequivocal beliefs and attitudes that are attached to awe inspiring symbols related to the polity. While the U.S. Constitution left education to be a responsibility of individual states, an intention to imbue state supported education with nationalism was clearly transmitted in the writings of the founders in their expansionist Land Ordinances and subsequent land grants, and in some cases through efforts in their home states (see Jefferson).

Instituting this immense top down project presented significant ideological and logistical barriers in the decades following the American Revolution. To begin with, citizen rights in the U.S. – in practice and as an idea – were attached to one’s individual sovereignty and autonomy; as the imperialist project of nation building was chaotically unfolding. The former was soon tempered by the institutionalization of schooling, wielded over subjugated and disenfranchised groups through Protestant orthodoxy. As for the latter, according to Michael Mann, the establishment of the logistical technique of compulsory mass education could only proceed after other infrastructure projects were firmly established, including law and order through state and municipal governments, systems of transportation and communication, commercial activity, cultural and civil life; and basic schooling customs initiated by federally granted lands. Only once these essential logistical techniques of social control by an infrastructurally powerful federal government radiated outward in common cause with state and municipal governments, could influential Protestant social reformers, businessmen and government officials take steps to impose mass public education on the children of poor white citizen subjects.

Revisioning the Common School Movement

Between the 1820s and 1840s, as the federal government waged a genocidal war against Native peoples and the constitutionally protected structure of chattel slavery thrived, social and labor unrest was also prevalent due to growing wealth disparities and social and economic hardship for the naturalized and immigrant white working-class. Wealthy and middle-class Protestants – who associated poverty with moral decay, non-English-speaking and Catholic immigrants as cultural threats and labor solidarity as insurrection – began to unite to save souls and foster social cohesion through the advancement of civic nationalism (a concept that would later be referred to as “democratic citizenship”). Intent on creating a common culture within the republic, many members of this elite class advocated for common schools as an efficient means to provide a “moral education” for future generations of the labor force in order to instill “character, discipline, virtue, and good habits.” Basic literacy skills fit into this plan, yet “analytical ability” and “knowledge of the world” did not. This righteous calling required an autocratic apparatus, one that could pacify and instill loyalty in its subjects while disciplining their minds and controlling their bodies. It also had to be vested in, and capable of, executing social and cultural reproduction. Common schools were set up to become that instrument: a compulsory mass education system with the nationalistic aim of shaping future workers, whether “native or foreign born, rural or urban” into a God fearing, capable and loyal industrial citizenry.

As these efforts were gaining traction in the North and Midwest, the South’s economy was tied to plantation agriculture, chattel slavery and subsistence farming for poor whites. According to Bates, Greif, Levi, Rosenthal & Weingast, during the first half of the 19th century, tensions were intensifying between southern states and the federal government and northern states over trade policy, economic determinism, slavery’s expansion into new territories, states rights and abolitionism. According to education scholar Carl Kaestle, mounting divisions resulted in many southern states establishing a uniform system of schooling separate from mass education movements and motivations in the North. Overall, the South resisted the infusion of mass public education until Reconstruction, when Jim Crow laws constructed intensely segregated public education systems. White supremacy as a fundamental structure of the founders’ social order also guaranteed separate and unequal schooling for Black and Brown children throughout the nation.

The Protestants fueling the mass schooling agenda in the North were often sympathetic to the abolition of slavery and were leaders of the Second Great Awakening, a mass evangelical revival that infused itself into the public arena during the 1830’s. They were typically Anglo-American and were a mixture of businessmen, clergy, philanthropists, professionals and politicians who saw themselves as social reformers, which according to Kaestle, explains how their common views “provided the ideological context for the creation of state school systems” that were “centered on republicanism, Protestantism, and capitalism, three sources of social belief that were intertwined and mutually supporting.” Kaestle goes on to describe the cultural scripts these affluent white men intended to advance through a system of compulsory education:

…the sacredness and fragility of the republican polity (including ideas about individualism, liberty, and virtue); the importance of individual character in fostering social morality; the central role of personal industry in defining rectitude and merit; the delineation of a highly respected but limited domestic role for women; the importance for character building of familial and social environment (within certain racial and ethnic virtues of property; the equality and abundance of economic opportunity in the US; the superiority of American Protestant culture; the grandeur of America’s destiny; and the necessity of a determined public effort to unify America’s polyglot population.

These inspired social reformers, while conceptually clear about what the nation needed, began to look beyond their national borders for a model of mass schooling that would be compatible with their vision of the republic. Unfolding events in Prussia were shaping a national system of education that looked promising to many American social reformers. After Napoleon’s conquest of Prussia in 1806, the Prussian monarchy began to systematically restructure and modernize its military, state and economy along industrial lines. This was all part of a developing nationalist effort to unify long conquered and splintered Germanic states along cultural and economic lines. At the core of this project were major education reforms that synthesized into one of the first compulsory public education systems in the world. In the decades after Prussia helped to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, its highly efficient and standardized industrial education system, staffed by a cadre of disciplined professional teachers, became the model to be replicated by industrializing nations the world over (Mann, Franciosi, Ramirez & Boli).

The Prussian primary education system introduced a free and compulsory graded system of schooling that involved an eight-year course of primary education for both girls and boys, including kindergarten. It mandated a prescribed national curriculum for each grade, which focused on teaching the technical skills – reading, writing, math, science, technology – needed to modernize the Prussian state and economy. It also required national testing to determine students’ vocational aptitudes. Prussian primary schools also provided music (mostly singing) and religious education that were important in transmitting a common culture and national identity with a strict ethos of duty, discipline and temperance. For its teachers, the Prussian state required advanced professional training by specialized private seminaries, state certification and national oversight of instruction through ongoing supervision. The state recognized teaching as a profession, which included a basic salary (Barkin, Franciosi, McEvoy).

Many education innovators in the United States and elsewhere became enamored with Prussia’s primary, secondary and higher education systems. The 1834 publication titled “Report on the State of Public Education in Prussia” further compelled U.S. educators and some state legislatures to replicate the Prussian model.  When constructing its state constitution in 1835, Michigan used the Prussian model to design its primary, secondary and university system. Horace Mann, a Protestant moralist, member of the pro-business Whig Party and a phrenologist (a form of scientific racism), served as a Massachusetts State Senator, the first Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education and in the U.S. House of Representatives. As other American education leaders were doing at the time, Mann traveled to Prussia in 1843 to study its primary education system and its teacher education seminaries (normal schools). With the Prussian emphasis on social cohesion, Mann was particularly interested in how they were using their primary public schools to unify the German people (Franciosi, Gutek).

Upon his return to Massachusetts, Mann was even more determined to attach his elite and pious vision of society to a statewide public education system. Understanding that lasting social reforms must begin with children, Mann took up the mantra “Men are cast-iron, but children are wax,” to advance his “Americanized Prussian model” of schooling. Mann’s lobbying efforts for its adoption in Massachusetts persuaded enough of his political allies in the private sector and the state government to support a statewide compulsory system of public primary schools (or common schools), modeled after the Prussian system. Mann’s efforts led to the enactment of a compulsory primary school attendance law in 1852, which was the first in the nation. Mann’s critics, according to law professor Glenn Reynolds, “accused him of wanting to establish a ‘Prussian-style tyranny’ in the schools, arguing that the Prussian model was based on a presumption that government was wiser than the citizenry, while in America the presumption was the reverse.”

In line with this model, Mann worked to advance more “objective” methods of assessing teaching and learning, which led the state of Massachusetts to adopt formal written standardized tests in place of the traditional, and more subjective, oral exams. In his pursuit of greater efficiency in education, Mann’s tests quantitatively assessed students’ rote knowledge to determine the effectiveness of teaching and learning in the burgeoning state’s public schools. The test results allowed district and state authorities to then monitor and compare teachers and schools, to classify students, to streamline pedagogical practices; and to insure that there was a uniform curriculum that fostered civic nationalism (Feuer, Gallagher). According to assessment and evaluation specialist Ralph Tyler (in Norton):

At a time when…universal education was developed, the testing movement furnished both an ideological and an instrumental basis for the practice of schools and colleges in sorting students rather than educating them… it promoted the simplistic notion that important outcomes of schooling could be adequately appraised by achievement tests…

Mann is most often remembered as a principled education and social reformer who was authentically motivated in all of his roles by well meaning, albeit religious, convictions. According to Mann’s Annual Reports during his first four years as the Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, he generally presented himself as being such a broker. Yet in his Fifth Annual Report in 1841, Mann made a case for how the value of a common school system would largely be based on the economic interests of the Boston business elite. In this report, Mann was explicit about his views of the hegemonic function of schooling:

Finally, in regard to those who possess the largest shares in the stock of worldly goods, could there, in your opinion, be any police so vigilant and effective, for the protection of all the rights of person, property and character, as such a sound and comprehensive education and training as our system of common schools could be made to impart…Would not the payment of a sufficient tax to make such training universal, be the cheapest means of self-protection and insurance?

In 1845 a prominent group of businessmen praised Mann for his achievements by declaring, “You have demonstrated that the arm of industry is served, and the wealth of the country is augmented, in proportion to the diffusion of knowledge, so that each humble schools-house is to be regarded, not only as a nursery of souls, but a mine of riches.” In 1863, an eminent educator named John D. Philbirck reminisced about how Mann’s Fifth Annual Report had “probably done more than all other publications written within the past twenty-five years to convince capitalists of the value of elementary instruction as a means of increasing the value of labor.”

Mann’s standing in the larger Whig Party influenced many of his fellow education reformers to adopt his common school model of primary education (along with normal schools) in their states. Ultimately, the Prussian model and Mann’s common schools went on to serve as a standard by which rural and urban public education systems were organized throughout the nation. This led to a uniform network of public school districts piloted by municipalities, but centrally controlled by state governments, and influenced through federal funds. The model of schooling that Mann and others constructed was intentionally organized within an industrial model of efficiency and standardized in terms of graded classrooms, common curriculum and instruction, methods of assessment (written and multiple choice tests attached to letter grades) and uniform schedules and built environments. Mann’s “Americanized Prussian model” also laid the foundation for formalized teacher education and credentialing across the nation.

At the turn of the 20th century settler-colonialism had triumphed and imperialistic priorities of industrial capitalism were growing within an era steeped in perpetual economic crisis, intense racial inequity and violence, pervasive economic inequality and ongoing gender subjugation. As organized resistance to this social order intensified, the nation’s white political and industrial elite turned their attention to developing even more extensive and efficient mechanisms of social control (“social cohesion”). As part of this, the expansion of the common school model into secondary education was prioritized. Accordingly, universal primary and secondary public education in the 20th century went on to fuel the tenets of nationalism, social efficiency and eugenics; whereby schooling served the function of social reproduction and the perpetuation of cultural scripts that bolster an inherently unequal and deceptively undemocratic American “democracy.”

Stepping back and looking forward

As I have written elsewhere, the political, economic and cultural foundations of the United States have consistently proven over time to have a unique ability to legally pacify, repress, vanquish, enslave, murder and inflict suffering on a massive scale. Due to this, there have been an abundance of collective efforts by marginalized and subjugated groups since the the birth of the nation to transform the core political, legal, economic and cultural institutions of the U.S. to be less barbarous and more equitable, inclusive and participatory. Historically, these efforts have most often leveraged the collective power of social movements as a means to expand recognition rights (protections) and representation (access) by and within institutions of power to ameliorate social, political, legal, cultural and economic conditions.

Most of these efforts have failed, while some resulted in mixed improvements in the quality of life for some, including small segments of populations that are persistently targeted. Ultimately, progress that was made to substantively constrain or disrupt the hegemony of the nation’s core intersecting structures of heteropatriarchy, settler colonialism, white supremacy and capitalism have largely resulted in temporary “parchment barrier” policies. By design, the founders’ governing contract – the U.S. Constitution – and the infrastructural power that operationalizes it are designed to self-correct and bring the founders’ social order back in line when it is diverted from its intended aims.

Yet long considered models of resistance remain critical for protective and emancipatory strivings, including Nancy Fraser’s conceptualization of subaltern counterpublics. According to Fraser, subaltern counterpublics can provide “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs.” In doing so, such arenas allow subordinated groups to co-create strategies to disrupt hegemony, guided by a very different cultural, political and economic vision of society that can inform collective strategies and actions.

Subaltern counterpublics are not ends in and of themselves, yet can be a means for essential transformational processes. They can allow for the reconceptualization of public spheres, to reimagine, experience and establish alternative publics outside of existing state-private domains (such as public education), which are constructed to maintain existing power structures. Congruently, Fraser offers an important conceptualization of democracy, centering on the principle of parity of participation:

This requires social arrangements that permit all (adult) members of society to interact with one another as peers… the distribution of material resources must be such as to ensure participants’ independence and “voice.” This “objective” condition precludes forms and levels of economic dependence and inequality that impede parity of participation… [and] social arrangements that institutionalize deprivation, exploitation, and gross disparities in wealth, income, and leisure time, thereby denying some people the means and opportunities to interact with others as peers… It requires that institutionalized patterns of cultural value express equal respect for all participants and ensure equal opportunity for achieving social esteem… [p]recluded, therefore, are institutionalized value patterns that deny some people the status of full partners in interaction—whether by burdening them with excessive ascribed “difference” or by failing to acknowledge their distinctiveness.

Moreover, for a society to be authentically democratic – as an essential determinant of equity and equality – parity of participation is required to serve as the idiom of public contestation and deliberation whereby status equality and the equitable distribution of wealth can be attained. This would require a nation’s constitutional framework to be derived from the principles of parity of participation, where positive rights (detailed here) as well as equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are indisputable.

Tim Scott is an educator, critical theorist and social worker who has been a community and union activist and organizer for nearly 20 years. This work has involved holding union leadership and staff positions (lead organizer and field rep); anti-racism work; global justice organizing (“anti-globalization movement”) within international networks resisting IMF/World Bank/free-trade/structural adjustment policies; harm reduction advocacy within LGBTQ networks; resisting US/UN Iraq Sanctions; Single-Payer Health Care organizing; anti-war/Counter Military Recruitment work; grass-roots media (radio & publication) and being a public education activist. Read other articles by Tim.