The Public Schools in American Democracy

This was a talk John Lounsbury gave locally in 1965 during American Education Week.

My purpose here this evening is not to recruit teachers, though we all know they are sorely needed. Nor is my purpose to alarm you with statistics concerning the hundreds of thousands of overcrowded classrooms now operating. These are certainly pressing problems. Bob Hope thought so when he remarked, “when a classroom gets so crowded that a kid has to elbow his way around and deliver spitballs by hand, it’s time something was done.” These and related education problems do demand solutions, but, I believe, before they can be fully solved, the people of this country – the rank and file of the people, not just the leaders – have to recognize the place and purpose of the American public school system and come to appreciate fully their responsibilities toward it. For this reason, I would like for you to think with me for a few minutes about our schools and their role in our society. When all of the people come to understand the significance of the public school and their clear responsibilities for its welfare, the acute problems of overcrowded classrooms and teacher shortages will systematically, in time. be resolved.

What I have to say is not new. I would hope that all of you would have heard it before. My thesis, however, bears repetition. In this still young country we now possess what is the oldest public school system in the world. Its beginnings go back to the very first days of settlement on these shores more than 300 years ago. Never before in recorded history had a people so much as dreamed of a universal system of public education, much less worked sacrificially to make it a reality. The development of public schools that are open to all regardless of wealth or innate ability was and still is, unique. Our common schools, as they were called earlier, is anything but common. Public education or more accurately, the development of public education systems in every state, is America’s most distinctive and notable characteristic. In future centuries when historians look back and evaluate our nation, I feel sure that they will say about the development of our public schools, “This was America’s greatest gift to civilization.”

Even a cursory survey of our history will quickly reveal that public education was deeply anchored in our heritage. You have heard, some where and some time, I hope, some of the famous statements on education made by Washington and Jefferson. Almost every prominent leader in colonial America expressed a belief in education. They all saw education as a prerequisite to the successful operation of our new society. “Democracy could not work without an enlightened electorate,” was the way historian Henry Steele Commager put it.

Politics, precedents, tradition, and adverse circumstances, however, clouded this grand vision almost to the point of obscurity at times. The battle to achieve free, non-sectarian, publicly supported, co-educational schools was, therefore, a hard and long one. It was not won on a single front at a single moment, yet there is no denying the fact that the roots of our school system go back to Washington’s plea to promote institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge, Jefferson’s call for an educated citizenry to hold the powers of government, and the vision of men like Benjamin Rush and Noah Webster.

The faith of the American people in education has been phenomenal. Alexis de Tocqueville, that famous French visitor, was greatly impressed by it, for way back in 1831 he remarked that, “the universal and sincere faith that they profess here in the efficaciousness of education seems to me one of the most remarkable features of America.” Commager, termed education “the American Religion” and declared in a very quotable quote, “No other people ever demanded so much of education as have the Americans. None other was ever served so well by its schools and educators.”

This early faith continued. The vast array of schools scattered throughout our land are tangible symbols of the faith we as people have held in education. Not uncommonly our school buildings are the finest structures in the community? Why this faith? Is it blind? Why the compulsory attendance laws? Why the taxes? Is it simply because our wealth permits such a luxury as education? Because in our abundance we can do without the labor of youth? While these motives may not be wholly false, the real answer lies in some intangibles of faith and concepts of human personality all tied up in our democratic way of life. Full education of the masses is imperative in a democratic society! Let me say it again in other words for clarity. We, as a people, have believed in and supported public education because it has been recognized that our chosen way of life requires for its successful operation the intelligent participation of all in our social, civic. and political affairs. Democracy cannot long survive without the widespread employment of human intelligence. And the quality of this mass education and the effectiveness decision –making process of individuals depends upon the quality of the public schools. History has largely justified our faith in education. Our public school system equipped our parents and grandparents for citizenship creating unity out of our diversity Americanizing thousands upon thousands of immigrant citizens.

Throughout the history of our country one thing has been clear, the public schools of America are “of the people.” This brings me to my last point. Good schools are your responsibility. This incidentally is the theme of American Education Week this year.

The public school is a local institution. It belongs to its citizens. Our schools do not belong to those of us who call ourselves professional educators, they belong to you! And each of you has a responsibility to make your influence and support felt in the schools of your community. Our public schools collectively have become a tremendously large and complex enterprise which involves almost a fourth of our population. These public schools emerged from the people – lay people, not professional educators.

Paradoxically, despite this great faith in education, the public generally, I believe, has fallen down in recent years in its active participation. Folks have seemed willing to pay the bills through taxation but go no further. At least most Americans are willing to pay the bills. There are some, it is true, who think that the financing of public education is somebody else’s responsibility. These people remind me of an elderly man, who was charged by his wife with non-support. The domestic relations court judge listened intently to all the evidence. Then he turned to the defendant and said, “you haven’t taken proper care of this good woman and I’m going to award her $25 a month.” The old man beamed with pleasure. “That’s mighty nice of you, your honor,” he said, “and I’ll kick in a dollar or two from time to time myself.”

Most of us are aware of our own responsibilities to the public schools for financial support. But more than money is needed to carry out an optimum school program and this is where we often have fallen short. I would hope that you would keep in mind this basic idea. Public educators want and need your support, expressed in awareness, interest, visitation, and participation. Those who want good schools for their children can have them. The cost is continuing interest and involvement in the school program based on a real understanding of the aims of public education. They are your schools. It’s your money. See that is spent wisely.

I would like to close with a few very apt thoughts expressed in 1933 by Jessie Gray, who was then president of the National Education Association. They were written in a time of crisis, the great depression. Today is another period of crisis these words seem most fitting.. Though perhaps seeming rather quaint and out of date the clarion call issued is still, I believe, most timely and very much in order.

The common school is the house of the people. Let all the people gather as of old in the neighborhood school. Let them renew their faith in themselves, and in their children. Let them discuss their problems and determine how their schools may be made better. Let them return to the house of the people and know that through this, their own house, they may again bring order and promise and hope to the Republic.

John Lounsbury was a long-time middle grades educator and advocate for young adolescents.