PILLARS OF THE REPUBLIC: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860 by Carl F. Kaestle

PILLARS OF THE REPUBLIC: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860

Email this review


Revisionist historians have charged 19th-century American public schools with being purveyors of capitalist values. Counterculture critics, seconded now by Fundamentalists and other minorities, have denounced today's public schools as agents of a dominant culture. So it has fallen to historians who believe in public education to stake out a new, mediating position. Kaestle, interpreting the founding of the common schools for the American Century series, seems sometimes to be poised on a seesaw: yes, the beliefs of middle-class Protestant public-school crusaders (in hard work, discipline, America-the-beautiful, etc.) ""provided the ideological context for the creation of state school systems""; ""but it is also true that there was substantial agreement across class lines about Protestant native social beliefs and about school reform ideas."" Kaestle does manage, in this fashion, to claim a consensus for decentralization and state regulation and also to allow for pockets of dissent, composed of ""conservative localists"" and ""different groups on different issues."" (Among them, prophetically: Owenite socialists, who opposed the entire system; parents who challenged school discipline; Catholic clergy, who objected to Protestantizing practices; immigrants who sought to preserve their own language and culture; black integrationists--who fought against both white segregationists and black separatists.) Where differences did arise, Kaestle points out, school officials bent--in their bid (""from Horace Mann to the present"") to make public schools as ""uncontroversial"" and ""universally acceptable"" as possible. Otherwise, the book has three major aspects. It provides a factual account of rural schooling (district elementary schools) and urban schooling (common pay schools and charity schools) from 1780 to 1830; it describes the common-schools movement that, beginning c. 1830, brought about the consolidation of districts, public (as against private) administration, state supervision and regulation, professional training, longer school-years and higher budgets; and, in a final section, it discusses regional differences--debunking ""the New England public-school model"" for the Midwest (Midwesterners shared the same culture), distinguishing among individual states in the laggard South. The text has no particular polish or vigor; but as a cautious, undoctrinaire synthesis, it will serve students handily.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Hill & Wang/Farrar, Straus & Giroux