This assemblage of minibiographies and state histories argues that academics have overlooked the crucial part Yankee Protestants played in bringing America’s public school system to life.
First-time author Hagedorn’s thesis is that a socialistic academic cadre has mischaracterized the roots of American public education, attributing its start to “the struggle for power between capitalists and workers” rather than what he sees as the real drivers of the movement: Protestant Yankee reformers, the spiritual and often direct descendants of New England Puritans. To back up his argument, Hagedorn writes brief biographies of 18th- and 19th-century leaders in public education, ranging from the well-known (Horace Mann) to the obscure (Manasseh Cutler). In his view, historians have overemphasized the roles of leaders like Mann, a Unitarian, largely ignoring the parts that more evangelical Presbyterians and Congregationalists played. State by state, reformer by reformer, Hagedorn shows that places settled mainly by Yankees adopted public education more quickly than those settled by descendants of slave-owning Southerners and independent Appalachian Scotch-Irish, who were more wary of government. Political correctness in modern academia has led to “reverse discrimination,” Hagedorn says, not only against historical figures in education, but against modern evangelists, whom he says should have more representation on college faculties. Well-researched and -written, the book is apparently aimed at a general readership, but it could better present the big picture of the genesis of America’s public schools as well as some of the minutiae. For instance, Hagedorn mentions lyceums without really showing what they were. Despite some troubling advocacy for what seems to be a quota system for evangelists in mainstream universities, Hagedorn offers a refreshing critique of academic groupthink couched in “quite opaque” language. But he also makes some big assumptions, such as claiming that a majority of early Americans “favored government support for religion”—a claim as debatable then as now. His argument isn’t helped by the loaded language he sometimes uses, as when he calls his educational reformers “zealots.”
A narrow history of American public schools that challenges conventional wisdom and should appeal to evangelical conservatives and even some skeptics.