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Democracy's Schools

, 256 pages

9 halftones

June 2017



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Democracy's Schools

The Rise of Public Education in America



At a time when Americans are debating the future of public education, Johann N. Neem tells the inspiring story of how and why Americans built a robust public school system in the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War. It’s a story in which ordinary people in towns across the country worked together to form districts and build schoolhouses and reformers sought to expand tax support and give every child a liberal education. By the time of the Civil War, most northern states had made common schools free, and many southern states were heading in the same direction. Americans made schooling a public good.

Yet back then, like today, Americans disagreed over the kind of education needed, who should pay for it, and how schools should be governed. Neem explores the history and meaning of these disagreements. As Americans debated, teachers and students went about the daily work of teaching and learning. Neem takes us into the classrooms of yore so that we may experience public schools from the perspective of the people whose daily lives were most affected by them.

Ultimately, Neem concludes, public schools encouraged a diverse people to see themselves as one nation. By studying the origins of America’s public schools, Neem urges us to focus on the defining features of democratic education: promoting equality, nurturing human beings, preparing citizens, and fostering civic solidarity.

Johann N. Neem is a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and a professor of history at Western Washington University. He is the author of Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts.

"Beautifully written, clearly organized, and deeply grounded in a nice mix of primary and secondary sources, Democracy's Schools is the best short introduction to antebellum public education that I've ever read. It is also hugely relevant to ongoing questions about liberal arts and democracy."

"In this compact and ambitious interpretive history, Neem does a masterful job of laying out the many, frequently conflicting, values and ideas that make the public school such a dynamic and essential democratic institution."

"In this outstanding study, bursting with fresh insights, Johann Neem balances critical assessments of common school reformers’ vision of American education against a sympathetic understanding of their aspiration to provide all Americans the tools necessary for 'self-culture,' an ambitious ideal of a fulfilling life. Democracy’s Schools shows how these tensions shaped antebellum American politics and social life as well as education, and why struggles between a shared national vision and distinctive local institutions remain at the heart of debates about education in a pluralist democracy."

"The book provides a compelling account of how Horace Mann, Reverend William Ellery Channing, Catharine Beecher, and other antebellum advocates of the United States’s common schools brought what amounts to a liberal arts education to the nation’s children. In the face of widespread cynicism about public education, Neem reminds us that public schools can liberate children’s minds from prejudice or vocational preoccupations."

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