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School, Society, and State: A New Education to Govern Modern America, 1890-1940

reviewed by Susan Studer - August 31, 2012

coverTitle: School, Society, and State: A New Education to Govern Modern America, 1890-1940
Author(s): Tracy L. Steffes
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 0226772098, Pages: 304, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

Just when we believed that everything concerning the history of education has been published and there is nothing new to write about, a pleasant surprise comes along in a new book by Tracy L. Steffes; a book to add to the list of student course text possibilities that will enhance the graduate experience of educational foundations classes. School, Society, & State: A New Education to Govern Modern America, 1890-1940 is one of those supplemental texts.

Schooling, as we know, is not experienced in a vacuum. It exists, forms, and reforms in context with communities, society, politics, world events, etc. This book focuses on those historical happenings and contexts that shaped and continue to shape schooling into the form of what it was then, is today, and will be in the future. The swing of the pendulum is not necessarily a bad thing (Shoup & Studer, 2010); it is the understanding of the complexity involved in the repositioning that allows the change to be for the improvement of the organization. To paraphrase Forrest Gump (from the movie Forest Gump) change happens.

Like many authors of texts on this period, Steffes (who is assistant professor of history and education at Brown University) writes about how schools grew from small locally controlled, individually run organizations in the late 1890s, into larger districts, and finally into state and nationally regulated institutions. This we know from other writers on the history of education. However Steffes takes the discussion further by writing in more detail about the various groups, political and otherwise, and reformers who used schools to gain ground in their campaigns and to motivate change, thereby recasting the history of education, raising new questions about the history of education and period, and shedding new light on American schools and governance. Public schooling, she claims, was the single largest investment of state and local governments throughout the period and reflected a major public commitment overall (pp. 10-11).

In its five chapters, Steffes discusses the historical context of schools that occurred in our nation from the end of the century (1890) to the beginning of a very different era (1940). Beginning in the first chapter, the author discusses the nationalizing influence that primarily urban schools had on the nation, which also influenced the nature and direction of school reform. Reforms of this period were not only for the nationalization of immigrants and uniformity of citizens, but also sought to encourage welfare reform that would include the issues of not only schooling, but juvenile justice; child labor and health; improved health and sanitation; and reforms that would target the problems of poverty, child welfare, and child labor conditions (p. 19). It was not only that what influenced society also influenced the school, the inverse was true: what influenced school influenced society.

While Chapter One focuses on education in urban areas, Chapter Two focuses on school reform in the rural areas that was not keeping pace with their urban counterparts, chronicling the attempts of educators to decrease the growing disparity between urban and rural schools (p. 52).  Reform was implemented in these rural areas by sending experts to infuse the rural school districts with new ideas and methods that would enhance them without diminishing their individuality.

As the country became more industrialized and schooling became more uniform, Steffes discusses in the Chapter Three the move toward state versus local control and the growth in the role of the state in school governance. This period saw compulsory school attendance expansion both before and after World War I, and witnessed governing that instituted rules for the growth and importance of high school in shaping the future of young people. It also saw, for better or worse, the influence that testing played in decisions made in the lives of children.

Chapter Four, Public Interest and Parental Authority in the Compulsory School is an interesting treatise on how schools changed the prior role of parents and the family by forcing school attendance through the inception of school attendance offices and officers that would investigate, evaluate, and enforce school attendance, thus usurping the previous role of authority parents had over the education of their children. It identifies the legal cases that followed and the decisions that further gave schools power over the family. As Steffes writes, attendance enforcement consequently expanded public surveillance of children and household and invited school officials into intimate family decisions about childrens health, welfare, and labor that were once wholly private family matters (p. 121). This transformed the duty of the parent to educate their child, she claims,  into a legal one that the state could enforce and regulate, which it did with increasing vigor over time and was thus a catalyst for redefining parental and individual rights (p. 151). The results were not all negative, however, as it also provided the catalyst for bringing greater opportunity and protection of the students, many of whom would have been abused by parental negligence or working outside the home at a very early age.

The latter part of this era, prior to World War II where the story ends, saw the school emerge as a place for students to receive vocational training, citizenship and social education, and the adaptation of the differentiation of education (right or wrong) for the individual student. Chapter Five concludes the story with the goals of the schools being adapted to train the citizens of the growing industrial nation and also for their individual potential.

Although this book appears to be similar to the other books that chronicle the history and foundations of schools in the United States, it is more along the lines of Laurence Cremins American Education series of the 20th century, adding to the conversation of how schools became what they are today and how they fit in society. Steffes has achieved a scholarly result, discussing in depth those historical events, reforms, reformers, and educators that influenced school while doing it in a way that is readable, interesting, and thought provoking. Her book adds to the story of how schools have advanced over the last century and stimulates the desire for further discussion of the events of the decades that followed where the book ends. This book is recommended for students and professors of education. Although detailed, it is a refreshing addition to the many classic books, such as Cremins, that are available for understanding education in an historical context. Where other books explain where we came from as educators, this book explains why we ended up where we did during key periods of school growth. The result is that it thereby contributes to the conversation both in and outside of the classroom about where and how schools fit in society.


Cremin, L. (1970/1980/1988). American education (3 Vols.). New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Shoup, J., & Studer, S.C. (2010). Leveraging chaos: The mysteries of leadership and policy revealed. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 31, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16860, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 9:13:29 PM

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About the Author
  • Susan Studer
    California Baptist University
    E-mail Author
    SUSAN CLARK STUDER, Ph.D. is professor and research coordinator for the Metcalf School of Education at California Baptist University in Riverside, California. Her areas of interest are the history and foundations of education, leadership, and education theory. Recent books include Leveraging Chaos: The Mysteries of Leadership and Policy Revealed (Rowman & Littlefield) with John Shoup and The Teachers’ Book of Days: Inspirational Passages for Everyday of the Year (Information Age Publishing).
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