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Democracy's Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America

reviewed by Brian Gibbs - April 06, 2018

coverTitle: Democracy's Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America
Author(s): Johann N. Neem
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 1421423219, Pages: 256, Year: 2017
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Reading Johann N. Neems Democracys Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America reminded me once again why I love and why we need education history, perhaps now more than ever. Neems book is not only a story well told with rich detail and excellent rhythm; it also presents the narrative of education history as it always has been: a struggle being pushed and pulled on by educators, activists, politicians, world events, and the economy. Democracys Schools reminded me that the battles still raging today about what and how to teach, what makes a good teacher, and how teachers should be educated have been burning issues long before the present day.

The book is structured quite effectively. Rather than a chronology that doles out information and stories as the book marches on, the text is divided into sections based on a theme, which allows issues and a cast of characters, scoundrels and saviors alike, to appear and reappear in different parts of the text. Rather than a section along the lines of heres everything you need to know about Horace Mann but were afraid to ask, Mann appears in different parts of the text commenting on what and how schools should teach as well as over the course of his development of what Bill Reese (2013) refers to as the first big test. This thematic approach reminded me of David Labarees Someone Has to Fail: The Zero Sum Game of Public Schooling (2009), which had a similar effect, allowing the reader to examine historical actors and events multiple ways and multiple times in one text. It affords the reader time to think, ponder, and sift a bit as they continue reading. Horace Mann in particular is seen in this way, emphasizing the complexity of the roles he played: advocate for the common school, supporter of democratic educational practices, and scourge of the public school teacher and principal.

The themes around which the book is constructed include: Citizenship and Self Care; Democratic Education; Politics of Education; Teachers and Students; and finally, Containing Multitudes. This structure allowed Neem to do two things well, which are often tricky in the telling of history. First, it provided an opportunity to include depth and detail in order to tell very intricate stories, while also painting in broad strokes to describe the growth of public education over time. Too often, I find, historical narrative either dives deep and gets specific, losing the larger context, or provides the broader story while losing the detail and nuance of the historical actors and events. Neem presented me with a cast of characters I had never heard of, but contextualized them within the history of how our public schools were made, mostly by people we have never heard of doing incredibly difficult and complex things. For example, lesser known figures like Edward Tiffin (1804 governor of Ohio), William Ellery Channing, and Caleb Bingham play roles in this narrative as do more well-known figures such as Johann Pestalozzi and the educators who brought him to America, William Holmes McGuffey and Orestes Bronson.

The inclusion of McGuffey and Bronson in Neems text was particularly compelling. McGuffey, who takes up quite a few pages of Democracys Schools, is described with nuance, clarity, and specificity rarely given him. As a proud graduate myself of Miami Universitys (Ohio) McGuffey School of Education, I thought I knew all there was to know about the moralist and writer of the McGuffey Reader, but I was wrong. Interesting details about his teaching and leadership posts are included as Neem places him within not only the context of the times but of the history that came after him. My anemic assumption of McGuffey was that he wanted students to read and memorize the content he provided in his readers. I was interested to learn that his intention was to encourage conversation and deliberation (p. 44). A seemingly small detail, this lens took McGuffey out of the model of sit quietly and memorize moralism and moved him into the growing movement of democratic dialogue and discussion. Similarly, I had a previous fascination with Orestes Brownson and some of his early writings on education but had largely allowed him to fall into the recesses of my memory. Neem brought him back as well and connected him to the ongoing conflicts of his time around religion and power in schools. For Brownson, education is more than the mere ability to read, write, and cipher. Rather, he argued that school is the space for students to decide how to fulfill their destiny (p. 78) or find their place in the world. Brownson, ever the believer in the free spirit of humans, also argued that the emerging school boards with their power to decide curriculum, pedagogy, and teacher training were more suited to despotic Prussia (p. 78) than democratic America.

In the second to last chapter, which consists of a robust discussion that revisits and analyzes the themes and arguments raised in the text, Neems language and nuance becomes quite poetic. Beginning with a quote from Walt Whitmans Song of Myself that begins, of every hue and caste am I, every rank and religion, and ends, I resist any thing better than my own diversity, the chapter is titled Containing Multitudes. This chapter explores the larger, complicating context of the public school narrative and begins with a more in-depth and defined discussion of the Common School as Mann had envisioned it and as it evolved. One chapter subheading caught my attention more than any of the others: A Violent World. Much as good history is supposed to, the subtitle propelled me to compare the historical narrative to the present. The section describes the anti-religious and racial tensions which were simmering and exploding throughout the country at this time, anti-Catholic and anti-black riots resulting in the burning of schools, the killing of individuals and the driving of groups from particular geographies. It is a difficult chapter with beautiful language that evoked images from history and prompted reflections upon our country today.

All told, Johann N. Neems text Democracys Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America has much to offer both graduate and undergraduate students, as well as practitioners interested in learning more about the foundations of public schools in America. I found it a delightful read, I learned much, and I was pushed in my thinking, all of which, in my estimation, is about as much as one can expect from a book. I also, unusually, found myself fully agreeing with the prominent scholars who scribed advanced praise on the back of the book: fresh insights as Dr. Kloppenberg indicates, and beautifully written, well organized& the best short introduction to the antebellum public education Ive ever read, as Jonathan Zimmerman writes. I plan to read this book again and I plan to use it. Though it would work well as a text in many undergraduate courses and as a supplemental text in graduate courses on the history of public schools in the antebellum period, I plan to use it in courses on education leadership, policy, and teacher education to help students better understand the origins of the systems in which we are currently enmeshed and which we are struggling to improve.


Labaree, D. (2010) Someone has to fail: The zero sum game of schooling. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Reese, B. (2013). Testing wars in the public schools: The first big test. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 06, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22325, Date Accessed: 10/28/2021 4:29:41 AM

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