Schools for America

WWU’s Johann Neem reminds us that building schools —and arguing about them—builds our democracy
Johann N. Neem

Johann N. Neem's community lecture, "Why Do We Have Public Schools?" at Bellingham City Hall, part of the CHSS Dean's Lecture Series.

"It’s hard to exaggerate the faith that many of our nation’s founders placed in education—and their fear that an ignorant citizenry would be easy prey for would-be tyrants."

WWU History Professor Johann Neem believes that in order to strengthen public education we must remember its roots.

“Today our public discussions of education are almost entirely about economic benefits—or ‘college and career readiness,’ in the words of the Common Core State Standards,” Neem says.

But public school pioneers were interested in more than graduates’ earning potential, Neem says. America’s public schools were also meant to develop the capabilities of citizens, to promote the development of human beings and to bring together a diverse society.

In his 2017 book, “Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America,” published by Johns Hopkins University Press, Neem explores the growth of the nation’s public school systems—and how they helped build our democracy.

We asked Neem why the history of public education is a story we need to hear today.

Who’s your audience for this book—besides, perhaps, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos?

This book was started well before DeVos became Education Secretary. It’s not just about her. President Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in 2012, “our president knows education is about jobs.” There’s nothing wrong with expecting schools to prepare young people for work, but I believe that we should expect more from them.

My audience is any American who cares about the future of our schools. I wrote this book to be accessible to all readers. I would love Secretary DeVos to read this book, but she has already lost faith in public schools. She believes that we are too diverse a society to have common schools. An increasing number of Americans share her concern. I believe that it is precisely because we are so diverse that we need common schools to bring us together.

Did the growth of public education help build our nation’s democracy?

No doubt. Our nation’s founders were extremely nervous about whether Americans would be prepared to govern themselves. They worried that the people, if not educated, would be easily swayed by demagogues—a Caesar. They also worried that leaders would take advantage of their power to serve themselves rather than the people.

Widening access to education was one of their solutions to this problem. All Americans, boys and girls, would need access to the kind of education once reserved for elites. This meant the liberal arts and sciences, those subjects that enabled people to think critically about the world. It also meant ensuring that citizens were taught to place the common good ahead of themselves. It’s hard to exaggerate the faith that many of our nation’s founders placed in education—and their fear that an ignorant citizenry would be easy prey for would-be tyrants.

Your book illustrates that a recurring theme in the history of public education is disagreement over the schools themselves. But those disagreements are actually part of the democracy-building function of schools, right? So these fights are…good for us?

Believe it or not, I think that they are good for us. I understand the temptation to ask citizens and politicians to put politics aside—and, when politics is just about partisanship, that’s fair to ask. But politics is also about legitimate disagreements. Education is about shaping the hearts and minds of the rising generation. How can we not have public discussions about something so important? We are a diverse and changing nation. What values do we want public schools to inculcate? What are the goals or outcomes that we share collectively? Each of us can advocate our perspective, but we should recognize those who disagree with us as fellow citizens.

What can we learn from this history about how to improve public schools?

First, we can learn about our failures. For example, we never fully achieved the kind of equality that education reformers between the Revolution and Civil War sought. I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture of the past: White southerners did not provide education for black children, and racism and segregation were rampant in the North. Catholics felt uncomfortable in schools biased against their faith. Yet at their best, reformers after the Revolution imagined public schools that brought together rich and poor, native-born and immigrant. Do we still aspire to do so? Second, we can learn about what matters. When reformers increased access to the liberal arts and sciences, they did so because they believed in equality. Every child’s heart and mind mattered, not just because they were future workers, but because they were citizens and human beings. Why should we deny any American access to the best works of literature, the insights of history, or knowledge of science? Every life is enriched by studying these subjects, as is our society more generally.


Third, we can learn that the schools’ success was premised on balancing local control with central oversight. The public schools were popular because ordinary citizens were stakeholders. At the same time, most of us are not experts in education or in the academic subject matter. That’s why we need professional teachers and administrators. Americans then, like now, disagreed about how to balance local versus central control, and there’s no one formula for all times and places. Yet I think we must always have a place for meaningful local involvement.

How has public education affected your own life?

I’m an immigrant. I was born in Mumbai, and came to the U.S. when I was young. I attended public schools in the suburbs of San Francisco from kindergarten through high school. The schools provided me with knowledge and skills necessary for future success. They also brought together a diverse community of people, some of whom had been in the country for generations, and some, like me, who were new. We were taught to respect each other’s backgrounds and differences, but we were also taught that we collectively belonged to a nation with a common past and future. I am deeply grateful to my teachers. It takes a village.

is chair of the History Department at WWU and a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He is also the author of “Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts.”