What if Thomas Jefferson Could Come Back and Talk to Betsy DeVos About Education?

neem bookLast month, Western Washington University history professor Johann Neem visited The Author’s Corner to talk about his new book  Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America.

Over at the website of the National Education Association, Neem talks to Mary Ellen Flannery in a piece titled “What Would Thomas Jefferson Say to Betsy DeVos.”

Here is a taste of the interview:

The idea of the “common good” is referenced often in the book. These founders of public education saw that “common” or public schools would serve a common or public good. You still hear this in policy-oriented conversations about public higher education, but less often in discussions about K12 education. Is it an idea that’s falling out of favor?

Johann Neem: I think we’ve lost that focus. From the very beginning, public schools always have had mixed purposes. In the 19th century, there was a strong civic component—it was about preparing citizens for democracy. Of course there were people left out, like African-Americans, but the goal was to create common ground. And there also was this idea around developing human beings, and investing in our nation’s economy.

What’s happened is we’ve lost the first two purposes, and focused almost entirely on the third—we’ve reduced our notion of public schools to meeting the needs of a global economy. We talk about college and career readiness, and really about career readiness. We’re not talking about the liberating experiences that come with education, and the possibility of creating more fulfilled lives. One of the reasons I wrote the book was to remind people that we do care about these things.

Read the rest here.

The Founding Fathers Rejected School Choice


My alma mater

Earlier today University of Western Washington history professor Johann Neem visited The Author’s Corner.  Yesterday he visited the pages of the Washington Post to talk more about public education.  As Neem correctly notes, the founding fathers believed that public schools were the foundation of a virtuous republic:

Here is a taste of his piece “Early America had school choice. The Founding Fathers rejected it.”

During the Colonial era and into the early American republic, most Americans shared DeVos’s notion that education was a family responsibility. Parents who could afford it taught their children at home, hired itinerant men or women who “kept” school for a fee, or sent older children to charter schools called academies. Most Americans had little formal schooling.

The revolution transformed how some Americans thought about education. These Americans agreed with Thomas Jefferson that the future of the republic depended on an educated citizenry. They also believed that the opportunities offered by schooling should be available to rich and poor alike. Many state constitutions included clauses like Georgia’s in 1777: “Schools shall be erected in each county, and supported at the general expense of the State.” But how to execute this directive? The best way, American leaders ultimately concluded, was to encourage local public schools and to limit the growth of academies.

As early as the 1780s, Massachusetts Gov. Samuel Adams asserted that academies increased inequality because well-off families chose them over local district schools. Citizens, Adams argued, “will never willingly and cheerfully support two systems of schools.” Others shared his concern. New York Gov. George Clinton argued in 1795 that academies served “the opulent” and that all children deserved access to “common schools throughout the state.”

Read more here.

Author’s Corner with Johann Neem

Johann Neem
is a Professor of History at Western Washington University. This interview is based on his new book, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (John Hopkins University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Democracy’s Schools?

JN: I decided to write this book for two reasons. First, and foremost, I worried that citizens and policy makers did not have a “go to” book for the formative era of American public education. The leading books in that field were influenced by the culture wars—and thus they were highly critical of the potential of public education. Scholars on the right and left agreed that schools promoted “social control” and served elites, not ordinary people. At a time when our public discourse of education is increasingly vocational and instrumental, I wanted to clear the space to remind Americans today why we had public schools in the first place: to develop the capabilities of citizens; to promote human flourishing for each individual; and to bring together a diverse society.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Democracy’s Schools?

JN: Democracy’s Schools argues that there exists a longstanding and productive tension between the demands of “democratic education” and of “education in a democracy.” Democratic education emphasizes civic goals and the liberal arts and was often promoted by elite reformers such as Horace Mann, whereas education in a democracy depends on local control and schools tied culturally and politically to citizens themselves.

JF: Why do we need to read Democracy’s Schools?

JN: We need Democracy’s Schools because we’re adrift today. At a time when we tend to focus on narrow skills and economic training (“college and career readiness,” in the words of the Common Core—see my essay on the subject), it is worth looking back to an era when public schools served democracy’s needs and represented democratic values. It is worth remembering why reformers sought to increase access to the liberal arts. And it’s worth recognizing that the public schools have a responsibility not just to reflect our differences but also to bring a diverse people together. In short, we need Democracy’s Schools to remember that in the dirty bathwater of our education history there is still a baby worth caring for.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JN: I was a history major in college, but had intended to go into education policy. I wrote my senior thesis on civic education in a democracy, so in some ways I have returned to my roots in this new book. I decided to become an American historian after taking Gordon Wood’s class on the early American republic and realizing that the questions that most intrigued me were being asked by all Americans– whether rich or poor, white or black, male or female– in the decades following the American Revolution.

JF: What is your next project?

JN: I’m not sure. I am continuing to write about education, democracy, and higher education reform. I have started doing some work on the historic relationship between the humanities and American democracy, not just in schools but in society more broadly. We’ll see where it goes!

JF: Thanks, Johann!

Public Scholars in Public Universities

CUNY Graduate Center

I really like Abraham Gutman’s recent short essay, “Practicing What He Preaches,” about economist Paul Krugman’s decision to leave Princeton for CUNY Graduate Center. (He also mentions Cathy Davidson‘s recent decision to leave Duke for CUNY).

Krugman, as many of you know, is a scholar of income inequality.

Gutman is an undergraduate economics major at CUNY who is thrilled that Krugman is making the move.

Here is a taste of his piece:

In his writings, Krugman has frequently discussed inequality and the importance of regulation on the market to reduce inequality. But what about the inequalities students face when they choose their university? I frequently hear great scholars praise public universities such as CUNY for allowing access to higher education to many New Yorkers who would not have otherwise been able to fund their education, but many of these scholars choose their intellectual homes to be the same private universities that cause most of their students to end their undergraduate education with huge levels of student debt. Elite private universities offer professors resources and name recognition, which can help them pursue their ambitions.  Of course, private universities also on average pay much more than public universities, even top public universities.
This is a very mixed message. On one hand, these scholars say that the government should invest more in public institutions so more young people can get quality higher education. On the other hand, by choosing to work in private institutions they send the message that state universities are not good enough for them. Too many students at public universities, including those who are passionate about social equity and social good, dream about Ivy League graduate schools, or – for those seeking careers in academe – jobs at the kinds of places that Professors Krugman and Davidson are leaving. These universities are the homes of their intellectual heroes.

I am sure that critics of Gutman’s piece will say that Krugman will probably be making more money at CUNY than at Princeton. But before one runs too far with this criticism, remember that Krugman is a Nobel laureate who probably makes more money a year on books and speaking engagements than his old salary and new salary combined.

Krugman’s move should force us to revisit the ongoing discussion, began after the publication of the recent Nicholas Kristof article, about what it means for a scholar to engage the public. Shouldn’t public intellectuals spend time with the general public?  (I am not convinced that an Ivy League professor encounters the general public in his or her classroom).  Or should public intellectuals just write for popular venues from the isolation of the ivory tower, casting their pearls of wisdom to the millions and millions who read The London Review of Books. (I still chuckle at the way so many critics of Krtistof’s op-ed referenced their publications in The New York Review of Books and similar periodicals to show that they were speaking to public audiences).

It does not look like Krugman will be teaching undergraduates at CUNY, but he will certainly be more connected to the diversity of everyday life in New York than in Princeton.  (I am curious–would we have the same praise for Krugman, or anyone else for that matter, if he left Princeton for a job at a rural state school or a state school in a small city?)

Most of us will never be faced with the choices (Princeton or CUNY Graudate Center?) that Krugman gets to make.  But I often wonder whether professors at private liberal arts schools might be more effective as public scholars in public universities where most of the students can’t afford the 40K-50K a year price tag.

Our understanding of the academic vocation is so often shaped by the college or university in which we work.  Tonight I will give some thought to how my academic life might be different if I worked at a public university instead of at an expensive church-related liberal arts college.

(Of course, this whole discussion is complicated further by the fact that my understanding of the academic calling is directly connected to my religious faith and my belief in the mission of church-related colleges).

Perhaps this is all on my mind because I have been corresponding with prospective Messiah College history majors who have been accepted to Messiah and would love to come (and I would love to have them), but they just can’t afford it.

Thanks for listening to these ramblings.  Thoughts?