Themes In The History Of American Education Essay

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Since the institution of schooling directly reflects a culture’s essential characteristics, there are meaningful and recurrent patterns—persistent themes—in the history of American education. An understanding of these key themes, which are described in this entry, helps to explain the social and political issues that shape public schooling.

One defining theme is nationalism. Teaching children how to be “Americans”—and, indeed, defining what this means—has been a consistent fundamental purpose of public schooling. Since the early years of nationhood, influential Americans have viewed the school as a primary agency for training in citizenship, loyalty to the state, and personal identification with the national heritage, mythology, and interests. Early American intellectuals (such as Noah Webster and Benjamin Rush) realized that the United States lacked a traditional, distinctive culture, language, and historical identity, and had grown out of a national ideal or ideology that needed to be deliberately instilled in each new generation.

The common school initiatives of the mid-nineteenth century gained support in large part because the rise of immigration seemed to threaten this national identity. The launching of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957 galvanized school reform in the interest of national defense, and the landmark 1983 report A Nation at Risk zealously restated this theme, charging public education with the task of safeguarding the very survival of the American nation.

Schooling has also been shaped significantly by the distinctive features of the economic system of capitalism. In essence, capitalism is a social order based on meritocracy—a presumably open competition in which winners achieve high status, wealth, and influence and losers are expected to accept the conditions of their roles as employees and consumers. Capitalism measures success primarily in economic terms (profit, income, gross national product, etc.) and tends to push aesthetic and spiritual concerns to the margins of the culture. Education is consequently defined in terms of effective management and productivity.

Since the 1840s, when Horace Mann persuaded the emerging industrialist elite to support public education because it would provide a supply of dependable, sober, disciplined factory workers, schools have been used to cultivate a compliant and productive workforce. Increasingly since the start of the twentieth century, business leaders and policy makers have steered education toward values of “social efficiency,” standardization, and management of what is often called “human capital.” The testing, grading, labeling, and ranking of students reflect a competitive, materialistic, production-oriented economic system. Many young people and their families value education above all else for the vocational opportunities it can open for them, if they are successful in school.

Historically, the rise of capitalism was linked to the modernist philosophy of scientific reductionism, which views the world from a materialist and utilitarian perspective. Nature is best understood, according to this perspective, through objective observation, measurement, and abstract reasoning. Complex, holistic processes are reduced to their most basic components and discrete functions. Through such analysis, modern society can develop powerful tools and technologies to manage natural resources, and human energies are viewed as such resources. In the early years of the twentieth century, social scientists and educators began to apply this technocratic approach to social institutions, especially schooling. Intelligence tests, behaviorist psychology, “scientific management,” and other presumably objective techniques were developed and increasingly used to provide more consistent control of teaching and learning.

At the same time, American culture has been shaped by a religious ideology that has resisted the secular worldview. What might loosely be called a Puritan theology draws a firm distinction between the natural, material world and the realm of the divine or sacred, and sees humanity as “fallen” or sinful because we are immersed in the physical world. Only through personal religious faith can one be “redeemed” or spiritually rescued. American religious life is complex and diverse, and this theology has been expressed through numerous forms, sects, and beliefs. Together, they constitute a powerful element of American culture that has influenced educational philosophy and policy.

Ongoing political arguments over evolution and creationism, the role of prayer or Scripture in schools, and the teaching of morally controversial subjects or texts demonstrate this influence. On a more subtle cultural level, the view of the child as an intellectually and morally empty vessel, needing instruction and discipline in order to properly mature, is at least partly rooted in this theological heritage. In addition, historians have shown how Puritan morality was closely aligned with capitalist values of individual initiative and the virtue of the “work ethic”; in this view, success and wealth naturally flow to deserving individuals. Schooling is then construed as a public arena for testing and grading to determine who deserves success.

Interwoven with these cultural themes in American history is an ongoing struggle for democracy. The ideal of democracy, expressed in soaring notions such as “freedom,” “liberty,” “equality under the law,” and “government of the people,” is widely venerated, but the implementation of this ideal has been irregular, due to social, political, and economic conflicts that have led to an inequitable distribution of opportunity and privilege. Race, class, gender, ethnic, or religious identity and other human differences have been exploited to permit some individuals access to higher status and to deny such access to others. Paradoxically, the success of capitalism, although rooted in an ideal of fair competition, has led to substantial disparities of wealth, status, and influence that provide significant advantages to a minority of society.

Schools have been greatly affected both by the democratic ideal and by the failure of American society to fully attain it. From Thomas Jefferson to Horace Mann and down to recent times, public education has in part been conceived as a mechanism for attaining a more fully participatory, democratic society—a way to equalize opportunities for personal advancement. Yet throughout the history of American education, democratically oriented policies and reforms have faltered against the biases and interests that perpetuate social divisions and inequality. Segregation of the “common” schools by race and class, even when legally banned, has continued due to patterns of neighborhood settlement and distribution of property taxes. Some of the most intractable, and sometimes violent, conflicts over education have arisen over different interpretations of, or commitment to, the democratic ideal.


  1. Miller, R. (1997). What are schools for? Holistic education in American culture (3rd ed.). Brandon, VT: Holistic Education Press.
  2. Spring, J. (2005). The American school, 1642–2004 (6th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

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