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American Education, Themes in the History of

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, ...

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