American Educational History: School, Society, and the Common Good


William H. Jeynes

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    In the conclusion to her book Who Are We? Jean Bethke Elshtain (2000) reminds us that there is “such a thing as a historical record and we are not permitted to ‘rearrange the facts’ in order that they might better comport with our own perspective” (p. 134). Years of studying and teaching in the discipline of education have made me aware that many of our texts are so driven by the ideological perspective of the author that facts are included or omitted in such a way as to confirm that perspective (e.g., liberal, conservative, critical, feminist, or constructivist). For example, a popular history of philosophy text omits as much as entire millennia without a word about why, and almost every chapter refers to the contributions of a single 20th-century philosopher. If these “rearrangements” or limitations are not understood and their alternatives not made explicit, texts for educators will limit as much as they elucidate. It is not the fact that our own perspectives influence what we write and how we read a text that is regrettable; it is that there are so few contemporary attempts in the social sciences these days to strive to move beyond personal perspectives to offer readers a more accurate and straightforward description of history. Not so with this thorough and balanced history of education by Professor William Jeynes.

    Seven characteristics make this history of education unique, timely, and inspiring. First, Jeynes is careful in every chapter to embed the history of education into the larger history of what was going on in the United States and the world at the time. He reveals how the early educators worked hand in hand with those forming the nation to coordinate the special purposes and needs of the new republic. For example, here we will find answers to questions such as the following: How did the Revolutionary War result in the most rapid educational transformation ever documented in history? What role did churches play in abolition and the establishment of schools for people who had been enslaved? What did the early textbooks teach, and how was the content related to the goals of the founders in establishing a democratic republic? How did the Sputnik crisis encourage federal funds to flow into state education agencies, and how did the early civil rights movement encourage even more federal involvement?

    Second, the reader will encounter a presentation of the history that goes back to primary sources and early histories, including letters and other documents from as early as the 17th century all the way up to today's essential documents. The exploration of these reveals a far more complex and thoughtful history than our revisionists claim; for example, Jeynes unveils the thoughts and intents of early settlers such as the Puritans who developed a rich network of educational opportunities, from founding church schools for young children to Harvard, both of which initially included Native Americans. The use of these sources yields a history that is both authentic and alive.

    Third, readers will find special chapters and special attention in all the chapters on the education of groups of special interest in the history of education, for example Native Americans, Latinos, women, and Asians, as well as a chapter devoted entirely to the education of African Americans and issues of slavery, including differences between education in the North and South. It is sobering to realize that from the early Puritans who developed schooling opportunities for Native Americans to the establishment of the early charity and later common schools all the way to the No Child Left Behind, there have been consistent efforts to develop educational opportunities that would “level the playing field.” Jeynes's history helps us understand that issues of equity did not somehow emerge for the first time in the 1950s and 1960s and to see historically the variations in solutions proposed over the centuries.

    Fourth, and perhaps most refreshingly, Jeynes is not afraid to step right into controversial issues from the 1600s to today and lay out both the facts and the controversies, rather than lapsing into an analysis from the left or the right. For example, one chapter is devoted to distinguishing the liberal and conservative educational philosophies going back to the influence of early European thinkers. Another chapter directly addresses more contemporary divisions between left and right by chronicling reform efforts under Democratic versus Republican administrations. A special chapter on the rise of multiculturalism includes both its major proponents and critics. Here, the reader will take the multicultural journey learning from the left and the right, from Kunjufu to Sowell, Sleeter to Schlesinger; and the same is true of issues surrounding the education of speakers of primary languages other than English. Woven throughout the text, Jeynes also documents the nation's struggle to use education to strengthen the moral fiber of its citizens, from the early founders' and educators' conviction that there was too much freedom in the Constitution of this new democratic republic for an unrighteous people all the way to today's more meager efforts to address character, ethics, and virtues in public education contexts.

    Fifth, alongside this emphasis on presenting our history from left to right and everything in between, at various points in each chapter, under headings such as “Educational Debate” and “Contemporary Focus,” the reader is presented with questions, encouraging their own reflection and analysis of the history and/or controversies just presented. Jeynes seems to actually trust readers to develop their own perspectives and supplies us with the voluminous data, as well as the range of competing interpretations across history in order to develop our own perspectives. We are not told by Jeynes what to think about any issue; we are told what has happened and what others believe and believed so that we may have the necessary historical fodder to see how these issues impact our current work and to encourage our own development of responsive alternatives. In addition to these points of reflection in the text, we are given extensive timelines and vignettes of events as well as short biographies of major figures.

    Sixth, in presenting this 15-chapter history of our nation's struggles to develop a world-class education for all of its citizens, Jeynes uses a two-pronged approach: epochal and topical. Some chapters detail particular eras such as the periods surrounding the colonial age, Revolutionary War, Civil War, World Wars I and II, Great Depression, Cold War, civil rights movements, and the turbulent 1960s. Other chapters focus on issues such as the education of Native, Latino, Asian, and African American students and women; liberal versus conservative philosophies; Democratic versus Republican reform; and the rise of public criticism. The last chapter brings us up-to-date on contemporary issues such as school violence, special education, international comparisons, technology, and the struggle for equity and equalization in school funding. Should any reader want to go deeper into any subject or era, the book's references alone are a wealth of information for anyone serious about education in America.

    Last, this is not just a history of education from kindergarten to high school; Jeynes also provides us with the history of the American university. In this is revealed the parallels and common intents and transformations of both schools and universities. Once again, all these are embedded in the larger historical context of the United States and the world.

    Jeynes's thoughtful and provocative history provides us with a most inclusive context from which to measure our current experiences, policies, and opportunities and from which to imagine and develop new possibilities. This text emerges in a time when there is a dire need for a more complete and honest account of our great experiment in educating the most diverse peoples ever in any democracy. It tells the whole story, from the triumphs and tragedies of the past to the paradoxes, challenges, and opportunities of the present. As an educator, I am deeply grateful for such a brilliant and balanced history of American education. I look forward to reading it again and again and to sharing the wealth with my students, whom I sincerely want to be able to engage with the whole story so that they may develop more successful educational environments for the future of America and the world.

    MarySimpsonPoplin, Former Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Professor of Education, Claremont Graduate University, July 2006
    Elshtain, J. B. (2000). Who are we? (p. 134). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.


    Purpose of the Text

    Reading American Educational History: School, Society, and the Common Good will be a unique experience for a variety of reasons. First, it is designed to stimulate dialogue. In recent years, the majority of educational history authors have attempted to lead the reader into making certain specific conclusions. In this sense, objectivity and fairness are not the foremost goals of these books. In contrast, this book is not designed at every junction to lead the reader to certain conclusions. Rather, I believe that for American society to be strong, it is vital that adults reach their own conclusions about educational debates. Consequently, for many educational issues, if there are two sides of a debate, this book will present both sides as fairly as possible.

    Moreover, as much as possible, I will present some perspectives that are rarely highlighted in educational history textbooks because these views do not agree with the viewpoints maintained by their authors. One would make a mistake to assume that simply because I present some perspectives that are rarely highlighted in other books that therefore I agree with their viewpoints. In fact, at least half the time I disagree with these perspectives. However, these perspectives are included because they are opinions that are important to know in order to have an intelligent dialogue about education. In addition, different perspectives are presented so that the reader can appreciate the fact that often advocates on both sides of a debate have a point and that neither side is totally right or totally wrong. In a society that is often deadlocked in political and educational debates, whether it is in the form of filibusters, name-calling, or the erection of straw men in philosophical debates, it is essential to instead enter into dialogue with an open mind, understanding that those with different perspectives often possess valid points.

    Second, this book will seek to place education events in a proper historical context. It is undeniable that concurrent historical events had a tremendous impact on educational practice. It is also true that many people have a difficult time understanding certain historical developments in education because they are unaware of the surrounding historical contexts. Most books on American educational history examine the topic almost in isolation from some of the most tumultuous and transforming changes in history. To really comprehend the dynamics of schooling and how it both reacts to surrounding events and influences them, it is imperative that the reader understand the general historical context in which events took place. On many occasions, education was a cog in a greater conglomeration of historical events that caused the United States to move in a given direction. At other times, schooling was the engine of change or renewal. Appreciating the educational experience in each of these scenarios is key if one is to learn from the multifaceted nature of the history of schooling.

    Third, this book focuses more attention on post-World War II events than most books of its kind. I believe that the time has come for educational historical books to reflect the degree to which education has taken center stage more frequently in the modern era. This emphasis is also consistent with this book's emphasis on the magnitude of the interaction between broader historical events and America's school system. This dynamic has become even more patent during the post-World War II era, because political leaders have realized the relationship between educational health and geopolitical realities. For example, many Americans blamed the American education system for the fact that the Russians (via the Sputnik) beat the Americans into space. Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all claimed that they were “educational presidents.” To the extent that post-World War II America became more cognizant of the inextricable connection between education and the broader forces of history, a particular emphasis on this period appears warranted.

    Fourth, a primary goal of this book is to serve as a means for making American education better than it is today. Just what seem to be the best ways to reach this goal will vary from one reader to the next. However, whatever one's worldview, he or she will doubtlessly conclude that there are some ways in which the nation's system and practice of schooling surpass previous achievements. However, it is equally true that readers will identify areas in which American school leaders need to learn from past educational practices. Ultimately, then, the most influential and potent educational history book is one that not only reviews the past but also illuminates the present and spawns ideas for the future. It is my desire, therefore, that the journey through time that the reader takes by reading this book will be one that stimulates dialogue, places educational events in a broader historical perspective, and stimulates a train of thought that will yield a more effective education system for the generations to come.

    Organization of the Text

    The book is written in a way that is sensitive to the chronology of educational events and also the most notable events in educational history. These chapters reflect not only the influence that schooling has had on broader American society but also the impact of major historical events on education:

    • The Colonial Experience, 1607–1776
    • The Effects of the Revolutionary War Era on American Education
    • The Early Political Debates and Their Effect on the American Education System
    • Education, African Americans, and Slavery
    • The Education of Women and Native Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans
    • The Widespread Growth of the Common School and Higher Education
    • The Effects of the Events During and Between the Civil War and World War I
    • The Liberal Philosophy of Education as Distinguished from Conservatism
    • The Great Depression and the Long-Term Effects of World War II and the Cold War on American Education
    • The Civil Rights Movement and Federal Involvement in Educational Policy
    • The Turbulence of the 1960s
    • The Rise of Public Criticism of Education
    • The Rise of Multiculturalism and Other Issues
    • Educational Reform Under Republicans and Democrats
    • Other Recent Educational Issues and Reforms

    The layout of these chapters will help the reader understand just how various educational practices came into existence and how many of the school debates of today emerged to become a part of the American fabric of life.

    Pedagogical Features and Benefits to Educational Historians, Students, and Instructors

    When compared with other American educational history books currently on the market, this book not only provides more content but also includes pedagogical features that will add greater depth to the knowledge that one procures about educational history:

    • Timelines. The timelines will help the reader place the most important events in educational history in proper historical context not only in relation to other educational events but also with respect to other major historical events as well. This is extremely important because the significance of educational events can best be accurately comprehended when understood in proper historical context.
    • A Closer Look. Some scholars, teachers, and educational events were sufficiently prominent and pervasive in their influence that they deserve a more intricate examination to fully appreciate their contributions. This pedagogical feature gives a special place to such people and events.
    • Added Insight. This pedagogical feature provides added information that will give the reader added knowledge in order to better comprehend the educational forces at work at the time covered in the chapter.
    • Contemporary Focus. Through the issues addressed in this feature, the reader will understand how many of the events in the history of schooling strongly relate to salient educational issues today.
    • Educational Debate. This pedagogical feature encourages historians, students, and others to engage in debates that have deep historical roots and are some of the most vital controversies facing education today.
    • Key People and Terms. This section is near the end of each chapter and lists some of the most important people and terms occurring in the chapter.
    • Discussion Questions. Near the conclusion of each chapter, a set of questions will appear that are designed to stimulate thought and discussion about educational events relevant to the American educational experience, past and present.
    A Final Note

    American Educational History: School, Society, and the Common Good will be not only an extremely informative book but also an enjoyable one. Ideally, the learning experience should be one that stimulates thinking and fosters intellectual hunger. There are an interminable number of lessons one can learn from educational history, and it is my hope that once these lessons are learned, they will yield a greater system of schools than this nation has ever seen before.


    I am very thankful to many individuals who played a large role in making this work possible. I want to thank numerous people in the academic world at Harvard University and the University of Chicago for helping me give birth to this project and in guiding me through the early stages of writing many of these chapters. I especially want to thank the late Bob Jewell for his encouragement in writing on many of these topics. I want to thank a number of academics whose initial reviews helped shape my writing, even before my submission of the drafts to Sage Press. These individuals include Wendy Naylor, Chris Ullman, Huong Nyugen, Ken Calvert, and Dick Carpenter. I want to thank the reviewers who examined the drafts submitted to Sage, including H. Rich Milner of Vanderbilt, Vincent Anfara of the University of Tennessee, J. Randolph Cromwell of Averett University, and J. Gina Giuliano of SUNY at Albany. I want to thank the people at Sage for their wonderful support. I also want to thank several dear friends whose encouragement with respect to this project touched me deeply. Among these dear friends are Wayne Ruhland, Jean Donohue, Rick Smith, and Larry and Vada DeWerd. Thank you so much for your support!

    I am incredibly blessed to have been married for 20 years to my wife, Hyelee, whose support has been exemplary. Without her prayers and support, this work never could have been completed. I am blessed and honored to have three wonderful boys, whom I thank for their love and inspiration. The support of my wife and children gave me the encouragement I needed to rely on God's strength and providence to complete this project. I am very grateful for that encouragement and strength.

  • About the Author

    William H. Jeynes, PhD, is a Professor of Education at California State University in Long Beach. He earned his doctoral degree in education from the University of Chicago and his EdM from Harvard University. He has published several dozen articles and two other books on education. His articles have appeared in Elementary School Journal, Teachers College Record, Cambridge Journal of Education, two Harvard University journals, Journal of Negro Education, Urban Education, and numerous other publications. He is a well-known public speaker, having spoken in nearly every state in the country and in every inhabited continent. Dr. Jeynes has worked with the Harvard Family Research Project and is a member of the International Network of Scholars, based at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Jeynes has received various awards and honors, including the Rosenberger Award at the University of Chicago and admission into Marquis's Who's Who in the World. He has been married for 20 years to his wife, Hyelee, and has three children.

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