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“Truly this man was God’s Son!” —Mark 1:39

Public Education
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Martha Gee
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Louisville, KY 40202

Roots of public education

To understand public education today, it is important to explore how it evolved — and why. Understanding the roots of our public education system can help us understand the problems we face today.

Read a timeline of American public education.

  • At its beginning, the goal of the public education system was to equip citizens to read and understand the Bible.
  • As the country was established and experienced growing pains, it became important to assimilate the many diverse streams of immigrants. But religion in the form of Protestant Christianity remained the organizing principle, and the Bible, prayer and other tools such as catechisms made up the bulk of teaching materials. Read Primers and Readers: Agents of Change or Maintainers of Status Quo?
  • A painful part of our history is the fact that slaves were prohibited by law from learning to read and write. Read Literacy for Slaves: A Long, Hard Road and Slave Laws.
  • As more immigrants arrived toward the end of the 19th century, education was primarily perceived as a social mechanism to change children into productive workers. Law and order, righteousness, and civil duty were stressed. The familiar descriptive metaphor of the melting pot is grounded in this influx of immigrants. Read The Melting Pot. Compare that image with Diversity Salad or Stew Pot?

From these roots, our system of public education has branched out in an attempt to accommodate an increasingly diverse and varied population. Each branch — from secondary education to vocational education through segregation to desegregation to bilingual education, and so on — has emerged in response to the needs perceived by those in power. Our problems today, and the challenges we recognize for tomorrow, must be evaluated in that light.


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