Make human nature your study wherever you reside—whatever the religion or the complexion, study their hearts.—Ignatius Sancho, 1778
As the Covid-19 pandemic entered its third year, with inflation rising and the supply chain faltering, many American voters were fixated not on the economy or the virus but on a quite different topic: education. In Virginia, a private-equity multimillionaire won the governor’s race by promising to keep public schools safe from gender-neutral bathrooms and critical race theory. Across the country, school board meetings were disrupted by death threats and chanted slogans, and school board elections—usually sleepy contests with minimal turnout—became pitched battles over history textbooks, mask mandates, and the contents of school libraries.
For decades education had been considered a staid, responsible topic of conversation in American politics, a subject to be addressed not in passionate diatribes but in carefully reasoned PowerPoint presentations and well-mannered panel discussions. Now, suddenly, Americans were focusing intently on the workings of their local public schools, and they were not at all happy with what they saw.
Political experts and campaign consultants were taken by surprise when schools suddenly assumed center stage in the national debate, but as this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly demonstrates, our recent battles are nothing new. Schools have always been tangled up with politics; for millennia, they have served as a proxy battlefield for culture warriors of every stripe. Especially in moments of national crisis or social upheaval, classrooms often provide the clearest reflection of a society’s deep anxieties about identity, power, and class.
In Texas, where I live, those anxieties have been on full display in recent months. In a suburb of Dallas, two school board members were arrested for allegedly violating the state’s Open Meetings Act by exchanging text messages before a vote. In Katy, just outside Houston, Jerry Craft’s award-winning graphic novel New Kid, about a Black student who enrolls in an exclusive private school, was pulled from public schools after a local mother launched a petition drive. Texans’ fury over public schools found its ultimate expression in 2021 with House Bill 3979, which requires social studies teachers to explore controversial issues “from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.” After the governor signed the bill into law, an administrator in a school district near Fort Worth informed teachers that they were now required, when assigning books describing the evils of the Holocaust, to include texts that offered “opposing” perspectives as well.
It soon became apparent that Texas’ new law was intended not so much to protect academic freedom as to curtail it in highly specific ways. For instance, the law carves out a notable exception to its doctrine of “diverse and contending perspectives” in the classroom. Slavery and racism must now be taught in our public schools in one way and one way only: as “deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.” Texas social studies teachers may want to skip over the authentic founding principle, enshrined in Article I of the Constitution, that anyone who was enslaved was to be counted as three-fifths of a person.
The belief that underlies HB 3979—that schools exercise great power over students’ moral development—has deep historical roots. For centuries it was widely accepted that the central goal of education was to save children’s souls, and only incidentally to enlighten their minds. Whether the text of the lesson was the Torah, the Gospel According to Luke, or the Rigveda, educators were expected to shape their students’ characters and, in so doing, bring them closer to God.
It wasn’t until the Enlightenment in France that the concept of a true liberal arts education, divorced from religious salvation, first emerged. As the journalist Dana Goldstein describes in her book The Teacher Wars, European educators in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries embraced the novel idea that education’s rightful purpose was to impart secular knowledge: geography, science, languages, literature.
Mosaic of Plato’s Academy, Pompeii, first century bc. Bridgeman Images.
Leading American educators of the nineteenth century strongly disagreed with the secular liberal arts approach. Horace Mann, the Massachusetts reformer who did more than anyone to bring universal public education to the United States, criticized it as “the European fallacy” and declared that American children should be attending school primarily for the purpose of moral edification. “The teaching of A, B, C, and the multiplication table has no quality of sacredness in it,” Mann explained in an 1839 lecture. Instead of focusing on the three Rs, public schools should direct students’ attention “outward in goodwill toward men, and upward in reverence to God.”
In the 1830s Mann and his fellow reformer Catharine Beecher launched a national campaign for universal public schools, to be paid for not by parents but by the state. At the time, families who wished their children to be educated chose either expensive private academies or state schools that charged tuition through “rate bills.” The common schools movement, as it became known, spread throughout New England and then across the country. Beecher’s Hartford Female Seminary, in Connecticut, educated hundreds of young, devout, unmarried women to serve on the front lines of this rapid educational expansion. After minimal training, teachers were sent west to rural Iowa or Indiana or Illinois, where they lived in harsh, rugged conditions and taught in drafty one-room schoolhouses. Pay was low and life was hard, but Beecher’s disciples were determined to bring a civilizing morality to the lawless West, to educate those whom Beecher called the “ignorant and neglected American children” of the frontier.
The problem is, moral instruction can be really boring. When a student was lucky enough to find an inventive, charismatic teacher like Abe Ravelstein, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, or Miss Jean Brodie, school could be a delight, even when the curriculum was dominated by repetitive drills and rote memorization. For many students, though, daily lessons were torture.
Toward the end of his life, the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig looked back on his childhood in turn-of-the-century Vienna with a visceral distaste for his classroom experience. “This dislike of school was not just my personal attitude,” he wrote. “I can’t remember one of my school friends who did not hate the way in which our best interests and intentions were inhibited, bored, and suppressed on the scholastic treadmill.” Within the stultifying pedagogy of the day, Zweig perceived a political message, one that promoted conformity to authority of all kinds: “We were to be brought up to respect the status quo as perfect, our teachers’ opinions as infallible, a father’s word as final, brooking no contradiction, and state institutions as absolute and valid for all eternity.”
As you’ll see throughout this issue, Zweig was not alone in connecting the pedagogical strictures of the classroom with the political structure of the state. In reaction to complaints like Zweig’s, the dawn of the twentieth century brought about a new kind of educational reform movement, one rooted in a critique of the authoritarian classroom. Maria Montessori, the Italian educator and physician, wrote that traditional schools of the era were pervaded by “the principle of slavery,” right down to the construction of the desks and chairs into which students were forced to wedge themselves. The goal of most schools, Montessori believed, was to oppress children’s spirits—and that began with oppressing their bodies.
At her Casa dei Bambini in Rome, Montessori developed a method of education rooted in a new understanding of children’s cognitive and psychological development. Children were natural learners, she believed, constitutionally inclined toward discovery and inquiry. She agreed with Plutarch that “the mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled” and argued that schools could best stoke students’ fire by allowing them the freedom to experiment, play, and learn on their own.
In Barcelona in 1901, a few years before Montessori created her Casa dei Bambini, the Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer opened his Escuela Moderna, the first incarnation of what later became known as the rationalist schools movement. Like Montessori, Ferrer was critical of traditional methods that emphasized repetition and memorization over scientific inquiry and independent thinking. As he wrote in his rationalist manifesto, “A few yards from the threshold of the school, the grass is springing, the flowers are blooming; insects hum against the classroom windowpanes; but the pupils are studying natural history out of books!” The indignity of that contradiction has offended icons of American childhood from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer to Charles Schulz’s Peppermint Patty. Ferrer, though, was the first person to organize a school in response. The “essential function” of the Escuela Moderna, he wrote, was not to convey virtue or even knowledge; it was to “inculcate in the child an enthusiastic love of life and of humanity.”
Ferrer’s school had no exams, no system of reward and punishment, no set schedule. Students went to museums to learn about art, to factories to learn about mechanics, to cliff formations to study geology. Ferrer believed that intellectual liberation would bring about political liberation—that if students were freed from drudgery in the classroom, their minds would open up to the radical politics he favored. His hope was to “awaken in the children the desire for a society of men truly free and truly equal, equal economically as well as politically, and hence of real solidarity; a society without violence, without hierarchies, and without privilege of any sort.”
Roman funerary relief with a school scene, Germany, c. 185. bpk Bildagentur / Rheinisches Landesmuseum / Thomas Zühmer / Art Resource, NY.
In 1906, after a colleague of Ferrer’s attempted to assassinate the Spanish king, the authorities closed the Escuela Moderna and briefly imprisoned Ferrer. After his release, he set off on a tour of Europe, where he promoted rationalist education and wrote the manifesto that appears in this issue. In 1909, after returning to Barcelona, Ferrer was arrested again on charges of sedition and, after a hasty military trial, was executed by firing squad. The Spanish authorities believed that the Escuela Moderna was a front for Ferrer’s revolutionary ideas, and in a way they were right. The rationalist education movement continued to spread after his execution, with schools opening across Europe, in the United States, and as far afield as Japan.
Ferrer’s intention was to change the world by changing the classroom. The connection he drew between pedagogy and politics is precisely the idea that motivated Texas House Bill 3979: The way students are treated in school will shape their future political leanings. Not just what they are taught, that is, but how.
Throughout history, that equation has been particularly fraught in schools and classrooms where students are part of a racial, ethnic, or cultural minority group and the instructors and administrators represent the dominant majority. You can see that tension throughout this issue, from Cesar Chavez’s memories of Laguna Dam School to Nikora Atama’s testimony of his days as a Maori student in a public school on the North Island of New Zealand. Such stories share certain common elements: alienation, ambition, punishment, humiliation, and the enforced speaking of English. Chavez remembered “the ruler whistling through the air” whenever he and his fellow students spoke Spanish.
The racial dynamics in American schools can be oppressive, even when everyone speaks the same language. Audre Lorde’s Catholic school in 1930s Harlem was organized like many at the time: an entirely African American student body instructed by an entirely white teaching staff. When I was reporting on charter schools in Harlem seventy years later, some of the classrooms I visited were not much different. Again, most of the teachers were white; most of the students were Black. There were no more dunce caps—like the one Lorde was forced to wear by her first-grade teacher, a young white nun named Sister Mary of Perpetual Help—but there were still endless rules, strictly enforced, that regulated when students could speak, how they should sit, and how they were required to walk through the halls (silently, following straight lines marked on the floor with masking tape). History has its echoes, in Harlem and elsewhere.
To live for a time close to great minds is the best kind of education.—John Buchan, 1940
At various moments in American history, Black writers and activists have concluded that being instructed by white teachers in white-run institutions is essentially an untenable situation. “What the Negro needs, therefore, of the world and civilization, he must largely teach himself,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1910, calling for a “college-bred community” of Black Americans. Almost sixty years later, Black students at the University of California, Berkeley, reached a similar conclusion, demanding that the university create a Black studies program to ease their racial isolation. “We can no longer prostitute our minds to the vain and irrelevant intellectual pursuits of Western society while our community lies in ruin,” the students’ proposal declared. “This would amount to intellectual shuffling, and we are determined to shuffle no more.” At the time, Black students made up a tiny minority on Berkeley’s campus; an official survey found that “American Negroes” made up only 1 percent of the student population in 1966. Fifty-six years later, that figure has barely budged. Black students now make up 2 percent of Berkeley’s undergraduate population. History not only echoes; it sometimes repeats.
As these debates about identity and representation in American education were raging throughout the twentieth century, a second major shift was taking place. The central belief of Horace Mann and Catharine Beecher—that the point of education was to purify young souls—gradually gave way to a more utilitarian calculation that schools, first and foremost, were places to gain the skills that were valued in an increasingly competitive labor market. By 1972, when Gallup asked American parents why they wanted their children to be educated, the most frequent response was “to get better jobs”; “to make more money” was the third.
This shift began early in the twentieth century, at a moment of great turmoil for American workers. Agriculture still employed about a third of all working Americans, but that fraction was shrinking quickly, while the service sector was rapidly expanding. Technological innovation was transforming every job, from farming to bookkeeping. Manufacturing was becoming increasingly automated, which meant that employers needed workers who could perform basic calculations and read blueprints and instruction manuals. Offices were introducing new technologies as well, including typewriters and adding machines, all of which required significant cognitive skill to master. At the close of the nineteenth century, the typical American worker had only a sixth-grade education, and for most jobs, that was enough; for the jobs of the new century, however, it quickly became clear that more schooling would be required.
That dawning understanding led to the rapid expansion of public education in the first four decades of the twentieth century in what is known as the high school movement. Unlike the common schools movement of the nineteenth century, which was the top-down brainchild of dedicated reformers, the high school movement was a decentralized, grassroots undertaking. In small towns and big cities across the country, neighbors came together to build and operate free public high schools, voluntarily taxing themselves to do so. In contrast to the era of Beecher and Mann, these communities were motivated not by religious altruism but by enlightened self-interest. Without a well-educated workforce, citizens concluded, the new engines of progress might bypass their towns and leave their families behind.
The high school movement transformed education throughout the country. In 1910 only 9 percent of young Americans were graduating from high school; by 1940 more than half of them were. Within a generation, the United States had become the best-educated country in the world, and that educational advantage helped produce the nation’s global economic advantage, which persisted for the rest of the century.
It’s Good to Start Learning, by Totoya Hokkei, c. 1822. Rijksmuseum, J.A. Bierens de Haan bequest, Amsterdam.
In the United States, the educational acceleration of the first half of the twentieth century gave rise to a debate that dominated the century’s second half. As the economic return to skills (and thus to education) increased, the central question was no longer What do we teach? or even How do we teach? It was Whom do we teach? Who deserved what kind and quality of education, and who got to decide?
Like so many of our contemporary educational debates, this one has historical echoes, many of which resound through the pages of this issue. In revolutionary Paris, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord proposed principles of universal education that were truly radical for the time—and arguably still are today. “Education must exist for all,” he wrote. “Because it is one of the results, as well as one of the advantages, of a society, we must conclude that it is a common good; no one can therefore legitimately be excluded. In fact, the man who has the least private property seems to have an additional right to participate in this common property.”
Despite these high-flown principles, France—and every other country—fell short of this democratic ideal for centuries. This was true not just in the West. In late nineteenth-century India, the social reformer Jotirao Phule described how the country’s education system had been warped by its caste structure, producing what he called the “pernicious system of high-class education.”
In the United States, the question of who deserves what kind of education quickly became entangled with the essential American issue of race. Even after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, it was apparent that many white Americans had no interest in extending anything like educational equality to the country’s Black citizens. In the 1980s and 1990s social scientists, using improved methods of collecting and analyzing educational data, were able for the first time to quantify the large, widespread, and persistent gaps between the educational attainment of students from advantaged and disadvantaged racial and economic backgrounds. At the beginning of this century, the No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President George W. Bush, promised to make those gaps disappear, but it soon became apparent that the law provided no plans or mechanisms to do so beyond an almost religious faith in standardized tests and a generous helping of magical thinking.
This was the era during which I started reporting on education, mostly in neighborhoods where money was short and educational success was rare. If the slow failure of No Child Left Behind was hard on the ambitious and idealistic reformers who had seen it as a vehicle for a disruptive transformation of the American education system, it was much harder on the students in the schools where I was reporting. They knew as well as any Harvard economist that a first-rate education represented their best (or perhaps only) escape route from a punishing cycle of dead-end jobs and blighted neighborhoods. But they also knew that finding a first-rate education where they lived was almost impossible.
It was that almost that hurt the most. In every neighborhood there were exceptions, a fortunate few who were able to leverage rare talents or lucky breaks to transcend childhoods of hardship and poverty and achieve educational success. The exceptions allowed those of us in more privileged settings to imagine that the game was not rigged—that opportunity really did exist in every zip code, for those willing to grab it—and enabled us to gratefully transfer responsibility for solving the problem of educational inequality from our shoulders and back onto the students’.
For those who did manage to escape deprived childhoods and enter the promised land of elite higher education, the prize was often bittersweet. Sudden immersion in extreme privilege can be as disorienting as sudden immiseration. When Elena Greco, Elena Ferrante’s narrator in The Story of a New Name, describes the well-connected young students she encountered when she went to Pisa for university, her story sounds almost exactly like those I heard from the first-generation college students I interviewed at highly selective American universities. Like Elena, the students I spoke to had usually arrived on campus believing that their prodigious academic ability would put them on an even footing with their wealthier classmates, only to find that what they had learned in books and in the classroom was not what really counted.
“They knew how a newspaper or a journal was put together,” Ferrante writes of her more privileged peers, “how a publishing house was organized, what a radio or television office was, how a film originates, what the university hierarchies were, what there was beyond the borders of our towns or cities, beyond the Alps, beyond the sea…I, on the other hand, knew nothing…So I moved among them fearful of saying and doing the wrong things.”
Society as a whole must be converted into a gigantic school.—Che Guevara, 1965
In my most recent book, I wrote about the American system of higher education and its persistent inequities—which is perhaps why the reading in this issue that caught and held my attention most deeply was from a 2021 essay by Agnes Callard, a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago. Callard acknowledges that universities “do perpetuate a governing elite,” that legacies are favored in admissions, that the nation’s college system as a whole promotes inequality…and then concludes that on some basic level, none of that matters. In a course she taught recently on Aristotle’s scientific system, she could see that something magical was happening between her and her students, and she wrote her essay in an attempt to express that magic to the world outside: “I wanted to break down the walls around my classroom, throw a spotlight on it, and tell everyone to stop talking, look, and listen: ‘It is happening right here—this is what universities are for: reading Aristotle together.’ All the arguments about elitism and corporatization and donations were as irrelevant as the ivy growing on the walls.”
Callard’s description of her classroom in Chicago reminded me of a similar one I visited at Princeton while I was reporting my book. I was invited there by a student I was profiling, a young woman named KiKi Gilbert, whom I had met when she was a senior at a large public high school in Charlotte, North Carolina. KiKi’s childhood had been defined by long periods of instability punctuated by brief episodes of calamity, and she survived it by focusing relentlessly on her escape path, which she had decided, at an early age, would involve a degree from a prestigious college. When she was admitted to Princeton, she became one of those exceptional few who transcend early poverty and disadvantage and reach the apex of American higher education. She loved philosophy, and in her freshman year she was selected for Princeton’s Humanities Sequence, a notoriously rigorous yearlong course in which small groups of students gather to discuss classic works of literature and philosophy.
The room where KiKi’s class met was like a clubhouse for the educational elite—brass chandeliers, a working fireplace, an upright piano—and for almost everyone gathered around the mahogany table on the day I visited, it appeared to feel like home. They were having an experience much like the one Callard describes: discussing great books with like-minded aspiring intellectuals, free from distracting thoughts of class or money. For them, philosophy class did indeed seem pretty magical.
KiKi, though, was having a very different experience, as she later described it to me. Like Elena Greco in Pisa, she was unable to leave the outside world entirely outside. Even as she jousted with her classmates about the essays of Cicero and the plays of Plautus, she was always conscious of the structural inequities on which the magic in that seminar room depended. To KiKi, arguments about elitism or equity were not irrelevant to a discussion of ancient texts in a seminar room at Princeton; those arguments were, in fact, glaring and unavoidable. This meant that for her, the afternoon’s class was perhaps less comfortable, and less intoxicating, than it was for her peers. But it also meant, I think, that she was the only student to grasp some of the most important lessons that were on offer in the seminar room that day: how intellectual ability is evaluated, how elite status is conveyed, why class advantages tend to persist from one generation to the next.
Education is always a political act, but its politics can be complex and tangled, and they are often hidden from view. Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to expose the political meanings embedded in the everyday workings of our educational institutions. Sometimes, though, we just need to try a little harder to see them for ourselves.