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Democracy's Schools

The Rise of Public Education in America

At a time when Americans are debating the future of public education, Johann N. Neem tells the inspiring story of how and why Americans built a robust public school system in the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War. It’s a story in which ordinary people in towns across the country worked together to form districts and build schoolhouses and reformers sought to expand tax support and give every child a liberal education. By the time of the Civil War, most northern states had made common schools free, and many southern states were heading in the same direction. Americans made schooling a public good.

Yet back then, like today, Americans disagreed over the kind of education needed, who should pay for it, and how schools should be governed. Neem explores the history and meaning of these disagreements. As Americans debated, teachers and students went about the daily work of teaching and learning. Neem takes us into the classrooms of yore so that we may experience public schools from the perspective of the people whose daily lives were most affected by them.

Ultimately, Neem concludes, public schools encouraged a diverse people to see themselves as one nation. By studying the origins of America’s public schools, Neem urges us to focus on the defining features of democratic education: promoting equality, nurturing human beings, preparing citizens, and fostering civic solidarity.

About the Author

Johann N. Neem is a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and a professor of history at Western Washington University. He is the author of Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts.

Endorsements

"Beautifully written, clearly organized, and deeply grounded in a nice mix of primary and secondary sources, Democracy's Schools is the best short introduction to antebellum public education that I've ever read. It is also hugely relevant to ongoing questions about liberal arts and democracy."

- Jonathan Zimmerman, University of Pennsylvania, author of Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know

"In this compact and ambitious interpretive history, Neem does a masterful job of laying out the many, frequently conflicting, values and ideas that make the public school such a dynamic and essential democratic institution."

- Mike Rose, University of California–Los Angeles, author of Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America

"In this outstanding study, bursting with fresh insights, Johann Neem balances critical assessments of common school reformers’ vision of American education against a sympathetic understanding of their aspiration to provide all Americans the tools necessary for 'self-culture,' an ambitious ideal of a fulfilling life. Democracy’s Schools shows how these tensions shaped antebellum American politics and social life as well as education, and why struggles between a shared national vision and distinctive local institutions remain at the heart of debates about education in a pluralist democracy."

- James T. Kloppenberg, Harvard University, author of Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought

Reviews

"The book provides a compelling account of how Horace Mann, Reverend William Ellery Channing, Catharine Beecher, and other antebellum advocates of the United States’s common schools brought what amounts to a liberal arts education to the nation’s children. In the face of widespread cynicism about public education, Neem reminds us that public schools can liberate children’s minds from prejudice or vocational preoccupations."

- LA Review of Books

"This generally clear and ample account of the origins of public education draws upon the latest research and a good deal of primary-source material. Neem’s adept treatment of the many conflicts evident at the time, along with the extravagant rhetoric that often accompanied reform, makes this book an attractive option for illuminating this period in American history... Democracy’s Schools documents the advance in our understanding of early schooling in the United States, and points to directions for further exploration."

- John L. Rury, University of Kansas - Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"There is much about Democracy's Schools to appreciate. Neem has immersed himself in a wide array of archival sources. He renders sensible a multitude of dense, sprawling treatises and texts. He produces a well-written, provocative, and cohesive narrative accessible to a lay and scholarly audiences. Moreover, one cannot finish Democracy's Schools without understanding why Neem personally has great faith in public education."

- Hilary Moss, Amherst College - History of Education Quarterly

"Neem's insights are timely in our twenty-first-century world. At a time when critics on both the Left and Right advocate homeschooling and charter schools as alternatives to traditional public education, when activists question the benefits of a liberal education in a technology-driven age, and when our nation grapples with the effects of ever-increasing cultural diversity, it is worth contemplating the role public schools have played in upholding our democratic institutions."

- John Ellis, Bemidji State University - Journal of Southern History

"Neem is masterful in explaining, to new and seasoned readers, antebellum public education. The origins of debates over governance, funding and curricula (local control versus national priorities, public regulation and taxation versus private management and market fundamentalism) as well as the rights and responsibilities of the majority vis-à-vis those of the many minority groups are illuminated in a clear, thoughtful and even-handed way. Thus, his narrative does more than interpret the past: it also provides a ready and accessible context for many of the current tensions in US education and American democracy."

- Thomas V. O'Brien, University of Southern Mississippi - History of Education
Johns Hopkins University Press
How Things Worked
From 13 To 17

9781421423203 : democracys-schools-neem
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