Back to Basics? What Was the Original Purpose of Compulsory Public School Education?

When pursuing a course of study which leads to a “Master” degree, both the thesis and the practicum pathways usually involve a review of the research regarding the thesis statement.  While reviewing some of the Internet resources available regarding the implementation of publicly funded compulsory education in this country, it’s interesting to see the articles associated with the thoughts and writings of Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann.  Historian Ellwood P. Cubberley makes the following assertion regarding Horace Mann:

No one did more than he to establish in the minds of the American people the conception that education should be universal, non-sectarian, free, and that its aims should be social efficiency, civic virtue, and character, rather than mere learning or the advancement of sectarian ends. (Cubberley, Ellwood P., Public Education in the United States (1919) p. 167)

Interestingly, that statement does not support the widely held belief that education should prepare the individual to be able to “get into college” nor “get a good job.”  It says that education is what makes a “good person” – one of good character, able to functionally participate in society, and uphold the laws dedicated to the common good.  In other words, a person should be educated enough to be aware of what’s going on in the world around him or her, be able to read, write and calculate, and be aware of issues of a public nature and how they take precedence over selfish reasons, and in doing so, be able to either step forward to participate or vote for representation who will carry out the responsibilities of a democratic society within our national republic.

The bottom line: an educated person would not undermine these virtues, while an uneducated person would by resorting to activities associated with selfishness, self-centeredness, and self-aggrandizement.

It’s also interesting to see how this type of education began in the New England area before our nation received its independence from England, but it’s only been since the end of World War II where compulsory education beyond the eighth grade has been the norm in this country’s southern states, as well as for people of all races and creeds since the latter part of the 20th century.

Currently, a resource exists at which provides some great insights on this topic.

It’s ironic that so few people today take advantage of their civic “duty” to vote now that the original goal of compulsory public education has been met.  Therefore, can we really go “Back to Basics,” focusing on a curriculum that’s meant to make sure individuals can function in a society, actively participate in their civic responsibilities, and ensure they are of upstanding and righteous character?  How is this done without a foundation in morality?  Three quotations from John Adams come to mind:

1) “You will ever remember that all the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen.”

2) “There are two types of education… One should teach us how to make a living, and the other how to live.”

3) “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.”

If we go “Back to Basics,” the above criteria are those by which we should be able to evaluate high school graduates.  Note that they say nothing about scoring at a particular level on a standardized test.  In 2015, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was reauthorized as the Every Student Succeeds ACT (ESSA), which expanded the ESEA and included additional constructs to provide for student and school success.  It:

  • Advances equity by upholding critical protections for America’s disadvantaged and high-need students.

  • Requires—for the first time—that all students in America be taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.

  • Ensures that vital information is provided to educators, families, students, and communities through annual statewide assessments that measure students’ progress toward those high standards.

  • Helps to support and grow local innovations—including evidence-based and place-based interventions developed by local leaders and educators—consistent with our Investing in Innovation and Promise Neighborhoods

  • Sustains and expands this administration’s historic investments in increasing access to high-quality preschool.

  • Maintains an expectation that there will be accountability and action to effect positive change in our lowest-performing schools, where groups of students are not making progress, and where graduation rates are low over extended periods of time. (Source:, accessed 1.12.18).

Interestingly, the law mentions nothing about “the basics” as put forth in the original mandate for public education; namely, the moral, religious, and well-formed character necessary to make an each child a good person, able to make a living, and be a useful citizen to support and uphold our nation’s Constitution.  Consider that statement relative to what we’ve seen over the past week and the past few months.

My…how times have changed!