Rise Above

How Did We Get Here? (Part 1)

About five years ago I wrote and published an article entitle “Nos Censuimos Igitur Essemus—We Thought Therefore We Were.” In that article, I explain the history of the American public education system and how the issues citizens decry evolved over time from America’s founding. I decided to post it in excerpts and to change none of the original language or tone. At the time, I had experienced public and charter school environments and was highly discouraged by the lack of care or consideration given to the learning/teaching process. While my verbiage has become far less combative, my sentiments remain unchanged.



As an actively involved participant and committed investor in the United States public education system, I have witnessed the vitriolic invective and fallacious rhetoric of pundits, politicians, protestors, and "reformers" on the deleterious state of the standard American classroom. As an educator and scholar for the better part of a decade, I have finally reached my wits end and refuse to sit and rage or fume quietly while we ignore the true, the real, the actual problem we have refused to acknowledge and subject to obloquy because too many have the noble notion that our societal salvation can only be achieved through political correctness and positive affirmations. Such blind and baseless dedication to protecting people from hurt feelings has greatly diminished the once matchless intellectual prowess and reputation of American scholarship.  This being said, I posit that the primary saboteur of American public education has been, unquestionably, the American public.

The principle problem is that the American public is woefully uninformed. The founding fathers of this great nation made no mention and laid no groundwork for the establishment of a compulsory, publicly funded system of education for all citizens. The Federal government—Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Executive—cannot ever hope to produce anything more than ephemeral changes with regard to our public schools simply because they lack the power to do so. The responsibility falls to the states under what is constitutionally known as “states' rights.” Of course this in no way implies that the discussions never took place.

 The Colonial Era

According to historical evidence, many of the founding fathers were actually emphatic in their belief that education is, in the words of S. Alexander Rippa in the fifth edition of the text entitled Education in a Free Society (1984), "a public responsibility of the federal government, a bulwark of freedom and security" (p. 67). Our first President, George Washington, in his Farewell Address to Congress, averred that the advancement of education was crucial for the "national welfare." Ironically, the concept was championed by none more than the same founding father one of the great states of our nation wished to remove from the founder's list in social studies textbooks because of his coinage of the phrase "separation of church and state."

No founder fought harder and longer to establish some form of state-funded system of education for American children than Thomas Jefferson. He proposed multiple plans to the state legislature of Virginia, all of which suffered sound defeat "...undoubtedly caused by the refusal of well-to-do citizens to pay taxes for the education of the poor" (p. 70). He encountered the same classist issues confronted by his colleague and contemporary, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin's and Jefferson's efforts to found and fund grammar schools supported by the taxpayers for the education of all children regardless of class (at that time this of course meant white males) ultimately led to the foundation of the first successful public schools not being what we would consider grammar or secondary institutions, but post-secondary colleges and universities: the University of Pennsylvania in 1755 and the University of Virginia in 1825. Intriguingly, colleges are often considered, and at this time this sentiment was a definitive fact, to be elitist.  Many people are convinced that these institutions further propagate the aspects of the economic caste system that limit the upward mobility of lower class citizens. Is it a coincidence that the first successful publicly funded academic institutions were bastions of higher academia and not grammar or secondary schools? Is our interest not even slightly piqued that the first American public schools embodied and formed the crux of the very values we decry as part of the problems in public education today?

The Modern Era

Let us continue on our brief journey through time and we learn that the following influential period of American growth and prosperity was the Antebellum and subsequent periods comprising the Industrial and Progressive Ages. Aside from propelling American industry and economy to unparalleled heights, it also demanded the need for a large and inexpensive (to increase profits for shareholders) labor force that could be easily exploited but not make too much of a fuss (probably due in part to the fact that, at least on paper, slavery would be, and was, abolished). In the mid to late 1800s through the 1940s, the seemingly eternal influx of immigrants began to inflict as many social issues as it offered economic gain.

Major issues that affected the educational sphere arose when the social reformers of the late 1800s bared their teeth and pushed for the revision of child labor laws. This put a substantially high number of immigrants' children out of work and, essentially, on the streets during normal business hours. In an arguably small amount of time, densely populated areas began to experience the societal ills that accompany a growing population of idle children and teenagers. The political response was the gradual passage and enforcement of state compulsory education laws requiring minors of school age to attend public schools. Institutions intricately designed to develop and prepare students for higher scholarship were, almost overnight it may have seemed to some, inundated with a crippling volume of children and adolescents whose aspirations and goals may or may not include rigorous academic pursuit. This spurned a reconceptualization of the purpose of public schools. The primary objective transitioned from “the education of republican ideals and democratic principles” to the "Americanization" of all citizens. Again, was there ever a time we the people made a true effort to ensure that all students had the opportunity to attain a collegiate education that took precedence over maintenance of the status quo?

(To be continued...)

©2017 Kevin J. Quail, II. All rights reserved


Kevin J. Quail, II is an experienced, certified Special Educator and Advocate. For over a decade, he has worked as a direct hire and independent contractor in public, private, and charter K-12 as well as college school environments in various capacities, including: Test Prep teacher, IB Librarian/Media Specialist, Tutor, Substitute, ESL teacher, Humanities/College Prep teacher, English, and GED prep teacher. He currently works as an independent research-practitioner and service provider serving in both the Honolulu and Washington, DC metropolitan areas to provide tutoring, homeschool support, test preparation, substitute teaching, special education services, curriculum design, advocacy, professional development and coaching for students, parents, schools, and other independent educators.