What is the purpose of public schools?

Contrary to common belief, education is not a right listed in the Constitution (Patton & Mondale, 2001). In the 2009 video “Education in America: 17th and 18th centuries (clip),” the narrator states that at the beginning of the journey to provide public education, the Dame School was created. In this school, girls were taught the skills necessary to prepare them for becoming a wife and mother, while boys received instruction which would prepare them for further schooling (Education in America: 17th and 18th centuries (clip)). Primarily, they were drilled religious doctrine, memorizing religious absolutes in order to avoid eternal damnation (Education in America: 17th and 18th centuries (clip)). Dana Goldstein (2014) writes that two of the biggest advocates for public education, Horace Mann and Catharine Beecher, placed higher importance on teaching children good deeds as opposed to good doctrine, because they believed that a child’s character had more value than their academic knowledge (p. 30). Most schools, however, were merely a prelude for children to assume responsibility of their parent’s occupation when they became of age. It seems that what they learned in school had no determination of their future career.

After the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson became a proponent for education. Patton & Mondale (2001) discuss in part 2 of “School: The story of American public education,” that Jefferson argued that the “survival of democracy depended on educating all Americans” and that education was a way for each to determine what was right for them. This is the thought that each person, as a voting citizen, needed to be educated enough so that they could have the capability to make an informed decision. Additionally, Jefferson drafted a proposal to guarantee three years of education for all children, which he argued was plenty for females to prepare them for marriage and motherhood (Patton & Mondale, 2001). This bill was proposed for a vote three times, and each time was rejected (Patton & Mondale, 2001). The State did not have the funding necessary for such measures, and whether or not a child was able to attend school was based on his family’s financial status (Patton & Mondale, 2001). Jefferson, along with Mann, were not in agreement with the basis that a family status determined the child’s educational potential and destiny (Patton & Mondale, 2001).

Mann then created the idea of “common schools,” which would provide all students the same education so as to have an equal chance in life (Patton & Mondale, 2001). Ted Brackemyre (n.d.) wrote on Mann’s observations of the Prussian school system, from which stemmed the idea of common schools. The goal of these schools, which were open to both female and male, was to train teachers to properly teach (Brackemyre, n.d.). Mann believed education to be an “equalizer” regarding the conditions of mankind (Brackemyre, n.d.). The concept of education being an “equalizer” opened the door for everyone, rich and poor alike, to receive an eduction. Mann then became connected with Catharine Beecher in petitioning for women to be admitted into the teaching profession “because they would be cheaper than men” and it was a woman’s opportunity to take advantage of her natural nurturing abilities (Goldstein, 2014, p. 25-27). Together, Beecher’s and Mann’s efforts made teaching admirable, with an underlying goal to create a profession for women (Patton & Mondale, 2001).

From its importance in religious doctrine to becoming the backbone of democracy to being accepted as an equalizer for all, the American system of public schools is one of the most significant yet unfinished achievements to date, as stated in part one of “School: The story of American public education.” Jefferson, Mann, and Beecher fought hard in favor of education, and it grew increasingly harder as time passed. If it were not for Mann and Beecher, women would still be limited in their working abilities. I do believe education to be an equalizer, as it allows everyone, men and women, rich or poor, to better themselves. If it were not for Mann’s argument that education is an equalizer, we would not all have equal opportunity for education. Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Education is the pathway to creating a better life for yourself and your family.



Brackemyre, T. (n.d.). Education to the masses: The rise of public education in early America. U.S. History scene [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://ushistoryscene.com/article/rise-of-public-education/.

Education in America: 17th and 18th centuries (clip). (2009). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZq2ou4XWqU.

Goldstein, D. (2014). The teacher wars: A history of America’s most embattled profession. New York, NY: Random House, LLC.

Patton, S. & Mondale, S. (Producers), & Mondale, S. (Director). (2001). School: The story of American public education [Documentary] . United States: Stone Lantern Films. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL00795BC38B4368D4.


6 thoughts on “What is the purpose of public schools?”

  1. Dame schools are such an interesting thing to me. Like it’s stated in “School: The Story of American Public Education”, they are almost attending a glorified day care! I wonder how long it would have taken public schools to form if Beecher and Mann hadn’t come along.

    I like that you stated that our public school system is “significant yet unfinished”. I think many people don’t realize that our country, and our education system, is still very young and it is still being approved upon. They want it to be perfect, but what institution is?


  2. I find it interesting that Thomas Jefferson drafted his proposal a significant amount of time after the Dame Schools, yet his plan wasn’t all that different from them with regard to girls’ education. He believed that in three years, girls could prepare to be wives and mothers. How is that any different from what girls were taught in the Dame Schools? Even if Jefferson’s proposal had been accepted, I highly doubt that girls would have had the opportunity to learn the same subjects the boys were learning.


    1. I was surprised by that as well. Three years of school to prepare for motherhood? I wonder what they were learning in addition to that of the Dame Schools. It could be to where they would learn enough to be able to teach their children the basic letters and numbers as well.


  3. Great post Allison! I like that you hoaned in on the common schools in the fact that it is the reason why education is where it is today. Although, both Beecher and Jefferson contributed to the birth of public school systems as well, it was Mann who made all the difference. Beecher’s focus was on women and creating a teaching profession and Jefferson’s effort was to prepare children to be informed voters and become better working class citizens. I think Mann was the only one whose focus was on creating a system so that every child would have equal opportunity to become whatever they want to be in life. You talked quite a bit about Mann believing education to be an “equalizer” and I agree that it makes things better for any individual but it is not an “equalizer”. It equalizes people in their ability to receive an education but it does not equalize people in the quality of life they have. I believe Mann’s intention was for education to be an “equalizer” because everyone was given the same opportunity and being taught the same things. I honestly, do not think education makes things equal. I believe they make things easier. Do you think Mann would be happy with how school systems are set up today? I think he would be impressed. Any person who is willing can get an education; which I believe to be Mann’s primary goal.


    1. You made some good points. Education does not necessarily put everyone on equal ground, nor does someone with more education necessarily have a higher quality of life than someone with less education. However, I believe that education is the means to a greater quality of life. Education allows people to change where they are and to provide a better outcome for themselves. I do believe Mann would be pleased with our school systems today, as education is now easier for all to access.


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