The Origin of the Common School Concept

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Since the formation of the republic, popular education had been an idea waiting to happen. As the colonies prepared for statehood, Jefferson was urging his beloved Virginia to establish a few years of schooling "gratis" to ensure an extension of educational opportunity and at the same time "to rake the rubbish" in search of talent for the young republic (Jefferson 180l, 748). Washington, himself, was concerned that American youth by studying in Europe were "imbibing maxims not congenial with republicanism" and urged the creation of a national university and "a plan of universal education" (Washington 1795, 806). Lawrence A. Cremin's earlier work, The American Common School: An Historical Conception (1951) is still a lucid and valuable introduction for understanding the common school movement from the end of the War of 1812 to 1850. Cremin summarized the turbulent and discordant changes--of what is now commonly labeled the Jacksonian era--as the democratizing of politics, the preserving of social equality, the changing conception of man and society (from a synthesis of liberal Christianity and dynamic democracy), and the rise of economic nationalism and individualist-capitalism (17-19,28). Those changes were translated into the anthropolitical concept of cultural "demands" for a new social "equilibrium" (28) producing a political movement for "a new functional, and positive conception" of the common school (47) available to all children--but not compulsory--that would provide a minimum common educational experience of reading, writing, and arithmetic (66). It would be financed and regulated by the community in "the collective" tradition of colonial Calvinism in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (85). Three decades later, Karl E. Kaestle (Pillars of the Republic, 1983) reinforced and expanded Cremin's concepts, emphasizing capitalism along with republicanism and Protestantism as part of the central ideology for the common school: "The world of cash was a world of...
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