Saturday, November 20, 2010

Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860

Copyright © 2002 José Cossa

The book is both a descriptive narrative of American schools and an argument around the eventual acceptance of the common school system resulting from American’s commitment to republican government, dominance of Protestant culture, and by the development of capitalism.  It engages the reader in a historical visit to American schooling within two chronological periods – the early national period (1780-1830) and the antebellum period (1830-1860).  The book Pillars of the Republic is about schooling in America, the role played by the founding fathers, and the philosophies that surrounded the emergence of common schools.

Keastle argues that the common school was not a smoothly accepted system in the history of American education.  As a movement that had religious Protestantism, religious and cultural assimilation of a diverse population, it encountered opposition from those who did share in the same ideology; however, the common school movement is indebted to these opposition groups because they informed the direction of the more significant reforms necessary at the time and often overlooked by the reformers.

The author outlines the activities and themes of the book within the prologue and fairly treats each of the promised themes and sub themes within.  The definition of the term Common School is clearly highlighted in the prologue following a good practice in research where terms are defined in the context they are used in order not to cause conflicts in the reader’s conceptual perception and consequent misunderstanding of the authorial treatment of the concept.

In writing this book, the author intends to “offer a new interpretation of the origins of public schooling and of the nature of popular resistance to that reform,” particularly to the new reader of educational history.  This quality of the book puts it amongst the pioneer work in common school development, and among the most insightful works on the early history of American education prior to the Civil War.

The author believes that there are many significant problems in dealing with the common school development, particularly in the South.  He acknowledges that diversity of state character among the various states in the US caused for such a complexity.  This can be seen in the difficulties faced in the implementation of common school reforms in the Southern states as opposed to Boston, Massachusetts.

Kaestle’s approach to the common school development is a fair one.  By looking at the events that preceded and contributed to the development of the common school, Kaestle provides the reader with a thorough background and is also complying with rules of historical narrative – Among which, providing historical background is important to the understanding of an even because events do not happen independent of their past and present surrounding conditions or circumstances but are often a result of such.  This approach places the reader in the world of the actors and the institutions in which the actors act.  The common school could not be understood without the understanding of the roles played and philosophies advocated by the founding fathers (e.g., men like Jefferson, Webster, and Rush played a major role in what would become known as the republic and the ideology of schooling in America). 

The integration of a description of the social and political milieu is a great contribution to the book.  The common school is only in perspective when socio-economic factors and events are also taken into consideration.  Examples of socio-economic events at the time, which are treated in Kaestle include (a) the conditions of specialization and formalization of work, (b) the shift of locus of work from home to factory and from family work force to labor force, (c) the shift from personal relationships at work to informal relationships in the bureaucratized factory, (d) the shift from subsistence to capitalism (production-productivity), and (e) the economy (not religion nor salvation) becomes the drive of literacy. 

Kaestle’s discussion of the common school reform covers thoroughly the details of the reform in a very comprehensive manner.  Kaestle discusses, in details, the arguments surrounding feminization of education and visits the problems surrounding the funding of public education at the time, control, bureaucratization, and centralization.  Another fair treatment in the book is that of the conflicting views between the main opposition parties, i.e., the democrats and the Whigs, personified by the main pillars of such parties.

The author remarks in the epilogue are profound and morally challenging to those who have basked in the common school or any other form of American education that has excluded some part of the American population.  If the mistake of the common school was grave in excluding Irish Catholics and blacks, the mistake of American education has been often that of failing to integrate diversity in its reform.  Perko’s epistemological-axiological quest “whose culture is been transmitted” is a constant in the American (and any other) educational system.  Kaestle calls for reflection over the failure of educational reforms to integrate and calls today’s educators, policy makers, and reformers to be more open to different cultural content, open to different teaching and learning styles, parental preferences, and different community needs.

The detailed historicity with which the book is written is indebted by the credentials of the writer.  A professor of education, history, and public policy at Brown University, and a celebrated researcher and writer of American history, Carl Kaestle is one of America’s best to speak on the topic.  His presentation of minority issues in the book is not engaging, but he makes a case in the multicultural approach to education reflected in his epilogue.  Kaestle is not ignorant that as far as that is concerned the common school was not effective, but attributes the victory of the common schools in relation to its effective implementation of reforms in modernizing education and pushing for support.

In my opinion, the book is a great must-read for all those interested in a solid historical background on common schools and reform.  Below is a statement by Kaestle on the reforms brought about by the common school reform and how they have played a significant role in education to this date:
For what it is worth, my opinion[1]... Schools are the domain of the country. We rise and fall by our citizens. We are all responsible for the education of our citizens. We profit by the education of our citizens. I am glad to see our educators, business leaders, and politicians on the same page in regards to education. Education is in the forefront. Politicians are raising the standards and providing the monies for texts, hardware, and software. Businesses are involved in school- to-work programs, tech prep, Virtual Enterprises, and the like. Educators have come to find a balance between love of necessity of education. Teacher pay is still low, but all else is a lot better now than 6 years ago. I think one of the main contributing factors to this situation is the Internet. More on that later.

[1]This extract is from the article Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860  available online:
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