“I Did Not Invent This Faith”: The Purpose of American Education

Written by Kerry Ellard on March 16, 2022

“I have been accused more than once and from opposed quarters of an undue, a utopian, faith in the possibilities of intelligence and in education as a correlate of intelligence. At all events, I did not invent this faith. I acquired it from my surroundings as far as those surroundings were animated by the democratic spirit.” - John Dewey, 1939


Americans are often accused of having excessively high expectations about what education can accomplish. While the nature of their expectations has varied widely, this has been a consistent complaint from both parents and would-be reformers since at least the early 20th century. Why?

About a decade ago, David F. Labaree suggested an answer. In a 2010 book and accompanying article, Labaree gives a broad overview of the history of the American education system. He claims that the system, since colonial times, has been plagued by tension between two distinct visions and sets of priorities.[2] In this piece, I will walk through Labaree’s most important claims and arguments about these two disparate visions, connecting back to my past work on progressive education in America.

Dichotomy: Citizenship vs. Vocational Education

As I have discussed before, the common (public) school movement arose in Massachusetts, in line with both the settlers; religious mission and the unique circumstances of the New World. The result was “a profoundly conservative vision of education’s public mission: to preserve the religious community and maintain the faith.”[3] In Labaree’s words:

“...[O]nly through education could congregants acquire ‘the true sense and meaning’ of the Bible and thereby save themselves from the ‘false glosses of saint seeming deceivers.’ Such a mission was too important to be left to chance or to the option of individual parents. Instead it required action by public authority to make schooling happen.

At the same time that the official rationale for communities to provide education in colonial America was proclaimed to be the pursuit of a religious ideal, another more pragmatic reason quietly emerged that pushed individuals to see education on their own. In order to engage in commerce, people needed to be reasonably good at reading, writing, and arithmetic. Without these skills, storekeepers and merchants and tradesmen and clerks would be unable to make contracts, correspond with customers, or keep accounts. From this angle, schooling was a practical necessity for anyone who hoped to make a living by means of commercial activity in a country where, from the beginning, trade was a central fact of life.”[4]

This eventually led to the New England village artisan tradition of self-education that I have discussed in previous pieces, which was soon followed by Horace Mann’s efforts to formalize and adapt the Massachusetts system to encompass a more diverse and democratic community. Similar efforts gradually spread across the country.

But the situation was complicated, as Labaree indicates:

“[B]efore there was an American system of education — before there was even an American nation — schooling in America was an important and growing part of ordinary life, and it educated a larger share of the populace than did schooling in the rest of the world. The two factors that propelled this growth of schooling, however, were quite different in character. From the view of religion, schooling was the pursuit of a high ideal, a way to keep the faith and promote piety. Religion gave schooling a public rationale that was explicit, openly expounded by preachers, political leaders, journalists, and parents. From the view of commerce, schooling was the pursuit of a mundane interest, a way to make a living in an increasingly trade-oriented economy. This rationale for schooling was well understood but only rarely made explicit...And the two factors differed not only in the goal they set for schooling but also in the agents who would carry out this goal. Whereas the religious view stimulated top-down efforts by government and the church to promote and provide education for the populace, the commercial view stimulated bottom-up efforts by individual consumers to pursue education for their own ends.”[5]

I agree that this citizenship vs. vocational/commercial education debate has been a defining dynamic in the development of the American education system, but I would describe the forces driving it a bit differently. The “religious” view of schooling did not stay confined to literal religions, or it would never have moved beyond New England. Instead, this energy was transferred to the more universal civic religion, the “democratic faith” Dewey describes, and became an argument for citizenship education, underlying the proposal of Horace Mann and many later reformers in other regions. Additionally, until the late 20th century, even though compulsory secondary education had become the national norm, high school graduation rates were fairly low in some places, and relatively few people attended college. Rather than “consume” years of formal schooling in the expectation of securing a specific credential or career, most people sought out their own learning experiences, connections, and knowledge in order to find employment opportunities. I agree with Labaree, however, that “the pressures that have sought to shape educational change in the United States have continually taken the form of these two early impulses to provide and pursue schooling,”[6] and that this is often obscured by the rhetorical appropriation:

“The history of American education is in many ways an expression of this ongoing tension between schooling as the pursuit of gradually evolving cultural ideals and schooling as the pursuit of increasingly compelling economic practicalities. The first of these rationales has propelled most educational reform movements, which have demanded that schools adapt themselves to new ideals and help society realize these ideals— whether this ideal be religious faith, civic virtue, economic efficiency, racial equality, or individual liberty. These ideals have formed the core of the rhetoric of the major school reform movements. The second rationale is what has propelled individuals to demand educational opportunity and to avail themselves of it when it is made available. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, however, this second form of pressure for educational change flew under the radar for the most part;this is evidenced by the fact that it is largely missing from the language of reform documents and educational politics...[T]he history of school reform in this country has been an odd mix of turbulent reform rhetoric, which has only modestly affected the underlying structure of schooling, and a slow and silent evolutionary process, which has exerted substantial change in this structure over a sufficiently long period of time that this change is barely visible.”[7]

Horace Mann’s Influence

Labaree acknowledges that Mann’s reform efforts as Massachusetts’s first Secretary of Education in the 1840s marked a change in the nature of the common school movement, and provided a template with a chance of gaining national traction, as it did after the Civil War. In an 1848 report to state officials, Mann “made clear that the primary rationale for this institution was political: to create citizens with the knowledge, skills, and public spirit required to maintain a republic and to protect it from the sources of faction, class, and self-interest that pose the primary threat to its existence.”[8]

“A few pages later, Mann summed up his argument with the famous statement, ‘It may be an easy thing to make a Republic; but it is a very laborious thing to make Republicans; and woe to the republic that rests upon no better foundations than ignorance, selfishness, and passion.’ In his view, then, the common school system was given the centrally important political task of making citizens for a republic. And toward this end, its greatest contribution was its commonness, drawing together all members of society into a single institution and providing them with the shared educational experience and civic grounding that they needed in order to function as members of a functional republican community. For the common school movement, all other goals were subordinate to this one.”[9]

This general view of schooling’s purpose is quite similar to the one John Dewey promoted in the next century. Labaree only briefly mentions Dewey, suggesting that his form of progressive education was insignificant relative to the form pushed by “social efficiency”/administrative progressives in the early 20th century. He suggests that both had a very different conception of education than Mann’s, but focuses on “a [1918] report to the National Education Association titled Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, which spelled out the administrative progressive position on education more clearly and consequentially than any other single document.”[10]

“According to the authors, schools exist to help individuals adapt to the needs of society; as society becomes more complex, schools must transform themselves accordingly; and in this way they will help citizens develop the socially necessary qualities of ‘intelligence and efficiency.’

This focus on social efficiency, however, did not deter the authors from drawing on political rhetoric to support their position. In a 12,000-word report, they used the terms ‘‘democracy’’ or ‘‘democratic’’ no fewer than forty times. But what did they mean by democratic education? At one point in boldfaced type they state that ‘‘education in a democracy, both within and without the school, should develop in each individual the knowledge, interests, ideals, habits, and powers whereby he will find his place and use that place to shape both himself and society toward ever nobler ends.’ So, whereas Mann’s reports used political arguments to support a primarily political purpose for schooling (preparing citizens with civic virtue), the commission’s report used political arguments about the requirements of democracy to support a vision of schooling that was primarily economic (preparing efficient workers). In addition, the report preserved the concern of common school proponents about school as a public good, but only by redefining the public good in economic terms. Yes, education serves the interests of society as a whole, said these progressives; but it does so not by producing civic virtue but by producing what we would later come to call human capital.”[11]

Arguably, Dewey used the same rhetorical trick, but in pursuit of different purposes. I have explained how Dewey’s approach discussed citizenship and civic virtue in terms similar to those of “human capital,” part of an Emersonian logic common to the Northern American educational tradition. Others were merely trying to make their innovations less controversial by cloaking them in traditional rhetoric; Dewey was trying to translate more timeless concepts into the latest academic jargon. Hence, Mann’s attempt to cultivate Republicans turned into Dewey’s attempt to inspire democratic faith and collective intelligence, terms that allowed him to communicate with the social efficiency theorists who dominated the scene.

Consuming Education

Labaree then discusses the rhetorical strategy of Brown v. Board, which both appealed to and significantly redefined the concept of citizenship education in a particularly atomized and consumerist way, far more bluntly than the social efficiency theorists had managed to do:

The argument in this decision was at heart political, asserting that education is a constitutional right of every citizen that must be granted to everyone on equal terms. But note that the political vision in Brown is quite different from the political vision put forward by Mann. For the common school movement, schools were critically important in the effort to build a republic; their purpose was political. But for the desegregation movement, schools were critically important as a mechanism of social opportunity. Their purpose was to promote social mobility. Politics was just the means by which one could demand access to this attractive educational commodity.In this sense, then, Brown depicted education as a private good, whose benefits go to the degree holder and not to society as a whole.The Court’s argument was not that granting African Americans access to equal education would enhance society, both black and white; instead, it argued that African Americans were suffering from segregation and would benefit from desegregation. Quality education was an important form of property that they had been denied, and the remedy was to give them access to it. In this decision, republican equality for citizens had turned into equal opportunity for consumers.”[12]

This trend only intensified in the 1980s, despite a seemingly-different context, with the A Nation at Risk report:

“...[The report] asserted a vision of education as an intensely public good: All Americans benefit from its successes, and all are threatened by its failures...[It] represented education as a particular type of public good, which benefited American society by giving it the human capital it needed in order to be economically competitive with other nations...”[13]

As schools were finally able to act on this vision, this was followed by the school choice movement, the rhetoric of which “represented the opposite end of the scale from the rhetoric of the common school movement that set in motion the American public school system in the middle of the nineteenth century,” according to Labaree.[14]

“In educational reform rhetoric, we have moved all the way from a political rationale for education to a market rationale, and from seeing education as a public good to seeing it as a private good.

Instead of extolling the benefits of having a common school system promote a single virtuous republican community, reformers were extolling the benefits of having an atomized school system serve the differential needs of a vast array of disparate consumer subcultures.”[15]

Labaree’s argument is persuasive, but the story hasn’t ended there:

“The start of the twenty-first century saw an interesting shift in the rhetoric of the standards movement and the choice movement, as both incorporated the language of equal opportunity from the civil rights movement. In their original form, both movements ran into significant limitations in their ability to draw support, and both turned to a very effective political argument from the civil rights movement to add passion and breadth to their mode of appeal.

...In January 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law a wide-reaching piece of standards legislation passed with broad bipartisan support. The title of this law explains the rhetorical shift involved in gaining approval for it: the No Child Left Behind Act...What we find here is a marriage of the standards movement and the civil rights movement. From the former comes the focus on rigorous academic subjects, core curriculum for all students, and testing and accountability; from the latter comes the urgent call to reduce social inequality by increasing educational opportunity...”[16]

Americans seem to be constantly trying to overcorrect for going too far in the direction of one of the purposes, while never acknowledging that there are two purposes competing, which might allow for us to finally achieve some balance and long-term stability. Labaree explains what needs to be understood:

“...in trying to understand the factors affecting the public character of American public schools, the consumer effect on the school system is quite different in both form and function from the reformer effect...reformers are intentionally trying to change the school system and improve society through their reform efforts. In contrast, consumers are simply pursuing their own interests through the medium of education...they are just trying to get ahead or at least not fall behind. But, in combination, their individual decisions about pursuing education do exert a significant impact on the school system. These choices shift enrollments from some programs to others and from one level of the system to another. They pressure political leaders to shift public resources into the educational system and to move resources within the system to the locations that are in greatest demand...When consumers use education to address their own social problems, the social consequences are no less substantial for being unintended.

...The core of the problem is Americans’ insistence on having things both ways through the magical medium of education. We want schools to express our highest ideals as a society and our greatest aspirations as individuals, but only as long as they remain ineffective in actually enabling us to achieve these goals, since we really do not want to acknowledge that these two aims are at odds with each other...As a result, the system continues to lure us to pursue the dream of fixing society by reforming schools while continually frustrating our ability to meet these goals. It locks us in a spiral of educational expansion and credential inflation that has come to deplete our resources and exhaust our vitality. And we cannot find a simple cure for this syndrome because we will not accept any remedy that would mean giving up one of our aims for education in favor of another. We want it both ways." [17]


I am more optimistic than Labaree; I think that, once these contradictions and opposing goals are understood, the way out is easier to see, because these impulses aren’t inherently at odds with each other. Our definitions are too rigid. And I think Dewey tried his best to disrupt this rigidity and articulate how “having it both ways” might work. However, as happened with other reformers, his clever rhetorical games—his own attempt to have things both ways—have deprived us of the ability to clearly understand the situation, and prevented his own methods from being successfully implemented. We must look at the record ourselves, with fresh eyes, honestly discuss what it suggests about our options, and get out of the trap we’ve been stuck in.

1. John Dewey, “Creative Democracy,” 1939. Emphasis added. An open-source .pdf file is available here.

2. See David F. Labaree, “Consuming the Public School,” Educational Theory, University of Illinois Vol. 61, No. 4, 2011. An open-source .pdf file is available here.

3. Labaree, “Consuming the Public School.”

4. Labaree, “Consuming the Public School.” Emphases added.

5. Labaree, “Consuming the Public School.” Emphases added.

6. Labaree, “Consuming the Public School.”

7. Labaree, “Consuming the Public School.” Emphases added.

8. Labaree, “Consuming the Public School.” Emphases added.

9. Labaree, “Consuming the Public School.” Emphases added.

10. Labaree, “Consuming the Public School.”

11. Labaree, “Consuming the Public School.” Emphases added.

12. Labaree, “Consuming the Public School.” Emphases added.

13. Labaree, “Consuming the Public School.”

14. Labaree, “Consuming the Public School.”

15. Labaree, “Consuming the Public School.” Emphases added.

16. Labaree, “Consuming the Public School.” Emphases added.

17. Labaree, “Consuming the Public School.” Emphases added.

Kerry Ellard

Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.