“Wanting It Both Ways”: The False Paradoxes in the American Education Debate

Written by Kerry Ellard on April 4, 2022

Note: This piece is a follow-up to “’I Did Not Invent This Faith’: The Purpose of American Education”.


In “‘I Did Not Invent This Faith’: The Purpose of American Education,” I said that I am more optimistic than economics and education scholar David F. Labaree when it comes to Americans' adopting and acting on realistic expectations about education. While the American expectations are no doubt ambitious, they are not based on utopian or contradictory logic. Rather, they are based on the actual American experience, which justifies a considerable degree of confidence and hope. In other words, America’s allegedly extravagant expectations are realistic, but only if everyone gets on the same page about what the goals are. That is what John Dewey meant when he wrote in 1939, that his “faith in the possibilities of intelligence and in education as a correlate of intelligence,” were not something he had invented on a whim. "I acquired it from my surroundings as far as those surroundings were animated by the democratic spirit.”


Labaree acknowledges the confusion about specifics that have accumulated since the early 20th century, but the persistent utopian lean in the educational culture suggests an underlying shared vision. Though they may struggle to articulate it, those attuned to the “democratic spirit” still sense that a coherent and realistic path to a better system of American education is out there.

The public education system we have now, Labaree argues, is a result of “the peculiarly American balance between access and advantage" that has been struck.

Such a balance, which he seems to find frustrating, is “peculiarly American”. For a long time, the American education system was unprecedented and unmatched in its accessibility. Most countries didn’t consider broad access important until the 20th century, and, for better or worse, few have struck the balance as favorably as America has.

In earlier pieces, I have indicated my suspicion that perceived tensions between quality and quantity in American education may be symptoms of deeper contradictions, ones that are both more complex and yet more liable to reconciliation. The nature of the confusion is summed up by the frequent claim that Germany had the best educated population in the world in the late 19th century. While Germany’s universities, technical training programs, and state bureaucratic organization were considered unmatched, most of its population was consigned to a life of manual labor by age fourteen, and its world-renowned scholars and scientists made up only a tiny fraction of those with more than an elementary education. The accurate claim would be that Germany had the best-educated scholars and professors in the late 19th century. That achievement is only possible when you strike a balance very much in the favor of advantage (a degree of talent and in-depth knowledge that few people possess) rather than access.

Labaree pointedly notes that “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,” and that “consumers [in other words, regular Americans] drove...American school enrollments to a level higher than anywhere else in the world, starting with the surge from primary school into grammar school in the late nineteenth century, into high school in the first half of the twentieth century, and into college in the second half,”

but he still seems to think that the system is a notorious and chaotic bottom-up failure, suggesting that he has a more efficient, centrally-planned model in mind.

“The Race Was On”

Crucially, as Labaree acknowledges, the balance we discussed above was achieved not as part of a plan or even conscious collective action, but through attempts by individual actors to advance their own interests, often bypassing the grand plans of experts. In fact, many of these awkward compromises were a direct result of reform schemes that did not operate as intended.

“...it was the unintended outcome of the actions of individual consumers competing for valuable credentials in the education market...As a result, the education market does not speak with a single voice but with competing voices, and it exerts its impact not by pushing in a single direction but by pushing in multiple directions.”


The confused expectations of average Americans could not have been inherently built into a system that neither they nor anyone else consciously chose.

I would argue the confusion has been generated by the system’s dysfunction and complexity, as well as the related rationalizations of those invested in it, who are incentivized to deny and therefore prevent the resolution of its accumulated contradictions.

To me, the key point is captured in these remarks from Labaree:

The men overseeing the common school inadvertently set off the competition for educational advantage when they created the public high school as a way to lure middle-class families into the public school system...The race was on...Late in the nineteenth century, the number of office jobs increased, which raised the value of a high school education, and by the start of the twentieth century, employers increasingly came to use educational qualifications to decide who was qualified for particular jobs, including both white collar and blue collar positions. At this point, the economic returns on the consumer’s investment in education became quite substantial all across the occupational spectrum."

(8) Ibid. Emphases added.

In other words, rampant 20th-century credentialism destabilized a public school system that was not designed for a society that equated credentials with merit—certainly not “all across the occupation system.” In fact, as Labaree implicitly acknowledges in this paragraph, and explicitly states elsewhere in the piece, the 19th-century school system was not built to emphasize career training or the empowerment of striving middle-class professionals...that’s why the latter had to be “lured” into it by the high school administrators who “inadvertently set off” a competitive class-based dynamic. (Later, as John Dewey indicated, vocational training programs were added to high school curricula to lure students from working-class or rural families into the system—getting people into the system has consistently absorbed more energy than figuring out what would be done with them once they were there.)

The Complexity of the 19th-Century American Education Landscape

What was the situation in public schools prior to this outbreak of “competition for education advantage?” Bringing together students from all backgrounds, so that they would have enough familiarity and common ground to coexist as responsible citizens in adulthood. While reality necessarily fell short of this ideal, and at times fell far shorter than was necessary, American public schools existed for many years without resembling arenas for zero-sum competition among aspiring middle-class professionals. I even find Labaree’s claim that “the introduction of universal public education in the common school era made such basic skills available to everyone in the white population at public expense," thus establishing the common school “as the baseline level of formal skill for the American populace in the nineteenth century,” too strong. In my opinion, the idea that “formal skills” acquired from public schooling are a major source of personal advantage in adulthood—and/or serve to maintain class or race-based privileges, is anachronistic when applied to the 19th century.

Neither social privilege nor economic and professional advancement had a meaningful correlation with public school attendance.

“[The] basic structure [of the Massachusetts common school system] proved remarkably persistent and was effective in cultivating principled, enthusiastic, and eloquent republican citizens. Massachusetts was the first place to provide widely accessible taxpayer-funded schooling—Boston’s schools banned racial segregation years before the Civil War—and to make elementary school compulsory. It involved an emphasis on reading and internalizing the principles of foundational American documents, such as political speeches and the Declaration of Independence, producing the kind of philosophical grounding…described. Education was, first and foremost, a matter of community security, in that it made sure every citizen knew the moral and political principles under which the community operated—and that he or she was able to intelligently defend them."

(10) See Sherry Schwartz, “The Origins of History's Mission in American Schools: A Case Study of Hannah Adams,” Theory & Research in Social Education, vol. 29, no. 2, Spring 2001, College and University Faculty Assembly of National Council for the Social Studies, https://digital.lib.usf.edu/SFS0024304/00101.

As this suggests, the dispositive factor when it came to accessing tax-payer funded common school education during the 19th century was probably location (urban vs. rural or frontier, northeastern vs. western or southern). Where common school systems existed in the first place, they were usually open to all, as a major factor driving the expansion of such systems was to bring less integrated and advantaged groups under “respectable” social influences. (It was often wealthy businessmen who set up public schools in the 19th century, for the stated educational and moral benefit of poor or immigrant children in crowded cities—often with an eye to preserving their own comfort and security. See ”The Misconception of Americanization in 19th and 20th-Century America,” for more on this.)

Socioeconomic status affected the likelihood one would take advantage of such options that existed in one’s location (in complicated ways, as the most well-off families or aspiring professionals/specialists tended to forgo or supplement this option, pursuing private and inherently exclusive educational options)

. Education access was certainly not equally distributed across race and sex, but whether a particular child of any background attended public school tended to be secondary to location and socioeconomic status. The following summary gives some idea of what I mean by this, and also shows how a particular state and decade could make a big difference when it came to accessing education for a particular demographic group:

“Historians of education...report that schools for African American children were established considerably later...were many fewer in number, were poorer in quality and resources, and varied in availability from region to region, with the greatest number of opportunities being in the East Coast cities of the North...

...Schools for African American children were often established with the help of religious groups, especially the Society of Friends, or with the help of abolition or manumission societies, and that one of the most celebrated schools for Negroes was established in New York City in 1787. This school opened with forty students, and by 1820, more than five hundred children were enrolled...in New Jersey, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Massachusetts, schools for African Americans were opened by 1810.... while educational opportunities for African American children were available in the second half of the eighteenth century in the South, they were severely curtailed there, in the early decades of the nineteenth century...A number of Southern states passed laws making illegal the school-based literacy education of people of color. Mississippi, for example, passed legislation forbidding the education of slaves or free Negroes in 1823; Louisiana forbade the teaching of slaves in 1830; North Carolina and Virginia, in 1831; and Alabama, in 1832. The North Carolina legislature explained its reason for the prohibition: ‘The teaching of slaves to read and write, has a tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds, and to produce insurrection and rebellion, to the manifest injury of the citizens of this State.’ At the same time that formal education was in many cases denied to African American children, it was often imposed on Native American children as a ‘civilizing’ measure.”

(12) Lucille M. Schultz, The Young Composers: Composition's Beginnings in Nineteenth-Century Schools (Studies in Writing and Rhetoric), U.S. Department of Education, 1999. (Internal citations omitted.)

The final lines are especially telling: a randomly selected African-American child in the North was more likely to have limited educational options than a randomly selected American child of another race, but this is not comparable to the situation of the African-American child in the South, whose education was actually considered a crime, and who was held to have no rights or access to meaningful, autonomous social participation in adulthood. Additionally, others, like some Native Americans, may not have benefited from, or might have even been made worse off, by their "guaranteed access” to public education.


The relationship between these factors was complicated, such that they can’t be assessed independently, but the key point is that even though white children were more likely to attend public school overall, common school access was nowhere near “universal” among them, and actual attendance was extremely regional and uneven. Some scholars have estimated that it was only in the 1830s that a majority of New England children had received any formal schooling at all, whether public or private, and only in the 1840s that this became true in the Midwest and West.

In the antebellum Midwest and West, there were very few public schools, so this formal education would have been privately secured and not standardized enough to constitute “a baseline level of formal skill.” In fact, schools and tutors at this time were more likely to emphasize persuasive communication, “proper” behavior, and personal and republic virtues than skill-based competence. Home-schooling or hiring a family friend as a live-in tutor was common in the most privileged and educated circles.

"A Single Voice”

All this, combined with the fact that informal education was prevalent, indicates that common school attendance could never have functioned as a “baseline level of formal skill for the American populace in the nineteenth century.” And, as said above, common schools were not designed to establish a baseline level of formal skill for the American populace, but to create familiarity and shared understanding between members of the same political community, along with the basic tools of self-governance, such as literacy and a respect for American values and institutions. While schools increasingly aimed at appealing to the general American populace following the Civil War, prior to the 20th century, this often meant the propagation of the Yankee educational tradition and the values associated with it. In other words, it was designed to cultivate that “single voice” and “single direction” that is conspicuously absent in today’s system.

All this is abundantly clear in the remarks of “Radical Republican” George Boutwell shortly after the Civil War:

“Opening the public schools of this country to every class and condition of people without distinction of race or color, is security.... [T]he rising generation in each of these generations will advance to manhood with the fixed purpose of maintaining these principles. Intelligence is the security for the principles in which we believe, and ignorance is the protection of the principles and the policy we oppose. A system of public instruction supported by general taxation is security, first, for the prevalence and continuance of those ideas of equality which lead every human being to recognize every other human being as an equal in all natural and political rights; and the only way by which those ideas can be made universal is to bring together in public schools, during the forming period of life, the children of all classes, and educate them together…in [integrated] public schools. ... [T]his doctrine of human equality can be taught, and it is the chief means of securing the perpetuity of republican institutions.”

(15) George Boutwell, quoted in Eric C. Sands, American Public Philosophy and the Mystery of Lincolnism (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2009.)

As a result, manual skill training in public schools was controversial and uncommon during the 19th century. In fact, there was little apparent reason for someone to seek basic skills through years of common school attendance rather than through an apprenticeship or other informal option.

The occupational value of long-term formal school attendance, as Labaree himself suggests, only exists where students are pursuing employment in institutions with a credential-based culture.

The dominance of this credential-based culture in a system not designed for it is the cause of the consumerist dysfunction Labaree laments, and much of the confusion that has plagued 20th-century educational reform and rhetoric. By definition, an “education market,” like any other market, will consist of “competing voices” and “multiple directions.” But no one signed up to be an individual consumer in an “education market”; the current situation, as well as the justifications made on its behalf, emerged from attempts to deal with an increasingly pervasive and incoherent public school system that consistently escapes its would-be "overseers."

“Bargain-Counter Education”

This is exactly what was predicted by critics of the evolution of so-called “bargain-counter education” in the first half of the 20th century.

While these critics are associated with the traditional or conservative view of education, today’s traditionalists or conservatives typically double down on the mistake associated with early progressive educators: they search for major reforms that will allow all students to become more effective and competitive in adjusting to the diverse demands of the modern world, never thinking that step one might be grounding students in solid foundations and shared values.
On the other hand, today’s defenders of progressive education portray the confusion introduced by its pedagogy, or by job skills/social efficiency-focused progressive reformers, as the result of historically determined class biases.
These unjust holdovers from the past, they say, are the very things that progressives have long battled constatives to defeat.

Are Education Reform Experts the Answer?

As some post-Progressive Era 20th-century scholars concluded after surveying the modern school system, “pedagogical questions must be studied in the context of their relations to economic and political realities,” and “a theory of instruction is a political theory in the proper sense that it derives from consensus concerning the distribution of power within the society—who shall be educated and to fulfill what roles?...The psychologist or educator who formulates pedagogical theory without regard to the political, economic, and social setting of the educational process courts triviality and merits being ignored in the community and the classroom.”


Labaree preempts questions about the role and record of educational reformers when he says that, unlike “consumers,” by which he seems to mean the general public, “reformers over the years have tended to treat education as a public good. They have seen their reform efforts as the solution of a social problem, and the benefits of this reform would be shared by everyone, whether or not they or their children were in school.”

This was the Horace Mann approach, the one that drove 19th-century common school expansion in the northeast. It is one that many progressive reformers tried to improve upon, but also one that many other progressive reformers rejected or inadvertently undermined.
Naturally, the average American family is not focused on social engineering projects, but Americans have long been friendly to the idea that education is a public good, or at least something that confers broad social benefits. That is the source of the widespread, at times extravagant, faith in education as a panacea that Americans are often criticized for.

While meritocratic competition in modern education encourages a self-interested approach, it still seems strange to say, as Larabee does, that “consumers approach education as...the personal property of the individual who acquires it.”

The nature of modern education is less skill-based than credential-based, so it is hard to see how people could be this indifferent to the school or community as a whole—its reputation and funding are too important to the value of an individual’s student’s education. Parents who care about education tend to care about what goes on at their child’s school, but Labaree is correct that this self-interested approach tends to be reactive and myopic relative to what a reformer might ideally be expected to accomplish from a more holistic viewpoint.
Yet, at any given time, one would expect to find at least a few examples of reformers with sufficient opportunities, vision, and leadership ability to move their schools under their influence in a more coherent direction. That they have been tempted to game the system and inadvertently undermine its long-term coherence:

“By the late twentieth century, reformers began to graft the private good approach onto the root of their traditional public good approach. But even then they were using the equal opportunity argument to provide political support for a program for schooling that was still primarily focused on producing human capital for the public good.”

(26) Ibid. Emphases added.

If the “traditional public good approach” was to serve the public good via the expert-planned production of human capital, that could easily take the form of intense “tracking” and other exclusive systems, ones with a questionable history when it comes to actually maximizing human capital and improving society as a whole. This sounds an awful lot more like serving the needs of national economic and military competition by churning out a steady supply of high-performing STEM specialists ready to take orders, as described in A Nation at Risk, than it does serving the public good in the sense Larabee describes. He says that Americans want schools to “express our highest ideals as a society and our greatest aspirations as individuals,” promote equality, inclusiveness, and learning, “fix society,” and allow for upward mobility and the pursuit of ambition (the latter sometimes in the form of perpetuating privilege).

A tall order, for sure, but there’s something disconcerting about his claim that all this is hopelessly contradictory.

Something has got to give, Larabee insists. Either individual aspirations or societal ideals: we have to pick one, because “these two aims are at odds with each other.”

We can’t expect to learn in schools that are “busy balancing opposites”—
or can we?

Conclusion: How Should We Think About “Human Capital” and the “Public Good”?

I think John Dewey would say that we can, and that many sensible Americans, reformers of all stripes and “laymen” (I’m not a fan of the term “consumer” in this context) have shared his belief that balance is possible—that such give-and-take is indeed the secret to America's success, rather than a constraint on it.

When Labaree says, “we ask schools to promote equality while preserving privilege, so we perpetuate a system that is too busy balancing opposites to promote student learning,"

what is he implying? Is equality what needs to go, or the preservation of privilege? Is this possible, and, if so, how will this affect the meaning of “learning”? On closer inspection, when Labaree argues that the current system “locks us in a spiral of educational expansion and credential inflation that has come to deplete our resources and exhaust our vitality,”
he seems to be suggesting that the system is too crowded and must have greater screening mechanisms—either that fewer students should be educated past a certain point, or that educational paths should be diversified.

If we shift our perspective, drop the usual categories (progressive vs. traditional, reformer vs. consumer) and, as Americans, adopt Dewey’s approach to American education, rooted in a “democratic faith” underwritten by American experience, it may not seem like such a dilemma. If we stop the rhetorical games and try trusting the public to make a clear-eyed assessment of the options, we may actually be able to “have it both ways,” or at least make a choice and exit the spiral.


Scholars have been urging a similar approach for some time. “We have tried to avoid easy ideological generalizations, "went one 1970 lament.“They hide more than they reveal when the subject of study is a nation with a divided soul confronting a revolution in human affairs.”


Perhaps Labaree’s true complaint is with false binaries that lead us to pursue unnecessary, artificial homogeneity, and prevent us from articulating acceptable alternatives to this spiral. As John Dewey wrote in 1916’s Nationalizing Education, America is “complex and compound,” containing “a multitude of peoples speaking different tongues, inheriting diverse traditions, cherishing varying ideals of life.” As this situation distinguished American nationalism “from that of other peoples,’” at least at the time he was writing, Dewey concluded that “our unity cannot be a homogeneous thing like that of the separate states of Europe.”

In an upcoming piece on John Dewey, I will discuss this conclusion in greater depth.

  1. John Dewey, “Creative Democracy,” 1939. A .pdf file is available here.
  2. David F. Labaree, “Consuming the Public School,” Educational Theory, University of Illinois Vol. 61, No. 4, 2011. A .pdf file is available here.
  3. Ibid. Emphases added.
  4. See ibid.
  5. Ibid. Emphases added.
  6. See “‘I Did Not Invent This Faith’: The Purpose of American Education” for more on this, including Larabee’s remarks on the rhetorical games that have been common in American education reform since the beginning of the 20th century. Larabee points out that “This balance was not the brainchild of school reformers—that is, it was not proposed as the educational solution to a social problem.“ Labaree, “Consuming the Public School.” I agree, but would as why this excuse does not also get the American public off the hook. See Arthur G. Wirth, ”The Vocational-Liberal Studies Controversy Between John Dewey and Others (1900-1917),” U.S. Department of Health, Education & Welfare, Office of Education, September 1970, 34 (”Progressive rhetoric was marked by pious platitudes and clever rationalizations, as well as by genuine efforts to criticize and innovate. Such was the case in the river of words surrounding the move toward vocationalism and education. As we turn to those who spoke on the vocational-liberal studies controversy, we ought not be surprised to find conflicting values and motivations. Such confusion represented a true reflection of the dissonant state of the American psyche. The outer mood was confident, but underneath there were anxieties about where the turbulent new forces of change might lead.”) A .pdf file is available here.
  7. Ibid. Emphases added.
  8. Ibid.
  9. See Sherry Schwartz, “The Origins of History's Mission in American Schools: A Case Study of Hannah Adams,” Theory & Research in Social Education, vol. 29, no. 2, Spring 2001, College and University Faculty Assembly of National Council for the Social Studies, https://digital.lib.usf.edu/SFS0024304/00101 (“[Adams] felt that the creation of a democracy, particularly in the form of a large republic, was the most fragile and delicate of all types of governments. The only way to keep a democracy from slipping into corruption, tyranny and degeneration was the careful education of all its participants. Every citizen had to be aware of his/her rights and re-possibilities; every citizen also had to be a decent person. New citizens not only had to be familiar with America's new laws, but had to actively participate in their preservation. Each had to be morally responsible for the establishment and maintenance of an orderly government…The unique nature of a republican form of government depended upon a virtuous citizenry for its very existence. Such involvement necessitated a thorough education, not for an aristocratic few, but for all American citizens.”) (Internal citations omitted; emphases added).
  10. Ibid. (“For the small number of students who gained a more advanced education at an academy, high school, or college, this educational advantage gave them an edge in the competition for the equally small number of clerical, managerial, and professional roles.”) Emphasis added.
  11. Lucille M. Schultz, The Young Composers: Composition's Beginnings in Nineteenth-Century Schools (Studies in Writing and Rhetoric), U.S. Department of Education, 1999. (Internal citations omitted.) A pdf file can be found here.
  12. Labaree adds that ”Poor children were less likely to be in school...children of working-class immigrants, and children with special needs had limited and, in some cases, no educational opportunities,” and there is no doubt that such children faced disadvantages, but this strikes me as an anachronistic framing. For much of the 19th century, advocates of government-funded and standardized school systems were often responding to a perceived social"crisis” in need of paternalistic (at best) and drastic intervention, and they, therefore, tended to target precisely the groups of children listed. Whether they were interested in or benefited from the public education opportunities offered to them is an entirely separate question, and the opportunities varied with region and socioeconomic position, just like all educational opportunities at this time. Massachusetts was a pioneer in schooling for the blind and deaf, just as it was in racially integrated public schools, compulsory attendance aimed at assimilating working-class and immigrant children, and public school access more generally.
  13. Schultz, The Young Composers.
  14. George Boutwell, quoted in Eric C. Sands, American Public Philosophy and the Mystery of Lincolnism (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2009.)
  15. See Wirth, ”The Vocational-Liberal Studies Controversy Between John Dewey and Others (1900-1917),” 4-32.
  16. See Labaree, “Consuming the Public School.”
  17. See John Dewey, “Monastery, Bargain Counter, or Laboratory in Education?,” 1932 speech. A .pdf file is available here.
  18. See, for example, Wirth, ”The Vocational-Liberal Studies Controversy Between John Dewey and Others (1900-1917).”
  19. See, for example, ibid., and Labaree, “Consuming the Public School.”
  20. Wirth, ”The Vocational-Liberal Studies Controversy Between John Dewey and Others (1900-1917),” 8.
  21. Labaree, “Consuming the Public School.”
  22. See Wirth, ”The Vocational-Liberal Studies Controversy Between John Dewey and Others (1900-1917),” 4-32.
  23. Labaree, “Consuming the Public School.”
  24. See ibid.
  25. Ibid. Emphases added.
  26. See ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. It is worth noting that the justifications given by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board are generally understood to have been those considered most politically tactful at the time, particularly in the eyes of white southerners. Despite the opinion’s focus on the benefits to individual students that integration will bring, the Court’s decision had a lot to do with the fact that many Americans, particularly many in the northern states, believed that segregated schools were a violation of the ”democratic faith” they had adhered to, as well as its accompanying social vision. See, for example, Michael W. McConnell, "Originalism and the Desegregation Decisions," 81 Virginia Law Review 947, 1995, https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=12624&context=journal_articles.
  32. Wirth, ”The Vocational-Liberal Studies Controversy Between John Dewey and Others (1900-1917),” 8.
  33. John Dewey, ”Nationalizing Education,“ inJ.A. Boydston,ed.; The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899–1924: Vol. 10 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 2008), 202–211.