Reform School

Malcolm Harris

The common idea across most of the American political spectrum is that compulsory state-funded education is the liberal way to create a knowledgeable and engaged democratic citizenry. Without it, children would either be left to work or would never bother to educate themselves. The specter of illiterate future generations is invoked by both school reformers and defenders of the current system. Although there are many people within the public education system who believe in the noble goals of civic pedagogy, that’s not what America’s schools were built to do. Goyal argues convincingly that, before compulsory schooling, unenslaved Americans were not only extraordinarily well-read by international standards but widely covetous of learning. Compulsory schooling was not introduced to solve the problem of uneducated, unengaged, or unthinking masses. If anything, the opposite is closer to the truth.

In 1837, Horace Mann, the founder of American compulsory education, established the Massachusetts Board of Education, the first such agency and one which would become the model for the nation. But Mann didn’t want a more intellectually engaged population—literacy in the state already stood at 99 percent. Social control was a serious concern for Western elites after a series of failed revolutions, and Mann was very impressed by the system he saw on a visit to Prussia. He returned with a plan for public education.