A survey of how 3,000 Wisconsin residents view public education in Wisconsin
By Gordon S. Black, Ph.D.
America has long prided itself on the universality and quality of its primary and secondary education system. Public schools were an innovation of the United States. Prior to the creation of freely available public schools in the 19th century, education was considered the private domain of the upper classes throughout the world. Education was restricted precisely because those in power assumed, quite correctly, that universal education would contribute to an undermining of their authority.
America, by contrast, is rooted in a three-hundred-year-old tradition of revolt against aristocracy, plutocracy, and theocracy. The democratic underpinnings of America were already well established at the time of the Revolution; these underpinnings are part of an ideology which argues the equality of opportunity for all citizens. Protestant immigrants, in particular, already practiced universal and public education as early as the beginning of the 17th century, and limited schooling was expected of most children in many of the New England communities.
Although the American public education system was never equally available to all citizens, America educated more of its children during the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries than any other country in the world. For nearly a hundred years, our “land grant” colleges graduated more students than all of the European colleges combined.
The American commitment to universally available public education has had a profound impact on the United States in the past. Education fueled our innovation and expansion during the industrial revolution. Education contributed to the increasing productivity of our workforce. Education supported the continuing expansion of our democracy, providing the foundation of understanding and support for our institutions. Education, when denied, was a tool to keep minorities submerged in economic poverty, just a small step away from outright slavery.