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The WSJ article by law professor Philip Hamburger asserting that public schools are unconstitutional relies on dubious assertions about the history of public schools. As a historian of education who has written about these issues, I disagree with his analysis.
Hamburger’s central critique of the public schools is that they were created by nativists out of fear of Catholicism and their central purpose was to homogenize all children and mold them into Protestants. He repeatedly asserts that the very idea of the public school was shaped by hostility to Catholics.
The earliest public schools, called “common schools,” were organized in the early 19th-century in small towns and villages by families who wanted their children to gain literacy and numeracy. The parents and communities who established common schools were not thinking about stamping out Catholicism. Families wanted their children to be able to read the Bible, and many wanted their sons to have the skills needed to work as clerks or in other non-agricultural work.
He paints an idyllic portrait of 18th century schools, which is a fantasy of his own creation. He writes:
“The shared civic culture of 18th-century America was highly civilized, and it developed entirely in private schools. The schools, like the parents who supported them, were diverse in curriculum and their religious outlook, including every shade of Protestantism, plus Judaism, Catholicism, deism and religious indifference.”
The truth is that very few children of any faith attended school in the 18th-century. Schooling was available to the wealthy, who hired private tutors, and to those who could afford to send their children to a “dame school,” where a woman instructed young children in her home. There were a few religious schools, for those who could pay for them. The children of the poor had no schooling until the turn of the 19th-century, when philanthropic societies began to organize rudimentary “charity schools” for the poor.
As I showed in my history of the New York City public schools (The Great School Wars), the city’s Catholic Bishop John Hughes (later Archbishop) adamantly objected to the schools of the Public School Society, a private group founded by Quakers. Like all schools at the time, the schools of the PSS used the Protestant Bible in their classrooms and had daily prayers. Bishop Hughes insisted that Catholic children should be taught only in Catholic schools, where they would read the Catholic Bible, learn Catholic prayers, and sing Catholic hymns. The founders of the PSS tried to reach a compromise, but Bishop Hughes insisted on creating a separate system of Catholic schools. He asked the Legislature to fund the Catholic “public schools,” as it was funding the Protestant “public schools,” but the legislature refused.
Were there anti-Catholics who supported public schools? Yes. Were there nativists who hated Catholics and who feared that the Pope wanted to seize control of their city or state? Yes.
Was the primary purpose of the public school movement to stamp out the influence of Catholics? No. The overwhelming majority of Americans supported the growth of public schools because they believed that a democratic society needed educated citizens who were prepared for self-government.
The Catholic school system grew and thrived. Catholic leaders thought their schools were unfairly denied public funding, but the idea of prohibiting the public funding of religious schools was broadly popular and appears in almost every state constitution. The public endorsed the proposition that society as a whole, through taxation, is responsible for maintaining a public school system that offers a free education for all who enroll.
Alongside the generalized belief that a democratic society must educate its citizens so that they will vote wisely and be prepared to serve on a jury, there was a concurrent belief that education had a social purpose. In the 19th-century, educators would speak glowingly about the value of children from different economic backgrounds learning together, the banker’s son next to the baker’s son. In the 20th century, the definition of which children learned side-by-side expanded in fits and starts, often with conflict. Education, it was believed, would overcome economic, social, religious, and racial divides, as children learned together.
Few, if any, would contend that the public schools have overcome differences of race, religion, class, and ethnicity. Yet, without them, who can doubt that those differences would be sharpened? For some, the public schools have been a ladder that enabled social mobility, as well as interracial and interreligious friendships. Would we really want to be a society where each sect, each racial and ethnic group has its separate schools? I don’t think so.
While Hamburger pounds his thesis that public schools are and have always been a nativist strategy to crush Catholics, he fails to consider the fact that in mid-20th century America, a significant number of public school teachers and administrators in urban districts were Catholic.
In my view, he misinterprets the seminal Pierce decision of 1925. The state of Oregon passed a law in 1922 that would have required all children to attend public schools, thus banning all private and religious schools. The Society of Sisters sued to prevent the closing of their religious school. The U.S. Supreme Court declared that the law was unconstitutional. The state could not compel children to attend only public school. Children do not belong to the state but to their parents. The decision was not grounded in free speech rights, as the author here contends. The Court declared the right of parents to choose a private school, but did not suggest that public money should be used to pay for their private schooling. The decision confirmed the right of parents to choose either a free public school or a private school at their own expense.
If Professor Hamburger fears that children will be indoctrinated by their teachers, he should stand strongly against the remedies he proposes. The likeliest place where children might be indoctrinated is in a school that reinforces their parents’ views, a school where teachers all agree, a school where dissenting voices are never heard. The best schools, whether public or private, teach young people to make their own decisions, teach them to think for themselves, teach them about the courage of those who dared to stand alone.