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What Would Thomas Jefferson Say to Betsy DeVos?

Author Johann Neem wants us to “think more about the broader purpose of education,” he says. And to start the conversation, Neem, a history professor at Western Washington University and NEA Higher Ed member, has published a book, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (Johns Hopkins University Press) that explores exactly what the progenitors of public education, like Thomas Jefferson, had in mind. They saw public education, or “common schools,” as a way to unify the new nation, and to bridge the gaps between rich and poor, immigrant and non-immigrant, Catholic and Protestant, Neem notes. They also saw it as a way to help people become citizens who participate fully in democracy.

The idea of the “common good” is referenced often in the book. These founders of public education saw that “common” or public schools would serve a common or public good. You still hear this in policy-oriented conversations about public higher education, but less often in discussions about K12 education. Is it an idea that’s falling out of favor?

Johann Neem: I think we’ve lost that focus. From the very beginning, public schools always have had mixed purposes. In the 19th century, there was a strong civic component—it was about preparing citizens for democracy. Of course there were people left out, like African-Americans, but the goal was to create common ground. And there also was this idea around developing human beings, and investing in our nation’s economy.