Public Schools

Michael Blades
Keyword
ENG 501

"We are faced with a public arena of shallow optimism, of grandiose banality and vulgarity, of
sweeping machineries of surveillance, and of brutal structures of violence that tunnel through the flesh
and marrow of everyday life" (McLaren 9).

With such a conception of public life at hand, and with generations of school bound children and
adults ready to strap on their backpacks to be schooled, where do we find the public schools
themselves? If "the schools are a great theater in which we play out conflicts in the culture" (Cohen
and Neufeld 86), what conflicts have arisen as a result of our public school system, and how are
professional educators addressing these conflicts?
This essay could have been titled "Schools." However, in thinking about school and its
relationship to education, it would be much too broad a subject to cover, even in a limited sense.
Therefore, as school relates to our conception of education, it can be systematically split into two
distinct camps, public and private. The main difference between the two is apparent, or at least
simplistically apparent. Everyone has the distinct notion that public school is a service provided and
regulated by the state, and comes at an extremely low cost to the citizen of that state. The state
collects taxes, then disperses those funds back to the community for the regulation and creation of
schools. The school belongs to the community, and children attend the public school at no additional
cost to the family. Private schools, however, run on a much different principle. They are supported
by private funds and not open to the public at large. Students pay tuition to attend the school, and
the school is usually run around a central and private ideology. For example, the Catholic Church
operates schools designed to educate children in accordance with Biblical educational ideals. You
will not find a community elected school board dictating the policies of a private school. The only
responsibility private schools have to the community is in positioning themselves to make their
education more attractive than the public alternative. However, as I hinted earlier, there is not such a
clean split between public and private interest. Public schools carry the baggage of the term "public"
which is problematic and multi-dimensional.
Before we can examine present day public schools and their relationship to the term "public", a
brief history of the origins of public schooling needs to be addressed. John Dewey, a central figure
in educational theory, posits the rise of publicly funded education in early nineteenth century
Germany. Following the work of philosophers Fichte and Hegel who "elaborated the idea that the
chief function of the state is educational" (Dewey 96), the push for public education gained
momentum. From this philosophical tradition that iterated the importance of an educated citizenry
for the progression of the industrial state, "Germany was the first country to undertake a public,
universal, and compulsory system of education" (Dewey 96). German students\' educations were
funded from primary school through university, provided their intellectual abilities were capable of
sustaining promotion. Therefore, from its inception, public education has been used as a primary
societal tool, a way for the government to educate its citizenry for future national progress.
Immediately following the German models of public education, the rise of public education in the
United States coincided with the rise of industrialization, urbanization, industrialization and
immigration in the latter-nineteenth century (Katz 103). However, some educational theorists claim
that, unlike Germany, public education was not instituted to promote societal progress. It was
instituted to deter the negative forces of a changing country. With the rise in the population of
illiterate immigrants and urban poor came social ills not seen earlier in the century, namely crime and
cultural dissonance. This cultural depravation was blamed primarily on illiteracy. "The popular
association of illiteracy with crime, poverty, and immorality fueled public enthusiasm for a universal
free public education system" (de Castel and Luke 162). However, what public were de Castel and
Luke addressing? The enthusiastic public does not appear to be univocal with the public school
attending public. One is addressing those with power to create the public schools, and the other is
addressing those without power to attend the public schools. Instantly, there is a power asymmetry
associated with the notion of "public." Further, Michael Katz offers public education as a
governmental ploy to "offer an alternative environment and a first-rate set of adult role models, a
cheap and superior substitute for the jail