In The American Model Charles Glenn details the education history leading to the current structure of public education and the ways in which it contains tension owing to a dual emphasis on a kind of egalitarian localism and an administration-heavy, bureaucratic centralization. The book traces educational initiatives from the colonial period to the present, with particular attention paid to the ways in which religion – even if contemporary discourse seems to have forgotten this – has played a pivotal role not only in the development of the nation's worldview, but also the organizational system of its public education.
After a brief introduction noting the benefits and challenges of the American model, Glenn opens with a tracing of the origins of the educational system from the community schools of the colonial settlers. While there were attempts at the state level to address education, the legislation that emerged was “hortatory rather than regulatory,” as in the case with Massachusetts and a 1789 law which required that “teachers take diligent care, and to impress upon the minds of children and youth, committed to their care and instruction, the principles of piety, justice, and a sacred regard for truth, love to their country, humanity, and universal benevolence, sobriety, industry and frugality, chastity, moderation, and temperance, and those other virtues which are the ornament of human society” (123). While this is quite a significant charge it does not come with any explicit administrative demands or measures of financial compliance. What's more, this Massachusetts law is indicative of another major theme: while there are contemporary appeals for the separation of church and state especially in public schools, early American models argued not over secularity and religiosity, but over broad ecumenism and sectarianism.
What Glenn recounts is that much of the tension endemic to public education was present even when religious institutions were regularly entrusted with the function of educating youth. Indeed, the principle challenges during the 1800s came not from a First Amendment-fueled cry against religion being present in schools, but because of Protestant fears of a rapidly approaching “Catholic menace” (165). One particularly insightful vignette involved the Free School Society (111-121), which originally formed as a “Charity School” organization in New York City during 1805 to serve the children of those who could not afford to school their children. In an act intended to better serve those children, that organization grew until by 1814 more than 600 students were engaged. Because the Society was nondenominational – though certainly still Christian – it could receive public funds to support its work. However, when church-sponsored school began to emerge the Society began “urging that [the new schools] be allowed to enroll only children from their own congregations, but soon escalated its position to argue that no public funds should go to any school associated with a particular denomination” (113). Similar inter-Christian tensions emerged around the use of the Bible in schools and which translation would be “best,” revealing that the seeds of discontent were nurtured within even early Christian forays into educational endeavors in the public sphere. These tensions – largely Anti-Catholic – came to a crescendo by 1875's “Blaine Amendment” which while nominally an attempt to stop all public funding of “sectarian” schools, was squarely directed against Catholic schooling (168).
Another significant refrain in the text is the development and deployment of highly visible and oft-repeated educational and political rhetoric that ultimately effects things very little during the time in which it emerges. This pattern holds true for historical luminaries like Thomas Jefferson whose meritocratic national plan “found little practical resonance in American political life” (47), as well as Horace Mann and John Dewey. Glenn shows that while each of these thinkers has – with time – influenced the system of public education, rarely were their hopes for reformation as fully realized as they proclaimed. This time delay phenomenon is particularly interesting to note as it creates dissonance between well meaning reformers who are vociferously calling for a reform that has already taken place. Glenn cites Hirsch's example of how those in the Deweyan stream of school relevance “oppose the standards movement” on the “quite inaccurate belief that a fact-oriented classroom prevails... whereas in reality, the most striking feature of our elementary schools is that the anti-rote-learning reforms being advocated are already in place” (214). There is a disconnect between education rhetoric and actual classroom instruction.
Glenn closes arguing that “American public education should be 'disestablished,' just as state churches were in the decades after the Revolution” (221). This is to be coupled with a “demythologization” of schooling and its claims to be neutral, and a turn instead to local and parental control wherein schools are expected to provide both “neutral” instruction and formational education (222). This move away from large-scale centralization would allow for greater agility in regards to school change and greater buy-in from communities and teachers.