Joshua Roberts/Reuters

In your replies yesterday, several of you mentioned wanting to read more about Rob Meyer’s trip to the Arctic. His story in the October issue of The Atlantic is now online. Do give it a read. Also, one of the most gorgeous, illuminating pieces of writing to appear in the magazine in the last year was from Rob’s editor, Ross Andersen, about a father-son effort to protect Arctic permafrost by bringing back the woolly mammoth. If you haven’t seen that story, take a journey to Pleistocene Park.

Now we leave the Arctic for a place that’s probably a little more familiar: school. Today I’ll share my conversation with Erika Christakis, a prominent defender of public education. Then we’ll dive into the history of how this whole notion of public schools got started.

Why would rich parents choose public schools?

Conversations about school choice in America usually focus on poor families—whether this change in policy will lead them to abandon public schools. But perhaps the more significant choice is the one made by rich families. In one of the most-read New York Times articles of 2016, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a writer based in Bed-Stuy, New York, wrestled with the decision of whether to send her child to a local public school, or a private or magnet school farther afield. Almost all of her upper-middle class neighbors choose the latter, perpetuating the poverty and segregation of Bed-Stuy’s public schools, Hannah-Jones writes.

In this month’s issue of The Atlantic, Erika Christakis, a longtime educator and bestselling author of The Importance of Being Little, defends American public schools, arguing they deserve far more credit than we give them. I wanted to know what Erika would say to the upper-middle class parents Hannah-Jones alludes to in her article.

How would you convince well-off parents to send their kids to public schools?

Here’s what Christakis said:

“There is something really powerful about the fact that public school is open to everybody. Obviously, historically, that has not always been true. There has been a long, hard struggle for people to gain access to public schools, and I don’t want to dismiss that. But if you look at some of the innovations in pedagogy—how teachers respond to the needs of children who learn differently—you see that public schools are at the vanguard of addressing those needs in a way that private schools often cannot. When a child comes through the door, public schools are expected to figure out a way to give that child a year of growth. Some standard operating procedures in public schools now revolve around meeting children where they are, particularly kids with learning disabilities, attention disorders, or experiences with trauma.

“This mixing of people from different backgrounds is what the United States does best. We’ve never performed particularly well on international math tests, and yet clearly our country has been a leader in innovation. So you have to ask yourself, what is behind that? What is making us so creative, and so industrious? One answer is that we have this diverse country, and public schools, at their best, practice diversity as their mission. If your mission is ‘everybody is welcome,’ then the onus is on the school to figure out how to educate the child, rather than demanding that the child conform to the ethos and the practices of the school. That’s a key difference between independent schools and public schools.

“Public schools are incubators for citizenship. They are a cornerstone of the democratic project. Now, have many public schools fallen down on that mission? Of course. But I think the mission of public schools is really inspiring: it’s not just to educate individual children, but also to create an informed electorate.”

Moral Education Has Always Been a Part of Public Schools

My favorite middle school teacher used to say , “To understand the present, study the past.” When we asked what you’d like to read in The Masthead, many of you had the same idea. You want to hear how the past gives context to the times we’re living in today. To better understand what’s going on now with public schools, I talked to Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of education history at the University of Pennsylvania, about the first public schools in America.

Almost as soon as they arrived in the colonies that would become the United States in the 17th century, Puritan leaders decided that, in order to create the kind of religious community they yearned for, free from all ungodly influences, their children had to learn Scripture. That meant teaching children to read. While leaders initially assumed that parents would take on this task themselves, it soon became clear that the colonies had to implement some kind of formal schooling.

In 1647, Puritans passed the Old Deluder Satan Act, so named because Satan was thought to be deluding people, preventing them from learning Scripture. If kids couldn’t read the Bible, they had to go to school. The act subsidized teachers and school houses, mandating that they serve an exclusively religious purpose. “The Puritans were trying to create a whole new generation of the holy and the saved,” Zimmerman said. “It didn’t work.”

The younger generation quickly turned to new economic opportunities. But making their fortunes, learning more than Scripture. Within 20 years, local schools in the colonies started to expand to subjects like numeracy and history, giving Puritan children access to a whole new set of careers.

“If you spend your whole life on a farm, worshipping with your family, you need one particular kind of education,” Zimmerman said. “When the younger generation began to individuate, the school had to take on different functions. They weren’t just preparing your soul for the other world, they were preparing you to survive and thrive in this one.”

But even as American public schools diversified, they remained centers for moral education. Horace Mann, often called the father of American public schools, argued that the moral mission of education was far more important the intellectual one. A teacher’s main focus, he said, is “best expressed in these few and simple words: ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.’” When he created Common Schools—the first formal network of public schools in the United States—in the mid-1800s, Mann insisted that moral education be the priority.

Forty years after Mann’s death, in 1894, William Frederick Slocum Jr., president of Colorado College, echoed Mann’s opinion in the pages of The Atlantic:

The public school stands in close relationship to every moral problem in the republic. A majority of the voters receive their only training in the public schools. If low and selfish aims rule their conduct; if they lack the possibility of enthusiasm for a high purpose; if, in short, their lives are wanting in principle, it is not enough to say that demoralizing influences overthrow the good wrought within the schools, because the business of the schools is so to establish morality that it cannot be overthrown by evil circumstances in after life. For, as has already been pointed out, the church and the home of the present day are not able to perform this work, and therefore the schools, because of the very idea which underlies their foundation and secures their continued support, and because of the amount of time which the child necessarily spends in them, must be held largely responsible for the foundation of character; in other words, for the training of upright and patriotic citizens. This, as has just been said, is their business.

In the debate about public schools, this is what’s at stake: a centuries-old argument over how to educate the whole child. It won’t be resolved any time soon.

Today’s Wrap Up

  • Questions of the day: Do you think public schools succeed in “practicing diversity as their mission?” Email me at  

  • What’s coming: Tomorrow, The Atlantic reveals the cover of our October issue. David Somerville, our creative director will give you an exclusive look at the covers that almost—but didn’t quite—make the cut.

  • Your feedback: Thank you to everyone who filled out our survey yesterday! We’ve got another one for you. Let us know what you thought of this email.

Thanks for reading! We’re so glad you’re part of this thing.

Caroline Kitchener

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to