Public schools have also perpetuated racial and economic inequity. But the high school still galvanized a shared, American society. It helped people aspire toward greater equality together, and it used education to bring together diverse interests and people to forge social bonds of support. That effort shaped the American city of the 19th and early-20th centuries. High schools can continue to do this, so long as they can resist being dismantled.
The public high school got its start in the early-19th century, when the education reformer Horace Mann—the “father of the public school”—pressed for the establishment of “common schools,” intended to provide a universal base of knowledge to be shared by all citizens, free of charge. According to Mann and others, the public school would be the safeguard of the republic, which would benefit from the general education and enlightenment of the populace.
The “high” school, so called to indicate its relative status above the common school, joined it in most cities and towns by the end of the century. It was designed to extend that shared learning into the more advanced branches of scientific and cultural knowledge, as indicated by its frequent identification at the time as the “people’s college.”
The public high school issued a challenge to the old classical curriculum of higher education and the vision of society it entailed. That curriculum, featuring Latin, Greek, and higher mathematics, was designed to prepare students for the traditional professions of law, medicine, and clergy. It was a mark of cultural and social distinction, and thus of division rather than commonality.
Instead, many early high schools embraced a more practical curriculum, featuring literature, writing, science, and other modern subjects. These fields, which eventually became popular in elite colleges as well, were meant to prepare a more diverse body of students for a wider range of careers and lives. They promised to provide a common academic and cultural background to unite the American people.
Read: What if America didn’t have public schools?
Commentators celebrated the applications of scientific study to industry, farming, commerce, and even domestic work. Writing skills were appreciated in business and at home. The study of modern languages—especially German in cities across the North and Midwest—was thought to forge cultural and economic ties to growing immigrant communities. And students inherited a shared cultural heritage through the study of American literature and rhetoric.
During the 19th century, enrollment remained low and support was not universal. But communities still rallied behind their public high schools, convinced they would connect education to local and national prosperity. As leaders of the Syracuse High School in New York explained in an 1879 school-board report:
Even one educated person in a community has an elevating tendency upon the masses of that community, and the greater the number of the educated, proportionally the greater the influence and benefit. Through the influence of the High School, then, we have better lower schools, more thorough and efficient teachers, broader and more cultivated parents and citizens, better prepared to exercise the duties and privileges of citizenship.
Reflecting this shared sense of investment, locals called public high schools “our schools,” and the students became not just children but “our children.” Large public audiences (parents and nonparents) attended performances, public examinations, and school ceremonies, which were also advertised and noticed in local newspapers.