In 2016, shortly after she was appointed to the position, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos declared American public schools a “dead end.” Instead, DeVos advocates for “school choice,” code for charter schools, vouchers, and other privatization efforts.
Families who have watched their local schools struggle might agree with DeVos, but her characterization is still troubling. It reflects a distrust of education as a communal goal, not just an individual one. That’s a big change from the objective of American public schools during their first two centuries. Far from being a “dead end,” for a long time the public school—particularly the public high school—served an important civic purpose: not only as an academic training ground, but also as a center for community and activity in American cities.
From curricular offerings to extracurricular activities, shared milestones to cultural traditions, high schools have been remarkably consistent across the country and even across generations. Many Americans can remember the awkward school dances that memorialized the best (and worst) music of the day. Or bumping past different teenage archetypes on their way to classes. Or the pep fests and rallies they may have loved, or loved to hate. Football games that captured the attention of entire towns.
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.
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.
Of course, the ideal of academic access and mutual achievement was only partial. For a long time, the supposedly open public high schools remained the purview of the elite because the families who participated could afford to forego their children’s wages while they continued school. And where public high schools were available to black students at all, they were most often segregated and under-resourced, as were rural high schools across much of the century.
Despite reinforcing existing social stratification, high schools still communicated a significant value: shared investment in a city’s children, rich and poor, learning and living side by side. This goal was physically manifested in urban plans as large school buildings and athletic stadiums rose up in the heart of America’s cities. These public schools, as Mann put it, were to be the “great equalizer of the conditions of men” in the economic and social balance.
By the turn of the 20th century, high-school enrollments were soaring in America, and the unifying promise of the project was put to the test. On the national level, the number of graduates rose from around 16,000 in the late 1860s, to 100,000 at the turn of the century, to more than 1 million by the 1930s. The ratio of these graduates from public rather than private high schools also increased, as more and more communities established local public high schools.
Hundreds of new school buildings were erected during this time. In cities, they were often palatial edifices celebrated for their architectural style. Generally, they were centrally located in the city so that students could access them from any neighborhood. When the model of establishing one or two centrally located high schools was strained by expanding enrollments, citizens petitioned to have newer buildings erected in their own neighborhoods.
As an early arrival on the scene, one of these growing schools was Girls High School of Louisville, Kentucky, where enrollment exploded from a few dozen students in the 19th century to 1,500 by the first decade of the 20th. The sense of community that students had experienced across the school’s 50-year history to that point—previously based in their similar backgrounds and experiences—was strained by the swelling numbers and the increasingly diverse identities and experiences they represented. Given these changes, students at the school recognized in their 1908 yearbook a new need to establish a “feeling of fellowship” among themselves, and they sought to do so by building on their mutual “loyalty and love for the school.”
Enter the idea of school spirit. As a high-school education was becoming a rite of passage for a majority of American youth, schools became a self-conscious source of cohesion for millions of increasingly diverse Americans, who learned together in classrooms but also gathered together during extracurricular activities and at public events. This is when yearbooks, sports, and other iconic aspects of high-school life emerged on the scene. The school became a site of identity building and common cultural development.
The school yearbook, for example, emerged as a mechanism for fostering a sense of community in the face of rapidly expanding and diversifying high-school cohorts in the early-20th century. Growing out of the older tradition of the school literary magazine, the school yearbook sought to define and commemorate the social and cultural experience of the high school. As the students at Girls High School put it, the yearbook established “a feeling of fellowship and of loyalty and love for the school as it represents to us, in some degree, a thing higher and nobler than merely a sort of prison schoolroom during five hours of every day.” It offered a place for students to work out their individual and collective identities.
The fellowship of school spirit permeated other activities of the school, including sporting events and other extracurricular events. Football rivalries drew enormous crowds of both students and spectators from the surrounding areas, such as the annual Male High School and Manual High School rivalry in Louisville that routinely drew upward of 14,000 fans throughout the first half of the 20th century. Pep squads and booster clubs grew up around these teams. School social clubs, fraternities, and philanthropic organizations flourished, each with a central focus on the intersections between school and community. Alumni clubs burgeoned too, through which adult citizens maintained a direct investment in and connection to the high school following graduation through attendance at school events and even engagement with curricular reform. As the activities of the schools proliferated, they also fused civic and school spirit together, both for students and members of the community.
The unifying role of the high school was amplified in times of national discord. For American youth, the two world wars were powerfully mediated by the activities of the high school. Students performed war-themed plays and concerts. They organized fund-raising drives that brought the public together in support of both the students at home and the war effort abroad.
At Santa Clara High School in Santa Clara, California, World War II became the theme of the yearbook in 1943. Patriotism and school spirit were fused, affirming communal bonds and a sense of common purpose in the face of a fractured community resulting from deployments and internment. As the students explained there:
All phases of school life were affected by the earnest desire of the students and faculty to “do something.” Working for the Red Cross, learning a new and useful skill, buying stamps and bonds, contributing to the comfort of the boys in campus and overseas—in all these ways and many more, high school students and teachers all over America contributed their share to the war effort.
A shared identity and community helped the students cope. A trusted space and a set of common rituals allowed them to test out their own citizenship, preparing them for the adult world and broader civic participation.
Those rituals routinely excluded people of color and their experiences—the black students segregated into a separate high school in Louisville, or the Japanese students forcibly removed from theirs during internment in California. By helping to create American community, the high school also perpetuated flaws in that social order.
But it did not do so alone. It has always reflected broader cultural values and practices. That is why leaving the public high school for greener pastures is not a solution to the problems facing our schools, cities, or nation. The abandonment of the American high school reflects the abandonment of the democratic project of the “common school” that helped shape the American city.
The neglect of urban school buildings tracks this decline. As wealthy white citizens moved out of the cities and formed new, homogenous communities in the suburbs in the second half of the 20th century, their attachment to the city’s schools and children was sundered. As financial resources left, the educational philosophies emphasizing individualized, vocational outcomes rose in popularity. The our in “our children” and “our schools” became increasingly narrow, and with it the goal of shared civic participation.
As Americans face a new era of educational reform and broad societal change, they might do well to heed a lesson from the first two centuries of public education: As an institution, the fate of the high school cannot be detached from the community of which it is a part. Like all educational institutions, it is inextricably wrapped up with the goals and values of the town, city, and nation in which it is located, reflecting and perpetuating them.
Those values include Americans’ attitude to the very schools that would pass them along, too. If, as a nation, we decide that the public schools are a “dead end” for students, we should not be surprised if they become so—and along with them, the cities, towns, and communities they once built together.