Friday, January 11, 2008

Citizenship and Public Education in the US: A Historical Overview

Julie A. Reuben, Harvard University

Title: Citizenship and Public Education in the US: A Historical Overview

Authors: Julie A. Reuben, Harvard University


Publish: Prepared for the conference on “Education and Democracy in the Americas” San Jose, Costa Rica, August 18-19, 2005.

The origins and expansion of public education in the United States (as in most countries) has been closely tied to the perceived needs of nation-building. In the US, these needs have been defined primarily in terms of the education of individual citizens. First and foremost, public schools were proposed as a means to inculcate in future citizens the personal virtues necessary for a stable republic, and for imparting the knowledge and skills needed for participating in self government. In addition, since the boundaries of citizenship – the criteria for inclusion in the body politic – were not initially defined by the Constitution, inclusion in public schools could serve as a proxy for membership. As a result, public schools were often at the center of battles for social and political equality. In addition, supporters argued that public schools could create a common national identity among people divided by region, religion, ethnicity, and class. Finally, schools were seen as vehicles for communicating the rights and responsibilities of citizens. As in the case of membership, rights and responsibilities have never been absolutely defined. Thus, the content of school curriculum has been influenced by on-going contests over the meaning of these terms.

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