In Making Schools American: Nationalism and the Origin of Modern Educational Politics, Cody Dodge Ewert traces the origins of the school system, its practices and goals during the turn of the twentieth century in the United States, through three main examples that further serve as case-studies for wider national educational policies. By depicting the origins of public schools in New York, Utah and Texas, Ewert illustrates the mechanisms that stood at the basis of public education as a tool for the creation of American identity through the assimilation of immigrants and other collectives in a political effort to cement national unity among peoples of diverse origins and beliefs. While these examples are not subject to generalisation, nevertheless, ‘each offers unique insight into how and why the rhetoric of nationalism played such a vital role in the expansion of state public school systems during these years’.[i] Moreover, Ewert successfully bridges the beginnings of public education with the ongoing political interference in the educational curricula, not only in terms of what topics should be addressed, but also in terms of a continued fostering of what it means to be American. Ewert is thus able to demonstrate how a school system that, despite its impulse towards modernity, remains vulnerable to ‘broader cultural and political conflicts’ that question its initial role as ‘a unifying force’ within American society.[ii]
In the nineteenth century, public schooling was not mandatory nor was it perceived as useful by society at large, leaving educational reformers in the difficult position of proving its utility while also restructuring and modernising the existing school system. Due to the sheer extension of the country and the complexity of its structural organisation, legislation aimed at making school attendance mandatory was passed by each state at different times, as can be seen on the graphic below.[iii]
In order to ‘bring more students into the schools for longer periods of time while increasing public support and investment’, reformers ‘trumpeted public education as a uniquely American institution’ aimed at uniting communities around common traditions and shared ideals, while ‘draping schools in patriotic symbols and iconography’ to cement a feeling of identity and belonging in a burgeoning country struggling to define and affirm its own identity.[iv] As far as early progressive school reformers were concerned, then, ‘the fate of American democracy hinged not only in its citizens’ intelligence, but also their allegiance. As go the schools, they argued, so goes the nation’.[v] In that sense, Ewert establishes the key aspects of public education aimed at giving a specifically American tone to public schooling institutions, geared as they became toward the creation of a national and nationalist identity. Each example selected by Ewert underscores an aspect of what became the trademark American identity, for better and for worse. From the rise of patriotic demonstrations in New York, to ideological and physical features that constitute the stereotypical aspect and behaviour of the idealised American citizen in Utah, or the manner whereby historically biased perspectives of key events shape the understanding of the nation such as the Civil War and its aftermath in the case of Texas, Ewert revisits crucial factors that stand at the core of the American ethos, at a time defining and haunting the American experience.
All in all, in his book, Ewert not only depicts the origins and aims of the public school system as a tool for national unity in the United States, but he also successfully foregrounds how the inherent struggle for a definition of America and Americanness in a country marked by racial and ideological tensions shaped the educational system and continues to do so. According to Jeffrey Sachs, ‘since January 2021, […] 35 states have introduced 137 bills limiting what schools can teach with regard to race, American history, politics, sexual orientation and gender identity’.[vi] Despite its immense potential, the American school system remains hostage to the powers that be, and Ewert’s book is a well-documented illustration of this reality to the extent allowed by his selected examples. As a reader, I believe this is a useful source when reading and researching about the history of the American school system as well as the nature of the forces at work in the national and local societies that shaped it. Understanding how the school system is a potential weapon for the indoctrination of youth, regardless of the political spectrum at work, is a much-needed subject of research to which Ewert’s work constitutes a timely contribution. As a final note, Ewert could perhaps explore the topics addressed in more depth in the future and in more localised publications where they would emerge in all their strength in order to offer a more specific depiction of the mechanisms that were and are used to foster a uniquely American identity among the younger generations.
[i] Cody Dodge Ewert, Making Schools American: Nationalism and the Origin of the Modern Educational Politics, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022), 8
[ii] Ibid, 169
[iii] Oriana Bandiera, Myra Mohnen, Imran Rasul and Martina Viarengo, “Nation-building Through Compulsory Schooling during the Age of Mass Migration,” The Economic Journal 129, no 617 (January 2019): 62-109, https://doi.org/10.1111/ecoj.12624
[iv] Ibid, 13
[v] Ibid, 14
[vi] Gross, Terry, “From Slavery to Socialism, New Legislation Restricts What Teachers can Discuss,” NPR (3 February), https://www.npr.org/2022/02/03/1077878538/legislation-restricts-what-teachers-can-discuss