New Course: The History of American Education

This is Michael J. Douma, a recent Ph.D. graduate in History from Florida State University and a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Illinois-Springfield. Here in Springfield in the Spring of 2012, I will be teaching a new course of my own design titled “The History of American Education.”

With this course, I have a number of goals in mind. First, I want to integrate cultural history with the history of education and treat the evolving American view on liberty as a corollary of the changing role of education in our society. Second, I want to teach students to see historical change over the long-term, or the “longue durée” as popularized by the French Annales School. And finally, I hope to introduce students to new perspectives on education, challenging any normative preconceptions they might hold.

Unfortunately, a nationalistic, blindly Progressive narrative dominates much of the literature on the history of American education and obscures the rich diversity of the topic. In a typical retelling, American education was poor and restricted to the rich until the 1830s. Then, the public school movement arrived to save the nation’s children from ignorance and exploitation, while guaranteeing the future of a robust democratic order. But the history of American education is much more complex and more contentious than this portrayal suggests. Indeed, questions about the proper kind of education – and its proper role – have loomed large over centuries of American cultural and political discourse. The history of education in America should be seen as a discourse of conflicting opinions about curriculum, pedagogy, and relationships of control.

Students enrolled in this course will investigate topics of educational coercion and freedom through an assigned research paper. Topics of research might include: Dewey’s view on freedom and its relationship to his educational philosophy, the emphasis of Americans in the colonial period on educating virtuous people for a free society, or the growth of public schools from the democratic impulse to see all free persons receive an education. Naturally, students are going to disagree on the meaning of freedom, as did the persons whom they will study.

The lectures and readings in this course will cover topics from the colonial era to the present-day.  Topics will include: the history of institutional development (early colleges, public schooling, the origins of the research university and community college, vocational training and the liberal arts), the education of specific groups (African American, Native Americans, women, soldiers after WWII, and immigrants), and educational reformers and reform movements (Adams, Dewey, Montessori, Froebel, Steiner, Illich), as well as broad trends in the history of education as it evolved to meet the demands of the Industrial Revolution,  Cold War, and Civil Rights Era.

“The History of American Education” is a 400-level topics course for credit in the History department.

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