How Children Become American

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a column in the Washington Post addressing the critical role of the nation’s schools in integrating the children of immigrants into American culture.

Public schools are an essential tool for creating citizens–whether those citizens are “home grown” or new arrivals–and I certainly agreed with the points being made.

The idea of citizenship — of members of the republic being responsible for the quality of their own government — made America unique at its founding. Until James Madison made “We, the People” the foundation of the Constitution, other modern nations were full of subjects, rather than citizens. For citizens to choose their new leaders successfully, they needed to become informed electors. Safeguarding America’s fragile experiment required voters, almost exclusively propertied white men, to attend political discussions and read the newspaper.

As the country grew beyond the revolutionary period and the rights of citizenship began to include non-property-owning white men, the country increasingly embraced the idea that all white Americans needed to be well educated to ensure effective self-government. In the decades that followed, the country’s public education system was predicated on producing such citizens. “The children of a republic [must] be fitted for a society as well as for themselves,”said Horace Mann, the founder of the common school movement, in 1842. “As each citizen is to participate in the power over governing others, it is an essential preliminary that he should be imbued with a feeling for the wants, and a sense of rights, of those whom he is to govern.” Only schools could effectively achieve that goal.

As the column notes, when millions of Irish, Italian and Eastern European immigrants arrived in the United States, concerns about “culture change” prompted public school systems to emphasizing teaching about the Constitution, American history, and the obligations of citizens in a democracy.

Students also gained exposure to an increasing number of ways to engage politically. In textbook after textbook, discussion after discussion, students learned to write their representatives, volunteer for causes they cared about, and write pieces for their newspapers about issues that mattered to them. In at least one major American city, Boston, most students took at least five classes on how to be the type of citizen who bettered democracy.

How times have changed!

As the article concedes, today we no longer have a shared notion of what constitutes good citizenship. And we certainly don’t teach our children.

Students in many states take no civics classes. Worse, as American schools have abandoned civics, American  lawmakers have largely abandoned any commitment to public education– funding vouchers and other privatization efforts.

And it matters.

Americans increasingly access different news sites and blogs, read different books (when they read at all), patronize different entertainment options, profess different religions–the life experiences we share have diminished pretty dramatically. Public schools are one of the last remaining “street corners,” where children from different backgrounds learn together. (Given residential segregation, even public school classrooms are less inclusive of difference than is optimal, but public schools beat most other venues.)

State voucher programs disproportionately send children to religious schools, where attendees share a particular religious background. There are no requirements that such schools teach civics, and no way to know whether or how they teach what it means to be an American.

If the knowledge displayed by my undergraduate students is representative, they don’t teach anything about the Constitution and embarrassingly little about the country’s history, good or bad.

The cited article argues that the schools can and should produce informed American citizens. Obviously, I agree–this is a drum I’ve been beating for a very long time.

But first, we need to reaffirm our commitment to public education. Among other things, that means funding public schools and their teachers adequately. It means terminating the voucher programs that siphon money from those public schools, and doing much more to regulate and monitor charter schools (which are public schools.)

As Benjamin Barber has written, America’s public schools are constitutive of the public.

They are essential.


  1. Amen, Sheila. Thank you for the history lesson.

    Public schools CREATE the public – exposing students of all and no religions, all income levels, all colors, and all abilities to each other. Learning how to live with each other, respecting our differences as well as learning the importance of our common commitment to a strong community and nation is essential to a democracy. Thomas Jefferson said it so well (paraphrased) – if a democracy expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.

  2. “As the article concedes, today we no longer have a shared notion of what constitutes good citizenship. And we certainly don’t teach our children.”

    Growing up during the 1940s in a predominantly white middle-class west side neighborhood (between Victory Field on West 16th Street and Riverside Park on West 30th Street), I had two first generation Americans as school mates and friends. Their families were simply our neighbors and friends. The black children who lived 2 or 3 blocks from “our” public school were not allowed to attend but were assigned to a school miles away with no transportation to get an education. This segregation was – and sadly – still is their America in too many areas. The Catholic families kept themselves and their children segregated from all others in the neighborhood. We continue to see this religious segregation today in the evangelicals who have put religion into the government; while government has not established their specific religions, political speeches are coming from their pulpits more and more. The voucher system is not only destroying the public school system, it works against “How Children Become Americans” including American children of generations of American families. The current dichotomy we are struggling against is more than political, more than religion, more than race; it is a widening division of America and Americans and Trump is furthering the division between Americans and America from decades long relationships with our allies.

    Who will be left to be Americans to address “…the critical role of the nation’s schools in integrating the children of immigrants into American culture.”? Our culture is systematically being destroyed by our current government which bears no resemblance to American way of life.

  3. My Google Assistant can tell me about the 4th amendment in detail and cite Cornell University. 😉

    My folks are good citizens, but they stopped voting because they have no idea who the candidates are on the ballot. They don’t know Google Assistant or Alexa. 😉

    Can we make voting mandatory and straightforward?

    We are the Culture of Entertainment and civics isn’t entertaining. The news is abysmal and has now shifted to “entertainment.” A journalist makes $24K while talking heads make millions a year.

    Schools are career preparation even though many states still disguise this. And we have EdTech which will disrupt public schooling altogether.

    Another disruptor is the lack of teachers to start the year in Indiana. Predictable. Once again, predict out ten years. 20 years. There will be an app for political science and no textbook required. Look what Wikipedia did to Microsoft’s Encarta.

    Public education is on the precipice of disruptions. Being a “good citizen” will mean something completely different in a few years.

  4. What a profound revelation this morning of the source of we the people letting democracy and freedom die. It’s just as we let the earth down. Our brains and will have been sucked out of their dwelling places by screens of all sizes entertaining us to get us through each otherwise too boring too comfortable day. We could have earned the right to pass on what we were given by people who fought for it, but we simply didn’t because there were comedians to laugh at, teams to root for, and talking heads to tell us how to think.

    Is it too late to undo what we’ve done? We always knew there would be such a time but the only way to see it would be in the rear view mirror. Is it there now?

  5. Since public education started becoming politicized – even back in my day – civics and science have been under attack by whatever passed for conservative politics. Reagan tried to eliminate the Dept. of Education. All this voucher bullshit is pandering to the rich in an attempt to recreate the feudal systems of bygone Europe. It is an elite thing. Purely. Simply.

    I taught in southern Texas. Every year I had kids who spoke NO English when they entered my biology classes. Some were even illiterate in Spanish. By the end of the year, those kids could make a presentation to the class in English. Why? Because they WANTED to learn and assimilate.

    The politicians have squeezed budgets for schools so much that vocational programs died along with teaching civics. The politicians, especially Republicans, are terrified of an educated populace. The unspoken racism of eliminating vocational education is profound. What’s important to education politics today? The ABCs: Athletics, Band and Cheerleaders.

  6. As long as we are on schools let me ask this. How did the Indianapolis Public School System allow there to be a “Christian blessing of the school building” at one of our grade schools as reported by the news the other day?

  7. Lyndon Johnson taught in a “Mexican” school in Cotulla, TX one year while in college to earn the next year’s tuition. It was one of the two personal experiences, according to his testimony, that formed his passion for civil rights. He never forgot that experience. A simple search will provide all the information you need to know about LBJ’s compassion. He, like all of us, was a flawed human being, but having seen how education changed individuals led to the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

  8. Back when I was Boomer growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, we had Civics classes and History. The history was sanitized in way to produce a happily ever after end to that point.

    What we did learn about was the Great Depression and FDR’s response. It must grated on the Reactionary Right that FDR was praised as a great leader in our books. We learned about how the country pulled together during WW 2.

    The Civics classes taught us about how the political system was supposed to work in theory.

    As Wayne has mentioned LBJ was a true believer in civil rights and the necessity of the Federal Government to guarantee Equal Rights to all Americans. The idea of the Federal Government as the enemy was the Right Wing – Jim Crow reaction. The idea of State’s Right’s which had been buried in the ashes of the Civil War re-emerged.

    It was around this time in the late 1950’s that Science began take on importance. The Sputnik launch jump started our interest in Science.

    Science, eventually became a danger to the Evangelicals. Geology, paleontology, archeology, and astro-physics, blew the literal Genesis version of creation away. Science had once again become the enemy as it did when Galileo with his telescope identified the moons of Jupiter and his support of the sun centered solar system. Another giant Charles Darwin, outlined another path of development with evolution.

    Rational, logical thought has no place within the Authoritarian Religious Model. Yet, here we are public tax dollars being doled out so Bronze Age Myths can be taught in schools.

  9. That IS the point, unfortunately. Our current oligarchs DON”T want an informed electorate. They want a mass of sheep willing to work for low wages and filled with hate for the “other” so they won’t organize against the leaders. That’s why Moscow Mitch wouldn’t have hearings for Obama’s nominate for SCOTUS, passed the tax cuts for the wealthy, etc. etc. That’s why Trump is so in love with Putin and Kim — they have the kind of governments he believes in — where a select group of uber wealthy hacks makes the rules the rest of us live under and if you disagree “Lock her up!” welcome to fascism! Pass the vodka!!

  10. Public schools are land-based real properties, staffed and governed by the State. Majors graduate and have to join the laborers where they have a mailing address, reliable telephone contacts, bank accounts, IRS and SSA accountants. Civic is the same kind of adjective as is white in the text, a mental image in English alphabet terms only. There is no way a pubic school in Clark County is the same as one in Allen County. Some schools have exceptional reputations at the +&- ends of the scales in use for the entire Indiana — not Hoosierana.
    However, they are all minorities, members of unions mostly, and without much educatory interest in courses for those in continuing areas — arts and architecture/construction/demolition, law, medicine, theology, sailing and boating, fishing and water uses… Juvenile education is not Education of the predictable pregnancy to 19 years household tax dependents — as on billing codes. Immigrants CAN learn literary, A to Z, 0 to 9 writing ANYWHERE, U.S.A. A degree in any federal age area requires abilities to operate within employment Security rules from Work Permit [14 years] forever. How is any of that private accounting? How is any religion PRIVATE? You DO all K-12 for one diploma and sendoff, go on for six years and return to teach what you already learned plus changes, like Equality, qualities, quantities, properties….techniques and how to on the job. Manhattan Project at New Mexico was the end of secret cities and the force behind our being locked into rooms with cameras ever since. Parents coop to establish work divisions, fund-raisers, nomination and selection committees ALL the time. Because many school owners have not protected juveniles as a special growth and development stage has made many grounds unsafe for citizens on their ways to adulthood IN a family, When you have 40 public assistance groups for narcotics segments in one city of 22,000 utility payers, the problems are not who’s going to massacre private school civics teachers or even American English users,

  11. We’ve gone from a can do culture to a don’t want to do anything not for me culture. Fortunately there are still exceptions to our culture but they are getting fewer and farther between.

  12. Vernon, I too taught in South Texas — Mission, Texas. I also taught elsewhere in Texas and in two other states, Indiana and California. But Mission, Texas was the best school of all…by far. For instance:

    I taught English in all three states and normally had about 250 students to whom I would assign homework maybe three times a week. Thus, I expected about 750 English papers to be handed in every week. In the Indiana, California and other Texas schools, I would very seldom receive more than 300 finished assignments per week, less than half the papers that were assigned. And in those English papers turned in I would find thousands of misspelled words.

    But in Mission, Texas, where 80% of the student’s first language was Spanish, and where I assigned the same number of papers as I had in Indiana, California and other Texas schools, at least 740 papers would be turned in every week. And there would be almost no misspelled words.

    Why were the Mission kids so much better students than the Indiana,California and other Texas kids?

    1. The Mission, Texas parents still believed that education would be the salvation of their kids…I mean, really believed it…enough so that they supervised their children’s homework with true parental diligence, even with desperation.

    2. There was no other reason. Mission, Texas did not operate its schools under a different school system with a different budget than the rest of the country. It did not magically hire superior teachers. Mission simply had better parents.

    I’m in favor of sending 60 million American deplorables with their children to Mexico in exchange for at least 60 million Hispanics whose first language was Spanish and whose family values are still operational. Our schools would improve fast.

  13. Larry,

    Love your comments. You would enjoy my book, “A Worm in the Apple: The Inside Story of Public Schools”. I give parents a rough ride too. You couldn’t be more correct.

  14. Sheila,
    Really got a good read on the children and public education. Was also impressed by all who commented and what they said. Yes, if Hispanic folks and their children were to go to a fine public school I am certain they would learn more and be more productive than their white children. Not all schools or white folk. But many by the score.
    Today parents do not supervise their children to do their homework. Are too busy.
    When raising our daughter , who is white , back in the 80’s starting Kindergarten she always did her homework before she was allowed to go out with her peers. She went to school in AZ.
    When my husband retired from Military, after 20 years we retired in Oregon . Our daughter had a rough year in 8 th grade because the OR schools were far ahead in teaching curriculum than AZ. Was a hard thing for her to change.
    In high school she did much better. Caught up with OR education.
    LBJ certainly did a lot because of all teaching of Hispanic children in Texas showed and ingrained in him. Passing the Civil Rights Act was one of the finest things that ever happened in our country.
    Our country is crashing down with our Authoritarian leadership. And everyday something else happens that is devastating our country.
    Hoping a Democrat will win to be next President but not holding my breath.
    My husband says looks like we’re headed for a recession which he doesn’t like but says if it happens , it may get Trump out of office. If that is what it takes than bring it on.
    Kathy Harmon

  15. I enjoyed reading all comments to Sheila’s article, especially Larry and Vernon. My career was with the YMCA, America’s largest provider of before and after school care. Our programs took place at the school site, and through on site inspections and oversight, developed an admiration and respect for public schools who operated in very diverse settings and circumstances. I will never forget Selma Elementary in Hollywood, right across the street behind the YMCA. Teachers greet students in 29 different languages at the opening day and by the end of the school term, 90% were gone from the classroom due to neighborhood transition the public school had no control over. Despite these conditions, children of immigrant families are eager to learn and admire and respect their teachers.

  16. Sheila – thank you for another excellent blog post.

    I want to expand on this a bit – I think that public education has three main purposes:

    1) creating citizens – e pluribus unum – I have found it interesting over the years how Catholic schools created a sense of solidarity among Catholics – I witnessed many conversations that went something like this – “You’re Catholic? So am I” “Did you go to parochial schools?” “Yes, we had the Sisters of Perpetual Cruelty” “Oh, my school had the Order of Punitive Brothers” They then proceeded to criticize the Sisters and Brothers, admire how they received a great education, and announce that their children would be sent to Catholic schools. Different schools in different cities, but a feeling of kinship – such should be the case of our public schools – knowledge and pride in our country and our form of government.

    2) schools should teach “crap detection” – one of my college professors announced that this was the sole purpose of a college education – I wouldn’t wait until college, since not everybody will attend – students don’t need a formal course in logic, but should be able to detect garbage – the American history text used in Detroit schools (eventually removed as racist) clearly stated White man’s destiny to take Indian land and that freed Black slaves were too stupid to care for themselves without Massa’ taking care of them. Fifth grade – I think most of my classmates saw it as a flawed racist text, even at that age.

    3) I don’t want to denigrate vocational education, but job training is the third function in importance. Too many politicians and legislators act as if the sole purpose of education is to get you a job and otherwise it is a waste. Balderdash – Citizen creation, crap detection and only then, preparation for a trade (be it electrician or neurologist).

    But then again, that, as we used to say, is just my not so humble opinion.

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