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Henningsen: School Wars

Our founding fathers cared deeply about education. George Washington proposed creation of a national university; John Adams’s draft of the Massachusetts Constitution made it a state duty to encourage the development of knowledge; Thomas Jefferson tried to create America’s first public school system and on his tombstone listed founding the University of Virginia as one of his three major accomplishments; Ira Allen persuaded Vermonters to found UVM. But their concern was less with schooling than with what schooling would produce.

Founder Benjamin Rush put it plainly: students must become virtuous citizens of the republic - what he called, “republican machines.”

“This must be done,” he continued, “if we expect them to perform their parts properly, in the great machine of the government of the state.” Education, in other words, was about producing the right kind of Americans, capable of governing themselves.

Debates over education reverberate throughout American history, but they’ve rarely been about education itself. More often, they were about identity – about what kind of nation America is or should be.

In the 19th century, the great school wars that rocked urban America were responses to immigration – first the waves fleeing famine-plagued Ireland; later, the huddled masses of eastern and southern Europe flooding America’s cities. Panicked natives turned to education as a means of social control. Immigrants had to be taught American values; their difference had to be eradicated and replaced by one American culture, to which all Americans must subscribe. The most bitter struggles were over religion, particularly in the form of determined opposition to Catholic schools, which nativist Americans regarded as subversive, reinforcing foreign culture and foreign values.

In the later 20th century, conflict over schools was usually about race and its place in our society – fights over integration in the South and over efforts to ensure racial balance in schools through forced busing. Again, the central issue wasn’t schooling per sé – it was identity.

As Vermonters debate school district consolidation, we’re really arguing about what kind of state we are; what kind of state we wish to be.

And we’ve been here before. In 1892, the legislature mandated consolidation of some 2500 local school districts into our current 277, part of a larger struggle over state identity chronicled by historian Paul Searls in his book Two Vermonts.

That conflict pitted those promoting local control as a defining characteristic of the state against others arguing that students must be prepared for an emerging, modern Vermont.

And here we are again, having a similar conversation in a somewhat different context. As Mark Twain observed, “History doesn’t repeat itself. But it does rhyme.”

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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