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Tom Ultican explains why he spends so much of his time fighting for public schools.
The original cause for my supporting public education was that my rancher father married a school teacher. Growing up on a southern Idaho ranch, I learned many philosophical and theoretical reasons for supporting the establishment and maintenance of public schools from my mother. However, it was from watching mom and her dedicated colleagues in action that I learned to truly respect and appreciate public school.
I remember stories of my father being warned that he better not treat that women wrong. For several years in a row she won the Elmore County sharp shooting contest. She didn’t like to chop a chicken’s head off so she would pull out her rifle and shoot it off.
Mom had some old school attitudes but maintained a mind of her own. There was a period in which she had to come home at lunch time and milk the cow. One Friday, after having to chase the cow across King Hill creek again, she had had enough; didn’t discuss it just loaded that cow into a trailer and took it to market.
In my home, there was no doubt about the value of education and also an abiding belief that the American public education system was unparalleled. My father was a high school basketball referee and an ardent supporter of music study.
As was common in the community, school events were family events. Helping the local school was one of the main missions of our civic organizations whether it was building viewing stands at the football field or sewing costumes for school plays.
My grandfather was an immigrant from Scotland who came to America on the Lusitania. Three years after his arrival that ship was sunk by a German U-boat killing 1,800 passengers and further pushing America into engaging with World War I.
It was through family in Scotland that my mother became familiar with the British Education system. She learned of its high stakes testing which was deciding a child’s education path; if that education would continue and weather it would be academic or vocational. To her, the great advantage for America’s schools was they did not have these kinds of tests determining a child’s future. American students were not immersed in testing hell.
Instead of being sorted out by testing, American students had multiple opportunities to reenter the education system in whatever capacity they desired. Immature 11-year olds, did not have their futures decided by dubious testing results.
Still today, Idaho has a greater than 90% white population making it one of the whitest places in the world. It used to be even whiter.
I did not meet a Black person until I was a 17 years-old high school student. That year the University of Idaho Vandaleers gave a concert at my high school. A local rancher’s wife threw an after party for the choir and that is where I met Ray McDonald. Not only was he a talented singer, he was also one of the top running backs in America who would soon be drafted in the second round by the Washington DC professional football team. All I really remember is I was star struck and he was a friendly guy who played piano.
Although there was very little racial diversity in the community there was significant religious diversity. We had Mormons, Mennonites, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Assembly of God and other denominations attending our schools.
In a 2001 interview conducted at the Gathering, Richard DeVos lamented that it was awful that public schools had replaced churches as the center of communities. He did not identify whose church was going to be accepted as the community center.
The unifying factor in Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho was the public schools. Children from rich families and poor families grew up together in those schools. At school functions, parents from the disparate religious sects came together and formed common bonds. Political decisions concerning community governance were developed through these school based relationships.
Public schools became the foundation for democratic governance in the region plus it was literally where people voted. To me, it is unfeasible that a healthy American democracy does not include a healthy public school system.
America’s Founding Fathers Believed in Public Education
The second and third presidents of the United States advocated powerfully for public education. Thomas Jefferson saw education as the cause for developing out of common farmers the enlightened citizenry that would take the rational action a successful republican democracy requires. Jefferson contended,
“The qualifications for self government are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training.”
When Jefferson who was a former ambassador to France was queried about the French Revolution, he responded, “It has failed in its first effort, because the mobs of the cities, the instrument used for its accomplishment, debased by ignorance, poverty and vice, could not be restrained to rational action.” He called for the establishment of universal free public education claiming it as a requisite for the survival of a democratic republic.
Jefferson and his peer John Adams were integral to the founding of the United States. Jefferson is credited as the main author of the Declaration of Independence. Our system of government with its bi-cameral legislative branch, judicial branch and executive branch came about in great measure because of John Adams’ advocacy.
Like Jefferson, Adams also saw public education as crucial for the survival of our fledgling democracy. In a 1775 essay, he wrote:
“reformation must begin with the Body of the People which can be done only, to affect, in their Educations. the Whole People must take upon themselvs the Education of the Whole People and must be willing to bear the expences of it. there should not be a district of one Mile Square without a school in it, not founded by a Charitable individual but maintained at the expence of the People themselves”
Shortly before the American Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had published the controversial novel Emile, or On Education. He was widely condemned by the ruling elite for the religious views expressed in the book. However, the main portion of the book was about education. Rousseau’s character in the book was a tutor for children of the wealthy. That was the nature of education in the 18thcentury. Only children of the wealthy had the wherewithal to be educated by private tutors or in one of the few private schools.
Jefferson and Adams were calling for egalitarian progress giving common people the tools required to be self-governing. They were calling for a public school system.
It was the Massachusetts education advocate, Horace Mann, who more than any American political leader was responsible for the nationwide spread of public schools. With the challenges of industrialization, immigration and urbanization, public schools became the fabric of social integration. Horace Mann became the spokes-person for schools being that instrument.
It was Mann’s point of view that children in the common school were to receive a common moral education based on the general principles of the Bible and on common virtues. The moral values to be taught in public school were Protestant values and the political values were those of republican democracy.
Integrating the Protestant religious view into the common schools caused a split in communities. The burgeoning Catholic immigrant population did not want their children indoctrinated with an anti-Catholic ideology. Following the civil war, these influences irrupted into the “Bible Wars.” Author Katherine Stewart shared that it was in this atmosphere that “President Ulysses S. Grant declared that if a new civil war were to erupt, it would be fought not across the Mason-Dixon Line but at the door of the common schoolhouse.”
Stewart also shared an insightful admonition from Grant:
“Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate. With these safeguards I believe the battles which created the Army of Tennessee will not have been fought in vain.”
Early in the 20th century, public schools had been established serving every community from coast to coast. The results from this vast American public education experiment shine like a lighthouse beacon on the path of Democracy and social happiness. A nation that entered the century as a 2nd rate power ended the century as the undisputed world leader in literacy, economy, military power, industrial might, cultural influence and more.
Today, unbelievably, more and more forces are agitating to undo public education and even American Democracy itself.
As the 21st century dawned, the American public education system was facing a billionaire financed attack. Instead of financially enhancing public schools, libertarians called them “failures” and too expensive. They called public schools “monopolies” shutting out private business that would surely outperform “government schools.” Hopefully the aphorism attributed Lincoln is true: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”