Photographs like this one capture the historically fragile character of public schools and schooling. Although the nation’s founders believed that our republican form of government could not be sustained without adequately trained leaders and an informed and virtuous citizenry, the political growth of the United States always been somewhat at odds with the development of its schools. Today, public education is often talked of as a monolith–which in some respects it is. At the same time, it is a congeries of state and local impulses and arrangements, betokening ambivalence toward the concept of public education itself.
For much of US history, public schools were scarce, and getting schooling was not a right or requirement, but often a too-brief privilege or opportunity. My maternal grandmother had only a third-grade education, for instance, while my paternal grandfather (who later became an electrical engineer by taking correspondence courses) had to stop school after the eighth grade because his father had died in a mining accident, leaving his mother and many young siblings to provide for themselves. Children attended school only when circumstance permitted them to, and the education they received was often rudimentary.
In the early 1900s, when the photograph above was taken, children were often absent from school because they were in the fields and factories working. The nexus of poverty and education has always been strained. So too has the nexus between education and assimilation. Why we have public schools and what the aims of public schooling should be will likely hotly debated in the months ahead.
Image by Lewis Hine from this source.