Mini Review: Michael B. Katz, “The Origins of Public Education: A Reassessment” History of Education Quarterly, (Winter 1976)

With the Japanese government finally undertaking more aggressive and widespread anti-COVID19 measures since the end of April, I have had a lot more time with the kids and a lot less time to read history of education journal articles like this one. However, in other recent news, I have learned that I will be teaching (or at least assistant teaching) an undergraduate class at UW in the fall. The class is a long-running elective for teaching licensure candidates called, “The Purpose of Public Education in a Democracy.” To be honest, I am thrilled to have been given this opportunity. To be teaching at a university is literally a dream come true. So, I have been all kinds of motivated suddenly in the past few days to do every little thing I can to make sure I will be the best graduate student teacher I can be come this September. All of this, of course, God willing, and I can make my way back to North America without succumbing to the current plague.

So, with all of that as a backdrop, I dug back in this week to some of the articles I had saved from the HEQ 50th anniversary retrospective, and found an earlier one– this piece by Michael Katz, who was the president of the History of Education Society in 1976. This piece about the origins of public education in North America, based largely on Katz’s own research in an industrial community in Ontario, Canada, gives a sweeping if perhaps over-general assessment of the field of History of Education with a focus on one of the major problems in the field at that time: how public education became an institution in North America. This seems like a particularly relevant article given the work assignment I just received this past week, teaching about the purpose of public education. As I read this piece, I kept wondering about the relationship between historical evidence for the ontological emergence of public education as an institution, and the normative or teleological roots of the institution. Is the class I’m going to be teaching more rooted in one or the other of these questions? And is the history of education as a field more concerned with one or the other, if not some third option?

Admittedly, I have little sense of how this question of the emergence of public education has developed, or to what degree it has been “settled” or perhaps continues to be revised in the field of history of education. But reading Katz, I have begun to get a clearer sense of the directions in which the field developed, what questions were central to its early contributors, and where my future research might fit in, interrupt, stand up and clear its throat. For instance, the first piece of history of education I read consciously as such was Duberman’s social history of Black Mountain College, which became central to my own M.Ed. research on Dewey’s influence there. But Duberman, who was writing around the publication of Katz’s HEQ presidency was responding to Cremin’s The Transformation of the School (1961), which Katz also recognizes as a starting point (with Paul H. Buck, et al. 1957; and Bernard Bailyn, 1960) for his work. Likewise, I see echos of Katz claims about the “feminization” of the teaching profession in my advisor, Nancy Beadie’s earlier work.

I think I’ll just leave this “review” there for now. I need to return to childcare duties. So, the content of Katz’s analysis will have to wait. But these “big-picture” concerns are just as exciting. I look forward to being able to formulate an even more detailed history of the field as I begin preparing to teach this survey course in the fall.

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