The Purposes of Education in the United States: Origins, Conflicts, and Common Ground

Open Access
Crain, Christine Lynn
Area of Honors:
Education and Public Policy
Bachelor of Science
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • David Alexander Gamson, Thesis Supervisor
  • David Alexander Gamson, Honors Advisor
  • Jacqueline A Stefkovich, Faculty Reader
  • education
  • purposes
  • history
  • education and public policy
Over the course of American history there has been endless discussion about the purposes of public education. From Thomas Jefferson to John Dewey, many key figures have written opinions on what should be the central aim of schools. Looking across history, from 1776 to 2012, I discern four broad purposes: academic, economic, democratic, and societal. This thesis attempts to answer three research questions: What are the different purposes of education, and where did they come from? How do we explain how some took prominence over others throughout American history? How do we make sense of the competing tensions between the purposes, and why do different people disagree so strongly? I argue that the first three purposes – academic, democratic, and economic – have been a part of education since the beginning of America. The fourth purpose, the societal purpose, was not implemented until the Common School Era. My analysis shows that the purposes overlap with one another. Since the 1980s, there has been a debate over excellence versus equality. I find that when education focuses on excellence, the two most prominent purposes are the academic and the economic. When focusing on equality, the two most prominent purposes are the democratic and societal. However, in either case, the two less prominent purposes do not disappear; they become smaller in importance until a policy shift swings them back into focus.