Sometimes the most conspicuous things are the easiest to overlook, precisely because they are taken for granted. In modern America the public schools are considered normative, private schools a deviation, a view that is held even by some people who support private schools. Often such people are required to justify the schools’ existence—why are you not supporting the schools that belong to everybody? Why have you set up a parallel system?
The obvious point, here overlooked, is that in a sense it is the public schools that need to justify their existence, not the private ones, if the question is looked at from the perspective of history.
For all practical purposes, public schools in America began in the 1840s. Before that, some towns sponsored schools, but it was in no way systematic, and most schools were set up either by churches or by teachers acting as independent agents.
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James Hitchcock is Professor emeritus of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his late wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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