U.S. Compulsory Education: Teaching Exceptionalism

During the mid-nineteenth century, states began passing compulsory education laws, and although all states had these laws in place by the time the United States entered World War I, there was still quite a disparity between levels of basic education received by the soldiers. Mobilization efforts during WWI highlighted the need for greater emphasis on education in the United States, but it also highlighted the need to emphasize a common nationality among its citizenry. The war had created a stigma on citizens and immigrants who were too closely related or associated with the enemy. It was felt that the ‘old country’ culture, still held by many, needed to be replaced by a commitment to a less definable, but more patriotic American culture. The desire to eliminate overt connections with European culture, a culture that seemed to instigate war rather than peace, led to strong measures designed to force change in the U.S. population. One measure included the effort to eliminate parochial schools which were viewed as being too closely tied to European culture. When Oregon amended its compulsory education laws in 1922 with the intent to eliminate parochial schools, they faced opposition including a Supreme Court case that ended up ruling against them. It was hoped that public education would transform the population into a more cohesive culture, and while states couldn’t force public school attendance versus private school attendance, over time many states were able to dictate curriculum requirements and achieve the underlying goals sought by legislators during the post-war period.

Many in the United States believed that the nation had a vital responsibility to encourage and spread notions of republican democracy. A growing belief in ‘American exceptionalism’ developed in the post-war years, due in part to wartime propaganda. If the United States was to be exceptional then it needed to guarantee that its public understood what made it exceptional. Accomplishing this task meant that its citizenry needed to understand history, and not just the history of the United States beginning with colonization or independence, but a citizen needed to understand the connection between the United States and ancient history where the foundations of democracy resided. Compulsory education, classes in American History and Western Civilization, and an emphasis on U.S. exceptionalism became the foundation for unifying a nation during the twentieth century.

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