The Undemocratic History of School ‘Pandemic Pods’Roundup
tags: education, inequality, class, public school, private school
Mark Boonshoft is assistant professor of history at Duquesne University and author of Aristocratic Education and the Making of the American Republic, to be published by University of North Carolina Press later this month.
The coronavirus pandemic poses an existential threat to American education. As schools decide whether classrooms will take shape online or in person this fall, some parents are not taking any chances. The struggles of distance learning experiences when the virus hit this spring has incentivized wealthy Americans to use their vast resources to educate their children privately in small “pandemic pods” or expensive private schools. But there is a serious cost to this decision: the transition to distance learning already exposed deep inequality in education, and this move will only exacerbate it.
The advent of pandemic pods and more families opting out of public schools may set American education back generations because it will deprive schools of funding at a time when it is most needed. It also resurrects the educational ideals and practices of European aristocrats and their early American admirers, reminding us how private education sustains social inequality, as it was designed to do.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, English aristocrats usually hired tutors for their kids, before sending them off to elite boarding schools and universities with other aristocrats. There were no public schools that served the whole community because education itself was seen as an elite pursuit. Only those who were destined by birth to rule needed an education. Everyone else could safely remain uneducated.
Northerners remained on guard against the threat that aristocratic private education posed, and these concerns actually helped spread the New England model of strong, public elementary schools to the rest of the region. In 1812, the New York legislature set up a committee to recommend a system of what they now called “common schools,” to counter the influence of academies. One of the committeemen, Jedediah Peck, hated academies and had argued more than a decade before that “in all countries where education is confined to a few people, we always find arbitrary governments and abject slavery.” Unlike academies, common schools aimed to serve all children. Yet they did not entirely eliminate inequality. White New Yorkers increasingly relegated black children to segregated schools. The rhetoric of educational equity has always been constrained by some white Americans’ narrow vision of who counted as citizens.
New York in 1812, and soon the rest of the North, had nevertheless decided to hold its government accountable for providing strong schools for all the state’s future citizens, which required disincentivizing wealthy people from educating their children separately. Northern public-school advocates understood that when wealthy and powerful parents decide to educate their children only with one another, they can actually create aristocracy. When it does, the results are striking: It not only worsens educational inequality; it makes equitable schools impossible to achieve.
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