Note: Much of the historical research on the common school reform era was done from 1968-1985. Recent scholarship on the era either takes a micro view or emphasizes other developments. I’m not including several recent comprehensive histories of American education that devote only a chapter to our period. For books that cover a range of periods, I have listed the pages that address the common school reform era.
Binder, Frederick M. The Age of the Common School, 1830-65. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1974.
This book is not especially scholarly, but it provides a good general introduction.
Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis. Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1976. pp. 151-179.
This book is clearly a Marxist critique, claiming that the U.S. school system functions to keep children in the same socioeconomic slots as their parents. It’s worth noting that the authors are economists, not historians. For our period, noting that mass education arose at the same time as industrialization, they focus on education in Lowell as well as on Mann’s work. Although there’s relatively little on common school reform, their indictment of the reform campaign is worth grappling with especially as it dovetails with Katz and Nasaw.
Glenn, Myra C. “School Discipline and Punishment in Antebellum America.” Journal of the Early Republic 1981 1(4): 395-408.
“The movement by educators against corporal punishment in the schools corresponded to major social and moral changes in the antebellum Northeast. Development of internalized moral codes and self discipline was stressed rather than the externalized imposition of order. Opponents of corporal punishment such as Horace Mann believed it violated children's innate rights. Such views further reflected the growing belief in children's pliant natures and basic innocence. Arguments against corporal punishment in schools did not lead to its complete abolishment due to educators' anxieties about social and class regulation.” – America: History & Life (online database here.)
Gordon, Mary MacDougall. “Patriots & Christians: A Reassessment of 19th Century School Reformers.” Journal of Social History 1978 11(4): 554-574.
“The revisionist preoccupation with social control motivation in the founding of the free public educational system focuses too much on urban concerns. The fact is that rural schools were as much the goal. Further it ignores the ties between education and nationalism. Concentrates on an educational elite throughout Massachusetts working in the American Institute for Education, founded in 1830 and instrumental before and after Horace Mann emerged through their efforts. They sought a Protestant Christian republic.” – America: History & Life
Hogan, David. “Modes of Discipline: Affective Individualism and Pedagogical Reform in New
England, 1820-1850.” American Journal of Education 1990 99(1): 1-56.
“Historians have long recognized the debate between Horace Mann and the Boston grammar school masters in the 1840's as a pivotal moment in the making of modern American pedagogy. Recent interpretations of this debate have tended to view it as a clash between modernity and traditionalism, Unitarian enlightenment and Calvinist repression, or capitalism and paternalism. However, far from being forward-looking capitalist modernizers, Horace Mann and other exponents of "the New England pedagogy" were deeply troubled by the menacing moral consequences of the market and Jacksonian revolutions and, in response, they developed and deployed a "disciplinary" pedagogy that simultaneously reflected their faith in the ability of education to promote the development of the powers of the self and cultivate the capacity for "self-government" while at the same time preventing, or at least limiting, the commercialization of the school classroom.” – America: History & Life
Kaestle, Carl F., and Maris A. Vinovskis. Education and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century
Massachusetts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
With the other Vinovskis book below, this volume responds to the charges leveled especially by Katz. Its focus on Massachusetts seems narrow, but in fact, the authors extend their analysis beyond urban areas and arrive at a more nuanced understanding than Katz, Bowles and Gintis, and others who focus on industrialization and urban education. Of great local interest, but important to scholars nationally due to the key role of Massachusetts in our period.
Katz, Michael B. The Irony of Early School Reform: Education in Innovation in Mid-
Nineteenth Century Massachusetts. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.
This book launched the Marxist critique of common school reform with quantitative, careful, but also angry analyses of events in Beverly, Lawrence, and Groton. It also contains a fascinating chapter on the class position of teachers and another on the state reform school at Westborough. Katz remains an important scholar of poverty and urban development, but I think he let his emotions get the better of him in this book. Nonetheless, it’s extremely impressive and gripping.
Nasaw, David. Schooled to Order: A Social History of Public Schooling in the United States.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979. pp. 7-84.
Nasaw is a talented writer (check out his excellent Children of the City) and able to present schooling in its social context. Arguing that the common school reform agenda focused more on moral education and keeping the peace than expansion of opportunity, Nasaw takes a more Marxist view than Kaestle and Vinovskis, but less than Katz or Bowles and Gintis. His basic idea is that Americans expect the schools to handle large social problems that society cannot otherwise solve, and therefore, we’re doomed to disappointment.
Noel, Rebecca R. “Salem as the Nation’s Schoolhouse.” In Salem: Place, Myth and Memory.
Edited by Dane Anthony Morrison and Nancy Lusignan Schultz. Boston: Northeastern
University Press, 2004.
Noel traces the history of public and private education in Salem from its beginnings in
the 17th century through Horace Mann’s reform efforts in the 1830s and attempts at
integration of Salem’s schools in the 1840s.
Osgood, Robert L. “Undermining the Common School Ideal: Intermediate Schools and
Ungraded Classes in Boston, 1838-1900.” History of Education Quarterly 1997 37(4):
“Horace Mann articulated a vision of publicly supported education that erased distinctions of wealth, social standing, religion, or ethnic background within the classroom. But in Mann's time, such distinctions were apparent in the public schools of Boston. From 1838 to 1879 intermediate schools set apart students whose ethnic backgrounds, learning disabilities, or behavioral problems disadvantaged their educational progress. From 1879 to 1900 a system of ungraded schools served the same purpose, and in the process became the origins of modern institutions specially designed to provide education to students with special needs.” – America: History & Life
Schultz, Stanley K. The Culture Factory: Boston Public Schools, 1789-1860. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1973.
This book is not about common school reform per se, but about the public schools of Boston. However, it contains much excellent and applicable material and is overall a superb piece of scholarship, both readable and filled with lively detail.
Soltow, Lee, and Edward Stevens. The Rise of Literacy and the Common School in the United
States: A Socioeconomic Analysis to 1870. Chicago and London: University of Chicago
This book, as the title suggests, focuses more on literacy—including through newspapers, libraries, and books—than schooling in general, although schooling does figure prominently in the analysis. Soltow is an economist and Stevens is a professor of education, which means the book has less historical sophistication than some others. The authors use Ohio as a case study. This book’s most interesting feature for our purposes may be its vast and clever quantitative analyses of demographic factors relating to literacy and the costs of illiteracy.
Tyack, David. The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Cambridge,
Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1974. pp. 3-125.
This book obviously addresses urban education but also discusses the transition from rural to urban modes. It places the common school reform era in a wider temporal context, handling the nineteenth century as more of a whole. Check out the author’s other books such as Learning Together: A History of Coeducation in American Public Schools (with Elisabeth Hansot) and Managers of Virtue: Public School Leadership in America 1820-1980.
Vinovskis, Maris. The Origins of Public High Schools: A Reexamination of the Beverly High
School Controversy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.
This is Vinovskis’s solo response to Katz, a 133-page book debunking less than 40 pages. While many of the graphs and tables are drawn from Vinovskis’s joint book with Kaestle, he had more to say, and it’s worth reading to see his careful understanding of school attendance as a function of class. It is also fascinating from a local point of view.
Wosh, Peter J. “Sound Minds and Unsound Bodies: Massachusetts Schools and Mandatory
Physical Training.” New England Quarterly 1982 55(1): 39-60.
“When Horace Mann reviewed the Massachusetts common school curriculum in 1842, he noted the deficiency of any rudimentary health care education. While Mann attempted to fuse the healthy characteristics of farm life with the advantages of an urban existence, few educators moved beyond verbal support for Mann's goals. Dioclesian Lewis succeeded where Mann had failed. Arriving in West Newton in 1860, Lewis devised a system of "New Gymnastics" and crusaded for its introduction in Massachusetts through both lectures and writings. By 1863, however, physical education reformers began emphasizing a different set of values stemming from the Civil War and stripping gymnastics of its fun element. In 1865 Lewis abandoned Boston and the physical education field to those who sought "to promote submission and order through rigidity and the command-response mentality of the military drill."” – American History & Life