Friday, July 6, 2012

Michigan's Public School Roots: "Let free schools be established and maintained in perpetuity..."

John D. Pierce was appointed Michigan's Superintendent of Public Instruction on July 26, 1836. He was instructed to report to the State Legislature in January 1837 regarding a plan for "a system of common schools and a plan for a university and its branches." In his report, 


"'In an educated and virtuous community there is safety; the rights of individuals are regarded and property is respected and secure. It may safely be assumed as a fundamental principle in our form of government, that knowledge is an element so essential to its existence and vigorous action that we can have no rational hope of its perpetuation unless it is generally diffused.
'Universities may be highly important and academies of great utility, but primary schools are the main dependence.' Such schools, he affirmed, should be regarded as the foundation of our whole system of public instruction and the chief support of all our free institutions. 'National liberty, sound morals, and education must stand or fall together. Common schools are democratic in their nature and influence; they tend to unify society; in them the rich and the poor come together on terms of perfect equality. Let free schools be established and maintained in perpetuity, and there can be no such thing as a permanent aristocracy in our land; for the monopoly of wealth is powerless, where mind is allowed freely to come in contact with mind (emphasis added). We need wisdom, and prudence, and foresight in our councils; fixedness of purpose, integrity and uprightness of heart in our rulers; unwavering attachment to the rights of man among all our people; but these high attributes of a noble patriotism, these essential elements of civilization and improvement, will disappear when schools shall cease to exert an all-pervading influence through the length and breadth of our land.'"

"Having thus stated the absolute necessity of education and intelligence and morality among the people as a whole, he goes on to inquire how schools, as a means of securing these ends, can be sustained. His conclusion is that they 'ought emphatically to be the property and care of the state. To neglect them, would be to neglect the vital energies of the body politic. (emphasis added) Hence the government ought so far to assume the direction, as to see to it that the benefit of the school system is extended to all parts of the community.'"
"We have here the doctrine of free schools with the correlative doctrine of compulsory attendance. In advocating this doctrine Superintendent Pierce was in advance of the public sentiment of his time. He insisted, nevertheless, that it was a logical conclusion from the premises which had been laid down. He said: 'In all this there is nothing inconsistent with rational liberty. It is merely providing for the safety of the State, for its health, happiness, and vigorous growth. This duty stands on precisely the same ground as the law which obliges all the citizens to be enrolled and occasionally do military duty. It is a wise precautionary measure for the public security. * * * Most certainly nothing can be more desirable, and nothing more reasonable. The object to be attained is the welfare of the individual instructed and the security of the State. To secure this object, the instruction must be given; and hence the state has a right to require the education of all children and youth, and impose upon all to whom their management and care is committed, the duty of educating them; and if they can not do it themselves, to send them to the public schools. (emphasis added)'"

In his second report, Pierce continued to solidify his vision of a public education system:

"In laying the foundations of a new state, it is all important to provide, not only for the education of every individual of the present, but of each one of all succeeding generations. Unless ample provision is made for each individual of all classes, we can have no security that the great mass will ever be educated; for the great whole is made up of individuals. * * * Laws should be so framed in all cases, as to leave unimpaired, and in all its force, individual responsibility. It is the duty of parents to educate their children; and no legislative enactment should interfere with this obligation. But it is well known that this duty is neglected in innumerable instances. It is hence the right of the state so far to interpose its paternal authority, as to give additional might to this obligation, and make such provisions as will secure the desired result (emphasis added). And it is exceedingly desirable that such a system be ultimately adopted as will make it the interest as well as the duty of each individual to unite and cooperate with all others in accomplishing an object worthy the highest consideration. * * * The truth is the only rational security the great body of the people can have, is to be found in the general diffusion of knowledge among themselves (emphasis added). But so generally do parents, unaided by sanction and encouragement of law, neglect the education of their children, that the great mass will remain uneducated, and the multitude of the rising generation grow up in ignorance of their duties as citizens of one vast commonwealth, unless the state effectually interpose its rightful authority, and make adequate provision for the instruction of all classes. * * * There is and can be no security of individual rights, persons, or property, except in an educated and virtuous community. In no other will liberty or life be regarded. But though an educated community may not necessarily be a virtuous, and hence a safe community, yet it is true in fact that an ignorant people are generally a vicious people. In the midst of such a people, free institutions never did and never can long subsist and flourish. Nothing but the strong arm of power can impose upon them such restraints as will keep them in subjugation to law and the rights of government."

Putnam, Daniel (1904). The Development of Primary and Secondary Public Education in Michigan: A Historical Sketch. Ann Arbor, Michigan. Retrieved from Google Books

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