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Public Schools Were Not Inevitable

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America’s public schools owe a great deal to the efforts of 19th-century abolitionists and reformers. In a new story for The Atlantic’s special issue on Reconstruction, my colleague Adam Harris wrote about how Reconstruction shaped America’s modern public-education system. Reformers in the South such as Mary Brice worked to realize the then-radical notion that free, universal schools should serve all students. I called Adam this week to discuss the backlash faced by early efforts to build public schools, and how that opposition is still embedded in discussions about public education today.

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic:

An Antagonism That Lingers

Lora Kelley: I think a lot of people today take public schools for granted. I certainly consider them a stable constant in American life. So I was really struck by your reporting on how much opposition public schools, especially those serving Black students in the South, faced in the 19th century and after. Was the concept of public schooling in America inevitable at any point in the country’s history?

Adam Harris: It was never really inevitable. The idea of all people being educated, particularly Black people, was once out of the question for large swaths of the South. From the beginning of the nation, school had always been for well-off families. You had parochial schools, you had a lot of private schools, and subscription schools where families could pay based on the amount of classes that students attended.

Into the 1800s, multiple southern states passed bans on Black folks—both enslaved and free Black people—learning how to read, because there was this thought that if they did, it would engender rebellion and antagonism to the system. Black literacy was often viewed with suspicion, because the thought was that if enslaved people learned how to read even things like the Bible, because of the liberation theology that courses throughout the Old Testament and parts of the New Testament, they would rise up and fight against the power structure. If you think about some of the rebellions and revolts of enslaved people—such as Gabriel’s Rebellion and Turner’s Rebellion—these were largely based on folks who had learned how to read the Bible.

Lora: Do you still see traces of this antagonism toward Black literacy and education today?

Adam: This antagonism toward Black education still lingers. The public-school ecosystem today is relatively stable. But you also see vestiges of past discrimination in education systems, not just at the K–12 level, but also at the college level. For institutions in places with a low tax base, or places with high levels of poverty, the schools are less well-funded. That leads to an instability that bad actors naturally are preying on at this moment.

We’ve lately seen a push toward a rejection of history, because of the idea that if you tell the history in an accurate way, then it may lead people to question some of the assumptions that we have built into our systems. Telling the full, robust nature of what the Founding Fathers did, and what kind of people they were outside of their political exploits, is important to having a broad understanding of history, and an understanding of why things are the way they are. If we’re looking at America as a project—trying to perfect this democracy, trying to work toward a more perfect union—then questions can start to lead to actions to try to change those flawed pieces of the system.

Lora: At the end of your article, you wrote, “In 2023, the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action, the most serious effort to date at realizing Brice’s dream nationally.” Do you see Mary Brice’s legacy being undone in education today?

Adam: Over the past several years, we’ve seen a lot of stories about the resegregation of public schools, where you have areas that effectively created new school districts, taking resources away from students in Black and brown communities. We’ve seen the Supreme Court strike down race-conscious admissions, which effectively blunts an already limited tool to make higher education more equitable and accessible to a broader range of people. Taken together, this moment—and the push to walk back some of the gains of the ’60s and the ’70s—is an assault on Brice’s legacy.

I often think about how, in his last address as a president, George Washington implored Congress to fund education. He talked about the way that education is how we build national character and how we build good citizens. We’ve known how important education has been since America’s founding. We’ve seen visionaries pushing for a more equitable education system. That is a goal that remains worthwhile, and it’s under attack.


Today’s News

  1. Israeli troops entered al-Shifa Hospital in pursuit of hostages and Hamas fighters who they claim are operating in tunnels underneath the complex, which could not be independently verified. Hamas and the hospital deny the allegations.
  2. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in person for their first conversation in a year.
  3. The man accused of attacking Paul Pelosi with a hammer testified in court yesterday about being drawn into right-wing conspiracies.


Millennium Images / Gallery Stock

Why So Many Accidental Pregnancies Happen in Your 40s

By Rachel E. Green

After she turned 42, Teesha Karr thought she was done having kids. Six, in her mind, was perfect. And besides, she was pretty sure she had started menopause. For the past six months she’d had all the same signs as her friends: hot flashes, mood swings, tender breasts. She and her husband decided they could probably safely do away with contraception. But less than a month later, Karr felt a familiar twinge of pain in her ovary—the same twinge she’d felt every time she’d been pregnant before.

Karr felt embarrassed. “Teenagers accidentally get pregnant. Forty-two-year-old women don’t usually accidentally get pregnant,” she told me. But, really, 42-year-old women accidentally getting pregnant is surprisingly common.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Kibbutz Be'eri
Taken in Kibbutz Be’eri (Photography by Jerome Sessini / Magnum for The Atlantic)

Read. “Safe Room,” a poem by Agi Mishol and translated by Barbara Mann.

“Now that death creeps all around / and the pecans are bursting their shells, / I hide within Hebrew.”

Watch. Season by season, For All Mankind (streaming on Apple TV+) has become less a tale of an alternate future than a meditation on historical memory.

Play our daily crossword.

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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