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Hagedorn, Thomas W. 2013. Founding Zealots: How Evangelicals Created America's First Public Schools, 1783-1865.

Hagedorn, Thomas W. 2013. Founding Zealots: How Evangelicals Created America's First Public Schools, 1783-1865. United States: Xulon Press. 356pp. $16.66 (paperback)

Thomas Hagedorn's Founding Zealots reverberates with echoes of Ellwood Cubberley and Carl Kaestle. Cubberley's Public Education in the United States (1919) and Kaestle's Pillars of the Republic (1983) serve as useful bookends for scholarship on the common school movement in the field of educational history. Self-consciously, Hagedorn writes from outside the field. In doing so, he purposefully crafts a narrative that is intended for a broad, non-academic audience; inadvertently, he reminds educational historians of their discipline's origins and sheds light on the state of contemporary scholarship.

In the opening pages Hagedorn declares forthrightly his mission: to tell the story of "how a small group of Calvinist preachers and laymen established schools that stressed religion, morality, and Bible-reading," while aiming to provide "a free education for every child" and to spread the "message of salvation" (xi). As suggested by the book's subtitle, the thesis is intended to challenge conventional wisdom about the origins of common school systems by highlighting Protestant evangelicals. Most educational historians, Hagedorn asserts, have viewed the common school movement "through a totally secular lens." Consequently, the roles played by Protestant evangelical ministers and missionaries have been "often ignored, minimized, or distorted." Founding Zealots offers a corrective, by "profiling the Calvinist reformers, describing what they did, and placing them in their proper religious, demographic, and political context" (x).

Across approximately 250 pages, Founding Zealots sweeps from the American Revolution to the Civil War, with a central focus on the Old Northwest, while attending to conditions in the several regions of the United States. Necessarily, Hagedorn relies heavily on secondary sources from general American history, and, particularly, on surveys of educational history that were published throughout the twentieth century. For his main interpretive lines--notably for drawing period boundaries, deemphasizing New England, and recognizing the importance of rural areas--Hagedorn is indebted to Kaestle's Pillars of the Republic. His narrative style, by contrast, evokes Cubberley's Public Education, with "pro-Education forces" (219) battling tirelessly the "opponents of education" (213), their campaigns demarcated neatly into developmental stages, and their champions cast in biographical sketches nestled within profiles of legislative victories achieved in several states.

Roughly speaking, the first half of Founding Zealots establishes the context for understanding how schooling became an object of concern to nineteenth-century Protestant evangelicalism, while the second half treats the "crusade" for public schooling, from the 1820s to the 1850s. The intertwining of religious and educational interests in the backstories of the Land Ordinance of 1785 and Northwest Ordinance of 1787 shapes the first three chapters. The next two chapters reveal the influences of Calvinism and Scottish Common Sense philosophy in making free will, post-millennialism, education, and social reform features of nineteenth-century Yankee leadership and public thought.

Beginning in chapter six, the ebbs and flows of organized efforts to secure state legislation enacting public school systems are traced. Hagedorn uses a "false start" of unfulfilled legal mandates in the 1820s to explain how rural conditions, economic turmoil, ethnic rivalries, and ingrained cultural attitudes thwarted Protestant evangelical ambitions to legislate taxpayer funding of schools. The next two chapters depict a leadership cohort forming and leading campaigns to pass new school laws in Ohio, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in the late 1830s. The narrative's final section is titled "Broadening the Base Brings Success, 18431865." Comprised of three chapters, it describes the centrality of the Western Literary Institute in organizing evangelical advocacy; it offers a brief review of factors that "worked against public education in the South" (201); it marks the "end of the beginning in the North" in the 1850s, with constitutional guarantees and legislative provisions for "free schooling for all children" enacted in four states (228); and, it closes with the formation of state schooling systems in the Far West in the 1870s.

To what extent does Founding Zealots accomplish its mission? The book really has three distinct missions. Each shall be treated. The first mission is "profiling the Calvinist reformers ... and placing them in their proper religious, demographic, and political context." Hagedorn explains convincingly the continuing vitality of New England Puritan ideals in nineteenth-century American life and their fusion with Scottish Common Sense philosophy to form the intellectual apparatus of the "Evangelical Enlightenment" (66). Likewise, Protestant evangelical ambitions for common schooling are situated within a context that is decisively shaped by the Second Great Awakening's wave of religious revivalism and the Benevolent Empire's prolific energies in distributing Bibles and pamphlets, organizing missionary societies, and founding colleges. Shifting between intellectual history and biography, Hagedorn reveals how the lives of men carry ideas and value commitments. Several chapters of Founding Zealots are primarily biographical, featuring ten to fifteen men who were key actors speaking and writing on behalf of common schools in several states. All of the men profiled had boyhoods in Protestant evangelical families, most attended seminaries or denominational colleges, and a few carried the title "reverend." That their educational ideas and efforts are stamped with a Protestant evangelical character is documented abundantly.

The second mission is describing "how a small group of Calvinist preachers and laymen established [public] schools." Achieving this mission requires answering two questions. First, how did a small group of people persuade substantial portions of the voting public in several states to support (or at least tolerate) passage of common school legislation? Second, how did the same small group of people implement the school systems envisioned in the newly-passed laws? Conceptually, there is great policy-making distance to travel between making people aware of an idea about schooling, passing a law that envisions and finances a school system, developing a functional infrastructure across thousands of rural school districts, and supervising the work of teachers and students.

If the premise of Founding Zealots is sound, then, methodologically, the policy-making journey begins inside the Benevolent Empire. What were the evangelizing efforts of the Benevolent Empire like? To find out, the historian would do well to seek out the missionaries among the Indian tribes and frontier farm families of the Old Northwest. How was the common school message transmitted and received? To find out, the historian would do well to peer into the dynamics of antebellum social life and its social reform movements, paying close attention to the work of, and appeal to, women. Similar questions should pursue the intricacies of policy-making processes, at each stage from society to state to school. Once the interior of the schoolhouse is reached, the questioning reverses direction, with visits of superintendents and community members supplying data that, in overheated political climates especially, demand, verification and triangulation (Storr 1976). Founding Zealots makes no effort to travel the policy-making distance; nor does it justify this decision.

The third mission is demonstrating that educational historians have "often ignored, minimized, or distorted" the role of Protestant evangelicalism in the origins of common schooling. It must be noted that Hagedorn does not claim this as a mission. However, since he makes this assertion in the opening pages, it is reasonable to expect him to support it. The burden of writing for a broad audience interferes; interested educational historians must scrutinize endnotes. Those who do will be both surprised and disappointed at what they find. Within the narrative, Hagedorn pauses on occasion to till a bit of historiographical turf. Often, he uncovers fertile soil. For instance, why has the current generation of educational historians devoted comparatively little attention to the common school movement and the decades surrounding it? In the antebellum era, most Americans lived in rural communities. What accounts for all the attention that educational historians have given to urban schools? In the 1830s and 1840s, Massachusetts was an unusual place, and Horace Mann was an unusual leader in the common school movement in key respects (a Unitarian and a Johnny-come-lately). Why, then, do so many educational history textbooks dwell on Massachusetts and Horace Mann? And, of course, if secular bias is not the issue, why have educational historians over the years shown little curiosity about Protestant evangelicalism, its leaders, and their activities within the common school movement? One need not agree with Hagedorn's conclusions to recognize that these kinds of observations and questions might hold value for advancing scholarship in the field of educational history.

Hagedorn criticizes but depends on educational historians' work, especially survey textbooks. Consequently, Founding Zealots functions like a funhouse mirror, magnifying and distorting prominent features of scholarship in educational history. Three reflections are particularly striking. First, narrative construction makes prominent what the author valorizes, in Hagedorn's case, Protestant evangelicalism, evangelical leaders, and the "free" aspect of common schooling. Other factors that grew demand for public schooling, other significant agencies and actors, and other aspects of the common schooling agenda--notably grafting local districts and community control into a state-supervised system--are not incorporated into the story. In a related vein, beyond the lines of the text, the conflicts and controversies engendered by Protestant evangelicals' zealous crusading are shadowy presences at best, detectable but not distinguishable as potent forces in society. Developing a thesis trumps the historian's ideal of reconstructing the past and the educator's ideal of using the written word as pedagogy.

Second, Hagedorn follows educational historians from Cubberley to Kaestle who have conflated "schooling" with "education," while blurring the conceptual distinction between the increasing presence of schooling in communities of the North and the political movement that sought to enact taxpayer-funding and state supervision of an institutional infrastructure of schools. In its own day, common school legislation was the subject of acrimonious public debates, repeated referenda, and constitutional revisions. Absent these conceptual distinctions, one cannot help but wonder what all the fuss was about.

The Protestant evangelical "friends of education" who campaigned for free schools were involved in a wide range of educational institutions (such as lyceums, agricultural societies, orphanages, and prisons) and educational movements (such as nativism, abolitionism, and temperance). How might these activities have shaped the common school crusade and its insistence on two somewhat bizarre demands: first, that the community-at-large should subsidize formal instruction for a distinct segment of the population (children), and, second, that largely self-sufficient farming families who lived in relative geographic isolation should consent to centralized authority and permit their children to be socialized within a system of schools overseen by government officials? Moreover, what is the reader to make of Hagedorn's convincing demonstration that neo-Calvinists launched an evangelizing crusade to control local community schools in the midst of adherents of other faiths, including Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics? Hagedorn's brief treatments of state-level politics make it clear that Know Nothings, Free Soilers, and Maine law advocates were agitating in full force during the election cycles that brought victories for advocates of free schools in the 1850s. One cannot help but apply to the common school movement a question that has been posed, in different ways, by Donald Warren (2014). What might a searching examination of the broader educational policy environment reveal about motives, means, and measures associated with schooling?

Third, the narrative contours of Founding Zealots follow the familiar landscape of educational history textbooks: grandiose plans related to public schooling are articulated in the Founding Generation; about thirty years of apparent indifference to "education" follow; an inexplicable revival of educational enthusiasm surfaces in the 1820s; intermittent political campaigns are fought for free schooling for the next thirty years; and, victory is declared in the 1850s. A few peculiarities of this periodization are worth pondering. Should a plan or law be considered foundational to public schooling, if few public schools resulted from it? Should a thirty years' gap of (apparent) inactivity be treated as disruption, reversal, or continuity in a trajectory, or something else entirely? Why did free schooling matter so much--in the midst of the boom-and-bust of the Panic of 1837, wars of territorial conquest against Indian tribes and Mexico, and recurring regional disputes and political crises over slavery--that some people contested for and against it for over thirty years? How can victory be declared for public schooling on the eve of the Civil War, when state supervision over local schooling was largely a figment of the imagination and tuition-free elementary-level schooling was offered in only four states? Hints at answers can be found in Founding Zealots. Because of its endpoint though, the book avoids and begs two questions that were unsatisfactorily treated by Pillars of the Republic. Ultimately, how did the public schooling crusade prevail throughout the communities of the North? And, why is the campaign to create free schools in the South after the Civil War treated as a separate story?

Educational historians ought to find Founding Zealots troubling. While reading it, they should keep Cubberley's Public Education and Kaestle's Pillars of the Republic at hand, and ask each book tough questions. Graduate students and upper-level undergraduate students should find Founding Zealots very useful in seminars that prioritize historical inquiry. Hagedorn articulates his argument at the outset and reinforces it regularly. His choices in narrative construction point toward important conceptual and historiographical issues. He makes bold assertions and does not cloak his claims in subtlety. Hagedorn intends to provoke. The student of history will be glad that he does, for Hagedorn's provocations offer ample grist for the mill of intellectual discussion. For that reason, Founding Zealots should not be allowed to pass without notice. This reviewer is looking forward to witnessing how professional historians of education respond to Founding Zealots' take on the creation of "America's First Public Schools."

Glenn P. Lauzon

Indiana University Northwest


Cubberley, Ellwood P. 1919. Public Education in the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Kaestle, Carl F. 1983. Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860. New York: Hill & Wang.

Storr, Richard J. 1976. "The Role of Education in American History." Harvard Educational Review 46 (3): 331-354.

Warren, Donald. 2014. "American Indian Histories as Education History." History of Education Quarterly 54 (3): 255-285.
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Author:Lauzon, Glenn P.
Publication:American Educational History Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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