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The Great Experiment

A Film Journey with America’s Public Schools

By Paulette W. Campbell | HUMANITIES, July/August 2001 | Volume 22, Number 4

The most American thing about America is its public school system, vice president Adlai Stevenson once said. For two hundred years, the public school has been a center of community interest, bringing people together —the daughter of the banker, the son of the farmer, the children of factory workers and sharecroppers —on common ground, where they come to know one another as American citizens.

But public schools have often been a battleground for fierce struggles over ideas and values. Many of America’s most contentious debates—over freedom of religious expression, evolution, and segregation, to name a few— have taken place within the public school system. It should come as no surprise that Americans today are sharply divided on whether public schools are effective.

Filmmakers Sarah Mondale and Sarah Patton, president and co-founder of Stone Lantern Films, explore the complex and controversial history of public education in their new NEH-funded film, School: The Story of American Public Education. Narrated by actor Meryl Streep, School will air on public television in the upcoming season.

Public schools are in trouble today, says Mondale. “Grim stories appear daily in the media about violence, high drop-out rates, and low test scores. Critics deride ‘government schools’ as inefficient, bureaucratic, and coercive.

And even among proponents of public schools, there is this uneasy sense that we have lost our way.”

School does not gloss over this crisis, she says. “But it does suggest that one reason Americans feel like we’ve lost our way in education is that we have forgotten where we’ve been. The maelstrom of criticism and defense of public schooling has left little space for deliberating what unites us as well as divides us; what part broad civic goals have played within a pluralistic society; what traditions are worth preserving; and how education has or has not adapted to the remarkable pluralism of America.”

Ten years in the making, the film takes viewers on a two-hundred-year journey from colonial times to the present in four chronological episodes.

“The United States has been very slow in providing working men’s compensation, in providing day care for children, grants for families, Social Security for the elderly,” says professor David Tyack, an authority on the history of American schools. “Most of these services have come very slowly in this country. But very early on from the time of its founding, Americans have argued that we should have a public educational system. Now why is that?”

The first episode, “The Common School,” answers that question. Covering 1770 to 1890, it focuses on the creation of the common school, when reformers sought to persuade Americans to support schools that were public, free, and—in theory though not fact—open to all. Several vignettes highlight the ambivalence found in the words of common school advocates such as Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann. In his writings, Jefferson describes his vision of the common school: “By this means, twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually and be instructed in Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic at the public expense, creating a new generation of leaders without regard to wealth, birth, or accidental condition.”

“Jefferson was a study in contradictions,” says historian James Anderson, author of The Education of Blacks in the South, and one of the experts featured in the film. “Here’s this great democrat who wants to find the bright children in the lower classes and educate them, let them govern. But what does he call it? He calls it ‘raking a few geniuses from the rubbish.’ The rubbish! He lived in eastern Virginia, where African Americans were in the majority, and he didn’t even include them in his plan. So, he’s espousing public schools for the democracy, yet he’s dismissing half the population from citizenship and literacy.”

Americans, too, were conflicted about this plan. “The South was basically ruled by wealthy planters, who had no use for public schools that would mix rich and poor together,” narrator Meryl Streep says in the film. “And many—in both the North and the South—found the idea of taxing one person to pay for the schooling of another man’s child downright un-American.”

The second episode, “As American as Public School,” recalls the period from 1900 to 1950, when seminal events such as massive immigration, the proliferation of child labor laws, and the advent of compulsory attendance, along with the explosive growth of cities, transformed classrooms.

It was during this period that pioneering reforms were instituted, leading to some of the more lasting images we have of public schools— steel lockers in the hall and changing classes for different periods. William A. Wirt, then the superintendent of schools in Gary, Indiana, developed a plan of school operation known variously as the Gary plan, the platoon system, and Wirt’s “Work-Study-Play” plan. This system increased the use of the school facilities by alternating classes between regular and special teachers.

Wirt’s idea, known as “progressive education,” embraced industrial training, agricultural education, and social education, under the assumption that the child learns best in those experiences in which he or she has a vital interest, and that modes of behavior are most easily learned by actual performance. Wirt “wanted to keep kids occupied, busy, and involved all day, and not have them sit bored at a desk, listening to the teacher drone on, doing busy work,” says Ronald Cohen, author of Children of the Mill: Schooling and Society in Gary, Indiana 1906-1960.

Hylda Burton, a former Gary student interviewed in the film, says moving from class to class was a bit frightening at first. “I got lost a couple of times. But after I finally got the hang of it, it was just great. There was so much going on. Plays, music appreciation, art. There was nature study and even animal husbandry!” Under Wirt’s plan, schools also began to teach courses on subjects that were formerly the purview of family, the church, and the community, such as health programs.

The Gary Plan was economical, says Streep in School. “By rotating students throughout the school facilities, it took the fullest advantage of limited resources and was actually cheaper than other school systems.” Over the next thirty years, two hundred American cities would adopt Wirt’s system and the Gary schools had visitors from all over the world, including Japan, Russia, and England.

But adoption of the plan prompted riots in some cities such as New York. New York’s Jewish immigrant community took issue with the implications in Wirt’s “manual training,” says Diane Ravitch, author of The Great Schools War and The Troubled Crusade. “They thought it would limit opportunities for their children. And you have to admit they had a point. After all, Wirt himself referred to high-school diplomas as work certificates.”

Americans have always cared about education, Ravitch says. “And the protests against the Gary Plan showed just how much. This was one of the first shots in the ‘culture wars’ that are still going on now. It just shows you how far Americans are willing to go when it comes to their schools.”

The third episode opens with the roar of a disorderly crowd chanting and jeering, accompanied by footage of “the Little Rock Nine,” a handful of African American students making their way through a hostile crowd to the doors of Central High. This part of the series, called “Equality,” covers the tempestuous era between 1950 and 1980, when public schools became a major battleground where minorities and women fought for equal rights, resources, and opportunities.

This segment includes a profile of Linda Brown Thompson, whose father, Oliver, was the plaintiff in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case brought before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954. That ruling ultimately led to the desegregation of public schools across the country. “The strongest memory is that walk I took with my father when I was ten years old and he tried to enroll me in the elementary school near our house in Topeka,” says Brown. “The excitement I felt going up the school steps, going in. He made me wait outside the principal’s office, but when he came out, I knew there was something wrong.”

This episode also chronicles the plight of lesser-known figures such as sixteen-year-old Sevarita Lara, a Mexican-American from Crystal City, Texas, who led a group of fellow students in a boycott to protest unfair conditions at her school.

“The Bottom Line” closes out the series with a look at the wide range of “free-market” experiments—from vouchers to charter schools—that emerged in the wake of A Nation at Risk, the report on America’s education crisis issued during the Reagan Administration. The report condemned public schools for producing a “rising tide of mediocrity” among American children, and sparked demands for reform.

This episode includes profiles of two pioneers of the school choice movement: Polly Williams, a Wisconsin State legislator and former welfare mother, who created Milwaukee’s voucher program; and Deborah Meier, director of Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem. “While their approaches to ‘choice’ differ radically, their stories allowed us to raise key questions that related to the entire series,” says Mondale. “Has the genius of American educa-tion resided in the fact that it has tried to accommodate everyone, and aimed to reinforce the common bonds that tie us together? Or has one system of schools, which may have suited nineteenth-century America, proven incapable of serving the specialized needs of our pluralistic society?”

The stories told in School show how all groups have sought to use public schooling for their own purposes, whatever the ideologies that reigned, says Patton. “When you look at the history of public schools as a whole, you see how each generation has tried to define what children need to know. In the nineteenth century the emphasis was on morals; in the 1950s, the thrust was math and physics. That tells you a lot about what we think is important and how that is always changing.”

As they completed their research and production for the series, Patton and Mondale—who have five schoolage children between them—says they feel more at ease with the public schools their children attended. “I just have a tremendous respect and admiration for how adaptable public schools have been to the demands of their clientele,” Patton says. “They’ve responded slowly and imperfectly, but they have risen to every challenge and often times it’s been a challenge that the rest of society hasn’t wanted to deal with.”

Mondale finds it inspirational. “I’ve talked with one parent—another humanities filmmaker who’s seen the series—and he vowed to go back into his own school and fight for changes. This is anecdotal, but the whole gist of the series is to energize people into action and conversations. When citizens deliberate about the education of the young, they are also debating the shape of the future.”

Professor Tyack agrees: “I do not see any way to achieve a good future for our children more effectively than debating together and working together on how we educate the next generation. Children may be about 20 percent of the population, but they are 100 percent of the future.”

To further the debate, the producers of School are working with Roundtable, Inc., a media development company, on a nationwide campaign whose goal is to encourage dialog about the role of public schools in American life. The campaign includes partnerships with national leaders in education reform, community groups, and education organizations around the country. Their mission is to hold panel discussions, workshops, town hall meetings, and other events to examine the issues addressed in the series and explore the challenges and opportunities for public schools now and in the future. A website,, provides news of the campaign, a searchable database of local school improvement, and support group tips on how to become involved. Beacon Press will also publish a companion book named after the series, featuring essays by Carl Kaestle, professor of education history and public policy at Brown University, and Larry Cuban, professor of education at Stanford, as wells as contributions from Ravitch, Tyack, and Anderson.

“We’ve reached a very controversial moment in the history of public education, a time when we need to pay attention to our schools and invest in the specific school systems that need it,” Streep writes in the introduction to the book. The book and the series, she says, teach “that all the questions that we ask about public education today have been thought about at some point before. And it reminds us of the fact that public education for all Americans is relatively new, and something we cannot afford to take for granted.”

About the Author

Paulette W. Campbell is a writer in Burtonsville, Maryland.

Funding Information

School: The Story of American Public Education has received $901,277 in NEH grants.