History rarely tells us anything specific about the present. It offers no programs. Its lessons are seldom clear, always subject to interpretations. In this sense, historian Carl Becker's aphorism, “Each man his own historian,” is persuasive. We have argued in this book that the past can give us insight into present dilemmas about education. History can help us understand how and why we face the issues we do, and can suggest ways to frame questions about the present that make more sense than those that ignore the historical record. Where we have been and where we are likely to go form a continuous dialogue, involving our intellects and our passions.
On some issues, the history of American education is especially revealing. The first is that there was never a golden age of the past. The tendency in recent years has been to point to some earlier period in American history, usually vaguely defined, during which the schools functioned well, when teachers taught, students learned, academic knowledge was prized, and families were supportive of what teachers did. When public criticism, in short, hardly existed.
The historical record reveals quite the contrary. The range of criticism, the persistent efforts to reform education from the early nineteenth century on, suggest that Americans have never been satisfied with their schools. How could they have been? In the nineteenth century, Americans were often caught up in religious and ethnic controversies, in the divisions over slavery, in the place of women as citizens, in the fragmenting effects of a people constantly on the move, a people caught between competing beliefs in individualism and community.