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Dorn unpacks teaching and learning American identity in public education

April 19, 2024

On Tuesday, Professor of Social Studies Charles Dorn spoke about the purposes and outcomes of public education in the U.S. as the inaugural lecture for the Barry N. Wish endowed chair, which Dorn received in 2022. President Safa Zaki introduced Dorn at the event.

Dorn began by outlining the dichotomy between public opinion on K-12 education and the education system itself. While public opinion on education curriculum varies greatly, the system itself hasn’t changed much.

The dissonance between what people think education in the U.S. should be and what it actually is led Dorn to wonder how politicians, who ultimately control American education, view the purpose of public education. He argues its purpose is to preserve the U.S. as a nation-state.

“How do political elites make the United States what they want it to be, a nation-state, when it doesn’t have what it needs to be that?” Dorn said. “They approach that project in lots of different ways, but one central one is by influencing the beliefs and the behaviors of the next generation of Americans through [public education].”

Dorn explained how public schools have contributed to the public’s conception of the U.S. as a nation-state throughout the country’s history. He specifically highlighted the Reconstruction era in the U.S. and the mass influx of non-European immigrants into big cities as periods of influence. The U.S. government worried that the influx of immigrants would threaten the national identity it had built, so it used schools to infuse American patriotism into the nation’s youth.

“​​​​Many Americans became fearful that these new immigrants, these newcomers, are going to destroy the nation,” Dorn said. “And they see an increasing number of demonstrations, strikes and riots in major cities [as] evidence of just that. And so they turn, once again, to the public schools to help them solve the problem—this time by using the schools to teach students to become patriotic Americans.”

Dorn then prompted the audience to participate in one of the education system’s reinforcements of the nation-state: the Pledge of Allegiance. There was a twist, however. As the audience recited the pledge, which most had learned as a young child, Dorn projected the original version of the pledge on screen, which most of the audience was unfamiliar with.  He used the discrepancies between the two versions as an example of the government manipulating the education system to maintain the U.S. nation-state.

In addition to speaking to public K-12 education, Dorn also touched on the importance of higher education. He expressed how higher education, depending on what type of institution one wants to attend, can be affordable. He cited community colleges, historically affordable and the most common source of higher education in the U.S., as a mechanism of improvement just as, if not more, valuable than schools like the Ivy League.

Dorn emphasized that community college, as a large facet of public higher education, has a great impact on the future of today’s youth.

“There are 12 million students enrolled in community colleges in the United States today. That’s where the action is, in many ways, in terms of actually educating young people,” Dorn said. “It’s helpful to keep that in mind in terms of what’s happening in the future.”


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