Making a Difference through Education

Historical Perspectives on U.S. Education

November 28, 2023

The desire to make a difference is a common thread that runs through the culture of Grinnell College. One way Grinnellians often choose to help others is through education, whether it’s as a teacher, administrator, researcher, or well-informed parent and/or citizen.

Photo of Deborah Michaels
Associate Professor Deborah Michaels.

Associate Professor Deborah Michaels, chair of the new education studies concentration, says that many Grinnell students take education classes because of their belief that education can be a means of social reform — although sometimes it can also be a means of social repression.

Michaels helps her students explore this apparent contradiction through a course she developed, EDU-210, Historical Perspectives on U.S. Education (cross-listed through the Department of History as HIS-210). The course examines how and why public education came into being in the United States, whose interests it has served, and whose interests have been neglected, ignored, or actively suppressed.

Exploring a Legacy of Controversy

The class delves into the debates that have raged around U.S. public schools, beginning in the late 18th century and continuing to the present. What are the state’s interests in public schooling? The course seeks to answer this question, as well as the controversies that surround public education — everything from religious conflicts, parental rights, the need for a literate workforce, and more.

The course begins with an exploration of the importance of an educated and informed populace in a democracy, Michaels explains. “Then we spend time looking at that narrative of public schooling in America from the perspective of African Americans, from the denial of enslaved Africans the right to reading and writing, as well as, of course, all freedoms.”

Diverse American Perspectives

Students in EDU-210 learn about the efforts of Black Americans to claim a right to equal education through the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation in education was unconstitutional, and that “separate but equal” was fundamentally unequal. These issues still have relevance today, Michaels notes, as evidenced by ongoing debates and the recent Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action.

Students work with a professor in the college library.
Deborah Michaels (left) works with students.

The course also explores the perspectives of Native Americans on U.S. schooling, including their determination to control the education of their youth, to preserve native languages, and to reclaim the basic rights that were denied. Michaels describes how students learn about the “boarding school” movement, which forcibly removed thousands of Native American children from their families and sent them to residential facilities where they faced horrific and often deadly treatment.

Conducting Case Studies

Finally, students conduct a case study of their own to understand how the history of American schooling has or has not served different groups. “[Students] can take it wherever they want,” Michaels adds. “We get students doing work on disability studies, on English language learners, on immigrants and education assimilation, on Asian-American experiences — including the concentration camps of Japanese Americans during World War II and what education looked like in that context.”

Public Education for All

I hope they take away a dedication to the ideals of public schooling and its potential for creating a more equitable society, a realistic perspective on its failures, and the inspired energy to try to overcome those current failures in the system.

Deborah Michaels

Michaels aims to give students a better understanding of the issues and controversies that surround education in the United States, but also with a renewed commitment to its promise and how to put their ideals into action to make a difference — as citizens, as educators, as policy-makers — to work for better public education for all.

“I hope they take away a dedication to the ideals of public schooling and its potential for creating a more equitable society, a realistic perspective on its failures, and the inspired energy to try to overcome those current failures in the system,” Michaels says.


We use cookies to enable essential services and functionality on our site, enhance your user experience, provide better service through personalized content, collect data on how visitors interact with our site, and enable advertising services.

To accept the use of cookies and continue on to the site, click "I Agree." For more information about our use of cookies and how to opt out, please refer to our website privacy policy.