Education in the United States

overview about the educational system of the United States of America

Education in the United States is provided in private and public institutions.


  • We know that you highly esteem the kind of learning taught in these Colleges; and that the Maintenance of our young Men, while with you, would be very expensive to you. We are convinced, that you mean to do us Good by your Proposal; and we thank you heartily. But you, who are wise must know that different Nations different Conceptions of things and you will therefore not take it amiss, if our Ideas of this kind of Education happen not to be the same as yours. We have some Experience of it. Several of our young People were formerly brought up at the Colleges of the Northern Provinces; they were instructed in all your Sciences; but when they came back to us, they were bad Runners, ignorant of every means living in the wood...neither fit for Hunters, Warriors, nor Counselors, they were totally good for nothing. We are, however, not the less oblig'd by your kind Offer, tho' we decline accepting it; and, to show our grateful Sense of it, if the Gentlemen of Virginia will send us a Dozen of their Sons, we will take Care of their Education, instruct them in all we know, and make Men of them.
  • The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.
    • John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: With a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, Volume 9, Little, Brown, 1854, p. 540.
  • Why is it that millions of children who are pushouts or dropouts amount to business as usual in the public schools, while one family educating a child at home becomes a major threat to universal public education and the survival of democracy?
  • The assumption is all but universal among those who control our educational policies from the elementary grades to the university that anything that sets bounds to the free unfolding of the temperamental proclivities of the young, to their right of self-expression, as one may say, is outworn prejudice. Discipline, so far as it exists, is not of the humanistic or the religious type, but of the kind that one gets in training for a vocation or a specialty. The standards of a genuinely liberal education, as they have been understood, more or less from the time of Aristotle, are being progressively undermined by the utilitarians and the sentimentalists. If the Baconian-Rousseauistic formula is as unsound in certain of its postulates as I myself believe, we are in danger of witnessing in this country one of the great cultural tragedies of the ages.
    • Irving Babbitt, "What I Believe" (1930), Irving Babbitt: Representative Writings (1981), p. 16
  • Mass public education is one of the great achievements of the United States. ... The U.S. did pioneer it, but it had purposes. One purpose was to drive independent farmers into the industrial system, to induce them to give up their independence, the rights of free men and women, and to submit themselves to industrial discipline and everything that went along with it, to accept a life of wage slavery. ... Ralph Waldo Emerson discussed the fact that the political leaders of his day ... were calling for popular education. When he thought about why they were doing it, he said their reason is fear. "They say this country is filling up with thousands and millions of voters, and you must educate them to keep them from our throats." In other words, educate them, the right way, to passivity, obedience, acceptance of their fate as right and just, conforming to the new spirit of the age, keep their perspectives narrow, their understanding limited, discourage free, independent thought, frighten them into obedience, because the masters are afraid.
  • I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won't have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!
    • Jerry Falwell, America Can Be Saved! (1979) Sword of the Lord Publishers, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, p. 52-53, quoted at "The Rise of the Religious Right in the Republican Party"
  • The framers of our Constitution firmly believed that a republican government could not endure without intelligence and education generally diffused among the people. The Father of his Country, in his Farewell Address, uses this language: Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.
  • I would therefore call upon Congress to take all the means within their constitutional powers to promote and encourage popular education throughout the country, and upon the people everywhere to see to it that all who possess and exercise political rights shall have the opportunity to acquire the knowledge which will make their share in the Government a blessing and not a danger. By such means only can the benefits contemplated by this amendment to the Constitution be secured.
  • The free school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation. If we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason’s and Dixon’s, but between patriotism and intelligence on one sight, and superstition, ambition, and ignorance on the other. Now in this centennial year of our national existence, I believe it a good time to begin the work of strengthening the foundation of the house commenced by our patriotic forefathers one hundred years ago, at Concord and Lexington.
  • Encourage free schools, and resolve that not one dollar of money shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school. Resolve that neither the state nor nation, or both combined, shall support institutions of learning other than those sufficient to afford every child growing up in the land the opportunity of a good common school education, unmixed with sectarian, Pagan, or Atheistical tenets. Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and the state forever separate. With these safeguards, I believe the battles which created the Army of the Tennessee will not have been fought in vain.
  • As the primary step, therefore, to our advancement in all that has marked our progress in the past century, I suggest for your earnest consideration, and most earnestly recommend it, that a constitutional amendment be submitted to the legislatures of the several States for ratification, making it the duty of each of the several States to establish and forever maintain free public schools adequate to the education of all the children in the rudimentary branches within their respective limits, irrespective of sex, color, birthplace, or religions; forbidding the teaching in said schools of religious, atheistic, or pagan tenets; and prohibiting the granting of any school funds or school taxes, or any part thereof, either by legislative, municipal, or other authority, for the benefit or in aid, directly or indirectly, of any religious sect or denomination, or in aid or for the benefit of any other object of any nature or kind whatever.
  • The United States ... celebrates rote vocational training and the singular, amoral skill of making money. It churns out stunted human products, lacking the capacity and vocabulary to challenge the assumptions and structures of the corporate state. It funnels them into a caste system of drones and systems managers. It transforms a democratic state into a feudal system of corporate masters and serfs.
    • Chris Hedges, “Why The United States Is Destroying Education,” April 10, 2011
  • Rutgers, like most American universities, operates as a corporation. Senior administrators, who often have a Master of Business Administration degree (MBA) with little or no experience in higher education, along with sports coaches who have the potential to earn the university money, are highly compensated while thousands of poorly paid educators and staff are denied job security and benefits. Adjunct faculty and graduate workers are often forced to apply for Medicaid. They frequently take second jobs teaching at other colleges, driving for Uber or Lyft, working as cashiers, delivering food for Grubhub or DoorDash, walking dogs, house sitting, waiting on tables, bartending and living four or six to an apartment or camping out on a friend’s sofa. This inversion of values is destroying the nation’s educational system.
  • The nation’s universities have been deformed into playgrounds for billionaire hedge fund managers and corporate donors. Harvard University will rename its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences after the billionaire hedge fund executive and right-wing Republican donor Kenneth Griffin in honor of his $300 million donation. A decade ago, Harvard renamed the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research after Glenn Hutchins, a private equity oligarch who donated $15 million to the institute. Harvard, to save face, said the famed Du Bois Institute was subsumed into the new entity, but the fact that Du Bois, one of America’s greatest scholars and intellectuals, would have his name replaced by a white equity mogul, lays bare the priorities of Harvard and most colleges and universities.
  • The public defunding of universities, along with their seizure by corporations and the uber rich, is part of the slow-motion corporate coup d’état. The goal is to enforce conformity and obedience, to train young people to fill their slots in the corporate machine and leave unquestioned the status quo. The accumulation of vast wealth, no matter how nefarious, is prized as the highest good. Those who mold, shape, inspire and educate the young are neglected. Rutgers, like most large universities, pours resources into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) programs that “Corporate America” values. The fundamental aim of an education, to teach people how to think critically, to grasp and understand the systems of power that dominate our lives, to foster the common good, to construct a life of meaning and purpose, are sidelined, especially with the withering away of the humanities.
  • The public, therefore, among a democratic people, has a singular power, which aristocratic nations cannot conceive; for it does not persuade others to its beliefs, but it imposes them and makes them permeate the thinking of everyone by a sort of enormous pressure of the mind of all upon the individual intelligence. In the United States the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own. Everybody there adopts great numbers of theories, on philosophy, morals, and politics, without inquiry, upon public trust; and if we examine it very closely, it will be perceived that religion itself holds sway there much less as a doctrine of revelation than as a commonly received opinion.
  • A third place to build the Great Society is in the classrooms of America. There your children's lives will be shaped. Our society will not be great until every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination. We are still far from that goal. Today, 8 million adult Americans, more than the entire population of Michigan, have not finished 5 years of school. Nearly 20 million have not finished 8 years of school. Nearly 54 million -- more than one quarter of all America -- have not even finished high school. Each year more than 100,000 high school graduates, with proved ability, do not enter college because they cannot afford it. And if we cannot educate today's youth, what will we do in 1970 when elementary school enrollment will be 5 million greater than 1960? And high school enrollment will rise by 5 million. And college enrollment will increase by more than 3 million. In many places, classrooms are overcrowded and curricula are outdated. Most of our qualified teachers are underpaid and many of our paid teachers are unqualified. So we must give every child a place to sit and a teacher to learn from. Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty. But more classrooms and more teachers are not enough. We must seek an educational system which grows in excellence as it grows in size. This means better training for our teachers. It means preparing youth to enjoy their hours of leisure as well as their hours of labor. It means exploring new techniques of teaching, to find new ways to stimulate the love of learning and the capacity for creation.
  • Every child must be encouraged to get as much education as he has the ability to take. We want this not only for his sake—but for the nation's sake. Nothing matters more to the future of our country: not military preparedness—for armed might is worthless if we lack the brain power to build a world of peace; not our productive economy—for we cannot sustain growth without trained manpower; not our democratic system of government—for freedom is fragile if citizens are ignorant.
    • President Lyndon B. Johnson, special message to the Congress, "Toward Full Educational Opportunity," January 12, 1965. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965, book 1, p. 26.
  • Transforming hereditary privilege into ‘merit,’ the existing system of educational selection, with the Big Three [Harvard, Princeton, and Yale] as its capstone, provides the appearance if not the substance of equality of opportunity. In so doing, it legitimates the established order as one that rewards ability over the prerogatives of birth. The problem with a ‘meritocracy,’ then, is not only that its ideals are routinely violated (though that is true), but also that it veils the power relations beneath it. For the definition of ‘merit,’ including the one that now prevails in America’s leading universities, always bears the imprint of the distribution of power in the larger society. Those who are able to define ‘merit’ will almost invariably possess more of it, and those with greater resources—cultural, economic and social—will generally be able to ensure that the educational system will deem their children more meritorious.
    • Jerome Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (Houghton Mifflin: 2005), pp. 549-550
  • Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in. That every man may receive at least a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance, even on this account alone, to say nothing of the advantages and satisfaction to be derived from all being able to read the Scriptures, and other works both of a religious and moral nature, for themselves.
    • Abraham Lincoln, Address Delivered in Candidacy for the State Legislature (9 March 1832)
  • But it was in making education not only common to all, but in some sense compulsory on all, that the destiny of the free republics of America was practically settled.
  • A fourth reason offered by British observers to explain American economic efficiency was an educational system that had produced widespread literacy and "adaptative versatility" among American workers. By contrast a British workman trained by long apprenticeship "in the trade" rather than in schools lacked "the ductility of mind and the readiness of apprehension for a new thing" and was "unwilling to change the methods which he has been used to," according to an English manufacturer. The craft apprenticeship system was breaking down in the United States, where most children in the Northeast went to school until age fourteen or fifteen. "Educated up to a far higher standard than those of a much superior social grade in the Old World . . . every [American] workman seems to be continually devising some new thing to assist him in his work, and there is a strong desire . . . to be 'posted up' in every new improvement."
  • Case and Deaton’s findings also suggest that, at least in one crucial respect, America’s educational divide now surpasses the gap that has historically been most significant: race. As recently as 1990, race still trumped educational status as a determinant of life span in the United States. White Americans without a four-year college degree could expect to live longer than Black Americans with one.
    This has changed. The adult life expectancy of Black Americans with a bachelor’s degree has increased markedly over the past three decades. As a result, they can now expect to live much longer than whites without a bachelor’s degree: “Black men and women with a BA, who used to have fewer expected years from 25 to 75 than White people without a BA, now have more expected years,” Case and Deaton write. “As a result, Black people with a BA are currently closer to White people with a BA than to Black people without a BA, in sharp contrast to the situation in 1990.”
  • A natural question to ask about these findings is what drives this dramatic divergence in the outcomes between the most educated Americans and everybody else. According to one theory, Americans who go to college acquire skills that allow them to excel in a range of professions; the rewards of a degree might reflect their greater ability to contribute to public life and our collective prosperity. According to another theory, important traits such as the capacity to avoid self-destructive behaviors have a strong bearing both on whether somebody gains a college degree and on whether they’re able to live a healthy and successful life. In this case, the difference between these two groups might be mostly “compositional” in nature, simply reflecting the fact that different kinds of people are likely to end up in each group.
    Case and Deaton, who prefer describing trends to explaining their causes, caution that scholars have yet to come up with a definitive answer to this question. But they mistrust explanations that rationalize the chasm between Americans with and Americans without a college degree as an accurate reflection of each group’s respective choices or skill sets. “We have increasingly come to believe,” they conclude in their new paper, that a college degree “works through often arbitrary assignation of status, so that jobs are allocated, not by matching necessary or useful skills, but by the use of the BA as screen.” In an email to me, Deaton was more blunt: Both he and Case believe that the college degree is most important as “a route to social standing.”
  • Now, already some have protested that there must be no reduction in aid to schools. Well, let me point out that Federal aid to education amounts to only 8 percent of the total educational funding, and for this 8 percent, the Federal Government has insisted on tremendously disproportionate share of control over our schools. Whatever reductions we've proposed in that 8 percent will amount to very little in the total cost of education. They will, however, restore more authority to States and local school districts.
  • I also desire to encourage and foster an appreciation of the advantages which I implicitly believe will result from the union of the English-speaking peoples throughout the world and to encourage in the students from the United States of North America[,] who will benefit from the American Scholarships to be established for the reason above given at the University of Oxford under this my Will[,] an attachment to the country from which they have sprung but without I hope withdrawing them or their sympathies from the land of their adoption or birth.
    • Cecil J. Rhodes, The Last Will and Testament of Cecil John Rhodes, ed. W. T. Stead, p. 24–29 (1902). The will was dated July 1, 1899.
  • Education through Washington, D.C. I don't want that. I want local education. I want the parents, and I want all of the teachers, and I want everybody to get together around a school and to make education great. And it was very interesting, I was with Dr. Ben Carson today, who is endorsing me, by the way, tomorrow morning, and he is... [applause] We were talking. We spoke for over an hour on education. And he has such a great handle on it. He wants competitive schools. He wants a lot of different things that are terrific, including charter schools, by the way, that the unions are fighting like crazy. But charter schools work and they work very well. So there are a lot of things. But I'm going to have Ben very involved with education, something that's an expertise of his.
  • There can be no doubt that in today’s world a thorough and comprehensive education is an absolute necessity. Yet it is obvious from the data that a not even minimum education is being received in most ghetto schools. White decision-makers have been running those schools with injustice, indifference and inadequacy for too long; the result has been an educationally crippled black child turned out onto the labor market equipped to do little more than stand in welfare lines to receive his miserable dole.
  • Slavery is but half abolished, emancipation is but half completed, while millions of freemen with votes in their hands are left without education.

See also


Library guides

  • Brown University Library. Education. Research Guides.
  • Fordham University Libraries. Education. Research Guides.
  • Harvard Graduate School of Education – Gutman Library. Research Guides.
  • University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries. Education. Research Guides.