It's a fact often overlooked that the unifying belief among American educational reformers is in the possibility of genuine human improvement through improved education. This is, of course, the logical result of Enlightenment thinking with its emphasis on progress through right thinking guided by the human intellect rather than divine revelation. It is, as the Enlightenment philosophers would have it, messianic.
In The Messianic Character of American Education, R.J. Rushdoony focuses his considerable intellect on the rise and establishment of the American public education system, mostly through essay-length investigations of the movement's chief players. His first target is Horace Mann, the "Father of the Common Schools" who pointed the trajectory of public education toward egalitarianism and indoctrination.
Of course, Mann probably didn't foresee the way public education would go. He was, after all, a churchgoing man who felt that, even in the mid-19th century when he formulated his ideas, more Bible instruction needed to be added to students' curriculum. Nonetheless, the idea that education could produce good citizens and that it was the state's job to oversee this venture came from Mann and has influenced the educational statists ever since.
Many of the figures Rushdoony investigates are relatively unknown, despite the immense influence they had on American education policy, with notable exceptions like William James and John Dewey. Activists like G. Stanley Hall (one of the first to promote the centrality of evolution in the school curriculum) and Harold Ordway Rugg (who literally believed democracy to be a life-saving religious entity) are presented and exposed in these essays.
Rushdoony also looks at the religious nature of education itself, the appeal of public education to the lowest common denominator, and the place of higher education. He remains calm throughout, and the reader never gets the sense of being drawn into a conspiracy theory. This isn't simply a history of public education in America, however; Rushdoony uses the historical information to show where public education is headed.
What's particularly surprising is that The Messianic Character of American Education was originally published in 1963—the warnings are even more pertinent now than they were then. The clarity with which Rushdoony saw the future of education is shocking, as is the relative inattention his prophecies received. Long a classic of the homeschool movement, this republication features a preface by Samuel Blumenfeld.