Schooling, the Puritan Imperative, and the Molding of an American National Identity: Education's

Schooling, the Puritan Imperative, and the Molding of an American National Identity

Education's "Errand Into the Wilderness", 1st Edition

By Douglas McKnight


184 pages

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Paperback: 9781138881181
pub: 2015-05-07
Hardback: 9780805843170
pub: 2003-04-01
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pub: 2003-05-14
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Present-day America is perceived by many as immersed in a moral crisis, with national identity fractured and uncertainty and anxiety about the future. Public schools in this country are, historically and still today, the major institution charged with preserving and teaching the symbols of national identity and a morality that is the concrete expression of those symbols and the ideas for which they stand. A widespread belief is that only through schooling can America be saved from the current "crisis," but the schools have failed in this mission and must be reformed.

In this book, Douglas McKnight develops a historical interpretation of how the New England Puritans generated a powerful belief system and set of symbols that have fed American identity and contributed to preserving and perpetuating it into the present time. He explores the relationship between the purposes of education (and how this term has shifted in meaning) and the notion of an American identity and morality--rooted in the Puritan concept of an "errand into the wilderness"--that serves a particular sacred/secular purpose. The phrase "errand into the wilderness" is taken from a 1956 book by Perry Miller with this title, where it refers to the Puritan dream of creating a city in the wilderness (the North American Colonies) that would be a utopian community--a beacon for the rest of the world for how to organize and live in the ideal religious community.

Highly pertinent to the current debate about the purposes and crisis in education and in America, morality in schools, the cultural function of education, the changing nature of the language of education, the complex relation of schooling and national identity, this book explicates these elements within the American psyche by exploring the effects of the Puritan "symbolic narrative" at three different points in American history: Puritans during the 1600s and 1700s; the Gilded Age, when the urban Protestant middle class ascended to cultural dominance; and the present age.

Schooling, the Puritan Imperative, and the Molding of an American National Identity: Education's "Errand Into the Wilderness" makes an important contribution to the fields of curriculum studies and the history of education. It will interest students and scholars in these fields, as well as those in educational philosophy, religion and education, intellectual and social history, and American studies.


"This book is a welcome contribution to the intellectual and social history of education….Highly recommended."


"Schooling, the Puritan Imperative, and the Molding of an American National Identity is an important contribution to the history of education and cirriculum studies. The book will also interest students and scholars in cultural studies, American studies, educational philosophy, sociology of education, and social foundations of education."

History of Education Quarterly.

"A serious and useful piece of work, carefully written and persuasively argued. It's major theme of the pervasive influence of Puritan thought on American culture builds on a well-established tradition of American scholarship. McKnight's unique contribution is to develop and elaborate this notion for the field of public education. Overall, I found his analyses and interpretations compelling, intriguing, and provocative….This is an honest and serious work focused on important issues, one that is extremely helpful to the scholarly study of education and American culture."

David Purpel

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"The connections made between the Puritan errand into the wilderness and the present preoccupation with moral collapse and its interconnections with education confirms this well-argued, innovative text as an important contribution to the history of education/curriculum."

William M. Reynolds

Georgia Southern University

Table of Contents

Contents: Preface. The Puritan Gift: The Historical Condition of Writing the Symbolic Narrative of America. Puritan Moral Symbols: Errand Into the Wilderness and the Jeremiad Ritual. Finding Order and Balance Between Faith and Reason Through Educational Maps. Inheriting the Errand: Hopes and Fears of the Anglo-Protestant Middle Class. The New Discourses of Education: "Reason" to Preserve the Moral Imperative. Public Education as Moral Transcendence: William Torrey Harris and the Errand Impulse. Moral Crisis of America and Its Schools: Return of the Jeremiad Ritual. Afterword.

About the Series

Studies in Curriculum Theory Series

In this age of multimedia information overload, scholars and students may not be able to keep up with the proliferation of different topical, trendy book series in the field of curriculum theory. It will be a relief to know that one publisher offers a balanced, solid, forward-looking series devoted to significant and enduring scholarship, as opposed to a narrow range of topics or a single approach or point of view. This series is conceived as the series busy scholars and students can trust and depend on to deliver important scholarship in the various "discourses" that comprise the increasingly complex field of curriculum theory.

The range of the series is both broad (all of curriculum theory) and limited (only important, lasting scholarship) – including but not confined to historical, philosophical, critical, multicultural, feminist, comparative, international, aesthetic, and spiritual topics and approaches. Books in this series are intended for scholars and for students at the doctoral and, in some cases, master's levels.

Persons interested in submitting book proposals or in serving as reviewers for this series are invited to contact

Professor William F. Pinar

Canada Research Chair
University of British Columbia

Faculty of Education

Department of Curriculum Studies

2125 Main Mall

Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z4



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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
EDUCATION / Curricula