Most social institutions have a single function. Political institutions distribute power according to accepted concepts of order and justice, economic institutions channel and regulate the energies that go into meeting and enriching material wants, and the family facilitates the orderly succession of the generations. But the function of education is more difficult to define. Characteristically, educational activities fall into two separate and even somewhat conflicting categories. From the earliest and simplest to the most recent and complex, all societies have relied on education to encourage acceptance of a set of beliefs and values, using it as a method of conveying its faith, creed, and way of life to the young through formal instruction as well as through custom, ritual, and a variety of other devices. On the other hand, education has also been responsible for stimulating the development of mental capacity, dexterity, and creativity. Ironically, the expansion and awakening of the mind's power and energy have often led to a critical skepticism toward the very beliefs and practices that society hopes to perpetuate. With some measure of tension always present between its elements, education has consisted of a continuing process of acceptance and challenge. A realistic study of the historical development of education may begin by assuming this dual character and impact. From the historian's point of view, education is not solely a device for social control or an instrument for enlarging the scope of human freedom, but a shifting point of equilibrium between the two.
Events in American history have shaped and accentuated this innate tension; educational purposes and activities have traveled the full range between seeking consensus and initiating choice and change.