American Public Education – Why, how, and when?

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First in a series on the history of education

In America today, the idea of compulsory government run education is widely accepted, and mandated by law – or is it? In this series we will examine the history of education, and understand how we arrived at our current system.

Our ideas about education have their roots in the English system, which dates back to the sixth century. It in turn came from Rome. We will not attempt to go quite that far back, but the notion of free public grammar schools for young children was started in England by the Tudors under Edward VI (best known to many from Mark Twain’s fanciful book, The Prince and the Pauper). Though some schools such as King’s School Canterbury date back to 597, the 1500s era schools a millenia later were the first widespread public schools. The main purpose of education in those days was to learn to read the Bible. The poor largely did not attend, mainly because children were a major source of labor and income, and too important economically to spend their time in studies. Apprenticeship and on the job experience were the main methods of training. The upper classes, and those destined for either law or the priesthood, might have the luxury of learning, but the poor had to earn their bread – and education wasn’t largely needed for that. The ultra rich continued to have private tutors. The education was available to those who could stand to lose the income, but was in no way compulsory.

Schools were expected to provide religious and moral education, and were fueled by the Reformation (or the Reformation was fueled by increased literacy), and the publication of the Bible in English. In England, beginning with Edward and his sister Elizabeth, schools provided indoctrination in the tenets of the Church of England. During the seventeenth century, dissenter schools sprang up which though Protestant, were not in accord with all the principles of the Church of England, and thus subject to some persecution.

Until as late as the nineteenth century, all university fellows and many schoolmasters were expected or required to be in holy orders.

Schoolmistresses typically taught reading, writing and ‘rithmetic) in dame schools, charity schools, or informal village schools. Even this level of education was considered more important for boys than girls, unless destined for a cloister, becoming a nobleman’s wife, or a schoolmistress.

From this greatly abbreviated look at the English system, we “cross the pond” to the colonies. The first schools were started in what became America in the 1600s, in New England, and in the south. Though Boston Latin, a school that still exists today, was established on April 23, 1635, it wasn’t a completely free public school, and still has admission requirements that make it inaccessible to many. Dedham, a suburb of Boston, has the distinction of the first taxpayer-supported public school in the country. January 1, 1644, by unanimous vote, the Town of Dedham authorized the first taxpayer-funded public school in the United States.

Virginia also lays claim to early education in the Colonies, with the Syms School was founded in 1635, as the first free school in the Americas, but this was not the first attempt at establishing an education system. The first attempt was a move in 1619-1620 by the London Company to begin a school to educate Indian children in Christianity. The second attempt, known as the “East India School”, was meant to educate white children in the colony of Virginia. During the colonial period, Virginia was one of the first colonies to establish schools and colleges, such as The College of William and Mary in 1693. Thomas Jefferson, an alumnus of W&M, played a role, attempting to get legislation passed that would have funded a taxpayer-supported system, but found insufficient support among the wealthy planters, who did not want to pay to educate the poor. Jefferson did manage to establish the University of Virginia as a public institution. But Virginia did not require education until its 1869 constitution.

Public, compulsory education as we know it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Without such a system, the colonies produced a population capable of reading and understanding Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence, the Bible, and many other documents. A thriving merchant trade was established, and ledgers were kept.

18th century ledger

Education was left to the parents, the church, and the local authorities. Our public school system has its roots in the Massachusetts law passed in 1642. Massachusetts Bay Colony passed the first law in the New World requiring that children be taught to read and write. The English Puritans who founded Massachusetts believed that the well-being of individuals, along with the success of the colony, depended on a people literate enough to read both the Bible and the laws of the land. Concerned that parents were ignoring the first law, in 1647 Massachusetts passed another one requiring that all towns establish and maintain public schools. Attendance was still not compulsory. As late as 1922, the Supreme Court struck down an Oregon law making public school attendance compulsory. Pierce, Governor of Oregon, et al. v. Society of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, 268 U.S. 510. The U.S. Constitution does not mention education anywhere. It was left up to the states, parents, religious denominations, and school proprietors to deal with. The powers given to the Federal Government are stated in the Constitution. These are called enumerated powers. The 10th Amendment states that powers not directly stated in the Constitution are reserved, or left to the states.

In the agrarian society of the 17th- early 20th century, children often attended school in the winter, and then helped on the farms during spring and summer months, until after fall harvest, particularly among the poor and middle class. The wealthy had more advantages – George Washington, for example, was well versed in trigonometry for surveying, and though he had the help of tutors, George became studious and taught himself many things. One of the things that he began to study was surveying. He started by measuring the different fields of the Mount Vernon plantation where he lived with his brother, Lawrence. He spent many evenings measuring the fields and then using his compass and a ruler to draw maps of the land he had measured. Even at a young age, George knew he wanted to go into the wilderness and measure the lands that were unknown to the English and European settlers. At sixteen, he accompanied Lord Fairfax on a trip to survey the noble’s lands.

Villages even in New England, the birthing place of public education, were at first reluctant to put out the money to support schools. The teachers complained about a lack of firewood and materials. Teachers were usually either a local minister or an unmarried young woman of sixteen to twenty. In the 1800s anyone who knew a little about math, history, reading, and writing could teach school. Many teachers with only an eighth-grade education taught students a few years younger than themselves. At first, most teachers were male. However, during the Civil War (1861 to 1865) when many men became soldiers, more and more women became teachers.

1800s classroom

Rules for Teachers from the 1800’s

A set of rules for teachers from the 1800’s from an old magazine.

1. You will not marry during the term of your contract.
2. You are not to keep company with men.
3. You must be at home between the hours of 8 pm and 6 am unless attending school functions.
4. You must not loiter downtown in any of the ice cream stores.
5. You may not travel beyond the city limits unless you have permission from the chairman of the board.
6. You may not ride in a carriage or automobile with any man unless he is your father or brother.
7. You may not smoke cigarettes.
8. You may not dress in bright colors.
9. You must wear at least two petticoats.
10. Dresses must not be more than 2 inches above the ankle.
11. To keep the school neat and clean, you must sweep the floor at least once daily; scrub the floor at least once a week with hot soapy water; clean the blackboards at least once a day, and start a fire at 7 am so the room will be warm by 8 am.

Next week, a look at Harvard, and the early curriculum in schools

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