Education in America – Part 3

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Horace Mann and Henry Barnard

We’ve traced the beginnings of education in America through the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and shown how the genesis was in New England, Virginia, and Louisiana. Public schools had Christian roots, as the clergy and parents wanted their children instructed in morals, reading, and writing, to enable them for a life of worship, integrity, and a trade. There was some conflict between the “New Light” schools of the Great Awakening, and the more established Puritan schools, over doctrinal issues. In New England, the Common School was the first “public” though not tax-supported school, and every village was supposed to have one. Attendance was not compulsory.

One room school house (source: South Georgia Genealogical Society, April 1904)

In 1837, Horace Mann began the reform of the common school. He was a lawyer, Massachusetts State senator, and the first secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education. Mann envisioned a government-run school system that imposed uniform standards across the system, contrary to the practice of the day. Curriculum, teacher, and attendance standards had shifted from the state to the district, from the district to the village, and down to the individual parents and school. Mann wanted this to change and began publishing the Common School Journal to inform the public about the schools in the state. In 1839, the first teacher’s college started in Lexington, to standardize teaching methods and influence curriculum.

Source: Teachers Institute, 1851, Connecticut Historical Society

In Rhode Island, Henry Barnard watched the developments in Massachusetts and worked closely with Governor James Fenner to evaluate and reform the common schools of the state. In 1845, Rhode Island started its first teachers’ college, again with the aim of standardizing teaching methods and curriculum. Barnard was a proponent of the “common school”. He became president of St. Johns College, and then the first United States Commissioner of Education, following the Civil War. Though Barnard continued the practice of instilling moral values as part of the educational process, as the Industrial Revolution progressed he favored a shift in emphasis that favored education as training for the many new factories and urban jobs that were available, instead of the traditional apprenticeship. Some may think that the federal involvement in education dates only to the creation of the Department of Education under President Jimmy Carter, but this actually represented elevation to a cabinet level of an already existing agency.

The United States Education Commission, created by the Radical Republicans March 2, 1867

  • Formulated educational policy
  • Administered the various functions of the Office of Education
  • Coordinated educational activities at the national level

This represented a radical change, and a move toward government control and centralization of education, driven primarily by the northern industrial states. The Commission was included under the Department of the Interior in 1889, already a Cabinet-level department. In 1953, it became part of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), until 1972 when the law creating it was repealed, and the commission abolished under the Nixon administration. On May 4, 1980, the new Cabinet-level Department of Education, split off from HEW, assumed the duties of national education oversight.

Horace Mann joined Barnard in the shift away from religious teaching in schools, and as the Second Great Awakening waned in 1840, the teaching subtly shifted from straight Bible teaching to more general and “modern” moral precepts.

This shift may have been fueled in part by the Bible riots in Philadelphia, where Nativists and Protestants, members of the “Know-Nothing” party, rallied against Catholics. The Know-Nothings thought that the Catholics would attempt to remove the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible from schools, substituting the Catholic Bible. In a backlash, some Catholic churches were attacked, and St. Augustine’s was burned. In Wisconsin there was similar strife between Catholics and Protestants over which version of the Bible was used in schools, resulting in the Edgerton Bible case. In 1890 the famous action overruled the circuit court’s decision, concluding that it illegally united the functions of church and state. In the end, the Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed a ruling in favor of the parents and forbade local boards to mandate readings from the KJV. Though not the first court case concerning religion in public schools, it was the beginning of the end for Bible teaching at the grammar school level, and was cited in the 1963 Supreme Court decision banning Bible reading and prayer in schools. Even without Bible readings, most common schools taught children the general Biblical values and work ethic of nineteenth-century America.

In the 1850s, few areas had public schools–schools paid for by taxes. Wealthy parents sent their children to private school or hired tutors at home. On the frontier, 60 children might attend a part-time, one-room school. Their teachers had limited education and received little pay. Most children simply did not go to school. In the cities, some poor children stole, destroyed property, and set fires. Reformers believed that education would help these children escape poverty and become good citizens.

In spite of the move toward central control, states and local districts remained in charge of curriculum and attendance issues. Grading to measure progress varied widely, but often centered on an end of year recitation before parents and school board members.

Education was still not widely available to everyone – women, African Americans, and Native Americans often experienced limitations and prejudice. In 1787, John Poor established the first female academy, the Young Ladies Academy of Philadelphia. The school was located on Cherry Street, a mere half-mile from where the Constitution was written. While schools for girls had existed well before the American Revolution, including one within the Philadelphia city limits run by Anthony Benezet (1713-84), the Young Ladies’ Academy represented a new kind of school for a new nation: one officially recognized by a state government. Philadelphia was also the site of the first female medical college.

The campaign to establish a medical school for women was led by the Fussell family of Chester County and the Longshores of Bucks County, who joined with businessman William J. Mullen to open the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania in rented quarters near Seventh and Arch Streets in Philadelphia. The first graduation in December of 1851 (medical schools demanded only two years then) saw eight women receive degrees, including Hannah Longshore, who became Philadelphia’s first active woman doctor, and Ann Preston who stayed with the College and in 1866 became the first female dean in an American medical school. But few women attended medical school in the United States because most men considered them better matched to the often short-lived work of teaching and long-term work inside the home – an education was meant to make them better mothers and wives, rather than train for any long term career.

Next week: Education of minorities in post-Civil War America.