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The Struggle for Public Schools Previous Next
Digital History ID 3535


Of all the ideas advanced by antebellum reformers, none was more original than the principle that all American children should be educated to their full capacity at public expense. Reformers viewed education as the key to individual opportunity and the creation of an enlightened and responsible citizenry. Reformers also believed that public schooling could be an effective weapon in the fight against juvenile crime and an essential ingredient in the assimilation of immigrants.

From the early days of settlement, Americans attached special importance to education. During the 17th century, the New England Puritans required every town to establish a public school supported by fees from all but the very poorest families (a requirement later repealed).

In the late 18th century, Thomas Jefferson popularized the idea that a democratic republic required an enlightened and educated citizenry. Early 19th century educational reformers extended these ideas and struggled to make universal public education a reality. As a result of their efforts, the northern states were among the first jurisdictions in the world to establish tax-supported, tuition-free public schools. At the beginning of the 19th century, the United States had the world’s highest literacy rate--approximately 75 percent. Apprenticeship was a major form of education, supplemented by church schools, charity schools for the poor, and private academies for the affluent. Many youngsters learned to read in informal dame schools, in which a woman would take girls and boys into her own home. Formal schooling was largely limited to those who could afford to pay. Many schools admitted pupils regardless of age, mixing young children with young adults in their twenties. A single classroom could contain as many as 80 pupils.

In the following selections, two New England teachers describe the condition of education in Connecticut on the eve of school reform. The first teacher's account reads as follows:

Ten years ago I was called to superintend a district Connecticut....

The school had usually been under the care of a male instructor four or five months in the winter, and a female as many months in the summer, with a vacation in the spring, and another in the fall, from one to two months each. The instructors had been changed often; few of them ever taught two seasons in succession. The school was large, and the pupils rather ungovernable.... No one remaining in the school more than little could be done, except assisting the pupils in recalling what they had forgotten during the previous long vacation, inculcating new laws, and perhaps introducing some new school-book.... School was commenced precisely at 9 a.m., and 1 p.m., throughout the year...

The greatest number I ever had...was about 60, and this only during a very short period of the winter; the school averaged 44 throughout the year....

Many pupils had a mile to walk, and some nearly two.... When I entered the school, there were 50 scholars under five years of age. The greater part were under four, and several only about three.... I stoutly maintained that no child ought to be sent to school under five years of age. But the parents insisted on sending them, and I was obliged to submit. To meet the exigency, means were provided at the schoolhouse for allowing them to sleep occasionally during the hot weather....

The second teacher offered the following description:

The school house the junction of four roads, so near the usual track of carriages, that a large stone was set up at the end of the building to defend it from injury. Except in the dry season the ground is wet, permitting small collections of water on the surface... The spot is peculiarly exposed to the bleak winds of winter; nor are there at present any shade trees near, to shelter the children from the scorching rays of the summer's sun during their recreations.... Neither is there any such thing as an outhouse of any kind, not even a wood shed.

The size of the building was twenty two feet long, by twenty broad.... Around three sides of the room, were connected desks arranged so that when the pupils were sitting at them, their faces were towards the instructor and their backs towards the wall. Attached to the sides of the desks nearest the instructor, were benches for small pupils. The instructor's desk and chair occupied the centre. On this desk were stationed a rod or ferule [a cane]; sometimes both....

The windows were five in number.... They were situated so low in the walls, as to give full opportunity to the pupils to see every traveler as he passed, and to be easily broken....

The school was not infrequently broken up for a day or two for want of wood in former years; but since they have used a smaller fire place, this occurrence has been more rare. The instructor or pupils were, however, sometimes compelled to cut or saw it, to prevent the closing of the school.... The [school]house was frequently cold and uncomfortable.... Frequently too, we were annoyed by smoke....

The ventilation of the school room, was as much neglected as its temperature; and its cleanliness, more perhaps than either.... There arrangements made for cleaning feet at the door, or for washing floors, windows, &c.... Instructors have usually boarded in the families of the pupils. The compensation has varied from seven to eleven dollars a month for males; and from sixty two and a half cents to one dollar a week for females....

from America Annals of Instruction, II (August and October, 1831), 380-383, 468-472.

The campaign for public schools began in earnest in the 1820s, when religiously motivated reformers advocated public education as an answer to poverty, crime, and deepening social divisions. At first, many reformers championed Sunday schools as a way “to reclaim the vicious, to instruct the ignorant, to secure the observance of the Sabbath...and to raise the standard of morals among the lower classes of society.” But soon, reformers began to call for public schools.

Demands for schools, however, were not confined to those worried by rapid immigration and urban growth. There was also widespread demand for schooling from urban workers. Many skilled laborers called for schools that would mix wealthy children with those of the working class. Workers supported schools even though they depended on the wages of their children. In many working-class families, children under the age of 15 earned as much as 20 percent of the family's income.

Here, Philadelphia's working men call for free public education. But they note that even free schools might still exclude the children of the very poor, who had to work to help to support their families. To help these children, they propose "manual labor schools," where students will be able to earn money while they study.

...[Public] schools would, at least, relieve, in a great measure, many indigent parents, from the care of children, which in many cases occupies as much of their time as would be necessary to earn the children a subsistence.

The original element of a despotism is a monopoly of talent, which consigns the multitude to comparative ignorance, and secures the balance of knowledge on the side of the rich and the rulers.... The means of equal knowledge (the only security for equal liberty) should be rendered, by legal provision, the common property of all classes…. Very many of the poorest parents are totally unable to clothe and maintain their children while at school, and are compelled to employ their time, while yet very young, in aiding to procure a subsistence. In the city of New York, a much more efficient system of education exists than in this city...yet there are at the present time upwards of 24,000 children [in New York City] between the ages of 5 and 15 years, who attend no schools whatsoever.... It is evidently therefore of no avail how free the schools may be, while those children who stand most in need of them, are through the necessity of their parents, either retained from them altogether, or withdrawn at an improper age....

Horace Mann (1796– 1859) of Massachusetts, the nation’s leading educational reformer, led the fight for government support for public schools. As a state legislator, in 1837 Mann took the lead in establishing a state board of education and his efforts resulted in a doubling of state expenditures on education. He also won state support for teacher training, an improved curriculum in schools, the grading of pupils by age and ability, and a lengthened school year. He was also partially successful in curtailing the use of corporal punishment. In 1852, three years after Mann left office to take a seat in the U.S. Congress, Massachusetts adopted the first compulsory school attendance law in American history.

One of the bitterest debates was whether teachers could punish their children with whips and rods. In 1844, Horace Mann called for an end to corporal punishment in schools.

Authority, Force, Fear, Pain!... These are the motives, by which the children of Boston,--and if this doctrine prevails, the children of the State also,--are to be trained.... Throughout this whole section, conscience is no where referred to, as one of the motive-powers in the conduct of children. The idea seems not to have entered into the mind of the writer, that nay such agency could be employed in establishing the earliest, as well as the latest relations, between teacher and pupil. That powerful class of motives which consists of affection for parents, love for brothers and sisters, whether older or younger than themselves, justice and the social sentiment toward schoolmates, respect for elders, the pleasures of acquiring knowledge, the duty of doing as we would be done by, the connection between present conduct, and success, estimation, eminence, in future life, the presence of an unseen eye,--not a syllable of all these is set forth with any earnestness, or insisted upon, as the true source and spring of human actions....

Was it not, and is it not, one of the grand objects in the institution and support of Common Schools, to bring those children who are cursed by a vicious parentage, who were not only "conceived and brought forth," but have been nurtured in "sin"; who have never known the voice of love and kindness; who have daily fallen beneath the iron blows of those parental hands that should have been outstretched for their protection;--was it not, and is it not, I say, one of the grand objects of our schools to bring this class of children under humanizing and refining influences; to show them that there is something besides wrath and stripes and suffering in God's world?

Joseph Hale (1845), a Boston schoolmaster, responded to Mann's arguments.

...Let me avow...that physical coercion is, in certain cases, necessary, natural, and proper;...and to...[discredit] the sickly and ridiculous notion, that all use of pain and compulsion is disgraceful and degrading.... Children should not hear the authority of their parents and teachers called in question. They should not be allowed to speak disrespectfully of their own or of each other's parents and teachers, and he who through the press, or in any other way, encourages this, whatever he may intend, is a disorganizer; is weakening and dissolving the primal bond of civil society, and sapping the foundations of social order.

Educational opportunities, however, were not available to all. Most northern cities specifically excluded African Americans from the public schools. It was not until 1855 that Massachusetts became the first state to admit students to public schools without regard to “race, color, or religious opinions.”

Women and religious minorities also experienced discrimination. For women, education beyond the level of handicrafts and basic reading and writing was largely confined to separate female academies and seminaries for the affluent. Emma Hart Willard opened one of the first academies offering an advanced education to women in Philadelphia in 1814. Many public school teachers showed an anti-Catholic bias by using texts that portrayed the Catholic Church as a threat to republican values and reading passages from a Protestant version of the Bible. Beginning in New York City in 1840, Catholics decided to establish their own system of schools in which children would receive a religious education as well as training in the arts and sciences.

In higher education a few institutions opened their doors to African Americans and women. In 1833 Oberlin College, where Charles G. Finney taught, became the nation’s first co-educational college. Four years later, Mary Lyon established the first women’s college, Mount Holyoke, to train teachers and missionaries. A number of western state universities also admitted women. In addition, three colleges for African Americans were founded before the Civil War, and a few other colleges, including Oberlin, Harvard, Bowdoin, and Dartmouth, admitted small numbers of black students.

The reform impulse brought other changes in higher education. At the beginning of the 19th century, most colleges offered their students, who usually enrolled between the ages of 12 and 15, only a narrow training in the classics designed to prepare them for the ministry. During the 1820s and 1830s, in an effort to adjust to the “spirits and wants of the age,” colleges broadened their curricula to include the study of history, literature, geography, modern languages, and the sciences. The entrance age was also raised and the requirements demanded of students were broadened.

The number of colleges also increased. Most of the new colleges, particularly in the South and West, were church-affiliated, but several states established public universities. Before the Civil War, 16 states provided some financial support to higher education, and by the 1850s, New York City offered tuition-free education from elementary school to college.

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