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Common School Movement


The ubiquity of "common" schools in the United States belies both the long effort to establish a system of publicly supported elementary and secondary schools and the many controversies that have attended public schools before and since their creation. The belief that public, or free, schools and pauper schools were synonymous terms, and that such schools were only for children of the poor, long hampered the acceptance of the idea that publicly supported schools could and should exist for all children, regardless of social class, gender, religion, ethnicity, or country of origin. Moreover, the European and colonial insistence that responsible parents need concern themselves only with the education of their own children through the avenues of the family, church, or the voluntary efforts of like-minded citizens only slowly gave way to the conviction that publicly supported common schools might serve all children equally, and in so doing advance the moral, social, and economic interests so vital to the nation.

The common school movement took hold in the 1830s, and by the time of the Civil War organized systems of common schools had become commonplace throughout most of northern and midwestern states. Expansion of common school systems into the southern and far-western states progressed at a slower rate, but by the opening years of the twentieth century publicly supported systems of common schools had become a cornerstone of the American way of life. However, the emergence of a system of public schools across the nation was neither an inevitable nor an uncontested movement. Moreover, its survival into the future may prove to be as problematic as was its development in the past.

Colonial and Republican Schooling

From the earliest days of American settlement, education has been a concern. Colonists up and down the Atlantic seaboard established local varieties of both fee and free schools as community conditions, benevolence, and population increase seemed to warrant. However, the Puritans who established the New England colonies displayed a special eagerness to provide for education and literacy as bulwarks against religious and cultural decline. In 1635 Boston town officials saw the need to hire a schoolmaster "for the teaching and nurturing of children with us" (Cremin 1970, p. 180). The Boston Latin Grammar School opened the next year, along with the founding of Harvard College.

Other New England towns moved haltingly toward providing support and encouragement for formal schooling in the same period. The famous Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647 reflected the urgency felt by some Puritan leaders. While not requiring school attendance, this pronouncement by the Massachusetts General Court mandated that towns with fifty or more families were to make provision for instruction in reading and writing, and that in communities of a hundred households or more, grammar schools should be established that would prepare boys for entry into Harvard College. Although noncompliance could result in a fine levied against a town, not all towns adhered to the requirements of the enactment. Throughout the colonial period, provisions for schooling remained very much a matter of local, and somewhat haphazard, arrangements.

Town schools in New England had their parallel in the form of local schools set up by transient schoolmasters and various denominational groups who filtered into the Middle Atlantic colonies and the southern regions of the country. The general attitude in many parts of the American colonies was framed by Virginia's governor, Sir William Berkeley, who in 1671 wrote that in his colony, education was basically a private matter. Virginians, he said, were following "the same course that is taken in England out of towns; every man according to his own ability in instructing his children" (Urban and Wagoner, p. 2223).

The coming of the American Revolution and the influence of Enlightenment ideas began to challenge the laissez-faire doctrines of the colonial period, however. Recognizing that the dictum of "every man according to his own ability" might work rather nicely for the economic elite but not for the mass of the population (or for the health and survival of the emerging nation), another Virginia governor, Thomas Jefferson, took the lead in setting forth plans calling for more systematic and encompassing educational arrangements in his native state. As part of a massive reform package, In 1779 Jefferson proposed A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge. Jefferson's general plan envisioned public support for secondary schools and scholarships for the best and brightest students to attend the College of William and Mary. But the foundation of his system was basic education for the mass of the population.

Jefferson called for the division of each county into wards, or "little republics," and the creation therein of elementary schools into which "all the free children, male and female," would be admitted without charge. These publicly supported elementary schools would equip all citizens with the basic literacy and computational skills they would need in order to manage their own affairs.

Civic literacy was an essential component of Jefferson's plan. He recommended the study of history as a means of improving citizens' moral and civic virtues and enabling them to know and exercise their rights and duties. Projecting a theme that would echo throughout the common school movement in the next century, Jefferson conceived of elementary schooling as basic education for citizenship; it was to be a public investment in the possibility of self-government and human happiness at both the individual and social levels. In the words of Jefferson: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be" (Ford, pp. 14). In a letter to George Washington in 1786, Jefferson declared: "It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves. This it is the business of the state to effect, and on a general plan" (Boyd, pp. 150152).

Jefferson was by no means alone in his concern over the educational requirements of the new nation. A number of other prominent Americans, some of whom differed quite sharply with Jefferson (and each other) on certain political, religious, and educational particulars, nonetheless shared his general sense of urgency regarding the necessity of new approaches to education for the new nation. A decade after Benjamin Rush signed his name to the Declaration of Independence, he declared that the war for independence was only "the first act of the great drama. We have changed our forms of government, but it yet remains to effect a revolution in principles, opinions, and manners so as to accommodate them to the forms of government we have adopted" (Butterfield, pp. 388389). Rush called for a system of schools in his native state of Pennsylvania, and he then expanded his plan into one for a national system of education. Directly attacking the argument that any system of publicly supported schools would require a repressive taxation system, Rush set forth an argument that, like Jefferson's political rationale, would become a vital part of the movement that led to the establishment of common schools. Rush argued that the schools he was advocating were "designed to lessen our taxes." His argument merits quotation:

But, shall the estates of orphans, bachelors, and persons who have no children be taxed to pay for the support of schools from which they can derive no benefit? I answer in the affirmative to the first part of the objection, and I deny the truth of the latter part of it. The bachelor will in time save his tax for this purpose by being able to sleep with fewer bolts and locks on his doors, the estates of orphans will in time be benefited by being protected from the vantages of unprincipled and idle boys, and the children of wealthy parents will be less tempted, by bad company, to extravagance. Fewer pillories and whipping posts and smaller jails, with their usual expenses and taxes, will be necessary when our youth are more properly educated than at present. (Rudolph, p. 67)

Noah Webster, whose "blue-backed" American Spelling Book and American Dictionary of the English Language did much to help define the new nation, agreed with Jefferson and Rush on the educational needs of the fragile American republic. A schoolmaster and later a founder of Amherst College, Webster considered the role of education so central to the working of a free government that he flatly asserted it to be the most important business of civil society.

However, in spite of the pleas and schemes of these and other "founding fathers," the new nation ended the eighteenth century with a patchwork pattern of schools, most of which were conducted under the auspices of private schoolmasters or sectarian religious groups. Schools essentially served private purposes and educational attainment reflected the religious, racial, class, and gender differences in society. Even so, the educational requirements for work and a productive life for most people in the latter half of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century were modest, regardless of one's background. Skills and knowledge were often learned through one's labor within the family or through apprenticeship. However, the economic realties and social conditions that ushered in the nineteenth century prompted renewed calls for expanded and better organized approaches to the education of the public.

Changes in the Antebellum Era

Although the American mode of education in 1800 bore remarkable resemblance to that of the pre-Revolutionary era, by 1900 public education was so radically different and far-reaching that the common school movement of the 1800s is widely regarded as the most significant change or reform in nineteenth century American education. This dramatic change was precipitated by a number of factors, including industrialization and the rise of the factory system; labor unrest; the spread of merchant capitalism; the expansion and economic influence of banks and insurance companies; transportation advances brought on by steam travel on inland and coastal waterways and by railroad; burgeoning population growth (including the arrival of large numbers of Roman Catholic immigrants who challenged the social and cultural norms of the mostly Protestant citizenry); and the westward migration of settlers, many of whom sought to establish the eastern tradition of town schools on the frontier.

To a large extent, the spread of common schools was an institutional response to the threat of social fragmentation and to a fear of moral and cultural decay. Reformers of various typesministers, politicians, Utopians, Transcendentalists, workingmen, and early feministssaw in schools, or at least in education, a way to ameliorate the disturbing social vices that were increasingly associated with swelling urban centers. Schools were seen as a means of turning Americanswhether "native" or "foreign born," rural or urbaninto patriotic and lawabiding citizens, thereby achieving the Jeffersonian goal of securing the republic.

Protestant denominations began putting some of their sectarian differences aside and joined forces to establish charitable schools for poor children in cities like Philadelphia and New York. These charity schools were precursors of nonsectarian public common schools in the sense that they became organized into centralized bureaucracies that received public subsidies. Interdenominational cooperation among Protestant denominations became a key ingredient in, and an essential feature of, the gradual acceptance of the common school ideal.

The Rise of the Common School

The common school movement began in earnest in the 1830s in New England as reformers, often from the Whig party (which promoted greater public endeavors than the comparatively laissez-faire Democrats), began to argue successfully for a greater government role in the schooling of all children. Horace Mann, often referred to as the Father of the Common School, left his career as a Massachusetts lawyer and legislator to assume the mantle and duties of secretary to the newly established state board of education in 1837.

Mann's commitment to common schools stemmed from his belief that political stability and social harmony depended on universal education. He stumped the state arguing for common schools that would be open to all children, and he preached that support for nonsectarian common schools was a religious as well as a civic duty. His message to the working classes was the promise that "education is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance wheel of the social machinery" (Cremin 1957, p. 65). To men of property he asserted that their security and prosperity depended upon having literate and law-abiding neighbors who were competent workers and who would, via the common school, learn of the sanctity of private property. To all he proclaimed that Providence had decreed that education was the " absolute right of every human being that comes into the world" (Cremin 1957, p. 87).

Mann was joined in his crusade for common schools by like-minded reformers in other states. In his own state, James G. Carter played an important role in pushing Massachusetts to establish normal schools to prepare teachers for the emerging "profession" of education. Henry Barnard played a leading role in Connecticut and Rhode Island, as did Samuel Lewis and Calvin Stowe in Ohio, along with numerous others across the country. Catharine Beecher, sister of abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe, is noteworthy among the women who took up the cause of educational reform and the promotion of women as teachers and exemplars of self-improvement. Graduates of Beecher's Hartford Female Seminary, founded in 1823, were in the forefront of generations of "schoolmarms" who staffed the nation's rapidly growing supply of public schools.

Resistance to Common Schools

Historian Carl Kaestle has maintained that the eventual acceptance of state common school systems was based upon American's commitment to republican government, the dominance of native Protestant culture, and the development of capitalism. While the convergence of these forces can be credited with the emergence and endurance of America's common schools, the arguments and fears of opponents of public education were not easily overcome. The hegemonic Pan-Protestant common school system may have had general popular support, but many Roman Catholics (and some Protestant sects) strenuously objected to the supposedly "nonsectarian" schools. Many Catholics agreed with New York City Bishop John Hughes, who argued that the public schools were anti-Catholic and unacceptable to his flock. When repeated pleas for a share of public funds dedicated to the support of religious schools failed to win legislative approval in New York and elsewhere, many Catholics rejected the nondenominational public school compromise, a situation that eventually led to the creation of a separate and parallel system of parochial schools.

Religious division was not the only obstacle to universal acceptance of the doctrine of universal public education. A desire to maintain strict local control over schools put many advocates of statewide organization on the defensive. Intermixed with class, race, and ethnic tensions, demands for local control of schools wasand remainsa hotly contested issue. Opposition to taxation, raised as an objection to publicly financed schemes of education during the colonial period, continued to provoke resistance. Related to issues of control and taxation were charges that government involvement in education was a repudiation of liberalism and parental rights. Advocates of this position championed the right of individuals to be left alone and responsible for their own lives.

Finally, if some of the more conservative members of society feared that public schools and democratic rhetoric might unsettle relations between capital and labor and lead to increased clamoring over "rights" on the part of the working classes, some of the more radical labor leaders contended that public day schools, while useful, did not go far enough toward creating a society of equals. Among the most extreme positions was that put forward by the workingmen's party in New York, of which Robert Dale Owen, social reformer and son of Robert Owen (founder of the utopian New Harmony Community in Indiana) was a member. In 1830 that body called for public support of common boardingschools in which all children would not only live together and study the same subjects, but would dress in the same manner and eschew all reminders of "the pride of riches, or the contempt of poverty" (Carlton, p. 58). Few reformers were willing to endorse so radical a proposal, however.

The Survival and Spread of Common Schools

Political consensus and compromise led state after state to adopt systems of common or public schools by the latter half of the nineteenth century. Although a few southern states had made progress in this direction before the Civil War, it was not until after that conflict that the states that had been in rebellion adopted legally mandatedbut racially segregatedsystems of public education. In 1855 Massachusetts had become the first state to abolish legal segregation; it took yet another full century for the United States Supreme Court to extend that practice to the entire nation by declaring in the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 that the practice of "separate but equal" was unconstitutional. Other twentieth-century court decisions ended religious practices such as Bible reading and prayer in public schools.

Competing educational philosophies, as well as political and social divisions in society, have made the issue of what should be "common" about common schooling one that is continually under review. If, as one historian has observed, the "the American public school is a gigantic standardized compromise most of us have learned to live with" (Kaestle 1976, p. 396), it is a compromise that has been, and must continue to be, constantly renegotiated.

See also: Elementary Education, subentry on History of; Mann, Horace.


Boyd, Julian P., ed. 1950. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. I. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Butterfield, L. H., ed. 1951. Letters of Benjamin Rush. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Butts, R. Freeman. 1978. Public Education in the United States: From Revolution to Reform. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Carlton, Frank Tracy. 1965. Economic Influences upon Educational Progress in the United States, 18201850 (1908). Madison: University of Wisconsin.

Cremin, Lawrence A. 1957. The Republic and the School: Horace Mann on the Education of Free Men. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cremin, Lawrence A. 1970. American Education: The Colonial Experience, 16071783. New York: Harper and Row.

Cremin, Lawrence A. 1980. American Education: The National Experience, 17831876. New York: Harper and Row.

Ford, Paul L., ed. 18921899. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 10. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.

Fraser, James W. 1999. Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America. New York: St. Martin's.

Kaestle, Carl F. 1973. The Evolution of an Urban School System: New York City, 17501850. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kaestle, Carl F. 1976. "Conflict and Consensus Revisited: Notes Toward a Reinterpretation of American Educational History." Harvard Education Review 46:390396.

Kaestle, Carl F. 1983. Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 17801860. New York: Hill and Wang.

Katz, Michael B. 1971. Class, Bureaucracy, and Schools: The Illusion of Educational Change in America. New York: Praeger.

Lannie, Vincent P. 1968. Public Money and Parochial Educational: Bishop Hughes, Governor Seward, and the New York School Controversy. Cleveland, OH: Case Western Reserve University Press.

Lockridge, Kenneth A. 1974. Literacy in Colonial New England: An Enquiry into the Social Context of Literacy in the Early Modern West. New York:W. W. Norton.

Medler, Keith E. 1972. "Woman's High Calling: The Teaching Profession in America." American Studies 13:1932.

Mondale, Sarah, and Patton, Sarah, eds. 2001. School: The Story of American Public Education. Boston: Beacon.

Pessen, Edward. 1967. Most Uncommon Jacksonians: The Radical Leaders of the Early Labor Movement. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Rudolph, Frederick, ed. 1965. Essays on Education in the Early Republic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schrag, Peter. 1970. "End of the Impossible Dream." Saturday Review 53:6870; 9296.

Tyack, David. 1974. The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Urban, Wayne J., and Wagoner, Jennings L. jr. 2000. American Education: A History, 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Welter, Rush. 1962. Popular Education and Democratic Thought in America. New York: Columbia University Press.

Jennings L. Wagoner

William N. Haarlow

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Common Schools and the Industrial Order

Common Schools and the Industrial Order


Rapid Change. The triumph of the common-schools movement in America, and of the idea of public-supported education in general, occurred against a backdrop of dramatic social transformation and growing uncertainty about the future. Well into the nineteenth century, most Americans conceived of their society as a relatively homogenous nation of small producers and independent farmers, a self-image that seemed to harmonize with the ideals fought for in the Revolution. By midcentury, however, the first stirrings of industrialization had begun to render that image obsolete. There were still, to be sure, tremendous opportunities for many Americans who wanted to set out on their own in farming or the various skilled crafts. For some, moreover, the rise of industry seemed to portend a future of unbounded national wealth and greatness. But for others, the fruits of the advancing industrial revolution seemed elusive; more and more, independent craftsmen in the cities and towns saw their livelihoods undermined by the availability of cheap manufactured goods, and many found themselves as wage laborers in the factories sprouting up around the Northeast. Many began to look upon the changes under way as a threat to the way of life they had known in an earlier era and worried that the social stratification prevalent in Europe was gaining a foothold on this side of the Atlantic, where it would undermine the equality that many Americans had come to consider their birthright. In the years leading up to 1850, these fears had translated into a new volatility in popular politics; the advent of universal white male suffrage in the 1820s and 1830s had led to the formation of parties committed to redressing the grievances of laborers and the poor, and many at the top of American society began to express their own concerns that the new cleavages in society might lead to social unrest.


Normal Schools beget an esprit du corps, and kindle a glowing enthusiasm among their pupils. They tend to exalt the business of teaching. They show it up in its nobler instead of its meaner colors. By infusing an element of philosophy into the very work of instruction, they dignify every step of it. Under this influence the work of primary instruction becomes the worthiest of the whole task, because, considered with respect to the childs wants, it is the most important. It takes profounder insight into the childs nature to lay aright the foundations of his culture in the primary school, than to help him at any other stage of his progress, because the primary teacher must see the end from the very beginning. His plans for the future must embrace the childs entire career. No partial view of the field is sufficient. This the Normal School brings into view and insists upon. Admit this truth and you at once exalt the work of elementary instruction into a dignified science, into something worth the study of any mind. Make the excellence of teaching to depend upon what you teach. . . .

Source: Richard Edwards, Normal Schools in the United States, National Teachers Association, Lectures and Proceedings (1865): 277282.

The Great Equalizer. It was in this atmosphere of growing unease at all levels of American society that educational reformers such as Horace Mann and Henry Barnard solicited support for their vision of educational reform, and it was perhaps inevitable that their appeal would tailor itself to the looming concerns of the age. In his Twelfth Annual Report to the Massachusetts Board of Education, written in 1848, Mann explicitly referred to common-school education as a balm for the growing division between rich and poor. He warned of the danger of those hideous evils which are always engendered between Capital and Labor, when all the Capital is in the hands of one class and all the Labor is thrown upon another. Now surely, he wrote, nothing but Universal Education can counter-work this tendency toward the domination of capital and servility of labor. The spread of education through all classes, Mann argued, would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society, by disarm[ing] the poor of their hostility towards the rich. Manns prescription of the common school as a solution for social conflict relied on two important elements. First, he was convinced that by mixing children from every level of society in common schools, the tendency toward social strife would be undermined by mutual exposure and would provide society with a common set of political and moral values. Wrote another reformer, The Common School is common, not as inferior, not as the school for poor mens children, but as the light and air are common. Mann also believed that public education would act as a bulwark of equality in a changing America by providing the tools with which even the children of the poor might rise to the top. Education, he wrote in a now-famous passage of his Twelfth Annual Report, is the great equalizer of the conditions of menthe balance-wheel of the social machinery.

Popular Appeal. Manns formula of public education seems, in retrospect, to have been a perfect example of the right idea arriving at precisely the right time. The chief contribution of the reformers, one observer has written, was to make their appeal relevant to the aspirations and anxieties of the age. Events in Rhode Island during the years leading up to 1850 illustrated how the common-school program succeeded in building a diverse constituency of supporters. Protests against property qualifications on the right to vote in that state had led, in 1842, to a civil uprising known as Dorrs War. Eventually, conservatives were able to quash the rebellion, but fears of a repetition led them to enact a series of reforms, including the establishment of a system of state-supported common schools. In 1843 Rhode Island legislators appointed moderate reformer Henry Barnard to oversee the work. Within seven years the state had constructed one of the best systems of public instruction in the world, as described by Horace Mann. This talent for straddling popular demand for free education and the conservatives requirement for social stability was essential to the success of educational reform during this period. Although reformers shared the conventional attitudes of many conservativesthat poverty was a result of moral weakness and individual failing rather than injustice or a flawed social orderthey genuinely believed universal education would provide a solution to the social ills that beset American society. Barnard had appealed to Rhode Island legislators in terms designed to allay their fears and at the same time rouse their sense of public obligation. It was the responsibility of civilized men, he told them, to decide for the urban poor how best to raise them from barbarism.

Harmony and Efficiency. The degree to which the common-schools crusade was adapted to fit the changing needs of an industrializing America is evident not only in the manner in which Mann and others solicited support for their ideas, but in day-to-day classroom instruction as well. The common-school classroom presented educators with an ideal opportunity for training young people in the habits required in an increasingly complex industrial society. Punctuality, obedience to authority, personal thrift, moral restraintthe inculcation of these qualities became the common objective of moral instruction. The first requirement of the school is Order, Saint -Louis superintendent William T. Harris wrote in 1871. In modern industrial society, he pointed out, conformity to the time of the train, to the starting of work in the manufactory, and to other activities of the city required strict precision and regularity. The pupil must have his lessons ready at the appointed time, must rise at the tap of the bell, move to the line, return; in short, go through all the evolutions with equal precision. By preparing students for participation in modern society, reformers pointed out, public education would result in increased productivity and economic growth, benefiting all of society. Access to a well-rounded education, George Emerson and Alonzo Potter wrote in their School and Schoolmaster (1873), multiplies the ways in which [workers] can be employed with profit to themselves, and with advantage to the community. The triumph of common schooling in the years after 1850 was a product, therefore, of major forces in American life as the nation moved away from a simpler, agrarian past and toward greater complexity and stratification. Though education reformers conceived their project neither as a counterweight to growing inequality, as labor reformers had, nor merely as the guarantor of social stability desired by industry, their ability to offer something of value to diverse constituencies was key to their success.


Merle E. Curti, The Social Ideas of American Educators (New York: Scribners, 1935);

Michael B. Katz, Class, Bureaucracy and Schools: The Illusion of Educational Change in America (New York: Praeger, 1971);

Henry J. Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith in Education, 18651965 (New York: Random House, 1968);

David B. Tyack, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974).

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Common School Crusade

Common School Crusade


Mix of Schools. Except in the South and a few rural areas America did not lack schools in the early nineteenth century. The institutions, however, were a hodgepodge of types with a variety of goals. Some were founded for charity and others for profit; some were supported by cities and towns and others privately funded; and some aimed at spreading religious faith, some for advancing learning, and others merely to keep children off the streets. Within this mix of schools there were no sharp lines between what was private and public nor any clear distinctions between sectarian (religious) and nonsectarian schools as many publicly supported schools openly taught a Protestant viewpoint while on occasion sectarian and private institutions welcomed poor children regardless of religious background or faith. Although this mix of public and private institutions was typically open to all white children, male and female (and in a few places to free black children), it did not constitute a satisfactory system. In Massachusetts, for example, education was hampered by unskilled teachers, inadequate texts, excessive decentralization of school control, and public apathy. Beginning in the 1820s and increasing over the next two decades a growing number of Americans began to wonder if American schools were good enough to carry the important burdens placed on them. Out of this criticism came the ferment called the common school crusade.

The East Leads. The crusade began in New England, where problems resulting from urbanization, industrialization, and immigration made obvious the shortcomings of the lack of an organized system. Into the breech stepped such prominent friends of education as Horace Mann of Massachusetts and Catharine Beecher and Henry Barnard of Connecticut.. During the 1830s and 1840s they led a movement for the common (or public) school, universal education, and popular education. To support these schools they called for the establishment of standardized state systems of education. Mann and school reformers such as Samuel Lewis, Robert Breckinridge, James Carter, Calvin Stowe, and Caleb Mills

helped win more-regularized public support for schools, advocated reliance on female teachers (who were paid much less than male teachers), popularized the reaching of a common body of knowledge to students of different social backgrounds, and, most important, supplemented the moral case for mandatory schooling with civic and economic arguments. Reformers insisted that schools had to equip children for the emerging competitive and industrial economy. Through numerous newspaper articles, lectures, and pamphlets reformers lobbied for a truly common school, one that would be an institution for the diffusion of knowledge through all classes of people.. Out of the common school movement emerged the outlines of the modern American school system.


On 22 October 1845 the famous poet Walt Whitman described and condemned the tradition of physical punishment common in the nations public schools:

It is with no unkind spirit that we affirmand call all good and sound modern resoners on the subject to back usthat the instructor who uses the lash in his school at all, is unworthy to hold the power he does hold That he can bethink him no better and easier, and gentle and more humane plan to ensure obedience than thrashing, proves him fit for dog-whipper, or menagerie-tamer, but not for the holy office of fashioning an immortal human soul How many noble spirited boys are beaten into sullen and spiteful endurance of what there is no earthly needsharp taunts, blows, and frowning looks! Awake! parent and teacher, to higher ideas for your kind, in the young freshness wherewith God has formed them, than to suppose there are not a hundred better ways of drawing out what is good, and repelling what is bad i them, than the ferrule and the rod!


Walt Whitman, Brooklyn Evening Star (22 October 1845), reprinted in Turning Points in American Educational History, edited by David B. Tyack (Waltham, Mass.: Blaisdell, 1967), pp. 165167.

Opposition. Reform did not come easily. Because rural parents depended on their childrens labor, reformers faced numerous challenges from farmers who were content with the informal country schools. Urban Catholics, led by individuals such as New York Citys Bishop John Hughes, rejected the pro-Protestant and anti-Catholic bias of public schools. Some critics complained about high taxes and minimal value that they received for their support of common schools. Many more took issue with mandatory school attendance, which they viewed as a tyrannical usurpation of parentss freedom. Opposition to universal public education did not reflect a general rejection of education and schools but was aimed more specifically at the idea of organizing schools were taxpayer supported, mandatory, and under state control. When Thomas Jefferson proclaimed in 1816, If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, and in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be, most Americans nodded in agreement. In the end the adoption of the common school program occurred because merchants and laborers, Democrats and Whigs, Congregationalists and Unitarians, and Easterners and Westerners came together (often for different reasons); their common interest in education was stronger than any disagreements over how schools should be organized and funded.

Program. Given the many demands placed upon the schools by concerned parents, reformers exhibited a remarkable degree of agreement on what common schools should do. Since most reformers considered America a Christian nation, they advocated a sound moral education grounded in Christian beliefs and values. They claimed, however naively, that they could implement moral instruction without offending any religious group. Since America was a republic where in theory every person had the right and responsibility to participate in government, advocates of the new common school systems also emphasized instruction in civic duties to insure the loyalty and civic-mindedness of future generations of Americans. Last, school reformers hoped not only to combat ignorance but also to spread uniform cultural values by exposing all youngsters to similar educational experiences. The many demands placed upon the new common schools, by reformers and parents alike, mirrored Americas faith in the power of education to right all wrongs and solve societys ills.


Frederick M. Binder, The Age of the Common School (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1974);

Robert L. Church, Education in the United States: An Interpretive History (New York: Free Press, 1976);

Carl F. Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 17801860 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983);

David Nasaw, Schooled to Order: A Social History of Public Schooling in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).

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Common Schools

Common Schools

The term common school refers to the predecessors of the public schools and systems of the United States. Common schools were quasi-public, originally mandated by colonial, and subsequently state, governments, though they were run locally. They offered an elementary level of schooling, were increasingly coeducational, and frequently were haphazard in instruction, curriculum, and duration.

The importance of schooling in a republic was a persistent theme among writers in the early national period. Citizens needed to be literate, moral, and industrious, reflecting the dominant Protestant ideology of the elite, and it was, ideally, the responsibility of the state, under the control of that same elite, to provide the means. Free schools, as Pennsylvania reformer Walter Johnson put it, were essential in order "to give every member of American society a portion of knowledge adequate to the discharge of his duties as a man and a citizen of the republic" (p. 2). But with few exceptions (New York and Connecticut especially), support and control of schools were mainly left to the localities, and, as communities grew in size, the number of school societies also grew adding to the fragmentation.

Considerable variation was the norm, with rural schools generally doing a better job than urban schools. Duration of the school year was uncertain, frequently not lasting more than a few months, and attendance was even more episodic. Common schools provided elementary instruction, the methodology was characterized by rote learning, harsh discipline was common, and patriotic and Protestant messages were delivered insistently. All schools were crowded and ill-equipped, teachers served for brief periods and were illprepared, and the duration of the school term depended on the level of support from the community. Teachers were mostly men, who served brief terms, although women often taught in the summer terms. By the 1830s, however, women began to dominate the classroom. Some support was provided by the states, more by rates paid by local communities, but parents were expected to share in the cost of educating their young.

The so-called Common School Revival began during the third decade of the nineteenth century and flourished during the postCivil War period. This movement emphasized the social and political role of publicly supported schools. During a period of incipient capitalism, increasing urbanization, and rapidly rising rates of immigration, political leaders turned to the schools to buttress the social order. The movement was strongest in the northern and midwestern states and was led by men such as James Carter and Horace Mann in Massachusetts, Henry Barnard in Connecticut, John Pierce in Michigan, and Calvin Stowe in Ohio. The reformers had some allies in the southern states, but the movement never succeeded in that region prior to the Civil War.

The overriding goal of the reformers (who were mostly of the Whig persuasion) was the provision of schooling for all, or as Henry Barnard, the first U.S. commissioner of education, was wont to put it, schools which were good enough for the rich and cheap enough for the poor. Tax support for public schooling was crucial, and well-built and suitably furnished school houses, graded classes, common textbooks, and clearly defined procedures for attendance and reporting were constantly recommended. Most important was the emphasis on teacher training, either in short-term institutes or in state-provided normal schools. Supervision was to be a state responsibility. Hence, the movement provided the basis for the systemization of schooling. Underlying the entire reform platform was the dominant Protestant, middle-class, capitalistic ethos, which the reformers saw as truly American.

Opposition to these reforms came not from those opposed to schooling, for there was consensus on that matter, but from advocates of local government and opponents of increased taxation. Members of ethnic, national, and religious minorities also objected to the exclusionary aspect of the movement. Thus, the seeds of controversy still prevalent today were sown in this period. Nonetheless, the Common School movement laid the foundation for the system of public education and for the myth of commonality that remains an American belief.

See also: Compulsory School Attendance; Grammar School; Literacy; Parochial Schools .


Cremin, Lawrence A. 1980. American Education: The National Experience, 17831876. New York: Harper and Row.

Glenn, Charles Leslie. 1988. The Myth of the Common School. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Johnson, Walter R. 1830. Remarks on the Duty of the Several States in Regard to the Public Education. Philadelphia: W. Sharpness.

Kaestle, Carl F. 1973. The Evolution of An Urban School System: New York City, 17501850. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kaestle, Carl F. 1983. Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 17801860. New York: Hill and Wang.

Katz, Michael B. 1968. The Irony of Early School Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Reprint, 2001, New York: Teachers College Press.

Edith Nye MacMullen

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