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Education: North America

Education: North America

What distinguishes the development of education in North America has been its cautious, halting, but nevertheless relentless movement toward universality and inclusivity, an impulse that owes much to the progressive ideals of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and to the consequent development of liberal democracy on the continent. In the early twenty-first-century Canada and in the United States, citizens expect to be able to pursue an education, often at state expense, limited only by their abilities, interests, and preferences. But, however powerful, the sentiment in favor of universal access to education has never meant that education, or its benefits, has been shared equally. It remains the case that racial discrimination, gender bias, and economic necessity force many to forego advanced schooling and to endure lower wages, episodic unemployment, and a generally lower standard of living.

How do we explain this seeming contradiction? Both the impulse to universality and the unequal distribution of education are artifacts of two centuries of developments in educational policy and practice that owe much to the seventeenth-century origins of schooling in North America.

The Beginnings

Three interacting forces shaped education in the North American colonies: religious fervor, early Enlightenment thought, and contact with native peoples and with the wilderness itself. The early settlers of North America, as distinguished from the mercantile explorers who worked the traps in Hudson Bay and planted the tobacco fields of Virginia, or the explorers and missionaries who controlled the Spanish and French territories, immigrated to the North American continent to establish Christian religious communities with strong sectarian identities. The settlers arrived in the New World with a sense of righteousness and a powerful sense of possibility. They aimed at nothing short of creating a new kind of society on the tabula rasa of the New World. But when they arrived, the settlers discovered that the indigenous peoples of the continent had created complex communities with deep histories and an easy relationship to the wilderness they inhabited. Within just a few years, the leaders of settlements across New England began to doubt the internal coherence of their communities, castigating the younger generation for their wavering faith. The chief cause, they surmised, was the lack of civilizing structures they had left behind in the established cities of Europe. They worried, too, that the wilderness and native culture were temptations to be resisted, and in their sermons they began to demonize the tribes who were their neighbors. To remedy this perceived declension and entropy, settlements turned to education as a means of reinforcing common values and ideals. In 1640, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted the first law on the continent requiring universal education among its youth as a way of defeating "that ould deluder, Satan," and of securing the tenuous hold the colony had over the hearts and minds of its citizens.

Formal education, then, has its origins in North America as a tool for the dissemination of common norms and values perceived as necessary by the leaders of the religious colonies of the seventeenth century. Education was, in other words, a defensive force aimed at the conservation of a particular set of ideas, values, and behaviors. Throughout the seventeenth century, communities across North America supported education as a means of internal cohesion. Schools, such as they were, were often temporary or informal affairs, connected to local churches, established at home by women who could teach their charges to read and write as well as cook and sew, or by masters who taught their apprentices to read by candlelight after the day's work was done. Even at Harvard and William and Mary, the first of the colonial colleges, admission, courses, and requirements were informal affairs. Critically, during this period of local informality, gender roles, racial discrimination, and even the socioeconomic stratification of opportunity, while ubiquitous, were neither as rigid nor as obvious as they were to become. Their very ubiquity made them a part of the social fabric, unobserved and unscrutinized. At the same time, the lack of rigid structures enabled individuals, especially young women, to enjoy relatively unfettered access to primary education. Indeed, throughout the colonial period rates of literacy for women in North America exceeded those for men.

The Revolution

The American Revolution deepened the North American affection for using education as a tool of social control. The creation of a liberal republican nation-state on the continent provided a new locus for policy-making and a new imperative for generating political solidarity. In the new United States, one of the few things that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams could agree upon was the necessity of creating a system of universal education that reinforced the principles of the new nation. Education should be spread widely, they argued, and children should be taught to reject monarchy and to embrace republican democracy. They could be made, wrote the early reformer Benjamin Rush, into "republican machines." It was this impulse to social control, less than the logic of liberal democracy, that spurred the growth of schooling in the new nation.

In Canada, governors and ministers shaken by events to the south sought to consolidate their own political culture by mandating the establishment of schools that reinforced allegiance to the British Crown and to the Church of England. Reformers sought to rationalize and nationalize educational practice, especially in the French-dominated colony of Lower Canada. Government ministers made periodic attempts to graft educational policies generated around the "Irish Question" onto affairs there.

As much as it was shaped by the insecurity of the emerging nation-state and its need to create a compelling internal narrative, the unique character of the universal rights language of the late Enlightenment amplified the universalist educational ideology of the early republican period in the United States. By those ideas, individuals' stations could and should be separated from their inherent status as men, men imbued with qualities, rights, and opportunities that could and should not be abrogated by policy or practice. Among those rights was the right to participate in the establishment of laws and the conduct of government. It became particularly important, in this framework of broad participation, for citizens to possess at least a rudimentary education by which they could assess the strengths of various arguments and positions.

Embedded in the rights language of the late Enlightenment, however, is an even more fundamental proposition supporting individual freedom and fundamental equality, concepts that expanded over the course of the next two centuries to include women, native peoples, freed African slaves, and immigrants. As these groups came to be regarded as inheritors of the same inalienable rights that had traditionally been the province of white men, the need to provide an education that would enable them to exercise those rights within a prescribed set of social norms became critical. From this expansion of language regarding rights and freedoms, combined with the ever-present impulse to use education as a tool of social cohesion, comes the particular North American emphasis on inclusive and universal schooling.

For example, even in the early years of the Republic, educators and political leaders discussed following the internal logic of the Revolution to formalize the education of girls and women as a national priority. Mothers, the argument went, were a child's first teacher, and to educate women well was an important bulwark to the safety of the nation. Importantly, it was this connection between rights of democratic participation and the need to create a national narrative that reinforces order which led to the expansion of educational opportunity across wide swaths of the population in North America over the next two and a half centuries.

The Nineteenth Century

The nineteenth century was a time of expansion and change on the North American continent. Expansion of the white population westward brought more and more native peoples into contact with settlers and their brand of civilization. Displacement, disease, and successive wars of conquest decimated the native peoples from Florida to Saskatchewan and brought those who survived into a strongly paternalistic relationship with the governments in the United States and Canada. Across North America, state-run schools for indigenous peoples or state-supported missionary schools sought to teach their charges their appropriate role in the polity and the economy. Typically these schools taught habits of deportment and hygiene, the English language, loose Protestant catechism, the rudiments of politics, and, most importantly, a set of vocational skills appropriate to a subservient class. This model, one of providing education to support political stability and training for appropriate roles in the economy, bolstered the universalist impulse among elites, who saw it as a way of promoting stability. Among emerging groups, the picture is less clear. Some saw the provision of any education as an advance. Others saw the internal limits to this kind of learning.

Throughout the nineteenth century, state-sponsored education replaced the more informal arrangements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, built upon the twin pillars of political necessity and economic stability. By mid-century in Canada and the United States, education came to be seen as the most powerful tool in creating stable, well-ordered societies in the face of increasing mobility and immigration. Yet this rise of the public school and its hegemonic construction of a political and social narrative aimed primarily at immigrants and non-elites did not go uncontested. Across North America, religious groups, particularly Catholics, protested the growing incursion of state-written (British Canada) or state-influenced (United States) curriculum that either explicitly or implicitly supported Protestantism. Ethnic groups in the midwestern regions of the United States and Canada created strong regional schools where subjects were often taught in German or Polish. And finally, elites, who supported public schools for the general stability they generated, supported independent schools and sent their children there in preparation for matriculation at colleges and universities.

Higher Education

Indeed, until the middle of the nineteenth century, higher education was off-limits to most women and to all but the most affluent of men. Female seminaries existed, and the end of the nineteenth century saw the development of specialized teacher training colleges for women. But the opportunities that existed for collegiate training remained the province of wealthy white men. That changed in the United States in 1862 with the passage of the Morrill Act establishing a series of land-grant colleges. These institutions were originally intended to advance technical training in agriculture but rapidly expanded into multipurpose institutions where individuals from diverse backgrounds could secure higher education.

Unlike primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, even state-supported institutions, remained relatively free from the conserving political dynamic that is at the heart of educational expansion in North America. As a result, colleges and universities were freer to open their doors to new peoples and new views. Historically black institutions and the land-grant colleges became the training ground for leaders of hitherto underrepresented groups. These leaders and allies from majority groups began, by the middle of the twentieth century, to explore critically the internal structuring of universal education in North America.

The Future

Most obvious to these critics was the existence of a multitiered system of schooling, in which minority and immigrant groups were channeled by the education they received into low-paying jobs and subservient positions in society while whites, including, to a lesser extent, white women, were provided an education that created opportunity for mobility and access to political power. In the United States, from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring separate schools for black children unconstitutional, to state-by-state decisions to equalize school finance and school resources, to the 2002 national No Child Left Behind act, policy-makers have worked to create a system that is not just universal, but that provides equal opportunities to all. Such a system of education would go well beyond the original social control arguments in favor of publicly supported schooling. Instead, such a system would preserve liberal democracy in the United States and Canada by bringing to life the noblest aspirations of the liberal democratic ideals upon which the nation-states of North America ultimately rest.

See also Americanization, U.S. ; Assimilation ; Democracy ; Segregation ; University .


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Theodore R. Mitchell

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