Public Education

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Public Education

Education was an important issue in the new American nation. Luminaries like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Rush talked about it at length because all of them associated ignorance with tyranny. Jefferson took great pride in his contributions to education, especially the founding of the University of Virginia. His innovative Plan for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge (1779) eventually earned him a place in the pantheon of American public education. But Jefferson did not live to see his now-famous plan implemented. Truth be told, the progress of education in the new American nation owes as much if not more to the efforts of local officials, civic leaders, and community activists. Between 1780 and 1830 they laid the groundwork for the system of public schools and colleges that would emerge in the United States in the antebellum era and after.

Whether well known or not, those who worked on behalf of education had one thing in common. They all agreed that America's future was at stake. Education would not only make Americans better citizens but also better parents, workers, and religionists. But although all might agree on the importance of education, there was no consensus about how it should be defined or delivered. Was the home or the school to bear primary responsibility? To the extent that schools were needed, what kind of institutions should they be? Public schools were not a given. There was no common understanding in the new American nation that government should provide for essential needs. Nor was a sharp distinction made between public and private—between that which concerned everyone and that which concerned individuals or minorities. Over the half-century between 1780 and 1830, Americans would come to recognize something that the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville called the tyranny of the majority. As they did, they saw the importance of distinguishing between public and private in many spheres of American life, including education.

serving the common good

As long as most Americans believed that the interests of the individual were synonymous with those of the group, there was no reason for them to make a sharp distinction between the public and the private domain. Nor was there reason to object when only a handful of people were deemed suitable for leadership roles or when government extended to individuals or small groups those prerogatives and privileges associated with institutions charged with acting for the common good. For example, colonial legislatures sometimes incorporated bridges, roads, canals, and banks, making them in effect the exclusive partners of the state in exchange for providing indispensable services. But as economic activity expanded and competition increased, expectations changed. By the beginning of the nineteenth century it had become apparent that the marketplace could be relied on to meet many of society's most pressing needs. Now government could promote the common good by acting as an arbiter or even as an agent for those pursuing private gain. At the same time, the courts discouraged politicians from interfering unnecessarily in the affairs of individuals or established organizations. Arguing for his alma mater, Daniel Webster convinced the United States Supreme Court in 1819 (in Dartmouth College v. Woodward) that the New Hampshire legislature had to respect the original charter of Dartmouth College. Government and the courts also began to treat corporations not as instruments of the state but as entities beholden to their shareholders. In other words, Americans now began to distinguish between the public and the private domain.

When the state took an active interest in education in the eighteenth century, it was because leading Americans believed that the future of the Republic was at stake. It could not survive if its citizens were ignorant. Being well informed may not have been a sufficient condition for practicing the rights of citizenship, but government had to make sure that all Americans were educated nevertheless. First and foremost, it had to protect the free flow of information. Nothing could be allowed to stand in the way of free speech, a free press, and freedom of association. Government could also contribute to popular education indirectly by encouraging volunteers to create and endow learned institutions such as libraries, museums, and lyceums. It could multiply its impact by providing incentives for the establishment of schools, colleges, and universities.

Of course, some Americans wanted government to do much more for the cause of popular education. Jefferson's Plan for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge called for a state-supported system of elementary, secondary, and higher education that would not only ensure an informed citizenry but also provide educational opportunities for talented youth from impoverished families. In 1786 the physician Benjamin Rush proposed a similar plan for Pennsylvania. It called for a three-tiered system consisting of township schools, regional colleges, and a state university. When the American Philosophical Society sponsored an essay contest on education in 1795, the co-winners, Samuel Knox and Samuel Harrison Smith, both argued for a comprehensive system of national education. But these plans failed to gain any traction because many Americans still believed that education was primarily a family responsibility. Associating it with personal goals such as economic success and social standing, they resisted the idea that anyone should have to pay for the education of other people's children. Public education meant to them nothing more than that training or socialization which took place outside the home.

However, a growing number of Americans either needed or wanted to be educated outside the home by the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the back alleys of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston there were many neglected children who would receive no education at all if the matter were left entirely to the discretion of their families. All across the United States, but especially in the nation's towns and villages, there was also a gathering demand for the kind of academic and practical training that would help those on the cusp of respectability open opportunity's door. Civic and religious leaders responded by seeking philanthropic contributions as well as municipal and state assistance for elementary education. In Charleston, South Carolina, for example, the city's Orphan House ran a school that many would have regarded as a public institution. That Philadelphians were of like mind can be demonstrated by pointing to the work of the Philadelphia Society for the Free Instruction of Indigent Boys, established in 1799, and the accomplishments of the Friends' (Quakers') "public" schools. Although not accountable to the community as a whole, the schools run by these organizations constituted an informal educational system that taught literacy to the children of different classes and races in separate schools. The Philadelphia English and Latin Academy, on the other hand, exemplifies a different concept of what public education meant in the second half of the eighteenth century. Opened in 1751 and chartered four years later as the College, Academy and Charitable School of Philadelphia, it anticipated the development after 1780 of countless proprietary schools for adolescents and young adults who hoped that a practical education at a more advanced level would improve their prospects.

Many proprietary schools began as private ventures whose primary purpose was to make a living for their schoolmasters. Some evolved into academies, an institutional type that proved to be much more stable, in part because the demand for their services persuaded many local and state governments to shower them with money, land, or legal privileges. Incorporating forty by 1817, New York also invested directly in many academies. Farther west, Ohio chartered about one hundred between 1803 and 1840. As corporations, they were expected to have a self-perpetuating board of directors, which was usually composed of local leaders. The typical academy had such a close economic and social relationship with its community that even though it was privately controlled (and most likely charged tuition), it was still perceived as a public institution—a perception that was reinforced by its practical curriculum, which served the common good by facilitating private gain.

evolving concepts of public education

Beginning in the 1790s, the concept of "public" in American education gradually began to mean much more than schools that served the common good. As Americans drew a sharper distinction between the individual and the community, they also began to associate certain characteristics with public institutions, including and especially schools. But it would take some time for these characteristics to gain wide acceptance. More than two generations would pass before most Americans would understand public education to mean schools that were publicly supported, publicly controlled, open to all, and tuition-free. Nevertheless, movement toward this consensus commenced even while the Republic was new. In the Land Ordinance of 1785 Congress set an example by providing that one section of public land in each township of the Northwest Territory should be designated for the support of primary schools. Some state governments followed this lead by creating common school funds to encourage public support by local authorities. Using receipts from the sale of land in its Western Reserve, Connecticut established such a fund in 1795, and both New York (1805) and Virginia (1810) did the same not too long thereafter. Massachusetts did not create a permanent school fund until 1834, but it was a pioneer in another way, enacting legislation in 1789 that provided for a system of town schools. The Massachusetts Education Act called for reading, writing, and grammar schools to educate boys and girls, age seven to fourteen, at public expense. Building on the initial steps it took in 1784 when it established the University of the State of New York, Albany attempted in 1795 and then more successfully in 1812 to bring about the realization of a state educational system. The Michigan territorial legislature took similar steps in 1817, passing a bill for a comprehensive system of elementary, secondary, and higher education, but the promise of this legislation was still unfulfilled in 1835 when Michigan became a state and the state constitution charged the legislature with implementing a system of common schools. These reforms notwithstanding, public education was still struggling to establish its identity in the 1830s.

Although there was no consensus about what public education meant, some conceptual patterns had begun to emerge by 1830. In rural areas a communal concept existed; it combined public control with more than a little public support and open access. District schools in Massachusetts, Ohio, and New York received both state and local revenue, practiced some form of local governance, and admitted all white comers, though they sometimes made up for budget shortfalls by charging tuition. Some local schools admitted blacks and Indians, but many, especially in Ohio, did not. Enrollments in these schools were high, but their terms were brief and attendance was usually inconsistent. In Philadelphia and New York City, on the other hand, the average citizen would have equated public education with charity schools that received public support. Founded in 1805 by a small group of public-spirited citizens, the privately controlled Free School Society presided over schools in New York City that concentrated on the education of the poor. It provided some schooling for poor blacks from 1834 until its demise in the 1850s. By then the city had an elected school board and a more democratic approach to public education. In 1818 a board of "controllers" was established in Philadelphia whose job was to help local directors operate schools for the poor at public expense. Indigent children of African descent were completely excluded at first, but by the end of 1826 two segregated schools were up and running for them. The board's mission remained unchanged until 1834 when new legislation made it responsible for publicly supported and publicly controlled schools that, theoretically at least, were open to high- as well as low-income children.

In Boston the situation was quite different. At first, public education there seemed to mean publicly supported and publicly controlled schools for children from respectable families. Established in 1789, the city's School Committee did not make provision for the education of the poor until it organized a Primary School Board in 1818. Modeled after the Boston Society for the Moral and Religious Instruction of the Poor, the Primary School Board accepted mostly illiterate children. But enrollments grew slowly because many poor children worked, and their immigrant parents found the cultural bias of the city's public schools to be off-putting. Nevertheless, more than a few transferred to these public schools from other institutions during the first two or three decades of the nineteenth century. When Horace Mann came on the scene in the 1830s, he promoted that form of public education, which combined public support with public control and open access. Mann's efforts met with great success in Massachusetts. Elsewhere, his conception of public education attracted considerable attention, especially in Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and the upper Midwest, but it had to compete with one that tied together at least some public support with private control and open access. By the 1830s many academies operated on this basis. Anticipating public high schools, they provided a broad and practical education that went beyond the basics. Although they were often the objects of intense local pride, their survival usually depended on the degree to which they met the needs of their students. The end result was an all-purpose institution.

higher education

As late as 1850 academies and colleges in the United States had more than a few features in common. Above all, they were exclusive—that is, most Americans had no direct experience with them. In this respect they fell outside the borders of public education. But long before that, the most important colleges in the United States had exhibited at least some of the features of public institutions. For example, they received special treatment from the state even though they were also free to set their own direction. Having self-perpetuating boards of trustees from their inception, both Harvard and Yale enjoyed considerable independence, but over the years both schools came to expect substantial amounts of government oversight and assistance. In 1780 the new Massachusetts constitution committed the Commonwealth to looking after Harvard College and placed the governor, lieutenant governor, and several members of the legislature on the Board of Overseers. Twelve years later Yale accepted $30 thousand from the state of Connecticut in exchange for having eight civil servants on its nineteen-member board of directors. New York renamed King's College in 1784, making it Columbia, and put the school under the aegis of the University of the State of New York, but the college regained some of its institutional independence when it obtained a self-perpetuating board of trustees soon thereafter.

These developments notwithstanding, more than a few Americans had come to believe by the end of the eighteenth century that higher education should be a government responsibility. Between 1785 and 1820 ten states (Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio, and Vermont) chartered their own institutions of higher education, although provisions for state support and state control were usually slow in coming. After 1810 the ties between government and many established institutions of higher education began to weaken. Harvard received its last regular appropriation from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1823; state grants to Columbia and Yale ended in 1819 and 1831 respectively. The Dartmouth College case raised questions about the degree to which government could exercise control over colleges with existing charters. But these developments were not definitive, and the distinction between public and private in higher education would remain a work in progress until at least the middle of the nineteenth century.

In the fifty years between 1780 and 1830, public education in the United States was in transition. Although a few people equated it from the beginning with schools that were publicly supported, publicly controlled, tuition-free, and open to all, most took a while to associate it with something more than that which took place outside the home. They were encouraged, even forced, to recast their views because Americans were becoming more diverse, more competitive, and more committed to individualism. As these changes gradually took hold, public education approached and eventually crossed an important conceptual and institutional threshold. It became more akin to what most Americans would come to regard as public education.

See alsoDartmouth College v. Woodward; Jefferson, Thomas; Northwest and Southwest Ordinances; Work: Teachers .


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William W. Cutler III

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Public Education

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