1783-1815: Education: Overview
1783-1815: Education: Overview
New Nation . After the American Revolution, Americans began thinking of education in different ways. Traditionally education was meant to train children in various skilled trades, either through apprenticeship or through helping their parents. Many would learn to read and write, but this part of their education would also be done at home. Most children would follow the occupations of their parents, and so it was essential that they learn as their parents had done. The education they received prepared them for lives as farmers, artisans, or tradesmen of other skills.
Formal Education . Some children had been sent to school or had private tutors instruct them in reading, writing, arithmetic, and other subjects. Children selected for formal education were generally from wealthier families, and the purpose of their education was to qualify them for one of the more advanced professions, either the ministry or the law. To pass the entrance examination for college, children would have to learn Latin and Greek, and so private schools maintained by a schoolmaster, paid by the parents of his pupils, would instruct students in those languages as well as a few other subjects. Children typically would enter college at age 12 or 14. Most of the colonial colleges (Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Queen’s, and Dartmouth) had been founded by religious groups and were devoted both to training ministers and to providing a broader education. Two other colleges, King’s College, now Columbia University, and the College of Philadelphia, were not founded by religious groups, but ministers still played a large role on their faculty and in their government. Generally, faculty were ministers of a particular denomination.
Citizens and Scholars . The American Revolution brought a dramatic change in the way Americans thought about education because it brought a change in the fundamental principle of society. With independence, some American leaders began thinking of ways to change the educational system. As Benjamin Rush put it, the purpose of American education was not to turn out scholars, but to create citizens. It was essential, if the American republic was to survive, that all citizens be educated. States quickly began taking an interest in opening formal education to more people. Massachusetts in 1789 required its towns to set up common schools, and Pennsylvania’s 1790 Constitution required its towns to set up schools to teach the poor for free. The states recognized the need to teach its citizens in order to ensure that they would be reliable guardians of public order.
Jefferson’s Plan . Thomas Jefferson suggested that Virginia set up a system of grammar schools to provide all free children in the state with three years of free education and to teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic. After three years children who showed exceptional promise would continue for three more years of schooling, and the brightest at this level could move on to college. Jefferson envisioned a system that would teach all children to read and write and would select the brightest students to train as society’s future leaders. Jefferson’s ambitious plan would not be enacted until after the Civil War.
In the Classroom . Jefferson and other educational reformers had wanted to create a system of public education. For the most part they were happy with the way schools were operated, but they wanted to change the way schools were financed. One teacher, generally a young man preparing for the law or the ministry, would preside over a schoolroom holding up to fifty students who sat on benches and copied the lessons he would dictate. Students were required to memorize the lessons and were graded on their ability to recite what they had learned from memory. Books were expensive; usually only the teacher had a copy of the text, and he would read it to the pupils. This system required strict attention and concentration and built the powers of memory and concentration more than the skills of thinking and analysis.
Textbooks . With a heavy reliance on memorization, some Americans tried to produce texts that would teach reading and writing, but they would also use these lessons to instill republican values. Noah Webster, a schoolteacher in Connecticut, wrote a spelling book in 1783 which not only taught spelling but also instructed children in the tenets of republican society. Webster saw his spelling text as an intellectual declaration of independence from England: through an American system of spelling, the United States would become independent of British educational ideas and notions. Webster’s “blue-backed speller,” which sold over twenty million copies, and his book on grammar called for an American pronunciation of words and simplified spelling. He was not successful in having Americans spell “speak” as “speek,” or in dropping the silent “gh” in “fight” and “eight,” but his spelling primer and two-volume An American Dictionary of the English Language (1830–1832) succeeded in having the “u” dropped from “labour” and “favour,” a small step away from the spelling of England. Almost as influential, Caleb Bingham, a Boston schoolmaster, produced various texts, compilations of speeches, poems, and plays for the use of schools. His American Preceptor (1794) sold 600, 000 copies before his death in 1817.
Women . A schoolmaster might keep his school open all year or for 280 days; students, however, would attend for only 180 days. As a result Americans still looked to the family as the place for transmitting values. Girls as well as boys were expected to be educated so that they could read the Bible and transmit its values to their children. Women were raised to be “republican mothers,” to keep alive in their families the ideas of civic virtue and honesty. In the colonial period “dame schools” had taught girls reading, writing, and arithmetic, and also needlework and other domestic arts. Common schools also educated both girls and boys, though females attended less often than their male counterparts. One of the most influential textbook writers of the period, Caleb Bingham, taught at a Boston school for girls. Susannah Haswell Rowson’s school in Medford, Massachusetts, and Sarah Pierce’s Litchfield Academy in Connecticut trained girls and young women who would marry into the elite of the next generation. Since women, as mothers, would be their children’s principal educators, it was vital that they be well taught. Some women, in fact, attended schools such as Sarah Pierce’s and went on to become teachers themselves. In the nineteenth century the schoolmistress began to replace the schoolmaster as the purveyor of formal education, though women would not be able to attend college until later in the century.
Sunday Schools . Begun in the 1790s, Sunday schools were mainly run by women. These schools offered secular instruction, though they were usually affiliated with churches. In any case it would be difficult to find an American school in this period that did not have some religious foundation; the New York Free School required its students to attend church on Sundays, though they could attend the denomination of their choice. The Sunday school, however, was open to all, though it would be conducted in a church. One day a week the teacher would instruct her students, who ranged from children to adults, in reading and writing, using as their basic text the Bible. These schools, like the charity schools, were designed to prevent an uneducated poor class from developing and becoming dangerous to society.
Wages . One reason women replaced men as teachers is that pay for teachers was always low. While reformers such as Jefferson and Rush argued for the value of education, it was difficult to pry funds from the hands of taxpayers. The states were slow to embrace tax-supported education for all people. It remained the responsibility of parents to pay for their children’s schooling. Connecticut in 1793 passed a law to use money the state received from selling its land in the Western Reserve of Ohio for the benefit of schools. This fund became the source of great controversy, as the state would only charter Congregationalist, Presbyterian, or Episcopal schools, and as the size of the fund depended on the sale of land. Schools had to find other ways to raise money. Some would hold lotteries or would rely on wealthy benefactors. The social consequences of not teaching children to be good citizens were great, and most American leaders worried about a poorly educated generation not suited either for a successful career or for a role in protecting free government. As American cities such as New York and Philadelphia grew after the war, with children growing up in crowded cities, some began worrying about the future of the country.
New York’s Free Schools . In New York in 1787 philanthropists started an African Free School for the children of former slaves and free black people to teach them to read, write, and be productive members of society. This was followed by other charity schools begun by various religious denominations. All of these schools taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, but all these lessons had a very moral basis. Religion was fundamental to these free schools. New York State in 1795 decided to support these charity schools with state funds: the counties were given money from the sale of public lands to pay the charity-school teachers, and for five years New York had a system of state-supported education. In 1800 the legislature discontinued this policy. Five years later New York philanthropists led by DeWitt Clinton created a Free School Society, which established free schools for poor children paid for by private donations.
Lancastrian System . All of these reforms focused on the way to finance schools. Two notable reforms were advanced in the ways schools should operate. The New York Free School Society adopted the educational methods of Joseph Lancaster, who ran a London school, teaching over one thousand children by himself. Lancaster’s method called for the teacher to train several more-advanced students to act as “monitors” and do much of the work of drilling and listening to recitations. By this method one teacher could handle hundreds of students. This system had two advantages: reportedly, the Lancastrian schools could teach a student to read in just a few months; more importantly, this system was much less expensive than a traditional system of one teacher for every thirty or forty students.
Pestalozzian System . Another reform, this one imported from Switzerland, had been introduced by Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who did not believe in the drilling and memorization practiced in most European and American schools. Pestalozzi called for educating students by awakening their curiosity, by having them explore the natural world, and once their curiosity was sufficiently awakened and engaged, to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic using concrete examples rather than abstract theories and moral lessons. A Philadelphia merchant, William Maclure, visited Pestalozzi in 1805 and saw that his system would be an ideal way to teach republican citizens in America. Maclure hired one of Pestalozzi’s teachers, Joseph Neef, and brought him to America to open a Pestalozzian school. Neef, a veteran of the French army, wrote several books for Americans explaining his system and became a familiar figure in the countryside outside Philadelphia, leading his pupils on explorations of their natural environment. The Pestalozzian method also stressed physical education, and Neef was popular among his students for leading them in exercises. The small school moved to Delaware and later to Kentucky. Neef in the 1820s settled in Robert Owen’s New Harmony commune in Indiana and became a teacher.
State Universities . While the period after the Revolution did not see a change in the way schools were run, there was a tremendous change in the number of schools. Throughout the new country schools were created, either by towns or by states, to educate the republic’s citizens. Georgia became the first state to charter a state university in 1785, followed by New York in 1787 and North Carolina in 1789. Presidents George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all tried to persuade Congress to establish a national university, but this plan never succeeded. Jefferson failed to have Virginia establish a system of education, but after he retired from the presidency he devoted his attention to founding the University of Virginia. In 1815 New Hampshire’s legislature tried to take over Dartmouth College and claim it as a state university, but the Supreme Court in 1819 stopped them.
States and Academies . In addition to universities, states chartered private academies to prepare pupils for entrance to college. The federal government, too, tried to encourage education through the sale and division of western lands. In the new territories formed in the Ohio River valley Congress in 1787 directed that the land be laid out into townships; certain lots in each township would be reserved for a schoolhouse; and other plots of land would be sold to pay for the school. This piece of legislation marks the first federal subsidy for education, though it left the control of the school in the hands of the community. Similarly, New York’s 1795 school law had given money from the sale of land to communities to pay for schools, but had left it up to each community how the money would be distributed. Massachusetts in 1789 required its towns to establish schools, but left it to each town to run the schools and determine policy. It could be that state leaders simply assumed most schools would operate in the same way; the more important issue is that all shared the same vision of education as essential to creating a stable society of informed and thoughtful men and women.