1815-1850: Education: Overview
1815-1850: Education: Overview
Changing Society. From 1815 to 1850 successive waves of economic and social changes swept across the nation. Revolutions in transportation, from the canal boom of the 1820s to the rapid spread of railroads, stimulated interregional trade and sparked an unprecedented development of towns and cities. In 1820 only 6.1 percent of the population lived in places of twenty-five hundred or more. By 1850 high population density characterized parts of the expanding West as well as the Northeast. The rise of manufacturing and industry in America also signaled dramatic shifts in the nation’s economy. Although the textile factories that emerged in New England were relatively small, some Massachusetts towns such as Lowell and Waltham employed thousands of textile workers by the mid 1830s. Americans continued to view themselves as a nation of farmers, but industrialization was taking hold. The development of an urban-industrial America played an important part in the rise of a unified movement for public schools, which found most of its support in the nation’s expanding cities. Changes in the population also sparked educational reform. Just as immigration proved vital to the emergence of an industrial America, the influx of German and Irish immigrants with different cultures, beliefs, and religions seemed to threaten the stability of an American way of life and system of beliefs. Much educational reform aimed at trying to instill uniform values and cultural norms to counteract the forces of social instability that were transforming a predominantly agricultural and relatively homogeneous nation.
Inequalities. In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on “the general equality of condition among the people,” but the reality was far different. Educational reformers hoped to use public schools as a means to assimilate immigrants and achieve national unity by creating a uniform and universal educational experience, but social divisions and inequalities often thwarted their efforts. Religious intolerance, particularly against Catholics, prevented many immigrants and their children from enjoying new educational opportunities. Prejudice against African Americans, deeply ingrained in white society, restricted slaves and most free African Americans from receiving formal educations. Prudence Crandall, David Walker, William Lloyd Garrison, and other teachers, writers, and abolitionists condemned the disparities in black educational opportunities, but most mainstream school reformers paid scant attention to the education and assimilation of African Americans. Gender discrimination also found its way into the classroom. Although reformers such as Catharine Beecher, Mary Lyon, and Emma Hart Willard sought to redress the inequalities that girls and young women confronted by founding female institutions of learning, educational and vocational options remained limited. At higher levels of learning, race, religion, gender, and a growing gap between rich and poor meant that only a small percentage of the wealthy could afford to send their children to private academies or other institutions of higher education.
Literacy. Before the movement for a common school system developed, most children learned their letters at church or private schools, from tutors, or from their families. Abraham Lincoln recalled his own informal education by claiming that he had little formal schooling: “Still, somehow, I could read, write and cipher to the rule of three, but that was all.” Young Lincoln, like the vast majority of America’s children, acquired only the most basic of skills. School attendance beyond the elementary or grammar level was typically the privilege of the more affluent or well-connected citizen. Prior to 1830, moreover, no state had a public school system in the modern sense, and in the scattered rural areas educational opportunities competed with the demands that children work on the farm and forgo formal educations. During the 1830s and 1840s, however, the crusade for public schools rose on a surge of reform activity. Educators argued that popular government and an orderly society made necessary a literate and informed electorate. Many workers also lobbied for tax-supported schools to give their children an equal chance. In 1830 the Working Men’s Party of Philadelphia spoke in favor of “a system of education that shall embrace equally all the children of the state, of every rank and condition.” As a result of such efforts, by 1840 some 78 percent of the total population and 91 percent of the white population could read and write.
Reform. Educational reform was one among many reform campaigns that captured the attention of Americans. There was not “a reading man” who was without some plan for a new Utopia in his “waistcoat pocket,” claimed Ralph Waldo Emerson. Invigorated by the evangelism and optimism of the Second Great Awakening, reformers promoted a spectrum of ideas from female suffrage and the abolition of slavery to “miracle” medicines and fad diets. Societies formed to ban alcohol, tobacco, and profanity, and some individuals stepped forward to proclaim the benefits of communal living, polygamy, and rule by spirits and prophets. Harebrained cranks and inspired idealists clamored for their visions of a perfect society. What bound the dizzying array of reformers together, from the crusade against slavery to those seeking to establish a system of juvenile reformatories, was an intense moralism and sense of high-mindedness. Within this mix of reformist zeal arose the crusade to establish a system of tax-supported public schools. With the same zeal that inspired temperance advocates and abolitionists, educational activists worked toward creating the mandatory public school systems that they fervently believed would create a better society. While most educational reformers tended to be reasonably well-educated white men of the middle class, many women and minorities joined the new educational organizations and campaigned for common schools as a way to overcome their lack of voting privileges and exclusion from political parties.
Common School. Prior to the efforts of reformers in the 1830s and 1840s, elementary schooling seemed ill equipped to prepare youngsters to fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship in a republic or meet the ever-changing economic opportunities of an emerging industrial economy. Led by men and women dissatisfied with the scarcity of schools and the poor quality of those that existed, the common school movement sought to make a school experience a mandatory part of every child’s upbringing. Although school reformers throughout the nation joined in the common cause, the obstacles they encountered varied from state to state. Roadblocks ranged from the logistical difficulties of sending children from scattered farm settlements to centralized schools to the legal challenges put forth by reluctant taxpayers and resistant parents concerned about relinquishing their parental authority to the state. Nonetheless, rapid progress took place in the 1830s. In 1835 Thaddeus Stevens issued a famous defense of the school tax in Pennsylvania, and within three years the state had forged the beginnings of a public school system. In 1837 Horace Mann became the first secretary of Massachusetts’s newly created state board of education. The following year the Connecticut Board of Education made Henry Barnard its secretary. Due to the efforts of leaders such as Stevens, Mann, Barnard, and school reformers in other eastern states such as New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, a permanent system of public schools was in place by 1850.
Higher Education. In a period when few high schools existed academies were a frequent option as a final, typically vocational oriented setting for formal education. Upon leaving academies young men (women were only beginning to forge their own female seminaries and academies) often entered directly into extended apprenticeships, where they studied law or medicine, or worked on canals or buildings as engineers in training. For the elite few who could afford to attend college an abundance of small schools in the East offered many choices although nearly all the colleges founded prior to the Civil War were organized, supported, and controlled by religious interests. Colleges offered courses in the classics, the liberal arts, and some fields of science. The more established institutions such as Harvard and Yale, which had yearly tuitions in 1825 of fifty-five dollars and thirty-three dollars, respectively, required a prescribed course of study in Latin, Greek, mathematics, and moral philosophy. The classical curriculum, which most college presidents defended vigorously, focused on the mental and moral refinement of the student. The goal was to create gentlemen and future community leaders. Such a limited course of study prompted many young men to study abroad at Europe’s institutions of higher learning. Gradually the demand for practical coursework in the sciences came to dominate the debate over higher education. Despite a few anomalies, such as Oberlin College, which admitted African Americans and women as early as the 1830s, most colleges restricted admission to white men. For those who were not white, male, and wealthy, higher education of any sort remained a distant dream.
Popular Education. For the vast majority of Americans who had little opportunity to receive advanced education at America’s colleges or academies, there existed a wide range of alternatives for informal or self-directed education. A thriving magazine and book trade appealed o t the growing number of literate citizens, which in turn sparked the growth of public and private libraries. Mechanics’ and workingmen’s institutes, debating societies, literary groups, and other organizations and clubs came forth to inform the general public on issues of the day. Vocational institutions emerged, such as the People’s College, which New York State established in 1837 to provide scientific and technical education to craftsmen. Opportunities for religious education also expanded. In 1816 New York merchant Eleazar Lord and associate Di-vie Bethune created the New York Sunday School Union Society. Religious instruction in general benefited from an increase in parochial and private schools begun by Catholics and other “outside” religious groups. Public institutes arose, such as the Franklin Institute (founded at Philadelphia in 1824) and the Smithsonian (1846), to inform the general public about science, nature, and American history. The most widespread and effective means of popular education, however, was the lyceum movement. Begun byJosiah Holbrook in the 1820s, lyceums aimed to diffuse a broad body of knowledge through public lectures and debates. Professional agencies sponsored speakers such as Emerson, Herman Melville, Daniel Webster, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and other prominent Americans. The period from 1815 to 1850 marked a time not only of substantial school reform but also of popular lectures and learning.
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