1850-1877: Education: Overview
1850-1877: Education: Overview
The State of Education. By 1850 American educational reformers, led by Horace Mann, had succeeded in convincing many leading citizens of the merits of establishing a system of publicly supported “common schools.” Inspired by newly developed European models of public education, the common-schools crusade had been initiated in the 1830s and won its first enthusiastic supporters in the larger, established towns of New England. From the beginning these schools were conceived not only as centers for learning, but as important vehicles for projecting the moral values considered essential to the American social order. Mann himself had stressed the importance of “moral education” in canvassing support for the common schools, and in the hands of New England descendants of the Puritans, this morality came to be closely identified with Protestantism and with the values of industriousness, frugality, and personal responsibility. Although by midcentury the common-school crusade had begun to win adherents beyond New England, American public education remained fairly disorganized, more notable for its remarkable variation than its homogeneity. In the still sparsely settled regions of the West, for instance, the availability of schooling could vary widely from one settlement to the next. In the South “public education” in the sense familiar to the North barely existed: the meager public funds spent on education went to subsidize “pauper schools” for indigent whites or private academies that were attended mainly by the sons and (occasionally) daughters of wealthy planters. Even in New England, conditions could vary widely between urban and rural schools. The primary challenge facing advocates of public education, then, was to forge an organized system of public education out of the disparate initiatives that had begun to show success across the country.
Contested Aims. From the beginning of the common-schools campaign, the task facing educational reformers was complicated by the fact that no clear consensus existed about the role or even necessity of public education in national life. Among the more privileged classes, whose own children already enjoyed access to private schooling, the very idea of taxing the citizenry in order to finance the education of working-class and poor children seemed, besides being wasteful, an infringement upon property rights. One of the crucial problems faced by reformers lay in convincing the more well-to-do that public education would benefit society as a whole. Mann, Henry Barnard, and others stressed the value of “moral instruction” for ensuring social stability and reinforcing the existing social order. Between 1840 and 1870, with the prodding of reformers, public financing evolved from a laissez-faire approach, where almost no tax money went toward education, to the “rate-bill” system, under which parents paid according to the number of children they had enrolled in the public schools, to a flat-rate system more closely resembling the one we are familiar with today. Common-school promoters faced a challenge at the other end of society as well: labor reformers also favored the establishment of public schools, though often for different reasons than those advanced by Mann and his followers. They resented the stigma associated with sending their children to “charity schools” and looked on public education as a means of reversing the growing inequality perceived by them as the main threat to American society. In many ways the most formidable task faced by educational reformers lay in attempting to reconcile these divergent expectations. These tensions would continue to manifest themselves in different forms throughout the period from 1850 to 1877, but by midcentury the reformers had managed to build a fairly solid consensus among diverse constituencies in favor of public education.
Moral Instruction. The massive transformation of American society during the middle of the nineteenth century swept aside much of the ambivalence toward educational reform. Reflecting developments in western Europe, the cause of public education in the United States found a new resonance precisely at the time that industrialization began to alter the face of society. By 1850 the revolutionary-era republic of small farmers and independent artisans was increasingly giving way (in the Northeast, at least) to an unprecedented concentration of wealth and the rise of a large class of factory operatives and other wageworkers. Although most Americans continued to live in rural areas, in 1850 nearly one of five people lived in cities. By 1880 that proportion would double to 40 percent. From only six cities of one hundred thousand or more in 1850, there would be nineteen in 1880, including one (New York) with over a million inhabitants. In the wake of rapid industrialization came growing social stratification, with large numbers in the factory towns and cities seemingly locked into a cycle of poverty and resorting increasingly to strikes and other means to press their grievances. Equally alarming for many established New Englanders was the dilution of the citizen population with immigrant stock. Famine in Ireland and social upheavals in central Europe brought hundreds of thousands of newcomers to America; by 1849 Horace Mann reported that more than half of Boston’s 10,162 public-school students were the children of immigrants. City administrators complained that the influx was “countervailing the Puritan leaven of our people, and reducing the scale of public morality and public intelligence.” With fears of cultural disintegration and social upheaval never far from their minds, many who had been unconvinced of the merits of public education before 1850 now supported the reform project and its prescription of “moral instruction” as an antidote for the restlessness taking hold of the lower classes and as a bulwark of national identity in the face of large-scale immigration.
Centralization. The transformation of public education from a diverse and uncoordinated mixture of local experiments into a coherent system required organization. From 1850 onward, reformers spent much of their time developing ideas that would bring some uniformity to the emerging national system. At the local level, this involved the introduction of an administrative structure inside the schools that challenged the tradition of direct community control of education. Previously, individual teachers had exercised a great degree of control over the content of their courses, and conditions varied greatly from one schoolroom to the next; in the 1850s a uniform course of study was introduced, along with new officials—school principals and city, county, and state superintendents—to oversee instruction. The growing importance of the school principal during this period indicated the bureaucratic trend. Cincinnati school board members noted in their report for 1858 that although principals “till the last two years” were “only teachers of the highest classes of their respective schools,” their new supervisory responsibilities made it necessary to assign them “small recitation rooms… where they keep records, examine classes, and transact the general business of the school.” In the Northeast the principals’ new role was reflected in architecture: one of the notable innovations in school construction after 1850 was the principal’s office itself. Overseeing the principals was another layer of city and county district officials, who themselves answered to state superintendents. Establishing an office of state superintendent of schools in 1854, New York reported that overburdened town and city superintendents had made over twenty-two thousand visits to the state’s schools in the previous year. By the early 1860s, the trend had begun to take hold even in the Far West, with California appointing its own state superintendent in 1862. Centralization reached its zenith in 1867, when prominent educational reformer Henry Barnard was appointed the first U.S. Commissioner of Education.
Professionalization. Along with their attempt to bring organizational coherence to public education, reformers embarked on an ambitious program of teacher training. One of the most pressing problems faced by school districts across the country was the high turnover and subsequent lack of experience among teachers. Pennsylvania authorities found in 1856 that of some six thousand teachers in the state, nearly two-thirds had been teaching for under three years; other states reported similar figures. The employment of more women, a trend accelerated by the drain of young men during the Civil War, meant that teachers frequently joined the workforce for only a few short years before marriage. Nearly 80 percent of teachers in southeastern Michigan in 1860 were between seventeen and twenty-four years of age, and in one Wisconsin county more than one-quarter of teachers were under eighteen. Low wages partially explained this instability: rural teachers earned less than common laborers throughout this period, and urban teachers could expect only slightly better conditions. In any case reformers were determined to train a corps of educators, and several initiatives begun during this period left a permanent imprint on the American teaching profession. One of the major functions of early superintendents was to introduce a uniform course of study in school systems under their direction. City Superintendent William H. Wells’s Graded Course of Instruction for the Public Schools of Chicago, published in 1862, was adopted as a teachers’ manual by many cities and set an example that would be emulated for years afterward.
Normal Schools. The rise of normal schools represented another significant development. The first state-supported teachers’ training school had been opened in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1839, but by midcentury only a half-dozen other states had followed suit. As late as 1860 there were only twelve state normal schools in the country, but Edward Sheldon’s pioneering efforts in opening the Oswego Normal School in New York a year later proved to be a turning point in establishing the normal schools as a permanent fixture in American education. Within twenty-five years of the school’s founding, Oswego graduates had taught in forty-six states of the Union and at least six foreign countries. The Oswego school became the model, and most states and many cities began establishing their own normal schools. By 1871 U.S. Commissioner of Education Henry Barnard reported that fifty-one publicly funded normal schools existed in twenty-three states, training over six thousand future teachers annually.
Attendance and Access. One telling illustration of the trend toward greater uniformity and organization in education was the change in official policy on school attendance. Not surprisingly, few children outside of the major New England towns attended school with any kind of regularity before midcentury. In many areas, schooling was considered the responsibility—and prerogative—of individual parents. In agricultural areas children’s labor often played a critical role in helping families secure a livelihood, and formal schooling was subordinated to the seasonal rhythms of planting and harvesting. In these areas children might attend school as little as three months during the year. The average duration of a child’s common-school experience in 1858 was eight years. Even by the end of this period in 1877, high school was still a luxury that many young people and their families could not afford. Extending mandatory school attendance across different regions and intensifying the academic experience of those enrolled in public schools became obvious priorities for reformers determined to create a uniform system of education. Beginning in the Northeast in 1852, a series of laws were passed that made attendance compulsory for school-age children. Massachusetts, characteristically taking the lead in this movement, required children between eight and fourteen to attend school at least twelve weeks per year, with at least six of them continuous. Many school systems set up special “truant schools” to compel attendance, and by 1860 some one hundred “reform schools” existed across the United States for those considered especially troublesome. Interestingly, however, these measures did not necessarily translate into a higher proportion of children attending ordinary public schools. While the length of the school year was extended from 150 days to 192, the percentage of children in school actually declined in Massachusetts between 1840 and 1880. In part, this was due to the uneven enforcement of existing laws and the large influx of immigrants who did not register their children. But the most difficult obstacle to universal attendance seems to have been the increasing trend toward child labor in industry. Children made up over half of the workforce at the Rhode Island’s Hope Factory, one observer noted in 1853, working fifteen or sixteen hours a day. Important as they were in laying a foundation for public education, the accomplishments of educational reformers during this period would have to await more fundamental changes in public attitudes toward child labor before they could guarantee equal access to education.
African Americans. While educational reformers worked to extend the influence of public schooling, the fruits of their efforts seem to have eluded at least one important segment of the population: African Americans. The southern states, ever conscious of the threat of insurrection, had barred even rudimentary education for slaves and increasingly, from the 1830s onward, passed further restrictions preventing even freed blacks from attending school. Outside the South, conditions were somewhat better, though far from ideal. While in most northern and western states blacks had won the right to attend public schools by midcentury, almost every school they attended was segregated and inferior to those available to white children. African American delegates to an 1847 convention in Troy, New York, complained that the instruction of black youth was “shamefully limited” throughout the North. Three years later, a convention of fugitive slaves gathering in Albany urged black northerners not to send their children to any school “which the malignant and murderous prejudice of white people has gotten up exclusively for colored people.” Education was “too costly,” they declared, “if it is acquired at the expense of such self-degradation.” In one school system after another, blacks petitioned for integrated and equal facilities for their children. The turning point in the fight against school segregation came in 1855 in Boston. Blacks elsewhere in New England had won the right to send their children to integrated schools, but in Boston school officials resisted such efforts until Benjamin Roberts, the father of a young black girl who had been rejected from four different primary schools, filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination. Roberts was supported in his efforts by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and the prominent abolitionist Charles Sumner, who argued the girl’s case before the court. The end of legal segregation in Boston cleared the way for similar victories elsewhere across the country.
Higher Education. Though they served a far smaller proportion of the public than elementary schools, the nation’s colleges and universities were also affected by the powerful forces transforming American society at midcentury. During the colonial period and well into the first half of the nineteenth century, colleges understood their primary mission to be the preparation of young men for careers as ministers or public leaders. These priorities were reflected in the curriculum, where a strong emphasis on classical learning and the study of Greek and Latin was evident, and in the very sponsorship of these institutions: of 1812 colleges still surviving today that were extant at the outbreak of the Civil War, 104 of them were affiliated with various religious denominations. The demand for technological and scientific knowledge, complemented by a popular backlash against the “aristocratic” pretensions of higher education, led many in and out of the academy to press for reform. College trustees feared that unless their institutions adapted to changes in society, increasing numbers of prospective students would opt for careers in business and industry, forgoing higher education completely. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute had been founded in 1824, offering degrees in engineering and the natural sciences, and its success was emulated with the appearance of Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (1854), Cooper Union in New York City (1859), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1865). Even traditional institutions such as Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth, which had earlier resisted the calls for reform, had by 1860 installed programs in the applied sciences. “Practical” education won its permanence in national life, however, with passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act in 1862, which laid aside federal lands for the support of state-run schools “where the leading object shall be … to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts.” The democratization of higher education was evident in at least one other area: women’s increasing access to college training. The female seminaries and teacher-training institutes had somewhat cautiously opened the door to higher education for women, and Oberlin College’s inauguration of a coeducational policy in 1838 marked an important advance, but it was not until the 1850s that coeducation gathered momentum. Genesee College (later Syracuse University) was founded as a coeducational institution in 1850, followed by Antioch in 1853 and the University of Iowa seven years later. In 1859 Elmira College in New York became the first women’s college to award a baccalaureate degree to women. Although college education remained out of reach for the vast majority of Americans during this period, the practical needs of a rapidly industrializing society and the spirit of reform had decisively altered the mission of higher education and laid the foundations for broader access in the future.
A System of Public Education. “By 1870,” a chronicler of the common-schools movement observed, “the pendulum had swung from no system to nothing but system.” Another observer, this one a European visitor, was similarly struck by the “system of free schools” he found in America. “In place of a few casual schools dotted about town and country,” a historian of American education has remarked more recently, there arose in the second half of the nineteenth century “true education systems.” Rather than the laissez-faire approach which had been established in the early years of the American republic, new circumstances between 1850 and 1877 seemed to demand that the state play a more direct role in overseeing the education of its young. Reformers saw a need to maintain social equilibrium in the face of growing inequalities of wealth and to preserve a common sense of America’s national identity during a period of massive foreign immigration.
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