City Schools, Country Schools

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City Schools, Country Schools


The Urban Environment. The growth of American cities dramatically affected American education during the last three decades of the nineteenth century. While children in the country continued to live in the age-old close-to-nature manner, city children were growing up in a largely new environment. An investigation conducted by G. Stanley Hall, then a lecturer in

psychology at Harvard, showed that more than half the children entering Bostons primary schools in 1880 had never seen a plow or spade, a robin, squirrel, snail, or sheep; they had never observed peaches on a tree or growing grain and could not distinguish an oak tree from a willow or poplar. In place of these traditional experiences, the city youth were more familiar with images such as paved streets, telegraph poles, and pictures of prizefighters that carne in cigarette packs. American children learning to read had completely different life experiences.

Wealthy City Schools. Urban schools tended to be much better than rural schools. The concentration of wealth and population in urban centers, combined with the stronger impetus toward reforms in teaching and learning, insured higher salaries for teachers, longer school terms, better buildings, and superior organization and methods of instruction. Some city schools became the center for new ideas that by the turn of the century would be known as progressive education. Saint Louis schools, for example, under the superintendency of William T. Harris, introduced reforms such as public kindergartens and new elementary and high school courses in sewing, cooking, commercial subjects, and the manual arts. As the curriculum multiplied, it became necessary to add a fourth year to the high school, and by 1890 most city high schools offered four-year courses. According to census figures of 1890 large cities compiled a better record of literacy, with the American-born children of European immigrants doing better at reading and writing than the white children of native parentage. Analysts of the day attributed this superiority primarily to the fact that the children of immigrants were concentrated in the cities.

Rural Struggles. In rural districts the educational picture was much bleaker. Ungraded schools were still the mie, with a single schoolmaster shepherding pupils of all ages and degrees of advancement while disciplining unruly students. The school year was much shorter than in urban areas as well. In 1891 the typical city session lasted from 180 to 200 as compared to 70 to 150 days in the country. In the northern and western United States the rural school situation was the subject of Constant recommendation by state commissioners of instruction. However, the division of meager resources among many small, independent school districts guaranteed that the rural schools would never flourish financially. In 1882 the state of Massachusetts abolished the district system, and schools began to be Consolidated, with children transported by wagons to a centrally located, graded school. Before 1898 Ohio, New York, and New Jersey I had also begun to consolidate small rural schools. However, in most other statesand especially in all areas of the Southrural conservatism was slow to yield to reform and the country schools remained in unsatisfactory condition.


The traditional, time-tested way of examining pupils knowledge of complicated grammar, vocabulary, selected prose, and facts from all the branches of study was predicated on the assumption, common among educators and the public alike, that memorizing and reciting difficult material strengthened the mind and demonstrated intellectual progress. Accordingly, more than half the average high-school student time was spent in recitations: a time for the individual simply to say aloud what he or she had memorized from texts and from lectures. Students made anywhere from three to seven daily recitations, often in separate examining rooms. This didactic method of education was prevalent in all parts of the country, even though many theorists agreed with the Maine principal who claimed that cramming is confused with education and the knowledge so gained soon forgotten, vanishing like Hamlets ghosts at the approach of dawn. What mattered was contained in textbooks, stored in ones mind, and recited to teachers. Bestowing prizes on students who excelled at competitive recitation was a standard practice. In 1880 John Swett, a principal in San Francisco, admitted that prizes and gifts are often abused as classroom stimulants, and therefore the wise teacher should check the spirit of reckless ambition in the wild race for prizes and honors. Despite his condemnation, the majority of educators and citizens of the late nineteenth century believed that because youth preferred play over study, the only way to force them to learn was through enforced recitations and/or the incentive of prizes.

Source: William J. Reese, The Origins of the American High Sckwl (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 133-138.


Ellwood Patterson Cubberley, Public Education in the United States: A Study and Interpretation of American Educational History (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1919), pp. 252253;

Arthur Schlesinger, The Rise of the City: 1878-1898 (New York-Macmillan, 1933), pp. 160201.