Expanding Educational Opportunities for the Masses

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Expanding Educational Opportunities for the Masses


The Kindergarten Movement. The period of 1878-1899 was marked by a tremendous growth in the types and numbers of educational institutions available to the public, ranging from nursery schools to new high schools. For the youngest learners, determined women educators worked during the 1880s and 1890s to establish kindergarten and to effect a revolutionary change in attitudes toward young children. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, the daughter of two teachers at Phillips Andover Academy and the sister-in-law of the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, led a campaign to popularize the kinds of kindergartens she had discovered while traveling in Germany to observe the work of innovator Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel. The schools were based on the concept of play and exploration. The children were provided with malleable equipment, such as Peg-Boards, perforated cards for wool embroidery, and soft balls. The walls were covered with pictures appealing to children, and the kindergartners played games and sang songs. This play school approach was contrary to the typical schoolroom of the day where children were expected to sit in rows and recite memorized facts.

Kindergartens Move West. Peabody, who personally financed thirty-one kindergartens in New England, established a training facility to provide instructors who understood Froebels educational theory and practice. Her lectures in the Midwest inspired Susan Blow in Saint Louis, who convinced the superintendent of schools, Dr. William T. Harris, to start the first public kindergarten in the United States. By 1880 fifty-eight public kindergartens had been established in the Saint Louis schools. In 1888 Dr. William Hailmann of the LaPorte, Indiana, public schools established public kindergartens there; his wife, Eudora, ran a training school for kindergarten and primary-school teachers from 1885 to 1894. The movement for free kindergartens was also quite active in the West, where San Francisco was an influential center of training under the financial support of Phoebe Hearst, the mother of William Randolph Hearst. By the end of the century a significant number of communities became convinced of the benefits of early childhood education, and kindergartens gradually became part of the public education system.

Elementary Schools. The larger percentage of children entering the public primary schools during this period had little time for play or exploration. Their primary curriculum consisted mainly of the study of words for the purposes of learning reading and spelling. The mathematics by which their minds were to be trained had little relation to the kind of arithmetic needed in the world. The study of grammar did little to improve use of the language but did much to prevent development of an appreciation of literature, as a teacher of the day put it. Of the fifteen million students in average daily attendance during the year 1897, the typical elementary school student attended a one-room school and was taught by a young woman who had little if any training beyond the elementary subjects herself and who was paid a total income of less than $300. There were compulsory attendance laws in thirty states, in one territory, and in the District of Columbia. The usual age of compulsory attendance was from eight to fourteen.


In the 1870s some scientists developed theories that endangered the progress of female higher education. Darwinian evolution relegated women to a permanently inferior condition, both physically and mentally. However, the most famous attack carne from retired Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Edward Clarkes Sex in Education (1873), case studies of seven Vassar students. Clarke concluded that if women used up their limited energy on studying, they would endanger their female apparatus. A girl could study and learn, he believed, only by risking neuralgia, uterine disease, hysteria, and other derangements of the nervous system. This medical verdict confirmed folk wisdom that the female brain and body simply could not survive book learning. The book went through seventeen printings and was widely discussed by the educated public. As a result, many women doctors and social scientists began studies that could possibly refute Clarkes findings. Dr. Mary Jacobis essay The Question of Rest for Women During Menstruation, which won the Boylston Prize at Harvard in 1876, was one of the many articles published disputing Clarkes conclusions. By 1885 the excitement over Clarkes book had largely subsided and a survey of coeducational institutions emphasized the positive effects of coeducation on both females and males.

Source: Barbara Miller Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), pp, 5457

Corporate Schooling for Young Workers. Some of the burgeoning industries of the late nineteenth century discovered that their young, elementary school-educated workforce needed further education. Many corporations developed fullfledged schooling programs for employees. These programs, in trun, became models for the public school since the factory system made direct demands on the schools to produce workers with the correct social attitudes and skills. During the 1890s the National Cash Register Company, Heinz, Sherwin Williams, and the major railroad companies organized libraries for their workers and provided classes as well. The large retail houses, notably John Wanamakers store in Philadelphia and E. A. Filenes of Boston, organized a corps of teachers who taught mandatory classes for all workers younger than the age of eighteen during the early morning hours when business was slow. At Wanamakers, a teacher went through the daily newspaper explaining current events and answering

questions. Filenes offered employees courses in psychology, geography, health, science, and mathematics.

Secondary Education. A remarkable increase in the number of facilities and in the variety of subjects and curricula available to students occurred during the last decade of the nineteenth century. In 1890 there were a total of 4,158 secondary schools (of which 2,526 were public) in the United States. By 1900 the number had nearly doubled to 7,983, and of those, 6,005 were public schools. Most secondary schools in 1890 were still selective; only the best and brightest went beyond grammar schooling. The high school curriculum was largely academic, its program limited to English, foreign languages, mathematics, natural sciences, and history. These studies were organized into the following curricula: the Classical course, the Latin-Scientific course, the Modem Language course, and the English course. Only a few of the larger, urban high schools offered some clerical courses in 1890. However, the group attending high school by the turn of the century was much more heterogeneous in capacities and in economic and social status. To meet their needs, and the needs of an increasingly industrial society, many high schools by 1899 had introduced agriculture, home economics, and vocational studies in general. Greek, astronomy, and geology had all but disappeared from the curriculum by this time. City administrators, convinced that expanding secondary schooling would promote democratic progress, erected expensive and elaborate public buildings to house their new high schools. Called palaces of extravagances by their critics, these solid forms presented an image of propriety and order that middle-class citizens found extremely attractive, especially when they were located in otherwise chaotic cities.


I. L. Kandel, ed., Twenty-Five Years of American Education (Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1966), pp. 225271;

William J. Reese, The Origins of the American High School (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 80103;

Agnes Snyder, Dauntless Women in Childhood Education (Washington, D.C.: Association for Childhood Education International, 1972), pp. 3148, 59, 105;

Joel H. Spring, Education and the Rise of the Corporate State (Boston: Beacon, 1972), pp. 4453.