Kindergarten, High School, and the Land Grant College

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Kindergarten, High School, and the Land Grant College


New Horizons. By 1860 common-school advocates had put their most crucial battles behind them; the publicly supported common school had become an established institution in most parts of the country, and the initiatives that continued to draw their attention were concerned mainly with intensifying the experience of schooling: extending the annual term, keeping children in school until a later age, and regularizing attendance. But as elementary-school education came to be seen as standard across the country, educators and civic leaders began efforts to extend the common-schools ideal to younger and older Americans. It was during this period that the kindergarten and the public high school made their first appearance in American society.

The Kindergarten Movement. Like so many features of the common-school model, the kindergarten had been founded in Germany, and German immigrants to the United States played an important role in early efforts to launch it here. True to his goal of creating a childrens garden, educator Friedrich Froebel had founded the kindergarten movement on the belief that young children acquired knowledge not through being directed from above or learning by rote but in a natural way through playing games and manipulating objects. The fundamental principles of education, instruction, and teaching, he wrote, should be passive and protective, not directive and interfering. The first kindergarten in America was organized by Mrs. Carl Schurz in Water-town, Wisconsin, and by 1855 a handful of similar facilities had appeared across the country, most of them still affiliated with German American private academies. The idea, however, had already begun to attract the attention of Americans. After an encounter with Schurz and a pilgrimage to Germany, Horace Manns sister-in-law Elizabeth Palmer Peabody became the leading advocate of kindergarten education and opened a school in Boston in 1860. A kindergarten, she wrote, is children in societya commonwealth or republic of children. . . . The movement continued for some time to be exclusive, with access limited mainly to children of the affluent, but various articles in American journals, including one in Henry Barnards influential Journal of Education, gave the experiment a wider audience. In 1873 Saint Louis became the first city to include a kindergarten as part of its public school system. In his appeal to the local school board for funding, Superintendent William T. Harris emphasized a new usefulness for the kindergarten as an instrument of social reform. Troubled by the same concerns that dominated discussion of public education generallythe problem of poverty and its threat to social stability, mass immigration and its challenge to national

identityHarris favored early education as a means of saving the urban poor from all manner of corruption and immorality.

High Schools. The development of high-school education followed a very different path. The 1850 census reported that there were some 6,085 private academies then in existence across the United States, most of them unregulated and with curricula that varied enormously. These were privately controlled tuition schools catering mainly to the sons of middle-class families. Sometimes referred to as peoples colleges, they represented the highest stage of education that most of their pupils would attend; only a minority would go on to seek college degrees. The decline of the private academies after 1855 was a measure not of the failure of secondary education but of its growing popularity. Beginning, characteristically enough, in the industrial Northeast, middle-class city dwellers began to demand tax-supported schools that would perform the same function as the academies, and the subsequent rise of publicly funded high schools made it impossible for private academies to compete. The new development was not without its critics, however. In a period when, for various reasons, many younger children were unable to attend even elementary school on a regular basis, high-school education was seen by many as a luxury that did not merit public support and even, by some, as a subsidy for children of the wealthy. Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, Saint Louis citizens battled over high-school funding, with opponents terming the curriculum overly aristocratic. What do we want of a High School to teach rich mens children?, asked critics of the idea in Norwich, Connecticut. In Beverly, Massachusetts, working-class residents, emboldened by their participation in a shoe strike, voted to close down their high school at a town meeting in March 1860. Although the modern high school had its origins during this period, and in the academy movement that preceded it, considerable obstacles had to be overcome before it would be accepted as a necessary part of growing up in America. It was not until well into the twentieth century that a majority of young Americans would attend high school.


There is a kind ofthing done in Kindergarten, which retains the best characteristics of childish play, and yet assumes the serious form of occupation. . . . Everybody conversant with children knows how easily they will make believe, as they call it, . . . out of any materials whatever; and are most amused, when the materials to be transformed by their personifying and symbolizing fancy are few, for so much do children enjoy the exercise of imagination, that they find it more amusing to have simple forms, which they can make believefirst to be one thing, and then anotherthan to have elaborately carved columns, and such like materials, for building. There is nothing in life more charming to a spectator, than to see this shaping fancy of children, making everything of nothing, and scorning the bounds of probability, and even of possibility.

Source: Elizabeth P. Peabody, Guide to the Kindergarten and Intermediate Class (New York: E. Steiger, 1877), pp. 4347, 5253.

Land Grant Colleges. Prior to 1860 twenty-one public universities had been established in twenty states across the United States. Most had benefited from state funding; those in the western states had been made possible by federal land grants. But passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act in 1862 paved the way for a much more extensive system of public higher education. Originally introduced in Congress in 1857, the bill had been vetoed by Democratic president James Buchanan as a violation of states rights and a dangerous precedent for federal aid to education. The final version of the act provided each loyal state in the Union with thirty thousand acres of public land (or its equivalent in funding) for each senator and representative serving in Congress. The schools to be established on the land were to emphasize agriculture, home economics, engineering, and mechanical arts. Although sectarian institutions and private colleges opposed the bill, the Morrill Act passed both houses of Congress and spurred the growth of large state universities in the Midwest and West. While some land-grant colleges were associated with public universities already in existence, such as Michigan State (1855) and Iowa State (1858), others became the basis of a new state system of higher education, such as Purdue University in Indiana (1865). Throughout the remainder of this period the land-grant colleges remained fairly modest institutions, frequently consisting of a single professorship in agriculture or perhaps a summer course, but like so many innovations during this period, they played an important role in laying the foundations for the fully developed system of public universities and vocational schools that would emerge later.


Susan E. Blow, Kindergarten Education, in Education in the United States, edited by Nicholas M. Butler (New York: Arno, 1969);

Carl F. Kaestle, Education and Social Change in Nineteenth Century Massachusetts (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980);

Michael B. Katz, The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth Century Massachusetts (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968);

Marvin Lazerson, Urban Schools and Reform: Kindergartens in Massachusetts, 18701915, in Education in American History, edited by Michael B. Katz (New York: Praeger, 1973);

Selwyn K. Troen, The Public and the Schools: Shaping the St. Louis System, 18381920 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1975).