By Thomas Ultican / Tultican
The unprecedented development of a pan American public education system arose between the end of the Revolutionary War and the beginning of the Civil War. In Democracy’s Schools, Johann Neem explains the origins of the egalitarian spirit manifested in the uniquely American system, the system’s rapid development from the bottom up and he presents evidence about ideological debates that are still unresolved in the twenty-first century. These explanations are informed by impressive scholarship.
Massachusetts philosopher and Unitarian church minister, William Ellery Channing, had a profound influence on egalitarianism in public education. He believed that within each person were “germs and promises of growth to which no bounds can be set.” Everyone was seen as inherently equal and deserving of education that develops the capacity for creating “self-culture.” Neem paraphrases Channing, “To educate some for work and others to appreciate beauty was to commit a crime against human nature.”
Neem states, “Nobody made the case for self-culture more strongly than Horace Mann.” Mann trained as a lawyer after graduating from Brown University. “In contrast to Democrats like Andrew Jackson, Whigs like Mann believed that the state had an obligation to improve individuals and society by developing their moral, intellectual, and economic potential.”
Mann’s wife of two years died in 1832. His deep depression caused good friend Elizbeth Peabody to introduce him to Reverend Channing. The reverend had a profound influence on Mann’s understanding of education. When Massachusetts established a board of education in 1837, Mann became its first secretary.
The establishment of public high schools exposed deeply held difference about education. The common schools which educated through the equivalent of middle school were rapidly embraced. With Mann leading the charge, they were adopted in one community after another. However, many Americans did not trust reformers calling for the establishment of public high schools. They wondered if higher education wasn’t just a way to justify elite privilege.
To reformers, public high schools would expose the most talented children to the kind of education that had been the exclusive heritage of the wealthy. However, their arguments did not prevail, and the public high school development advanced slowly. Neem reports, “by 1890, only 6.7 percent of fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds were enrolled.”
Writing about the “overlapping consensus” for public education, Neem says,
“Since its inception, American public education has served many masters. It sought to educate citizens, to promote self-culture, and simultaneously to prepare people for success in the workplace. The public schools reflected the complicated aspirations of policy makers, education reformers, citizens, parents, teachers, and students. In America, schools benefited from an overlapping consensus in which the various stakeholders did not always agree on why schools existed but agreed that they ought to exist. This overlapping consensus fueled the dramatic growth in public school enrollment between the Revolutionary and Civil War.
“But since Americans did not always agree on the purposes of education, public schools also generated intense political conflicts. Perhaps for most Americans, schools were practical institutions. They gave young children basic skills, reinforced the community’s morals, and prepared them to be citizens and productive members of society. But to reformers, public schools would also elevate the human spirit. To do that, the following chapters argue, reformers sought to transform the content of curriculum and how teachers taught and ultimately, to make public schools free and universal.”
Jackson to Trump 200 Years; Same Dynamic
I agree with Newt Gingrich (a politician named after a salamander), the first Democratic President, Andrew Jackson, and today’s insurgent Republican President, Donald Trump, have commonality. In 1828, Jackson, one of the largest slave owners in Tennessee, became the champion of the common man against elites. In 2016, Trump, the wealthy New York real estate developer, cultivated the aura of a champion of the common people fighting against elite privilege.
In 1818, education reformers were pushing for liberal education for all free children. University of North Carolina President, Joseph Caldwell worried that many Americans had “become avowed partizans of mental darkness against light” who were “glorying in ignorance.” Jackson’s supporters did not trust elites and thought classical liberal education was old fashioned and elitist. They wanted just the basics of reading, writing and mathematics. These sentiments and concerns are still heard today.
Channing taught that the purpose of education was to develop human beings in God’s image. His protégé, Horace Mann, was attracted to the new “science” of phrenology. Phrenology conceived of the brain as malleable which gave Mann added confidence concerning the value of universal education. In some ways, today’s standards and testing are the modern equivalent of phrenology; uninformed, potentially harmful yet a policy guide.
An enduring tenet of American public education was championed by Ohio’s superintendent of schools. He argued that both girls and boys were endowed with the faculties “of memory, of reason, of conscience, of imagination, and of will” therefore, school must ensure “all of these are to be developed” in both sexes.
It was widely believed that self-control was the key for education to cultivate the best within us. “Otherwise, people would not be free, or self-made, but remain an unformed bundle of impulses with no ability to resist immediate temptation.” There were to be no excuses. Discipline was the precondition to freedom and a key purpose of education.
The first development in a new American community was invariably the establishment of a school. Community members naturally accepted that their religious beliefs would be reinforced at school. Neem described the understanding, “A good education required shaping character, and this required religion.” However, efforts to accommodate all faiths meant eliminating those ideas that were not common. The American Sunday School Union questioned the public schools’ determination “To Diffuse Knowledge without Religion.”
In a heated debate with Frederick Packard, American Sunday School Union Corresponding Secretary, Horace Mann upheld non-sectarianism. Packard responded that Mann’s non-sectarianism reflected the sectarian principles of his own Unitarian church.
Neem shares, “The Sunday school movement emerged in order to ensure that young Americans would receive the religious education that they did not get in common schools.”
The belief that Christianity belongs in the public education curriculum is still strongly embraced by some sectors of today’s pluralistic society*. In 2001, Dick and Betsy DeVos answered questions for The Gathering (video) where Dick complained that church has retreated from its central role in communities and has been replaced by the public school. He said it is our hope “churches will get more and more active and engaged in education.”
*Betsy DeVos while channeling Margret Thatcher claimed there is no such thing as society.
Development and Pedagogy
There was a divide between those who supported the reformers’ programs and those who wanted just the basics of reading and cyphering. Better-off farmers were generally in favor of liberal education including studying the classics. Poorer citizens had a tendency to embrace the less costly and more practical basics only. Neem reports, “Because of their political power and the way the tax burden fell largely upon them, slaveholding elites spread an antitax gospel to convince ordinary whites that taxes were a bad thing.” Today that same gospel is advocated by wealthy elites in America’s two major political parties with a more determined effort coming from conservative funders. (emphasis added)
America’s schools were a battlefield. Violence was used as both a method of discipline and motivation. Lessons were almost exclusively memorization and regurgitation. If the recitation was incorrect students were regularly struck across the cheek, ear or bottom. Students often had their hands struck harshly and repeatedly for minor infractions. Harsh discipline combined with drill and skill pedagogy is still practiced in modern “no excuses” charter schools.
Reformers were convinced that authoritarian pedagogy was ineffectual. They started looking to innovations in Europe for guidance. As early as 1817, Archibald Murphey of North Carolina was informing the state legislature about new approaches to education in Europe. In 1819, a New York school teacher, John Griscom, published A Year in Europe. Both Murphey and Griscom praised the schools of Prussia and the Swiss educator, Johann Pestalozzi.
In 1843, Horace Mann married Mary Peabody and for their honeymoon they toured schools in Europe. Mann recognized that schools in democracies could not promote “passive obedience to government, or of blind adherence to the articles of a church.” On the other hand, he was enamored by the organization of the Prussian schools. Schools were divided into age-based grades to facilitate age appropriate pedagogy. Most of all Mann was impressed by the teachers of Prussia. He called for improvement in the status of the teaching profession in Massachusetts and improvement in training.
A popular alternative to the Prussian model and Pestalozzi’s views on pedagogy was Lancasterianism named for its originator, Joseph Lancaster. Neem explains the popularity of Lancaster’s approach,
“This approach had several advantages. First, it was cheap because Lancaster relied on older students to teach. Second, some considered Lancaster’s emphasis on repetition and competition to be effective. In groups of ten or twelve, led by a monitor, students drilled in reading, spelling, or arithmetic. Each day, every student was ranked publicly, motivating students to excel or, at least, to avoid embarrassment. Students received “merit tickets” for behavior and performance.”
Mann worried that Lancasterianism taught students to compete for external rewards and glory instead of developing appropriate moral character. He felt the system deprived students the benefit of a qualified well-prepared teacher. Mann wrote, “One must see the difference between the hampering, binding, misleading instruction given by an inexperienced child, and the developing, transforming, and almost creative power of an accomplished teacher.” Reminds one of Texas businessmen paying cash rewards to students for passing AP exams, the push for scripted education and Teach for America.
Mann was so taken by his European experience, that he wrote in official reports of the inspiring, engaging, loving classrooms he observed in Prussia. Boston’s schoolmasters replied that education “amateurs” like Mann rarely cared about what actual teachers might think. Neem notes, “The teachers felt insulted by Mann’s tone, which suggested that Prussia’s teachers were doing great things while back at home every teacher was incompetent.”
Reformers believed that by tapping into children’s curiosity and interest they would become independent learners. Experienced teachers knew that students also needed discipline, or they would only engage in what they liked. Educators felt that though nice to appeal to children’s moral sense still “Massachusetts was not some prelapsarian Eden.”
Maybe the blindness to practical classroom reality explains some of Bill Gates’s serial education reform failures.
Charter Schools and America’s Curriculum
After the Revolutionary War, states recognized the need for an educated citizenry and schools, but they lacked the capacity to develop and fund public education. Concurrent with building public schools, state governments also encouraged citizens to create charter schools called academies. By 1855 there were more than 6,000 of these state-chartered schools operating compared to almost 81,000 common schools. Neem observed,
“But American leaders ultimately concluded that academies were unable to meet the nation’s need for an educated public and worse, that they exacerbated the division between the haves and have-nots. In the post-Revolutionary era, Massachusetts governor Samuel Adams asserted that academies increase inequality because well-off families who sent their children to academies would be less willing to pay taxes for the state’s common schools. ‘Citizens,’ Adams argued, ‘will never willingly and cheerfully support two systems of schools.’”
So, charter schools were not an invention of Ray Budd in a 1970’s paper. They had existed since the time of the American Revolution, however, nineteenth century politicians and reformers concluded they were not a good fit for democratically sponsored education.
Reverend William Holmes McGuffey was a stern task master in the classroom. He expected good behavior and would tolerate nothing less. He also disliked rote memorization and recitation pedagogy. In the 1820’s, McGuffey wrote the first edition of his reader. Its readings were laced with moral lessons and Biblical verses. It taught a protestant ethic. Between 1836 and 1920, the reader sold as many as 122 million copies and most of these copies were used by several students. It has been said that McGuffey was responsible for “making the American mind.”
In post-revolutionary war America, large numbers of Catholic Immigrants arrived, and they did not like the anti-Catholic lessons taught in common schools. Protestants viewed Catholics as antidemocratic because of their allegiance to the Pope who opposed democratic reform in Europe. Catholics did not want their children abused in common schools. They started developing their own school system and wanted government support for their schools. This was just one of multiple pressure points creating the “Bible wars.”
The fight over religion in school became so intense that in 1876 President Ulysses S. Grant declared:
‘“Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. … Keep the church and state forever separate. With these safeguards I believe the battles which created the Army of Tennessee will not have been fought in vain.”
I have touched lightly on just a few of the early developments in public education chronicled in great depth by Neem. My main take away from this read is that in developing universal free public education in America the foundation for democracy was forged. That foundation is under attack today. Read this book and you will deepen and reinforce your own need to protect America’s public schools.