Number Three in the History of American Education series describing how American education went over the edge of the cliff. When the history of American education is completed, other issues such as pedagogy, subject matter, who should be responsible for education, etc. will be put up for discussion.
"Education is the transmission of civilization." - Will and Ariel Durant, the man and wife team who cooperated in a multi-volume set of books on the History of Civilization
What if the longer our children stayed in our educational system, the worse off they became academically? What would that say about the transmission of our civilization?
It's exactly what's happening. At age 10, our kids ranked 8th out of the 24 nations tested, below 30% of all test-takers. Above us are Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Chinese Taipei, Latvia, England, the Netherlands, Flemish Belgium, and the Russian Federation. While that's not so very terribly awful, given the amount of money, time and effort we throw into the system, one could not be criticized for expecting better.
By age 15, 40 nations take the test, and our kids slip to 25th place, below 62.5% of all test-takers. They have dropped behind some of the countries that they outperformed as 10-year-olds just five years earlier - Australia, New Zealand, Norway, and Hungary.
It is not an exaggeration to say that our future as a civilization is at risk because of the direction taken by our educational system. Alan Greenspan did not express "irrational exuberance" when, at a symposium in 1999, he warned that our nation's productivity, and therefore its prosperity, depends on our intellectual achievement, and that the poor state of our educational system from kindergarten through high school places our future in jeopardy.
Our students not only don't know very much, they don't understand some very important concepts. They don't understand the reasons why our country chose to declare independence; what it is that has lifted us to the heights of productivity and prosperity that we experience today; or what, besides simple overall ignorance, is putting our very existence in danger.
Have the consumers of our educational product - the parents - noticed a problem? Yes, indeed; their response has been so strong that some are calling it "the quiet revolution."
In fact, parental concerns about the quality of their children's education are so widespread that they have given rise to an entire industry in supplemental "DIY programs" for parents to use at home.
TV and radio ads assure us that help is available in the form of books, kits and workbooks for reading and math instruction for use at home. One TV ad for a reading program tried to be diplomatic about its product, saying that the schools can't be expected to do everything, as if reading were some sort of peripheral function of the educational system.
Tutorial centers such as Sylvan and Kumon are seen everywhere, and they are doing a booming business.
Summer school is in session in almost every community in the country; some summer camps include academic enrichment and "catch-up" programs along with their other, more traditional summer activities.
Private schools, both parochial and secular, have high application rates, and many have long waiting lists. In some places, desperate parents apply to the most highly regarded pre-schools while the mother is still pregnant with the prospective student!
Home schooling, once regarded as being of interest solely to the "religious fringe," is now the fastest growing segment of education in the general population, and it has a vast network of support services, including lawyers.
A controversial movement promoting tax-paid vouchers to allow children to leave the government school system to attend private schools gains momentum every year.
"Magnet" and "charter schools," although run by the government, are being allowed to introduce new courses and teaching methods in an attempt to see what can be done.
Relaxation or even complete dissolution of "districts" that confine students to a particular school are being experimented with.
We know our children are in trouble, that our teachers are in trouble, and that our schools are in free-fall. Can "the quiet revolution" do anything to make things better?
George Santayana, the Spanish-born American philosopher, had some good advice for us: "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
If we look at the history of our system, then we can look for mistakes we have made, and what we learn can help us have a better chance of correcting them.
Our system arose out of a "Perfect Storm" of sorts when three major events collided: 1) The Protestant Reformation, 2) the Romantic Movement, and 3) the work of Sigmund Freud.
The story of each is a little long, but well worth the telling because of the lessons they contain.
What was the role of the Reformation? It gave us the form and fundamental goal of our current system.
Martin Luther (1483 - 1586) was an Augustinian friar who taught philosophy and theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. Riding the general wave of philosophical restlessness that had ushered in the Renaissance, he posted some of his views on the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517.
Luther's chief argument with the Catholic Church was his contention that the faithful did not require priestly intermediaries to gain salvation; they could win entrance to heaven on the basis of their faith alone, and interpret doctrine and the Bible independently. While there was some support for his views, there was also a lot of high-powered opposition to them. Luther realized that if his ideas were to "stick," he would have to influence a large portion of the population very quickly.
To this end, in 1524, he wrote to the rulers of several German states, and asked that they establish a system of tax-supported schools with compulsory attendance where Lutheran piety would be a required part of the curriculum; he maintained that state control of education of education, rather than individual control, was necessary because of the unreliable whims of the parents. In order to assure compliance, truant officers were hired, and any children not attending the new schools were told they were in danger of eternal damnation. By 1527, the system was underway, and Lutheranism's place in history was assured.
Luther and the Reformation introduced the idea of widespread government-controlled education for one purpose, and that was to compel belief and suppress dissent. At the time he did this, he assumed that since the civil authorities - the rulers - considered that they derived their power from God, and were God's representatives on earth, the schools - and the educational agenda - would remain forever under the strong influence and control of religion.
The initial response by both ecclesiastical and civil authorities to Luther's heresies was quite mild, and the movement spread largely unimpeded. But on the morning of October 18th, 1534, in (still largely) Catholic France, Parisians and other northern Frenchmen awoke to placards posted with "no more Mr. Nice Guy" statements condemning the Eucharist, calling the mass "an insufferable abuse," etc. That's when things got more serious; some of the Protestants were burned at the stake, some were exiled, and armed conflicts between groups holding different views, including different Protestant sects, began to break out.
Jean Cauvin, whom we know as John Calvin (1509 -1564), was one of the lucky ones who was exiled instead of burned. In 1536, he published a work called The Institutes of the Christian Religion while in Basel, Switzerland. His goal was to establish a new, more godly society, and his book was considered the second most influential one, after the Bible, on Protestanism in all of France.
In French-speaking Geneva, where the population was especially dedicated to the idea of independent study of Scripture, Calvin's work ended up instead establishing a rigid theocracy where it became a crime even to stay up after 9:00 pm.
The Calvinists and the Lutherans grew so far apart in their views that they ultimately despised each other. Michel Montaigne, the humanist French Renaissance scholar who popularized the writing form known as "essays," traveled about Europe during 1580-81 in search of a treatment for kidney stones, and kept a journal of his experiences. He was interested in everything, including the religious beliefs of everyone from Lutherans to witches. When he had a conversation with a Lutheran pastor in Germany, he recorded in his Travel Journal (not published until 1774) that the pastor had said he would rather "celebrate the mass of Rome than so much as walk into a Calvinist service."
It was initially thought that Luther's concept of the freedom of the individual to decide for himself how to interpret doctrine and the Bible would launch a whole new era of tolerance. Such was not the case, however, and active suppression of dissenters began among the various groups.
Primarily under the influence of Calvin's writings, the new movement took root in England, where the Church of England had already split from the Catholic Church during the reign of Henry the VIII. There, a group calling themselves "Puritans" thought that the Church of England was little better than the Catholics; they acquired the name "Puritan" because of their desire to "purify" the church and their own lives.
The Puritan's belief was that the Bible was God's true law, and that it provided a complete plan for life. Their interpretation of Scripture was strict and harsh. God had already determined who would enter heaven and who would go to hell, and no one knew what his own fate was, and there was nothing anyone could do to change it. The devil was behind every deviation from Puritan belief, and conversion, which they regarded as a rejection of "worldliness," was the Puritan goal. Their ministers gave eloquent "fire and brimstone" sermons warning the congregations of the dangers of the "world." Since music was thought to induce a "dreamy" state that interfered with worship, it was forbidden, as were drama and erotic poetry. What was permitted was the writing of religious poetry and, oddly enough, the study of pagan classical authors such as Cicero, Virgil, et al., whose works were studied in Latin and Greek. Another contradiction was the fact that the very worldly practice of hard work, which led to the acquisition of wealth, was regarded as an honor to God, and the very worldly wealth acquired thereby was one's reward for such piety.
The failure of those to convert to Puritan views often had lethal consequences. While they said that God could forgive anything, man could forgive only a change in behavior. For them, actions truly spoke louder than words, so actions were strictly controlled.
The struggle between the Puritans and the Church of England erupted into a civil war; under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, the Puritans won a brief victory over the Crown's forces, but then lost power; their situation after that was unpleasant, and it precipitated their departure to the New World, where they could practice their beliefs without interference.
They considered that they were creating a model religious commonwealth in the wilderness, a "good society" (meaning a well-ordered religious society that would be a model for the rest of the world and win God's approval). In 1630, early Puritan leader John Winthrop told the colonists "We must consider that we shall be as a 'city upon a hill,' the eyes of all people are upon us."
The Puritan colonies had a significant effect on the course to be taken by education in the New World, and it is from them that most of the traditional American educational practices have come.
When they settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Puritans took with them one Lutheran idea that they thought was especially worthwhile, and that was: tax-supported, compulsory education was the most effective way to establish a common belief system, suppress conflicting ideas, and thereby achieve social stability. For Puritan New Englanders, education was an instrument of religion, and its agenda was to continue to further the "purification" of the church and society.
In 1635, the Roxbury Latin School was established as the first formal school. A year later, in 1636, Harvard College was founded by a vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. One of the reasons for the establishment of Harvard was to educate future Puritan leaders on their home turf. A significant part of the reason for the desire to keep the kids at home was because the world was still experiencing the effects of the Little Ice Age, and Europe was frought with civil disorder, starvation and disease. The colonists did not want to subject their children to those dangers by sending them back to Europe for higher education.
Not all Puritan children attended the Roxbury Latin School or Harvard. Because of the immense need for skilled labor in the colonies, many children were apprenticed out to masters for a seven-year period to learn a trade; in addition to the skills of the trade, their masters taught them basic reading and writing. Soon, though, the labor shortages caused the apprenticeship to be shortened, with the consequence that the apprentices didn't learn as much reading, writing, and Scripture as desired by the colonial leaders.
Two laws were passed to remedy that situation.
The first law about education in the colonies, the Massachusetts Law of 1642, was passed because of complaints about the failure of both masters and parents to properly teach their charges "to read and understand the principles of religion and the capital laws of this country."
Five years later, in 1647, this theme received even greater attention when the "Old Deluder Law" was passed, requiring each municipality in Puritan New England to establish its own tax-supported school with compulsory attendance and mandatory curriculum. The law was so-named because it opened with the words, "It being the chief project of Old Deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures..." Thus, the tax-supported, compulsory system of Luther became the law in the colonies.
While apprenticeships continued as the chief source of education for most boys, communities with at least 50 households were also compelled by law to hire for a teacher to give separate instruction in reading and writing; in communities with 100 households, a community-supported grammer school was established. By 1700, 39 such grammar schools had been established.
The "reading and writing schools" (sometimes called "petty schools") were just that, and limited almost exclusively to reading and writing, with very minimal attention to ciphering. It was the children of the relatively poor families who attended them.
Children of the families who could afford it (merchants, the clergy, lawyers and the like) avoided the public schools, and attended instead the private "dame schools," so-called because this was how an educated widow could earn a living, usually in the living room of her own home. After that, wealthier families sent their children on to the grammar schools for another seven years of instruction.
The curriculum in the grammar schools was broader and more rigorous; more advanced reading and writing, as well as arithmetic and the Greek and Latin classics were taught. They were intended to prepare the students to follow in their families' leadership footsteps. Poor families often found it necessary to stop their children's formal education at the end of "petty school" to allow them to devote full time to an apprenticeship so they could earn money to help support the family.
A problem arose in 1641. The problem was that the instructional texts that were used in the schools had been published in England for the previous hundred or more years, and had orginated not as textbooks, but as manuals for church services. The catechism (a list of questions with prepared answers) in them conflicted with Puritan beliefs. The General Court in the Massachusetts Bay Colony ordered the church elders to rewrite the texts to contain a catechism for their own children. The product was the New England Primer, and while the law mandating it was passed in 1641, the first edition was not thought to be completed and printed until 1687.
The New England Primer remained the most heavily used schoolbook in America for about 150 years, selling around 20,000 copies annually, and ultimately reaching a total sales of over 3 million copies. It reflected the emphasis on religion and the authoritarian approach of Puritan education. The first verse that the child was required to memorize was: "I will fear God, and honour the KING. I will honour my Father and Mother. I will obey my Superiors. I will Submit to my Elders." This verse was followed by "an Alphabet of Lessons for Youth," which was a list of statments with religious maxims for the student to memorize - "A In Adam's Fall We Sinned All. B Thy Life to Mend This Book (the Bible) Attend," and so on.
Other lessons included the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the speech given to his children by John (aka "Thomas Matthews") Rogers in 1555 as he, the first to be executed by Queen (aka "Bloody") Mary, was about to be burned at the stake. His crime was having helped publish a Bible in English (which later evolved into the Authorized King James' Version) and having denounced the Catholic Church while serving as "divinity lecturer" at St. Paul's Church in Smithfield, England.
Unlike England, educational levels in the New England Colonies were not a closed system; while different curricula prepared the students for different courses in life, the social and class lines were blurred and often crossed. Poor students often advanced to higher levels despite their humble births, and wealthier students sometimes just didn't make the cut, and had to rely on other, less profitable means to survive. Talent appearing in students born into families of different social status could not be wasted by rigid class structures, so "upward mobility" (as well as "downward") became common.
The New England Colonies' most important goal was to maintain Puritan belief and establish social stability by training their citizens to be compliant and to submit to the laws of religion and government. The means by which this agenda was achieved was to bring the educational system under the control of government, which in turn was an instrument of God.
So it was that the Reformation, via the Puritans, brought to America the practice of government-controlled schools with compelled attendance and a fixed curriculum designed to implement government policy by training the students to be compliant and subserviant to authority.
This system did not take root in the rest of the colonies for many years, and largely - if not totally - because of this, the thinking that led to the decidedly not subserviant American Revolution was able to take place.
While many of us tend to think that our system was the "norm" in the United States right from the beginning, it wasn't until about 75 years, more or less, after the American Revolution that this system began to escape New England's Puritan colonies to become widely established in the new republic.
The chief vector of the spread of state-controlled education was America's most famous professional "educationist," Horace Mann.