Number Eight 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 a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed." - Joseph Stalin
When the legislature of the state of Massachusetts created its "exploratory committee" in the form of the Board of Education, education in the United States stood at a crossroad; would we continue with the private system that was the prevailing one at the time, or convert to a government-run system?
We were not without lessons in history to guide us. In the 4th and 5th centuries B.C.E., Sparta had a government controlled system, while Athens' system was private.
The goal of the Spartan government was to create a class of citizens totally devoted to warfare, and virtually nothing else. Marriages between suitable young people were arranged. At birth, the infant was examined by a government official who determined whether it would be allowed to live. At seven, boys were taken from their parents and sent to a school that was nothing short of a military barracks; there, he got minimal training in letters, and apparently, none in numbers. There was no literature, art, mathematics or science. An ancient Greek critic of the Spartan system said that the Spartans were the least literate people in all of Greece, perhaps in all the world.
The result was that while Sparta is briefly mentioned in the history books, it left no lasting legacy.
Athens, on the other hand, with its private system, was the birthplace of a revolution in human thinking, a paradigm shift that produced the Golden Age. Athens' legacy was to alter the entire history of mankind forever.
When the pagan Greek philosophers were expelled from Christian Constantinople in 529 C.E., they re-established schools in the still pagan lands of Persia and Mesopotamia. As had happened in Greece and the lands conquered by Alexander the Great, great centers of learning arose. By the time Islam was invented in the early 7th century and went on to conquer these territories, the conquerers found scholarly communities that had been thriving for nearly three hundred years.
Initially there was no resistence to intellectual activity by Islam; private Muslim schools were set up, and before long, the "Golden Age" of Muslim intellectual achievement was underway. That all ended soon after the Koran was written down in the 9th century. Private education was replaced by mosque schools run by the fundamentalist religious authorities, and any threat to the status quo of Islam, such as innovation in thinking, was forbidden. Within about two hundred years, the Golden Age was over, with Islam descending into a Dark Age from which it has yet to emerge.
And so it went; wherever the freedom to think, to innovate, and to change to accommodate new discoveries and knowledge is limited by the efforts of any one group to force its views on others, competition in the realm of ideas, and human progress, slows and even stops.
Before the Declaration of Independence, the ability to read in the Colonies was already commonplace. Revolutionary hero Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" sold 100,000 copies in the Colonies, and since books were relatively expensive, these copies were passed around and read by many others.
By the time the Revolution began in 1776, the Industrial Revolution was under way, and competence in literacy and numeracy had become more valuable than ever. By the time the Constitution was drafted in 1787, literacy among free males was already at 65%, and in 1779, Noah Webster wrote his famouns "spelling book," which soon replaced the New England Primer as the textbook of choice. Webster wrote two other books in addition to the speller (a grammar and a reader), and by 1801, over one and a half million copies had been sold.
By 1831, with the Industrial Revolution running at speed, and just 6 years before the creation of the Massachusetts Board of Education, enrollment in school had increased significantly, especially among girls. Alexis de Tocqueville commented that it was rare to find anyone in New England who had not had at least an elementary education or who was not familiar with the history and Constitution of the United States. Even in his travels in the west, he remarked that even the modest homes of the pioneers usually had a few volumes of Shakespeare.
In 1837, the year Mann was appointed Secretary of the Massachusetts Board, Francis Grund made a comparison between the highly admired German schools of the time and the results obtained by the Americans' private system. The Americans were superior in reading and speaking, although they usually lacked the classical and philosophical curriculum typical of the German schools. For those Americans wishing such exposure, there were private academies in many cities and towns that specialized in these and other subjects to prepare students for classical University programs.
Between the private school system, including the charity system and a few "district" schools (which combined private with some public support such as land grants in the towns set aside for schools), the majority of children attended school without the need for the coercive mandatory attendance laws.
The private system was thriving by the time Mann was made secretary of the Massachusetts Board, with high attendance rates, high literacy rates, and high levels of parental satisfaction. The private schools offered a virtual banquet of choices for learning, and underwent rapid changes to keep up with the changing demands of the Industrial Revolution.
All of this notwithstanding, the new breed of "educationists" could not be deterred from their efforts to establish a government-controlled school system with mandatory attendance and a curriculum that advanced their vision.
And just what was this vision that they were so eager to promote, that stimulated them to displace the private system with a compulsory system?
To begin with, the first prominant educationists were from New England, and like their Puritan predecessors, had a utopian vision of a "good society" to which they were dedicated. Like Martin Luther before them, they saw education as a means to achieve their ends, their vision of a "good society," and like Luther, education was a tool. Through a universal mandatory system with a curriculum of their design, they could instill in entire generations support for their utopia.
All the educationists favored a compulsory government-run system - and they all favored the submission of the people to a ruling elite. In New England, a population already existed that had experienced an authoritarian compulsory system for nearly two centuries, so it was logical (and easy) for the educationists to begin their project there.
Shortly after the Revolution, in 1780, Massachusetts gave itself the authority to enforce compulsory attendance in its schools, and in 1789, it revamped its Colonial laws by enacting the first general school law in the country to mandate state-wide public schools. It also certified teachers and specified the content of the curriculum.
Supporters of the government schools argued, as Benjamin Rush had done, that the children were the property of the state. So said the Reverend Jeremy Belknap of New Hampsire in 1785, stating that children belonged to the state, not their parents.
The same views were expressed by a group of prominent merchants from Essex County in Massachusetts (hence called "Essexmen"). "...the people must be taught to confide in and reverence their rulers," said Steven Higginson. Johnathon Jackson wanted "habits of subordination" to a government of elite, in which he believed all political power should be lodged. He viewed society as a "family" in which the "father" should firmly rule, with each citizen "learning his proper place and keeping to it." He was distressed by the fact that the privately owned press was dependent on its readership, and advocated instead a government owned newspaper that would be independent of its readers and inculcate the "proper" virtues in them.
The "Essexmen" also thought that government intrusion into the economy was a good idea, provided that they were administered by the elite, the "natural leaders" of society. They favored tariffs, subsidies, prohibitions, licenses and more.
In 1816, Judge Archibald Douglas Murphey carried the government school idea to North Carolina, saying "...habits of subordination and obedience [should] be formed...their parents know not how to instruct them..."
Similarly, soldier-politician Samuel Smith, another voice in support of forced education, said "It is the duty of a nation to superintend and even coerce the education of children...[H]igh considerations of expediency not only justify but dictate the establishment of a system which shall place under a control, independent of and superior to parental authority, the education of children." He even proposed that it be made a crime for parents to withhold their children from government schools.
Also in 1816, Scottish-born socialists Robert Dale Owen and Frances ("Fanny") Wright advocated a "state guardianship" system of education that bore an eerie resemblance to the system of ancient Sparta. Their program said that the government schools should have the children twenty-four hours a day, year round, from ages two to sixteen. They proposed "...that all children...should receive the same food; should be dressed in the same simple clothing; should experience the same kind tretment; should be taught...in the same branches; in a word, tht nothing savoring of inequality, nothing reminding them of the pride of riches or the contempt of poverty, should be suffered to enter these republican safeguards of a young nation of equals."
Owen and Wright, like the Communists who were to follow them, saw "equality" not as equality under the law or equality of opportunity, but rather, as equality of property and wealth, and they hoped that if this kind of school could be implemented, they would achieve these goals. Frances Wright in particular was active in the "Workingmen's Party," through which association she lobbied for that goal. In 1829, newspapers published the conclusions of a committee of the Workingmen's Party of Philadelphia which repeated much of the Owen/Wright plan.
The socialist idea of "equality" was very different from that of the Framers of the Constitution; as so aptly stated by Alexis de Tocqueville, "Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: "equality." But notice the difference; while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equaliy in restraint and servitude."
By the 1830s, in direct opposition to the central idea of the American Revolution, James G. Carter, a Massachusets congressman, wrote "The ignorant must be allured to learn, by every motive which can be offered to them. And if they will not thus be allured, they must be taken by the strong arm of government and brought out, willing or unwilling, and made to learn..." Carter argued that the government shhould seize the reigns of education for its own self-preservation.
Like the other educationists, Carter's motives were very clear, and it should not surprise anyone to learn that he was one of the state legislators who lobbied for the creation of the Massachusetts Board of Education, the very one that Mann served on as secretary, to address the "problem" of education.
It was no secret to the Board and other supporters of the idea of state-coerced education that the majority of the public was happy with things as they were, and that the vast majority of people received an education. To remedy the problem - the "problem" being lack of public support for government schooling - the educationists instituted a massive campaign to win them over, often riding rough-shod over the facts.
Given the lack of citizen support and the outright distrust held by citizens for government intervention into their lives, it should be no surprise that government schooling was seen as a potential threat to liberty and the takeover by the government of what was properly the responsibility of parents. Opponents of government schooling were considered opponents of progress and promoters of immorality and destitution.
Even the education subcommittee of the Massachusetts legislature criticized the educationists' proposal for a government school system, concluding "The establishment of the Board of Education seems to be the commencement of a system of centralization and monopoly of power in a few hands, contrary in every respect to the true spirit of our democratical institutions, and which, unless speedily checked, may lead to unlooked-for and dangerous results." The majority of the committee, which was bipartisan, was convinced that a government education bureaucracy would lose touch with the people it was supposed to serve, and could easily become a tool of state-control over the political and religious thought of citizens. This being so, they called for the abolition of the Board, a measure which was narrowly defeated. Mann's response to the supporters of the measure to abolish the Board was to call them "bigots and vandals."
The educationists' campaign to gather public support was relentless. It included the establishment of a network of organizations with the intent to dominate local boards of education, an unceasing letter-writing campaign, lectures, press releases, pamphleteering, meetings, and legislative lobbying. Hundreds of associations around the country were formed to serve as "clearing houses" and discussion centers to promote their ideas, and the educationists' theories and arguments were featured in many publications such as the American Journal of Education (later the American Annals of Education), the Common School Assistant (Orville J. Taylor, editor), the Connecticut Common School Journal (Henry Barnard, editor), the Common School Journal (Horace Mann, editor), Mann's own Annual Reports and, of course, through highly-placed influential people who held positions in the schools.
Henry Barnard became secretary of the Connecticut Board of Education; another supporter, Calvin Wiley, became head of the public schools in North Carolina; supporter Caleb Mills did the same in Indiana, while another supporter, Samuel Lewis, held that position in Ohio.
The educationists did not openly call for universal attendance in government schools; that would have alienated already suspicious citizens. However, they came close, and frequently stressed the Owen and Wright ideas of "equality and uniformity." J. Orville Tayler wrote in his Common School Assistant, "Let the common school be made fit to educate all, and let all send to it."
In addition to the barrage of efforts to persuade people to adopt government schooling, the educationists never lost an opportunity to criticize, fairly or not, the private schools; such criticisms appeared almost universally in educationist writings.
Under this unremitting assault, the public slowly began to favor the establishment of "free" government-run schools that promised a superior education for all, the elimination of poverty, and end to crime, and a peaceful, stable population unified through shared values and equality.
It didn't take long for it to become obvious that Mann and his educationists had promised more than they could deliver, and the attempt to force their utopian views on the entire population was soon to blow up in their faces.
But by that time, it was all but too late; the public had already followed Mann across the educational Rubicon.