Number Seven 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.
"Wherever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government." - Thomas Jefferson
The period surrounding the American Revolution was overflowing with the growth of ideas, and the ones that influenced the direction being taken by education came from many directions.
The three events that were responsible for the greatest intellectual gains after the Dark Age were:
1) the rediscovery of Aristotle's works and reason in Spain, which kick-started the Renaissance with its shift from Other-Worldly concerns to This-Worldly issues,
2) Locke's discovery that humans were born tabula rasa with respect to knowledge and morality, and
3) the formulation of the concept of rights, and the fact that they are inborn, an integral part of human nature, which led to the understanding of the importance of the right to think and, in the United States, to the subordination of the power of government to the rights of the individual.
Now, in the 50 years immediately following the American Revolution, there was another event coming over the horizon: the transition from pre-industrial technology to the full-blown Industrial Revolution.
In New England, the school system was modeled after that of the Reformation. The Calvinist system didn't fare well for long, however. This was because of rapid increases in trade and commerce, the influx of people with different beliefs, and the general increase in religious tolerance, and a need for an expanded educational experience. In fact, by 1720, with the Revolution still 56 years in the future, the number of private schools in Massachusetts was far greater than the number Calvinist tax-supported public schools; indeed, many towns had no public schools at all. With the withering away of Puritan public schools, school laws were rarely enforced.
Even the venerable Harvard did not escape the trend away from a God-centered focus; the Calvinists were expelled from power in 1805, and Harvard was taken over by the Unitarians. This change had another profound impact on American education.
The Unitarians had their origins during the Reformation, but because of some significant differences from the rest of Christianity, they were regarded as heretics and not well tolerated, except in Transylvania and Poland, where, between 1548 and 1574, they established a separate church.
The Unitarians were very, very different from the Calvinists; although their roots lay in Christianity and Judaism, they did not accept the Trinity, and regarded Jesus as completely human, not divine. Instead of looking to doctrine or some external authority for moral guidance, they relied on reason, personal experience and individual conscience as the basis of for belief, and emphasized religious tolerance, the goodness of man, and the interconnectedness of all life. They believed that "revelation" is a continuous process, and that as a result, religious wisdom is ever changing, and tended to ally themselves then, as now, with liberal social and ethical causes.
Their history was a bumpy one, and in England, even the Toleration Act of 1689 did not protect their rights to believe as they wished. The first real Unitarian congregation in England was founded in 1774, just 2 years before the Declaration of Independence, and one of its leaders was Joseph Priestley. In 1813, just 8 years after taking control of Harvard in the United States, they were legally classed as "dissenters" in England, which gave them some protection.
In the United States, the Unitarians grew out of a disagreement within the (Calvinist) Congregationalist clergy. The liberal wing did not believe in Calvinist doctrines of unconditional predestination and original sin, believing instead in free will and a benevolent God who rewarded those who led righteous lives. They rejected the idea of an unfair God who favors some and condemns the rest. Above all, they believed in the perfectability of mankind - and it was through education that much of that perfection could be accomplished.
In 1780, an effort to reverse the decline in the public schools was attempted. Massachusetts reinstated the old school laws, the special status of Harvard, and the continued interest of the state in public schooling was reconfirmed. Little came of this effort, however, and the private schools continued to thrive.
The people of Massachusetts were impressed by the educational systems in surrounding states, especially in New York. These schools were also private, offering a "common" education (a body of common knowledge) to all children, who were drawn from every socioeconomic group. Tuition was on a sliding scale, depending on the family's income.
For the children of families unable to pay anything at all, "charity schools" were provided by private associations. The "charity" movement began around 1790, and grew rapidly until the early 1800s. The most prominent of these private associations was the New York Free School Society, which was incorporated in 1805.
A system developed in 1798 by a young English Quaker, Joseph Lancaster, was so successful in London that word about it soon reached DeWitt Clinton of the New York Free School Society. Lancaster's system enabled the education of 1000 pupils to be directed by a single Master. Since he couldn't afford to hire teachers, he enlisted his brightest students to act as his assistants.
The Master sat at an elevated desk at the head of the class, where he had an unobstructed view of all the students. The student assistants, called "Monitors," sat in three rows directly in front of the Master's desk, and behind them were the pupils, gathered in three groups, with each group divided into two parts.
The Monitors received their instruction directly from the Master, and they in turn instructed the rest of the pupils. Groups of nine students at a time would present themselves to the Monitor, and when the lesson was over, they would return to the back of the room while the next group of nine went up to the Monitor. By rotating from Monitor to Monitor, nine lessons could be taught at any one time, and at no time were the pupils unoccupied.
When Clinton heard about the success of the method, he invited Lancaster to New York, and praised the system, saying "I contemplate the habits of order which it forms, the spirit of emulation which it excites, the rapid improvement which it produces, the purity of morals which it inculcates, when I behold the extraordinary union of the celerity of instruction and the economy of expense."
Lancaster's system was adopted for use in the charity schools, and in 1809, at the dedication of the new Free School Society building, Clinton said "I consider [the Lancasterean system] as creating a new era in education, as a blessing sent down from heaven to redeem the poor."
Lancaster was so successful that eventually, in 1812, he emigrated to the United States. In 1822, the state of Pennsylvania, founded by fellow Quaker William Penn, re-organized its Second School District and required the use of the Lancasterean method.
The system spread from Massachusetts and New York as far south as Georgia, and as far west as Detroit, Cincinnati, and Louisville. In 1838, Lancaster had just contracted with the New York Free School Society to introduce a method of teaching reading and spelling accurately to pupils in as little as 4-6 weeks, when while in New York inspecting one of his schools, he was run over by a horse and buggy and died. Without the careful attention of its creator, the Lancasterean method fell victim to people who were less concerned about quality than he had been, and the system faded away after about 40 years.
At around the same time, an event took place in Prussia that would also have a profound impact on American education.
After the Reformation, Luther's system of tax-supported compulsory education was adopted on a voluntary basis by many German municipalities. In 1763, Frederick the Great (1713-1786) took it much further. He believed that children belonged to the government, not to the family, and he wanted a system that would promote his view. He issued regulations requiring compulsory attendence of all children, training and payment of teachers, specifying of subject matter, and detailing how instruction should be carried out.
A year after Frederick died, a state ministry of education was established, taking the control of education out of the hands of the clergy and transferring it to the state, although religious instruction continued pretty much as before. Shortly after that, a General Civil Code made this statement: "Schools and universities are state institutions, charged with the instruction of youth in useful information and scientific knowledge. Such institutions may be founded only with the knowledge and consent of the State. All public schools and educational institutions are under the supervision of the State, and are at all times subject to its examination and inspection."
Prussia's was the first comprehensive national education plan.
Frederick's followers were corrupt and weak, and things went especially badly under Frederick William III (1770-1840). Prussia was totally unprepared for the war with Napolean, and suffered a humiliating defeat at his hands. After much soul-searching following the defeat, many reforms were instituted in Prussia that brought renewed vigor back to the nation. Part of the solution was seen in the potential for the state-controlled educational system to act as a tool for building and preserving loyalty to the state, and not simply as a means to teach loyalty to religion. To that end, education was seen by the government as deserving of a great deal more attention than it had received before.
In 1796, just 20 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, and a mere 7 years after the ratification of the Constitution, and 9 years before the takeover of Harvard by the Unitarians, Horace Mann was born into a poor family in Franklin, Massachusetts. The family was a strict Calvinist one, in the tradition of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Mann grew up listening to the harsh "hellfire and damnation" sermons of the Reverend Nathaneal Emmons.
When Mann was about 14, his 12-year-old brother skipped Sunday school to go swimming, and drowned. At the funeral, the Reverend Emmons made a mean-spirited object lesson of the boy's death, and Mann started down a path that eventually led him to reject the family religion in favor of Unitariansim.
Mann was educated in spurts of about 8-10 weeks each year. As soon as he was able to read, he began to borrow books from the library established by Ben Franklin.
It wasn't until 1816, at the age of 20, that the largely self-educated Mann began his first formal education; he entered Brown University as a sophomore, and did so well that when he graduated in 1819, he was invited to return as a tutor. He later studied law, and entered practice in 1823, and was elected to office in both the Massachusetts House of Representatives (1827) and the Massachusetts Senate (1833).
Mann had held a strong interest in humanitarian issues from boyhood; he once told a friend, "All my boyish castles in the air had reference to doing something for the benefit of mankind." While at Brown, this desire to do something to better the lot of mankind burst into flame. When he became a lawyer, and was elected to political office, he hoped that in this way he could work for the betterment of humanity.
He had many "causes," and none was dearer to his heart than the potential good that could be achieved through education. His interest was never in teaching per se, but rather, in educational policy. He took great pride in the fact that government-controlled public education in his ancestral home went all the way back to 1647, to the time of the "Old Deluder Satan" law, whereby a moral society could be made stable and permanent through education. He was very unhappy with the disinterest by the public in that the old government-controlled system in Massachusetts.
He was not alone; another reform movement got underway to try to revitalize the schools in Massachusetts. Despite his highly successful law practice and political career, Mann had been disappointed with how little he had been able to accomplish for the "benefit of mankind" with his work, so when the leaders of the educational reform movement invited him to join them, he was happy to do so.
In 1837, the governor of Massachusetts proposed the creation of a Board to study the matter and make proposals, and just two weeks after the bill authorizing the Board was passed, the movement's leaders urged Mann to accept the position of Secretary of the Board.
He took his time to think before accepting, but finally did so, saying that trying to better humanity through the law had failed because it dealt with adults whose characters had already been shaped, but there was hope in molding the child: "Having found the present generation composed of materials almost unmalleable, I am about transferring my efforts to the next. Men are cast-iron, but children are wax. Strength expended upon the latter may be effectual, which would make no impression upon the former."
The formation of the first Massachusetts Board of Education was the serious kick-off of the "common (public, government-controlled) school movement" of the decades of the 1830s and 1840s. The Board members saw the complete centralization of a government-run system as critical to the success of efforts to improve education in Massachusetts, and Mann saw it as the primary tool whereby mankind could be "perfected." Evil could be erased with education, which conquered ignorance, which in turn caused poverty and social injustice.
He was founder and editor of the Common School Journal in 1838, and published annual "Reports" on the work of the Board for each of the 12 years he served. Both of these served to promote his views very widely.
In addition to adopting Unitarianism with its belief in the perfectability of man, Mann adopted another popular notion of his day, phrenology. This also tended to support this view that through education man and society could be perfected. "Phrenology" was the belief that different "faculties" - reason, passion, appetites, morality, intelligence, imagination, etc. - resided in different parts of the brain, and when properly stimulated (as through education), each faculty would either grow and cause "bumps" on the skull that overlay the location of the particular faculty, or if not stimulated, would fail to to grow, and cause no revealing bumps.
Because of the influence of the belief of the Romantics that human beings were malleable and basically good, there was the hope that by using education to mold the child, the various desireable faculties could be promoted, and the undesireable ones suppressed, and that thus, under a government-controlled, compulsory system with a "proper" curriculum, there was a real opportunity for a "perfect society."
The Board was a sort of "Think Tank;" the members did not engage in the actual implementation of any reforms, they just analyzed and suggested. For each of the twelve years that he was Secretary, Mann issued a "Report" on the Board's findings for that year. The last of the Reports, in 1848, was a "wrap-up," a summation, of all the work that had gone before.
It was during this time that massive immigration, especially from Ireland, France, and Eastern Europe, began to flow into the United States. The entire world had felt the effects of the Little Ice Age, and in Europe, it had caused crop failures that led to starvation, disease, and civil unrest on an unprecedented scale, and millions of people sought a better life in the United States.
Immigration on such a large scale, with so many immigrants being Catholics and from cultures unacquainted with the spirit of the Founders, stirred unease in Mann. This was another area where he departed from his adopted religion of Unitarianism, which preached religious tolerance.
Mann had begun to reject Calvinism at the time the Reverend Emmons had presided at Mann's brother's funeral, and as an adult, he adopted Unitarianism, expressing the view that Calvinism had created a living hell for him, and "...spread a pall of blackness..." over life. Just a year before accepting the position as Secretary of the Board, he wrote his sister saying, "My nature revolts at the idea of belonging to a universe to which there is never-ending anguish..."
Just the same, he couldn't shake his Calvinist roots entirely. Mann's wife, Mary, wrote that although his "heart" was Unitarian, his "nerves" were still Calvinist, and while Mann campaigned against corporal punishment and other harsh treatment considered essential to the salvation of the soul by the Calvinists, and although he wanted gentler treatment of children, especially the littlest ones, and more comfortable conditions in the schools, he couldn't quite let go of the idea that we are born in sin: "From our very constitution, there is a downward gravitation to overcome...Our propensities have no affinity with reason or conscience...hence the propensities require some mighty counterpoise to balance their proclivity to wrong." He saw education as that "mighty counterpoise," and the means by which he would "ransom the human race from its brutish instincts and demoniac indulgences." This important societal feat could be accomplished only if the government had total control over the child and could compel a curriculum leading to this end.
The notion of his ancestors that a government-controlled educational system with compulsory attendance and a curriculum designed to implement policy seemed to him to be the key to the very salvation of the Republic. He thought that only by teaching a uniform belief system could the nation remain united, peaceful and stable. Again unlike Unitarianism, saw religion as the source of all morality, the King James Version of the Bible as its textbook, and a thinly disguised Protestant Christian orthodoxy as the single, unifying belief system.
The "common school movement" that favored public schools had three distinctive aspects: first, the children should be educated in a common schoolhouse; second, children were to be drawn from all ethnic, social, and religious backgrounds; third, they were to be educated with a common social and political ideology. In these respects, his proposed government system resembled the already existing private schools in New York and other states.
People in Massachusetts and the rest of New England seemed content with the trend towards private education, so something had to be done to promote the government-run system which, unlike the private system which had to respond to the desires of their constituency with a variety of curricula, could compel the teaching of a particular agenda.
A major campaign was launched to generate public support for a government-run system. Claims were made that delinquent children were running about causing problems, and that too many poor parents were unable to afford to sent their children to the private schools.
These claims stimulated the first survey in the nation. A subcommittee of the school committee looking into the revitalization proposals did a city-wide (Boston) survey to see if these claims were true. Here's what they found: About 2360 students attended the 8 public schools still in existence; however, more than 4000 students attended the 150 private schools. The survey also showed that 283 children between the ages of 4 and 7, along with 243 children over seven, attended no school at all. In sum, over 90% of the city's children attended school, despite the fact that there were no compulsory attendance laws.
Mann's manifest goal was to eliminate political and social conflict, crime, poverty, and to promote national unity. His actual goal was to create a system of education attended by all children where a common political and social ideology was taught. In 1852, in collaboration with Edward Everett, governor of Massachusetts, he supported the adoption of the Prussian system, with a tax-supported government-run system with compulsory attendance and a curriculum that promoted the government's agenda. The right to the freedom to think was among the first victims of Mann's vision of moral purity in a perfect human being.
During the colonial period the goal of education had been to train the population to understand and obey both religious and secular laws, and after the Revolution, writers advocated the use of schools to promote a responsible citizenry. The difference between these views and Mann's system was the idea of a direct link between government educational policies and the solution and control of social, economic, and political problems. Mann's concept was the forerunner of education used as a tool for social engineering.
The idea of a prosperous, crime-free, unified society with perfect citizens was an appealing one, and as the possibility that that goal might actually be achieved through a government-run system education was preached, support for it began to spread, more and more hopeful people began to demand the establishment of a government school system.
Little did they know that they were putting all their eggs in one very poorly made basket.