Number Six in a 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.
"The chief glory of human nature, the operation of reason in a variety of ways and with diversified results would be lost [if the state controlled education]. Every man should educate his children in his own manner to preserve the balance which existed among the several religious and political parties in Great Britain.” - Joseph Priestley
The Reformation gave us the first example of state-run schooling; the Jesuits gave us the first major overhaul in the approach to instruction; and Rousseau popularized the notion that children were different from adults and so the approach to teaching should be different too.
Rousseau (1712-1778) was not the first to recognize that children didn’t learn the same way adults did. Johann Amos Comenius (1592-1670) also understood that children depended more on sensory input and concretes in order to learn than adults do, and that children should be studied to discover the natural laws that would enable teachers to develop sound pedagogical practices.
Comenius did extensive reviews of what other educational reformers of the day had to say about educational practices, and even wrote some textbooks designed to make learning Latin easier for children. While Comenius’ textbooks enjoyed some popularity, his ideas about education itself were all but ignored for another 200 years. This had a lot to do with the fact that he was a bishop of the small but despised Moravian religious sect.
Nor was Rousseau the first to insist that the education of children should not be the same as that of adults. John Locke (1632-1704), the English philosopher whose thinking had such a profound influence on pre-Revolutionary America, lived nearly 100 years before Rousseau.
Both Rousseau and Locke rejected the concept of original sin that was embraced by religious authorities. Christianity agreed with the Platonic view that ideas were inborn, and existed in the child from birth. This notion was merged with the doctrine of original sin; since Eve had successfully tempted Adam with the idea of disobeying God’s command not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, then all their descendants were guilty of the same inherited proclivity towards evil.
It was also believed that since life on this earth was simply a stepping stone to life in the other-worldly realm of heaven, and since the body was of this earth, but the soul was not, then the body, weak in its ability to deny the material requirements for its survival, was an impediment to the salvation of the soul, and much inclined in the direction of sin. This view peaked in Calvinist doctrine, which held that the child was heavily predisposed by nature to all sorts of depravities and sinful behavior. Calvinist education therefore emphasized the potential of the child for evil rather than good, and thought that harsh treatment of the body was required to salvage the child’s soul from its natural inclination towards evil and transform him into a more God-like being.
While both Rousseau and Locke rejected the notion of original sin, their answers to the way children should be taught were very different. Rousseau, like the other Romantics, believed that the child was inherently good, and that if learning was allowed to happen without outside influence as the child developed, he would, by nature, become a good adult. Education for Rousseau was a matter of permitting the “free and unrestricted inclinations of the child.” He believed that the child should learn primarily by trial and error, from the consequences of his actions (if you break a window, you study in the cold etc.). Any initiation of instruction by the teacher was considered to “hamper” or “interfere” with this “natural” process of learning; the teacher’s responsibility was to help fill in a few gaps here and there.
Unlike Rousseau, Locke believed that the child was born neither good nor evil, but with respect to both knowledge and morality, the child was “tabula rasa,” a “blank slate.” Like Rousseau, he believed that knowledge was acquired via the senses and concrete perceptions of the world, but unlike Rousseau, he thought that it was a waste of time for the child to have to discover knowledge anew every generation. To avoid this delay was the function of the teacher - to help pass along as much knowledge as possible from previous generations. Unlike Rousseau’s idea that the child’s education was simply a process of “unfolding,” and that the child should learn solely by discovery and experience, Locke understood that learning could be encouraged (or delayed) by teaching methods, and that an effective education came from the stimulation of natural capacities by means of direction from the teacher.
The first system of formal education in the colonies was the system originating with Luther and brought from Germany, through Geneva via the English Puritans, and practiced in New England, especially in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But there were other colonies, with other educational systems.
The system in New Netherland was modeled after the one in the Netherlands. There, the Dutch Reformed Church had established a system that met the educational needs of the commercial interests of many Dutch cities, and its schools were regarded as the best vernacular schools in all of Europe. When the Dutch East Indies Company established schools in New Amsterdam, it paid the cost of the schoolmaster, but the city paid for the schoolhouse and the teacher’s house, and overall control was administered by the government. Unlike its other European counterparts, the education of girls as well as boys was encouraged.
New Netherland and its most important city, New Amsterdam, had a diverse population; in addition to the Dutch commercial interests and the Dutch Reformed Church, there were some Puritan, Swedish, and Finnish settlements, and as a result, there was a wide variety of educational institutions. In New Amsterdam, there was a large system of private schools that dominated the educational scene until the early 1800s. They offered many subjects, including the “practical arts” and several religious interests, and so remained basically free of disagreements and quarrels about curriculum content. This system remained in place even after the British conquered New Netherland in 1664, when New Amsterdam was renamed New York.
The English colonies of Virginia were chartered in 1606, also by commercial interests, and like the Dutch, they considered themselves as trading posts in the wilderness, rather than religious communities in the wilderness. Not much thought was given to education until the arrival of families in 1609, but it wasn’t until 1620 that there were enough settlers to consider any serious attempts to establish schools. Finally, by 1622, education began to be taken seriously, and like the Dutch, the educational system in Virginia was much like the system at home.
It was laissez-faire, and developed a wide range of educational opportunities. Apprenticeships, tutors, reading and writing schools, dame schools, schools operated by different religious organizations, charity schools, and private schools were all available, in addition to opportunities for education back in England. Unlike similar schools in New England, however, they were not under government control.
The impact of the on-going intellectual/philosophical growth of the Enlightenment (about 1700-1850) and the Romantic Movement (about 1750-1820) in Europe had a major impact on ideas about education in the pre-Revolutionary period of American Colonies. The most stunning breakthrough of all was the idea that freedom of ideas is essential for the advancement of society. English thinker Joseph Priestley was vehemently opposed to government control of education, saying that state-controlled education would be more committed to instilling a particular set of religious or political principles than to training the mind for the free use of reason.
In England, the idea of the freedom of thought was promoted through the formation of “dissenting academies.” These academies served those whose ideas “dissented” from the major religious and educational institutions in England, and grew quickly after Oxford and Cambridge were closed to those whose ideas that did not conform to their own.
The academy concept was brought to the colonies, where it provided an alternative to the purely classical education of the grammar schools, and became the forerunner of today’s high school. Instead of the strong focus on Greek and Latin literature and religious and civic duty, it also included “practical” education about the explosion of knowledge in the sciences and technology.
The concept of the right to the freedom to think was considered so critical by the Founding Fathers that it was incorporated into the Constitution as the First Amendment. Thus it was the “opening salvo” of the Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The entire First Amendment is given over to what is considered the most important right, the right of the freedom to think, and the prohibition of government restrictions against that freedom.
One of the most important contributors to the notion that the right to think must be protected from the government was a pre-Revolutionary writer named Robert Molesworth. He studied the nature of tyranny extensively, and his book, Account of Denmark as it was in the Year, 1692, was where he commented most directly about the role of education in society. He concluded that tyranny existed wherever there was a fusion of government and religion, and that the greatest threat to the freedom of ideas existed when religious doctrine was used as a tool in education by government to justify tyranny. Molesworth said that the most important task that religion performed for the government through the education of the young was “to recommend frequently to them what they call the Queen of all virtues, Viz. Submission to Superiors, and an entire blind Obedience to Authority.”
Just as importantly, when this fusion between state and religion occurred, government was perceived as an agent of God rather than as a product of the human mind and actions, and criticism of the government was considered a sin, an offense against God, instead of honest intellectual disagreement.
The issue of whether a state religion should be established was hotly debated prior to the ratification of the Constitution. Prominent religious leaders and fundamentalist Christian delegates alike ultimately recognized that if any religion harnessed to itself the power of government, the temptation of that religion to impose its views on others would inevitably occur; so, with the approval of 100% of the delegates, it was voted to specifically prohibit the establishment of a state religion. In addition, while some of the Framers of the Constitution thought limited state support of education, at least enough to provide basic lessons in reading and writing, might be a good idea, education was also excluded from the Constitution as an inappropriate function of government, one which could be a powerful means of interfering with the freedom to think.
By these exclusions, the government was prevented in any way from restricting the freedom of the citizen to think.
In the immediate post-Revolutionary period in the new United States, there were basically two views of the role of education in society in the brand new Republic. One was that of Scottish-educated physician Benjamin Rush, who favored a view much like that of the Puritans. The rejection by Locke (and later Rousseau) of the notion that children were born innocent of sin was anathema to Rush. Children were not only born in sin, he insisted, but they were “ungovernable animals” who should be taught in government-run schools where each student could be made to become a “republican machine” that would be willing to give up ownership of himself to the state: “Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property.” He also wrote that the most useful citizens were formed from those youths who had “never known or felt their own wills till they were one and twenty years of age.” To this end, schools should be authoritarian, and allowed to use whatever means necessary to impose their wills on the students.
The “Jeffersonian view” held that schools should teach academic subjects only, and leave personal beliefs to the choice of the individual. Jefferson’s conviction that the individual should be free to think was expressed in part when he wrote, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Ben Franklin shared Jefferson’s view, and was a strong proponent of the academy movement, even before the Revolution. In 1749, he wrote "Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensylvania" that eventually gave rise the the University of Pennsylvania (which unfortunately never taught his curriculum). He was so dedicated to the freedom to think that he wanted to include "Cato’s Letters" as textbooks. "Cato’s Letters" was a series of pre-Revolutionary pamphlets (1720-1723) written by Molesworth’s friends, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, and were considered pivotal to the justification for the Revolution. “…without Freedom of Speech, Which is the Right of every Man as far as by it, he does not hurt and control the Right of another…[that] is the only check which it ought to suffer…”
Since government control over education was considered such a grave threat to the freedom to think that it was excluded from the Constitution, how was it that it made its way into the fabric of society anyway? Was the concern justified?