Education in Early America: Birth of Public Schools and Universities

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  • 0:06 Education in Early America
  • 2:41 The Education Reform Movement
  • 3:45 An American Literary Tradition
  • 4:55 Early Higher Education…
  • 6:10 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

During the early and mid-1800s, education reformers pushed to establish free public schools throughout the U.S. Their efforts also led to the establishment of American universities and the first generation of American writers.

Education in Early America

There used to be a popular bumper sticker out there that said 'If you can read this, thank a teacher.' Ironically, thanks to modern educational developments, you probably aren't reading this lesson at all - you're just watching it. But you are trying to get a college education, which means you are still a product of the same educational movement born 200 years ago.

Public schools, as we know them today, were few and far between in the early American republic. The Puritans believed literacy was a religious duty (so that everyone could read the Bible), and most children learned basic math and reading at home.

Massachusetts law required towns with 50 or more people to have public schools for boys
Public School

In the 1700s, elite, private, grammar schools opened in New England to prepare boys to enter the Ivy League colleges, many of which are among America's most prestigious college prep schools today. Throughout the Middle Colonies, individual communities sometimes opened schools to instruct boys in their language, religion and traditions. And Southern plantation owners might hire a teacher to educate their children at home. Wealthy families from every region sometimes sent their sons back to England for school.

During the Revolution, many Americans (like Thomas Jefferson) believed strongly that education was a necessary component of democracy, but despite their arguments, not many of the Founding Fathers thought it was a good idea for the federal government to be involved in such matters. The Constitution places schools squarely in the hands of the states. Some towns, cities, territories and states began enacting laws providing education for local children around the turn of the 19th century. For example, St. Louis, Missouri opened a school in 1808, and many other localities opened their own one-room schoolhouse. But children in outlying areas couldn't always attend and poor kids might need to help provide for their families. Other places, like Georgia, began closing public schools after 1800, and it was illegal almost everywhere to educate a slave. A free, public education was still out of reach for most American children.

The Educational Reform Movement

That began to change in the 19th century. The Second Great Awakening launched many reform movements, including a push for mandatory, free, public education. Reformers taught traditional school subjects as well as moral principles and civics. In 1837, Horace Mann, the Secretary of Education in Massachusetts, began reforming the state's school system, creating grade levels, common standards and mandatory attendance to ensure that all citizens could become virtuous, educated voters. Others states copied his system, and by 1870, all states had tax-supported, locally controlled elementary schools, though attendance was usually not required. A census report indicates that little more than half of all girls attended school in the mid-19th century. But still, it was a step in the right direction. Of course, a lot of students today complain about going to school, but most Americans - even the teenagers - recognize the benefit of having a literate population.

By 1870, all states had public elementary schools but attendance was not mandatory
Public Elementary Schools

An American Literary Tradition

The education reform movement gave a voice to American authors as well. Poets and journalists emerged during the Colonial era, but most authors were still rooted in the English literary traditions. But American schools needed American textbooks. The two most successful - McGuffey Readers and Noah Webster's 'blue-backed' spellers - both took a uniquely American approach to education, mimicking the factory system: break the subject down into its most basic parts and build it from the bottom up. And both of these textbooks systematically taught cultural and religious virtues. Noah Webster is also credited with standardizing American spelling through his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language. It was also during this era that America finally produced authors that received attention in Europe. Washington Irving is best remembered for his short stories, such as 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.' James Fenimore Cooper is most famous for his novel The Last of the Mohicans. Though their works are nearly two centuries old, Americans, obviously, still enjoy these stories, considering they were both made into popular movies.

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