- Historic Sites
The Public Schools And The Public Mood
Since the birth of the nation, the public’s perception of the quality of public schools has swung from approval to dismay and back again. Here an eminent historian traces the course of school reform and finds that neither conservative nor liberal movements ever fully achieve their aims—which may be just as well.
February 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 1
The nation was barely born when critics first warned of the terrible condition of schoolhouses and the ignorance of schoolmasters. Schools were “completely despicable, wretched, and contemptible,” said Robert Coram of Delaware in 1791, and the teachers were “shamefully deficient.” Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush suggested school-improvement schemes at the state level, arguing that the fragile Republic could be preserved only by creating an intelligent citizenry. The public was not impressed, and state legislatures refused to pass school-reform bills. People did not think that government intervention in local education was necessary, and they didn’t see an urgent need for improvement. “There is a snail-paced gait for the advance of new ideas on the general mind,” complained Jefferson in 1806. “People generally have more feeling for canals and roads than education.” Thirty years went by before a successful school-reform movement blossomed.
Horace Mann, whose name became synonymous with that movement, grew up when Massachusetts was beginning to industrialize. Born in 1796 to a struggling farm family in Franklin, Massachusetts, he recalled bitterly the endless hours of work and the hellfire-and-brimstone religion of the local Congregationalist minister. When Mann’s brother drowned in a local swimming hole on a Sunday, the minister preached about the eternal damnation of sabbath breakers.
Mann was determined to escape this heartless Puritan religion and the marginal economic position of his family. Under the direction of an eccentric but brilliant itinerant teacher named Barrett, Mann put together a course of study that propelled him into the sophomore class of Brown University. A splendid record there led him to a teaching post at Brown and then to the law school at Litchfield, Connecticut. In 1827 he began his political career as a member of the Massachusetts legislature. By the 1830s Mann was a leading figure in the state senate, supporting economic development through the expansion of railroads, as well as new state institutions like insane asylums and prisons.
School reformers emphasized that moral training was crucial to the republican form of government and to day-to-day behavior as well.
Both Mann’s distaste for orthodox religion and his desire to shape the developing capitalist economy played a role in his educational views. Appointed secretary of the commonwealth’s board of education in 1837, he made public schooling his main focus and led the first successful school-reform movement in American history. When he considered Massachusetts’s tiny rural school districts and its burgeoning mill towns, Mann was alarmed by low enrollment and poor attendance, as well as by the shoddy facilities, the short sessions, and the poor quality of teachers. Like the Nation at Risk panel of the 1980s, Mann argued that failure to educate all children would sabotage American society: “Is it not a fearful thing to contemplate that a portion of our children passed through the last year without the advantages of any school, public or private? What would be said, if we saw a large portion of our fellow citizens treasonably engaged in subverting the foundations of the republic, and bringing in anarchy or despotism?”
Mann had many fellow reformers. In New York a legislative committee complained that public funds for education were “utterly wasted” because “one-third to a half of the pupils were daily absent.” A report on Albany’s schools complained of “low, vulgar, obscene, intemperate, ignorant, profane and utterly incompetent” teachers. In Vermont the new state superintendent of schools said in 1846 that schoolhouses were in “miserable condition” and that tiny rural districts were “the paradise of ignorant teachers.” All over the country the call for reform was the same. Schoolhouses were poorly built, poorly equipped, and poorly located; teachers were incompetent and lacked supervision; sessions were too short and attendance too irregular.
Memoirs that describe early-nineteenth-century district schools tell about a year divided into two terms: a few months in the winter for all the children and another in summer for those too young to be working. The students ranged in age from three to eighteen, and all studied in the same room, so teachers relied on endless recitations by small groups and struggled to keep order, some by love or persuasion, most by boxing ears and applying birch switches.
The picture of untrained, overburdened teachers struggling to maintain control and teach the three Rs by rote is confirmed in many memoirs of students as well as teachers. As a little boy in winter school in the Catskills, Warren Burton said his ABCs four times a day for his teacher. “This exercise he went through like a great machine, and I like a little one.” Otherwise Burton watched the older children, napped, and fidgeted on the hard bench. In Woonsocket, Rhode Island, Elizabeth Chace remembered that “at twelve years of age I had recited Murray’s Grammar through perhaps over a dozen times without a word of explanation or application from the book or the teacher.”