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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
These old district schools had their supporters and produced some fond memories. They sufficed to teach rudimentary literacy to a large part of the population in a basically rural nation, they accommodated the seasonal need for child labor, they were inexpensive, and local religious preferences were often observed in prayer and Bible-reading lessons. Although attendance was voluntary, the sketchy figures we have suggest that more than 60 percent of school-age children went to school for some part of a term during the early nineteenth century.
This wasn’t enough for Mann and his fellow school reformers. By the 1840s the district schools seemed clearly inadequate to answer the troublesome problems that industrialization and immigration posed for the nation. Samuel Galloway called schooling in the state of Ohio “the prostrate cause.” Caleb Mills revealed the “humiliating fact” that one-seventh of Indiana’s adults were “not able to read the charter of her liberties.” In the South a report to the Virginia House of Delegates warned, “It would be a fatal delusion to suppose that under the neglect or decay of education, free institutions could preserve a healthful existence.” In North Carolina, the state with the most advanced public school law in the South, reformers complained in the 1850s that some local school committees neglected their duties and others misappropriated school funds.
Everywhere there was resistance to reform from those who opposed increased state involvement, standardization, and higher taxes. In upstate New York an opponent of reform complained that school tax laws authorized some people “to put their hands in their neighbors’ pockets.” A delegate to the Michigan constitutional convention of 1850 warned that if districts were given the power to tax residents for schools, it would endanger passage of the whole revised constitution. In Massachusetts a legislative committee complained that Horace Mann and his board of education were “the commencement of a system of centralization and of monopoly of power in a few hands, contrary, in every respect, to the true spirit of our democratical institutions.”
Burton’s teacher made him say his ABCs four times a day. “This exercise he went through like a great machine, and I like a little one.”
Among Mann’s opponents were Congregationalists who saw state regulation of education as a threat to religion in the schools. They joined in an effort to have Mann’s position abolished. Mann referred to this opposition as “an extensive conspiracy” and wrote to a friend that “the orthodox have hunted me this winter as though they were bloodhounds and I a poor rabbit.” In his journal Mann wrote, “I enter another year not without some gloom and apprehension, for political madmen are raising voice and arm against the Board.” To Henry Barnard, his Connecticut counterpart, Mann wrote, “Let us go on and buffet these waves of opposition with a stout arm.”
School reformers promised not only improved intellectual education but improved morals. They emphasized that moral training was crucial to the republican form of government and to work habits and day-to-day behavior as well. They offered to reduce ethnic and class tensions by providing a common meeting ground and a common culture. And despite a long, hard fight, determined opposition, and some setbacks, they won. Devotion to local control of schools gave way by the mid- nineteenth century to anxieties about immigration and economic change and to conflict between Protestants and Catholics. People realized that a higher level of education was needed for the market-oriented economy that industrialization brought with it. A majority of the public in the North had become disillusioned with untrained teachers, short sessions, and makeshift schoolhouses, so they voted for bigger budgets and more state involvement in supervising education.
By 1860 most Northern states had established school funds, state superintendents of instruction, county supervisors, and summer institutes for teachers. Enrollments continued to rise even though schooling did not become mandatory until the late nineteenth century. Small neighborhood school districts were consolidated under townwide school committees, and these committees gradually established longer school sessions and better schoolhouses. The public mood had shifted. The appeal to cultural cohesion and economic progress had succeeded.
There were still dissenters, of course. In the 1870s critics charged that the public schools had not made good on their promises of moral education. Bribery, divorce, crime, disrespect for parents—“this is the condition in which we are after more than half a century of experience of our public-school system,” said Richard Grant White in the North American Review in 1880. He urged the abolition of all public education above the elementary level. A few years later a U.S. Assistant Attorney General named Zachariah Montgomery wrote a book urging the same policy. Public education was a “monstrous usurpation of parental authority” and should be ended, he declared. Montgomery included testimonials from various Protestant clergy to prove that he wasn’t just a champion of Catholic schools, and he argued against the “deep-seated and constantly fomented prejudice in favor of the public-school system, which makes politicians afraid to attack the monster.”