In hindsight, education during the American nation’s first fifty years looks like a hodgepodge. Although several of the nation’s founders urged broad access to schooling, the Constitution was silent on education.
Thomas Jefferson imagined an ambitious, multilevel schooling scheme, and the Land Ordinance of 1785 dedicated one section to schools in each future township. Some states had school funds, but no state boasted a real school system. The founders’ dreams evaporated as most Americans resisted school taxes. Better-off parents preferred private education; existing options plus apprenticeship met others’ expectations. Yet over the next fifty years or so, the attitude toward the importance of education changed, as this entry shows, and by the 1830s, the nation was primed to offer public education for all.
In early America, as in colonial days, parents taught introductory literacy, although female literacy lagged. Young town-dwelling children might attend a “dame school,” learning letters in a woman’s busy kitchen. Longer-settled areas usually offered basic public schooling. As settlement dispersed after the Revolution, rural towns split schooling functions into tiny districts of perhaps twenty neighboring families, each district possessing a one-room schoolhouse and a superintending committee.
Early public schools met for three-month summer and winter terms, since farm work dominated spring and fall. Older boys attended winter schools, while younger boys and girls could attend both, except where girls were schooled separately at odd hours. Most teachers were men, ministers or college students, with widely varying teaching abilities. Learning involved solitary memorization of Bible passages, Noah Webster’s “blue-backed speller,” and random family-owned schoolbooks, followed by recitation— not understanding or reflection. Rural schoolhouses were drafty or hot, with rough backless benches; urban schools met in any available room. Corporal punishment was common, for both misbehavior and recitation mistakes. At term’s end, “rate bills” charged parents for each day their children had appeared. Attendance was optional and spotty.
Urban education featured more private schools, although the public-private boundary blurred. Churches and philanthropic groups funded schools for the poor, including separate “African” schools. Beginning around 1810, Sunday schools targeted working children, offering literacy more than religion. In large cities, where free schooling signified genuine poverty, a motley array of academies served the majority of families. Most charity and pay schools resembled public schools in pedagogy, facilities, and teacher quality.
Since early colleges produced mostly classically trained ministers, college-bound boys studied Latin with a private instructor or attended a preparatory academy. In a few places, notably Massachusetts, towns supported Latin “grammar schools.” Girls had sparse advanced schooling opportunities; most elite girls’ academies spotlighted music, fancy needlework, and dancing.
As voting eligibility extended to men of little property after 1800, however, more Americans sought correspondingly broad educational access. The education of females gained importance from John Locke’s childrearing ideas, which emphasized children’s early impressionability, while the emerging concept of “republican motherhood” suggested that only educated mothers could raise republic-ready men of thoughtful judgment. These forces plus an increasingly complex, technical economy, demanding flexible, transferable skills and knowledge, slowly built acceptance of expanded schooling. When better schooling became more visibly useful, more parents invested in it.
By the 1810s, public and private schools began broadening their curricula. Academies offered more history, geography, modern languages, advanced mathematics, and occasionally teacher training. Boston’s English High School, founded in 1821, provided a practical public education beyond the classics. Soon academies sprouted everywhere, peaking in the 1820s, when there were perhaps 6,000 (many ephemeral) by 1850. Girls enjoyed greater access to town and private schools by 1800. A few girls’ academies rivaled advanced education for boys, and some towns added girls’ secondary schools by the 1820s. With more women equipped to become teachers (and working cheap), district schools began hiring women, at first for summer sessions, when older boys did not attend. Imported teaching methods promoted further innovation.
Meanwhile, westward migration and Protestant denominational splits helped quadruple the number of colleges by 1820. Many colleges widened their offerings, and medical and law schools multiplied. Still, no college admitted women before the mid-1830s.
By 1830, schooling had clearly gained momentum. Challenges remained: bills and work demands that shut out poorer children; inferior opportunities for African Americans; limitations on women’s higher education; unsuitable textbooks, buildings, and teachers; skimpy attendance; and skeptical taxpayers. Yet the notion that American children of all classes—if not all races—could learn together in free public schools lay just around the bend.
- Kaestle, C. F. (1983). Pillars of the republic: Common schools and American society, 1780–1860. New York: Hill & Wang.
- Madsen, D. L. (1974). Early national education, 1776–1830. New York: John Wiley.
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