During Some towns, cities, territories and states

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.

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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
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.

Early Higher Education in America

Finally, the public school movement led to the higher education movement. Though several colleges and universities were founded during the Colonial era, they were all private and exclusive.

Fewer than 10% of men were college-educated. But the rise of elementary schools created a need for teachers. Beginning in 1823, several Eastern states began operating so-called normal schools, which were 2-year colleges devoted to training school teachers. A number of these evolved into public, state universities. Beginning in 1837, several colleges for women were opened, but Oberlin College in Ohio (founded as a result of the Second Great Awakening by Presbyterian ministers) was the first men’s college to admit female students. To encourage higher education in the West, the federal government gave land to new states beginning in 1862 so that they could sell it and provide funding for colleges. These colleges are still known as land-grant institutions.

Higher education still isn’t free, but many states and organizations have taken dramatic measures to put a college education within reach, including putting lessons online. You’re participating in this right now.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. In America’s earliest days, education was left to the discretion of families and communities, and it varied widely by region. For the better part of 200 years, most American children didn’t have access to a free education. Massachusetts led the way in creating public schools to ensure that all citizens could read the Bible. The next push for public education came from Founding Fathers, like Thomas Jefferson, who believed democracy required educated voters.

Many patriots agreed, but they didn’t see this being an appropriate role for the federal government. One-room school houses popped up across the country, but it took the Second Great Awakening to give the final push for widespread educational reform. Once again, Massachusetts was at the forefront, hiring Horace Mann to standardize several aspects of the school system that were widely copied and still accepted today.American schools needed American textbooks, and men like Noah Webster filled the need with his systematic approach to spelling and inclusion of civic values.

American literary tradition developed, and the two most popular authors were Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. Normal schools for training teachers gave way to other developments in public education. Oberlin College became the nation’s first coeducational college, and with funding from the federal government, Western states opened colleges known today as land-grant institutions.

Lesson Objectives

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Understand the state of education in American prior to the 19th century
  • Identify Horace Mann and explain how he helped reform American education
  • Identify Noah Webster, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper
  • Describe the rise of colleges in America
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