Education and Egalitarianism in America Essay

This essay has a total of 4771 words and 20 pages.

Education and Egalitarianism in America

The American educator Horace Mann once said: "As an apple is not in any proper sense an
apple until it is ripe, so a human being is not in any proper sense a human being until he
is educated." Education is the process through which people endeavor to pass along to
their children their hard-won wisdom and their aspirations for a better world. This
process begins shortly after birth, as parents seek to train the infant to behave as their
culture demands. They soon, for instance, teach the child how to turn babbling sounds
into language and, through example and precept, they try to instill in the child the
attitudes, values, skills, and knowledge that will govern their offspring's behavior
throughout later life. Schooling, or formal education, consists of experiences that are
deliberately planned and utilized to help young people learn what adults consider
important for them to know and to help teach them how they should respond to choices.
This education has been influenced by three important parts of modern American society:
wisdom of the heart, egalitarianism, and practicality... the greatest of these,

In the absence of written records, no one can be sure what education man first provided
for his children. Most anthropologists believe, though, that the educational practices of
prehistoric times were probably like those of primitive tribes in the 20th century, such
as the Australian aborigines and the Aleuts. Formal instruction was probably given just
before the child's initiation into adulthood -- the puberty rite -- and involved tribal
customs and beliefs too complicated to be learned by direct experience. Children learned
most of the skills, duties, customs, and beliefs of the tribe through an informal
apprenticeship -- by taking part in such adult activities as hunting, fishing, farming,
toolmaking, and cooking. In such simple tribal societies, school was not a special
place... it was life itself.

However, the educational process has changed over the decades, and it now vaguely
represents what it was in ancient times, or even in early American society. While the
schools that the colonists established in the 17th century in the New England, Southern,
and Middle colonies differed from one another, each reflected a concept of schooling that
had been left behind in Europe. Most poor children learned through apprenticeship and had
no formal schooling at all. Those who did go to elementary school were taught reading,
writing, arithmetic, and religion. Learning consisted of memorizing, which was stimulated
by whipping.

The first "basic textbook," The New England Primer, was America's own contribution to
education. Used from 1690 until the beginning of the 19th century, its purpose was to
teach both religion and reading. The child learning the letter a, for example, also
learned that "In Adam's fall, We sinned all."

As in Europe, then, the schools in the colonies were strongly influenced by religion.
This was particularly true of the schools in the New England area, which had been settled
by Puritans and other English religious dissenters. Like the Protestants of the
Reformation, who established vernacular elementary schools in Germany in the 16th century,
the Puritans sought to make education universal. They took the first steps toward
government-supported universal education in the colonies. In 1642, Puritan Massachusetts
passed a law requiring that every child be taught to read. And, in 1647, it passed the
"Old Deluder Satan Act," so named because its purpose was to defeat Satan's attempts to
keep men, through an inability to read, from the knowledge of the Scriptures. The law
required every town of 50 or more families to establish an elementary school and every
town of 100 or more families to maintain a grammar school as well.

Puritan or not, virtually all of the colonial schools had clear-cut moral purposes.
Skills and knowledge were considered important to the degree that they served religious
ends and, of course, "trained" the mind. We call it "wisdom of the heart." These
matters, by definition, are anything that the heart is convinced of... so thoroughly
convinced that it over-powers the judgement of the mind. Early schools supplied the
students with moral lessons, not just reading, writing and arithmetic. Obviously, the
founders saw it necessary to apply these techniques, most likely "feeling" that it was
necessary that the students learn these particular values. Wisdom of the heart had a
profound effect of the curriculum of the early schools.

As the spirit of science, commercialism, secularism, and individualism quickened in the
Western world, education in the colonies was called upon to satisfy the practical needs of
seamen, merchants, artisans, and frontiersmen. The effect of these new developments on
the curriculum in American schools was more immediate and widespread than its effect in
European schools. Practical content was soon in competition with religious concerns.

The academy that Benjamin Franklin helped found in 1751 was the first of a growing number
of secondary schools that sprang up in competition with the Latin schools. Franklin's
academy continued to offer the humanist-religious curriculum, but it also brought
education closer to the needs of everyday life by teaching such courses as history,
geography, merchant accounts, geometry, algebra, surveying, modern languages, navigation,
and astronomy. These subjects were more practical, seeing as how industry and business
were driving forces in the creation of the United States. Religion classes could not
support a family or pay the debts. By the mid-19th century this new diversification in
the curriculum characterized virtually all American secondary education.

America came into its own, educationally, with the movement toward state-supported,
secular free schools for all children, which began in the 1820s with the common
(elementary) school. The movement gained incentive in 1837 when Massachusetts established
a state board of education and appointed the lawyer and politician Horace Mann (1796-1859)
as its secretary. One of Mann's many reforms was the improvement of the quality of
teaching by the establishment of the first public normal (teacher-training) schools in the
United States. State after state followed Massachusetts' example until, by the end of the
19th century, the common-school system was firmly established. It was the first rung of
what was to develop into the American educational ladder.

After the common school had been accepted, people began to urge that higher education,
too, be tax supported. As early as 1821, the Boston School Committee established the
English Classical School (later the English High School), which was the first public
secondary school in the United States. By the end of the century, such secondary schools
had begun to outnumber the private academies.

The original purpose of the American high school was to allow all children to extend and
enrich their common-school education. With the establishment of the land-grant colleges
after 1862, the high school also became a preparation for college; the step by which
students who had begun at the lowest rung of the educational ladder might reach the
highest. In 1873, when the kindergarten became part of the St. Louis, Mo. school system,
there was a hint that, in time, a lower rung might be added. Practicality allowed this
change in the high school system. Schools now needed to ready the students for college --
an even higher form of education -- instead of preparing them to immediately enter the
work force.

America's educational ladder was unique. Where public school systems existed in European
countries such as France and Germany, they were dual systems. When a child of the lower
and middle classes finished his elementary schooling, he could go on to a vocational or
technical school. The upper-class child often did not attend the elementary school but
was instead tutored until he was about 9 years old and could enter a secondary school,
generally a Latin grammar school. The purpose of this school was to prepare him for the
university, from which he might well emerge as one of the potential leaders of his
country. Instead of two separate and distinct educational systems for separate and
distinct classes, the United States provided one system open to everyone... a distinctly
egalitarian idea.

As in mid-19th-century Europe, women were slowly gaining educational ground in the United
States. "Female academies" established by such pioneers as Emma Willard (1787-1870) and
Catharine Beecher (1800-78) prepared the way for secondary education for women. In 1861,
Vassar, the first real college for women, was founded. Even earlier, in 1833, Oberlin
College was founded as a coeducational college, and in 1837, four women began to study

In the mid-19th century there was yet another change in education. The secondary-school
curriculum, that had been slowly expanding since the founding of the academies in the
mid-18th century, virtually exploded.

But the voice of practicality cried out again. A new society, complicated by the latest
discoveries in the physical and biological sciences and the rise of industrialism and
capitalism, called for more and newer kinds of knowledge. By 1861 as many as 73 subjects
were being offered by the Massachusetts secondary schools. People still believed that the
mind could be "trained," but they now thought that science could do a better job than the
classics could. The result was a curriculum that was virtually saturated with scientific

The mid-19th-century knowledge explosion also modestly affected some of the common
schools, which expanded their curriculum to include such courses as science and nature
study. The content of instruction in the common school, beyond which few students went,
consisted of the material in a relatively small number of books: assorted arithmetic,
history, and geography texts, Webster's American Spelling Book, and two new books that
appeared in 1836 the "First" and "Second" in the series of McGuffey's Eclectic Readers.
Whereas The New England Primer admonished children against sin, the stories and poems in
the readers pressed for the moral virtues. Countless children were required to memorize
such admonitions as "Work while you work, play while you play. One thing each time, that
is the way."

In the early days, the common schools consisted of one room where one teacher taught
pupils ranging in age from 6 to about 13 and sometimes older. The teacher instructed the
children separately, not as a group. The good teacher had a strong right arm and an
unshakable determination to cram information into his pupils.

Once the fight to provide free education for all children had been won, educators turned
their attention to the quality of that education. To find out more about learning and the
learning process, American schools looked to Europe. In the 1860s, they discovered, and
for about 20 years were influenced, by Pestalozzi. His belief was that the goal of
education should be the natural development of the individual child, and that educators
should focus on the development of the child rather than on memorization of subject matter
that he or she was unable to understand. Pestalozzi's school also mirrored the idea that
learning begins with firsthand observation of an object and moves gradually toward the
remote and abstract realm of words and ideas. The teacher's job was to guide, not
distort, the natural growth of the child by selecting his experiences and then directing
those experiences toward the realm of ideas. The general effect on the common schools was
to shift the emphasis from memorization of abstract facts to the firsthand observation of
real objects.

Pestalozzi's diminishing influence roughly coincided with the rapid expansion of the
cities. By the 1880s the United States was absorbing several million immigrants a year, a
human flood that created new problems for the common school. The question confronting
educators was how to impart the largest amount of information to the greatest number of
children in the shortest possible time. This new, more practical goal of educators and
the means through which they attained it were reflected in the new schools they built and
in the new teaching practices they adopted.

Out of necessity, the one-room common school was replaced by larger schools. To make it
easier and faster for one teacher to instruct many students, there had to be as few
differences between the children as possible. Since the most conspicuous difference was
age, children were grouped on this basis, and each group had a separate room. To
discourage physical activity that might disrupt discipline and interrupt the teaching
process, to encourage close attention to and absorption of the teacher's words, and to
increase eye contact, the seats were arranged in formal rows. For good measure, they
frequently were bolted to the floor.

It is not surprising, at about this time, when the goal of education was to expedite the
transfer of information to a large number of students, that the normal schools began to
fall under the influence of Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841). For him, education was
neither the training of faculties that exist ready-made in the mind nor a natural
unfolding from within. Education was instruction literally a building into the mind from
the outside. The building blocks were the materials of instruction the subject matter.
The builder was the teacher. The job of the teacher was to form the child's mind by
building into it the knowledge of man's cultural heritage through the teaching of such
subjects as literature, history, science, and mathematics. Since the individual mind was
presumably formed by building into it the products of the collective mind, methods of
instruction were concerned wholly with how this was to be done. Herbart's interest lay in
determining how knowledge could be presented so that it would be understood and therefore
retained. He insisted that education must be based on psychological knowledge of the
child so that he could be instructed effectively.

The essence of his influence probably lay not so much in his carefully evolved five-step
lesson plan but in the basic idea of a lesson plan. Such a plan suggested the possibility
of evolving a systematic method of instruction that was the same for all pupils. Perhaps
Herbart's emphasis on the importance of motivating pupils to learn whether through
presentation of the material or, failing that, through rewards and punishments also
influenced the new teaching methods of the 1880s and 1890s.

The new methods, combined with the physical organization of the school, represented the
direct opposite of Pestalozzi's belief that the child's innate powers should be allowed to
develop naturally. Rather, the child must be lopped off or stretched to fit the
procrustean curriculum. Subjects were graded according to difficulty, assigned to certain
years, and taught by a rigid daily timetable. The amount of information that the child
had absorbed through drill and memorization was determined by how much could be extracted
from him by examinations. Reward or punishment came in the form of grades.

At the end of the 19th century the methods of presenting information had thus been
Continues for 10 more pages >>