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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, practicality. 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 there. 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 instruction. 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
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