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Common School Movement

Colonial and Republican Schooling, Changes in the Antebellum Era, The Rise of the Common School

The ubiquity of "common" schools in the United States belies both the long effort to establish a system of publicly supported elementary and secondary schools and the many controversies that have attended public schools before and since their creation. The belief that public, or free, schools and pauper schools were synonymous terms, and that such schools were only for children of the poor, long hampered the acceptance of the idea that publicly supported schools could and should exist for all children, regardless of social class, gender, religion, ethnicity, or country of origin. Moreover, the European and colonial insistence that responsible parents need concern themselves only with the education of their own children through the avenues of the family, church, or the voluntary efforts of like-minded citizens only slowly gave way to the conviction that publicly supported common schools might serve all children equally, and in so doing advance the moral, social, and economic interests so vital to the nation.

The common school movement took hold in the 1830s, and by the time of the Civil War organized systems of common schools had become commonplace throughout most of northern and midwestern states. Expansion of common school systems into the southern and far-western states progressed at a slower rate, but by the opening years of the twentieth century publicly supported systems of common schools had become a cornerstone of the American way of life. However, the emergence of a system of public schools across the nation was neither an inevitable nor an uncontested movement. Moreover, its survival into the future may prove to be as problematic as was its development in the past.

Colonial and Republican Schooling

From the earliest days of American settlement, education has been a concern. Colonists up and down the Atlantic seaboard established local varieties of both fee and free schools as community conditions, benevolence, and population increase seemed to warrant. However, the Puritans who established the New England colonies displayed a special eagerness to provide for education and literacy as bulwarks against religious and cultural decline. In 1635 Boston town officials saw the need to hire a schoolmaster "for the teaching and nurturing of children with us" (Cremin 1970, p. 180). The Boston Latin Grammar School opened the next year, along with the founding of Harvard College.

Other New England towns moved haltingly toward providing support and encouragement for formal schooling in the same period. The famous Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647 reflected the urgency felt by some Puritan leaders. While not requiring school attendance, this pronouncement by the Massachusetts General Court mandated that towns with fifty or more families were to make provision for instruction in reading and writing, and that in communities of a hundred households or more, grammar schools should be established that would prepare boys for entry into Harvard College. Although noncompliance could result in a fine levied against a town, not all towns adhered to the requirements of the enactment. Throughout the colonial period, provisions for schooling remained very much a matter of local, and somewhat haphazard, arrangements.

Town schools in New England had their parallel in the form of local schools set up by transient schoolmasters and various denominational groups who filtered into the Middle Atlantic colonies and the southern regions of the country. The general attitude in many parts of the American colonies was framed by Virginia's governor, Sir William Berkeley, who in 1671 wrote that in his colony, education was basically a private matter. Virginians, he said, were following "the same course that is taken in England out of towns; every man according to his own ability in instructing his children" (Urban and Wagoner, p. 22–23).

The coming of the American Revolution and the influence of Enlightenment ideas began to challenge the laissez-faire doctrines of the colonial period, however. Recognizing that the dictum of "every man according to his own ability" might work rather nicely for the economic elite but not for the mass of the population (or for the health and survival of the emerging nation), another Virginia governor, Thomas Jefferson, took the lead in setting forth plans calling for more systematic and encompassing educational arrangements in his native state. As part of a massive reform package, In 1779 Jefferson proposed A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge. Jefferson's general plan envisioned public support for secondary schools and scholarships for the best and brightest students to attend the College of William and Mary. But the foundation of his system was basic education for the mass of the population.

Jefferson called for the division of each county into wards, or "little republics," and the creation therein of elementary schools into which "all the free children, male and female," would be admitted without charge. These publicly supported elementary schools would equip all citizens with the basic literacy and computational skills they would need in order to manage their own affairs.

Civic literacy was an essential component of Jefferson's plan. He recommended the study of history as a means of improving citizens' moral and civic virtues and enabling them to know and exercise their rights and duties. Projecting a theme that would echo throughout the common school movement in the next century, Jefferson conceived of elementary schooling as basic education for citizenship; it was to be a public investment in the possibility of self-government and human happiness at both the individual and social levels. In the words of Jefferson: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be" (Ford, pp. 1–4). In a letter to George Washington in 1786, Jefferson declared: "It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves. This it is the business of the state to effect, and on a general plan" (Boyd, pp. 150–152).

Jefferson was by no means alone in his concern over the educational requirements of the new nation. A number of other prominent Americans, some of whom differed quite sharply with Jefferson (and each other) on certain political, religious, and educational particulars, nonetheless shared his general sense of urgency regarding the necessity of new approaches to education for the new nation. A decade after Benjamin Rush signed his name to the Declaration of Independence, he declared that the war for independence was only "the first act of the great drama. We have changed our forms of government, but it yet remains to effect a revolution in principles, opinions, and manners so as to accommodate them to the forms of government we have adopted" (Butterfield, pp. 388–389). Rush called for a system of schools in his native state of Pennsylvania, and he then expanded his plan into one for a national system of education. Directly attacking the argument that any system of publicly supported schools would require a repressive taxation system, Rush set forth an argument that, like Jefferson's political rationale, would become a vital part of the movement that led to the establishment of common schools. Rush argued that the schools he was advocating were "designed to lessen our taxes." His argument merits quotation:

But, shall the estates of orphans, bachelors, and persons who have no children be taxed to pay for the support of schools from which they can derive no benefit? I answer in the affirmative to the first part of the objection, and I deny the truth of the latter part of it…. The bachelor will in time save his tax for this purpose by being able to sleep with fewer bolts and locks on his doors, the estates of orphans will in time be benefited by being protected from the vantages of unprincipled and idle boys, and the children of wealthy parents will be less tempted, by bad company, to extravagance. Fewer pillories and whipping posts and smaller jails, with their usual expenses and taxes, will be necessary when our youth are more properly educated than at present. (Rudolph, p. 6–7)

Noah Webster, whose "blue-backed" American Spelling Book and American Dictionary of the English Language did much to help define the new nation, agreed with Jefferson and Rush on the educational needs of the fragile American republic. A schoolmaster and later a founder of Amherst College, Webster considered the role of education so central to the working of a free government that he flatly asserted it to be the most important business of civil society.

However, in spite of the pleas and schemes of these and other "founding fathers," the new nation ended the eighteenth century with a patchwork pattern of schools, most of which were conducted under the auspices of private schoolmasters or sectarian religious groups. Schools essentially served private purposes and educational attainment reflected the religious, racial, class, and gender differences in society. Even so, the educational requirements for work and a productive life for most people in the latter half of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century were modest, regardless of one's background. Skills and knowledge were often learned through one's labor within the family or through apprenticeship. However, the economic realties and social conditions that ushered in the nineteenth century prompted renewed calls for expanded and better organized approaches to the education of the public.

Changes in the Antebellum Era

Although the American mode of education in 1800 bore remarkable resemblance to that of the pre-Revolutionary era, by 1900 public education was so radically different and far-reaching that the common school movement of the 1800s is widely regarded as the most significant change or reform in nineteenth century American education. This dramatic change was precipitated by a number of factors, including industrialization and the rise of the factory system; labor unrest; the spread of merchant capitalism; the expansion and economic influence of banks and insurance companies; transportation advances brought on by steam travel on inland and coastal waterways and by railroad; burgeoning population growth (including the arrival of large numbers of Roman Catholic immigrants who challenged the social and cultural norms of the mostly Protestant citizenry); and the westward migration of settlers, many of whom sought to establish the eastern tradition of town schools on the frontier.

To a large extent, the spread of common schools was an institutional response to the threat of social fragmentation and to a fear of moral and cultural decay. Reformers of various types–ministers, politicians, Utopians, Transcendentalists, workingmen, and early feminists–saw in schools, or at least in education, a way to ameliorate the disturbing social vices that were increasingly associated with swelling urban centers. Schools were seen as a means of turning Americans–whether "native" or "foreign born," rural or urban–into patriotic and lawabiding citizens, thereby achieving the Jeffersonian goal of securing the republic.

Protestant denominations began putting some of their sectarian differences aside and joined forces to establish charitable schools for poor children in cities like Philadelphia and New York. These charity schools were precursors of nonsectarian public common schools in the sense that they became organized into centralized bureaucracies that received public subsidies. Interdenominational cooperation among Protestant denominations became a key ingredient in, and an essential feature of, the gradual acceptance of the common school ideal.

The Rise of the Common School

The common school movement began in earnest in the 1830s in New England as reformers, often from the Whig party (which promoted greater public endeavors than the comparatively laissez-faire Democrats), began to argue successfully for a greater government role in the schooling of all children. Horace Mann, often referred to as the Father of the Common School, left his career as a Massachusetts lawyer and legislator to assume the mantle and duties of secretary to the newly established state board of education in 1837.

Mann's commitment to common schools stemmed from his belief that political stability and social harmony depended on universal education. He stumped the state arguing for common schools that would be open to all children, and he preached that support for nonsectarian common schools was a religious as well as a civic duty. His message to the working classes was the promise that "education … is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance wheel of the social machinery" (Cremin 1957, p. 65). To men of property he asserted that their security and prosperity depended upon having literate and law-abiding neighbors who were competent workers and who would, via the common school, learn of the sanctity of private property. To all he proclaimed that Providence had decreed that education was the " absolute right of every human being that comes into the world" (Cremin 1957, p. 87).

Mann was joined in his crusade for common schools by like-minded reformers in other states. In his own state, James G. Carter played an important role in pushing Massachusetts to establish normal schools to prepare teachers for the emerging "profession" of education. Henry Barnard played a leading role in Connecticut and Rhode Island, as did Samuel Lewis and Calvin Stowe in Ohio, along with numerous others across the country. Catharine Beecher, sister of abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe, is noteworthy among the women who took up the cause of educational reform and the promotion of women as teachers and exemplars of self-improvement. Graduates of Beecher's Hartford Female Seminary, founded in 1823, were in the forefront of generations of "schoolmarms" who staffed the nation's rapidly growing supply of public schools.

Resistance to Common Schools

Historian Carl Kaestle has maintained that the eventual acceptance of state common school systems was based upon American's commitment to republican government, the dominance of native Protestant culture, and the development of capitalism. While the convergence of these forces can be credited with the emergence and endurance of America's common schools, the arguments and fears of opponents of public education were not easily overcome. The hegemonic Pan-Protestant common school system may have had general popular support, but many Roman Catholics (and some Protestant sects) strenuously objected to the supposedly "nonsectarian" schools. Many Catholics agreed with New York City Bishop John Hughes, who argued that the public schools were anti-Catholic and unacceptable to his flock. When repeated pleas for a share of public funds dedicated to the support of religious schools failed to win legislative approval in New York and elsewhere, many Catholics rejected the nondenominational public school compromise, a situation that eventually led to the creation of a separate and parallel system of parochial schools.

Religious division was not the only obstacle to universal acceptance of the doctrine of universal public education. A desire to maintain strict local control over schools put many advocates of statewide organization on the defensive. Intermixed with class, race, and ethnic tensions, demands for local control of schools was–and remains–a hotly contested issue. Opposition to taxation, raised as an objection to publicly financed schemes of education during the colonial period, continued to provoke resistance. Related to issues of control and taxation were charges that government involvement in education was a repudiation of liberalism and parental rights. Advocates of this position championed the right of individuals to be left alone and responsible for their own lives.

Finally, if some of the more conservative members of society feared that public schools and democratic rhetoric might unsettle relations between capital and labor and lead to increased clamoring over "rights" on the part of the working classes, some of the more radical labor leaders contended that public day schools, while useful, did not go far enough toward creating a society of equals. Among the most extreme positions was that put forward by the workingmen's party in New York, of which Robert Dale Owen, social reformer and son of Robert Owen (founder of the utopian New Harmony Community in Indiana) was a member. In 1830 that body called for public support of common boardingschools in which all children would not only live together and study the same subjects, but would dress in the same manner and eschew all reminders of "the pride of riches, or the contempt of poverty" (Carlton, p. 58). Few reformers were willing to endorse so radical a proposal, however.

The Survival and Spread of Common Schools

Political consensus and compromise led state after state to adopt systems of common or public schools by the latter half of the nineteenth century. Although a few southern states had made progress in this direction before the Civil War, it was not until after that conflict that the states that had been in rebellion adopted legally mandated–but racially segregated–systems of public education. In 1855 Massachusetts had become the first state to abolish legal segregation; it took yet another full century for the United States Supreme Court to extend that practice to the entire nation by declaring in the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 that the practice of "separate but equal" was unconstitutional. Other twentieth-century court decisions ended religious practices such as Bible reading and prayer in public schools.

Competing educational philosophies, as well as political and social divisions in society, have made the issue of what should be "common" about common schooling one that is continually under review. If, as one historian has observed, the "the American public school is a gigantic standardized compromise most of us have learned to live with" (Kaestle 1976, p. 396), it is a compromise that has been, and must continue to be, constantly renegotiated.


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