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The need for public access to education dates back as far as the fifth century B.C., when the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 B.C.) began his campaign to offer universal access to education. He believed that "in education there should be no class distinctions" and it is said he never refused students even if they came to him barefoot and poor. This universal access to learning broke down class distinctions but remained largely inaccessible to girls and women.
The Age of Enlightenment (an intellectual and scientific movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries A.D.) in western Europe ushered in an unprecedented era of public education. In Prussia (modern-day Germany), Frederick the Great (1712–1786) was instrumental in founding a national public education system. After Prussia united with Germany to form a powerful state, other European countries started their own education systems. It was believed that Prussia's success as a state was largely due to its emphasis on education. By the early twentieth century, public elementary schooling was free and compulsory (required) in most of Europe; some nations had established free secondary (high school) education as well.
In the United States public schools were started during the colonial era (approximately 1600–1775). In 1647 Massachusetts passed a law that required the establishment of public schools. During this period most education took place in dame schools, which were run by older women who would teach various religious studies as well as crafts to their students. By 1890 the modern system of kindergarten through twelfth grade education was established in most of the United States, giving wider access to both boys and girls.
Further Information: Mathews, David. Is There a Public for Public Schools? Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation Press, 1996; Oakes, Jeannie. Becoming Good American Schools: The Struggle for Civic Virtue in Education Reform. San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2000.
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