Social History of American Education
Throughout the birth, growth, and development of our nation's school system, social and cultural factors have contributed significantly to the process of American education. Throughout history there have been times during which great social change brought about equally great changes in education; likewise, there have been periods in which education changes have left indelible imprints upon society. This phenomenon is particularly true as education has come to be viewed as an institutional means by which knowledge and mores pertaining to the welfare of society are transmitted from teacher to pupil.
Keywords Common School; Dame School; Education Reform; Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA); Industrialization; Mann, Horace; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); National Organization for Women (NOW); No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB); Reconstruction; Segregation; Social History
On July 28, 1787, Benjamin Rush stood before visitors at the Young Ladies Academy of Philadelphia and addressed the crowd on the importance and manner of educating women in the new American Republic. A man esteemed as ahead of his time and, of his own admission, out of step with popular and fashionable habits of thinking, Rush decried then-current perceptions that relegated the value of women to the level of "personal charms and ornamental accomplishments" and praised instead the woman who was learned in matters of business, philosophy, history, and geography (Rush, 1787, sec. 9).
While domestic responsibilities were widely understood to comprise a core area of function for women, these did not preclude a liberal education and, indeed, Rush noted that they actually required it. For example, bookkeeping and accounting knowledge would be useful to a woman should her husband pass away and she be left to oversee his estate. Education in the philosophy and principles of liberty and government would enable women to raise well educated sons, and even such studies as astronomy and chemistry could prove useful to women.
Framed against the backdrop of early American cultural norms, Rush's remarks provide evidence that even in the early days of our nation's history, social perceptions and realities affected the process and practice of American education. From gender roles and racial discrimination to class inequities and demographic differences, social factors form an intricate part of the development of education in America, and education within American culture.
Perspectives on Schools
In Education and Social Change: Themes in the History of American Education, author John Rury asks the question, "Do schools change society, or does society change the schools?" (Rury, 2002, p. 1). If education is a passive endeavor, then societal reforms and changes will eventually have an effect on education. If, however, education is an active pursuit, then its product of ideas and theories will, of necessity, affect society. According to Rury, the chain of influence leads both ways. Throughout history there have been times during which great social change brought about equally great changes in education; likewise, there have been periods in which education changes have left indelible imprints upon society.
This phenomenon is particularly true as education has come to be viewed as an institutional means by which knowledge and mores pertaining to the welfare of society are transmitted from teacher to pupil. Rury writes that education "has contributed to economic growth and political change, and it has helped to forge a national identity from the country's rich variety of cultural and social groups." Conversely, education itself "has been influenced by changes in the economy, the political system, and other facets of the social structure" (Rury, 2002, p. 4). As examples of ways in which society has changed schooling, Rury points to the impact of urbanization and industrialization upon school demographics and curricula. Inarguably, schools have often been a catalyst for social change; two examples of this being in the areas of women's education and African-American education.
Several years prior to Rury, Nasaw (1981) arrived at a similar conclusion regarding the interconnectivity of education changes and social reforms. Nasaw focuses on three periods of American history which he views as landmarks for American education: the pre-Civil War antebellum decades, which witnessed the reformation of "common schools;" the turn of the 20th Century, which saw the expansion of public education to "children of the plain people;" and the decades following World War II, during which education, and particularly higher education, witnessed the inclusion of sectors of society typically excluded as a result of race, class, and gender (Nasaw, 1981, p. 4).
Taking each in turn, Nasaw writes:
In each of these periods,' [sic] the quantitative expansion of the student population was matched by a qualitative transformation of the enlarged institutions. The common schools of the mid 1800s were charged with re-forming the moral character of the children of failed artisans and farmers from both sides of the Atlantic; the expanded high schools at the turn of the century with preparing their poor, working-class, and immigrant adolescents for future lives in city and factory; the "open-access" public institutions in the postwar period with moving their students off the unemployment lines and into lower-level white-collar and paraprofessional positions (Nasaw, 1981, p. 4).
Prior to the appearance of the first public school in America, social norms in the New World dictated the delivery of education from one generation to the next. The Old World of England from which the colonists had emigrated had been characterized by rules of propriety and hierarchy, even within the family unit. English society placed high value upon authority and tradition, and this value affected the manner of English child-rearing.
Rury notes that in the New World, however, the colonists soon came to embrace a new societal order, void of many of the traditions and hierarchical structures of English society. As part of this new social order, Rury notes that parents did not so much "dictate" to their children as "educate" them (Rury, 2002, p. 25). In colonial America, the primary avenue of education was found in the home, with young children learning the basics of reading and writing at the feet of their mothers.
Yet, even in the New World, distinct societies existed, and the cultural norms of each society affected the education of the youth. Geographically, for example, Rury notes that historians divide the colonies into three regions:
• The agricultural South, made up of Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, and the Carolinas
• The diverse Middle Colonies, comprised of the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and New York
• The New England region, which spread north of the Middle Colonies
The New England Colonies
The development of formal schooling occurred first in New England, and by far the New England colonies witnessed its greatest early development. The establishment of Dame schools in colonial New England allowed young children to be trained in religion and basic academic pursuits under the watchful eye of a schoolteacher. As New England Puritans believed firmly in the importance of learning to read Scripture, Dame schools were open to children regardless of sex. However, here is where equal access for young New England girls ended.
As children completed their time in Dame schools, gender and class differences began to affect their later education. Young boys had three choices for education following Dame school, and the option parents selected depended both upon vocational prospects and class standing. Sons whose parents were of a certain social standing and who aimed for their sons to attend college - and most likely enter the ministry or positions of civic leadership - were sent to Latin Grammar Schools to further their reading capabilities. Some families chose the monthly cost of apprenticeship and paired their sons with a craftsman to learn the skills of his trade. Finally, at no cost to the parents, a son could remain at home and be trained by his father in his occupation.
For girls, however, choices were much more limited. Since they were not permitted to attend the Latin Grammar Schools, they were also not expected to attend college or to enter positions of leadership in church or...
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