Background for the State of Education in New England: Post-Revolutionary War to Mid-19th Century

Thomas Jefferson is rightly given much credit for emphasizing the importance of education in a democracy. He believed education for all to be a crucial part of the success of the "experiment" undertaken in 1776. He had faith in the "common man" and his ability to elect wise and virtuous leaders if that man were educated to do so. With this caveat in mind, Jefferson wrote the Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, the Bill for Establishing a Public Library, and the Bill for Establishment of a System of Public Education, among others (Tozer, Violas, and Senese, School and Society, 30-31).

Jefferson saw the structure of education in four levels: elementary schools, grammar schools, universities, and life-long learning. He proposed dividing the states into small districts or wards. Along with supervising and supporting the schools, the individual wards would be responsible for the roads, police, elections, care of the poor, and some small judicial matters (31).

Elementary school was available to "all free children, male and female." The three-year curriculum included Grecian, Roman, English and American history as well as reading, writing and arithmetic, and would likely serve as the extent of formal education for the bulk of the population. Grammar schools were boarding schools for boys only, and were preparatory to university entrance. Except for a limited number of ward scholarships, students were required to pay tuition. The six-year curriculum included Greek, Latin, and English grammar, advanced arithmetic, geometry, navigation, and geography. Jefferson expected future leaders and teachers to come from this crop of students. University requirements were limited to a proficiency in Latin and Greek—a graduate had to be able to read and understand the classics with ease; although scientific studies were encouraged students were free to attend any class and "listen to whatever he thinks may improve the condition of his mind" (32-34).

Unfortunately, Jefferson's liberal views on the necessity and desirability of education did not much extend to women, blacks, or Native Americans. The authors of School and Society quote Jefferson as writing, "A plan of female education has never been a subject of systematic contemplation with me. It has occupied my attention only so far only as the education of my own daughters occasionally required." He felt women ought to have enough education to direct that of their daughters, and if need be, their sons "should their fathers be lost, or incapable, or inattentive." He did not believe blacks had the mental capacity to warrant much education and would always need caregivers. Although he had higher expectations for the Native American capacity to learn, Native Americans first and foremost must be taught Euro-American culture and give up their own before any attempt at formal education would be made (37-38).

The late 1820s and 1830s saw Jefferson's ideas expanded on and split into two camps; one struggled to maintain local control of schools while the other pressed for more centralized control and state funding. Horace Mann, born in Franklin, Massachusetts in 1796, was a poor farm boy who became a lawyer and then a political reform leader. Mann saw public education as a vehicle for achieving what he felt was the greater good for the largest population: the school should build support for Republican and Protestant values. In order to accomplish this, it would be necessary to create a State Board of Education to replace local school boards. Texts would be picked from a state approved list rather than by local choice. Teachers would be trained at state normal schools rather than attending colleges and academies (the "grammar schools" of Jefferson's plan)(71). One of Mann's chief opponents, Orestes Brownson, did not fear "social disorder and moral decay" but like Jefferson, saw the public education system as a means to prevent tyranny. He disputed the idea that Mann was "advocating education for religious and republican virtue" and argued that he really wanted to institute "a system of schooling for social control" (73).

Mann was able to draw the money to his side of the debate. Banking, manufacturing, and mercantile interests thought that his ideas promised the best long-term benefits for them. Mann convinced the working class that their children would receive a better education and gain a better chance of becoming upwardly mobile. Because he mandated religious instruction (as opposed to this item remaining a choice of each locality) most Protestant religious groups supported Mann, including the Unitarians especially (Mann was a Unitarian), and specifically such persons as William Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Mann's reforms had a positive outcome for the education of women, if one considers the overwhelming "feminization" of teaching to be a gender victory. He was convinced that women were gentler and more sympathetic to children. While not approving of the fact they earned almost two-thirds less than their male counterparts, Mann noted it did make women a more attractive and economical hire! Mann insisted that women were natural teachers with "easier access to the inner psyche of students" (67). Formerly a rarity in the classroom, by 1848 women accounted for 68% of all common school teachers in Massachusetts (68).

Tozer, Steven E., Violas, Paul C., and Senese, Guy B. School and Society: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc, 1995.

Meg Brulatour, Virginia Commonwealth University
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