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Historical context of public education in the U.S. (Part 1)

Dustin Hornbeck

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It is seven o’ clock in the morning and the sound of squealing breaks and a roaring engine of a yellow school bus can be heard in any community in the United States. Close to fifty million students (U.S. Dept of Ed) are preparing to walk into public school buildings and learn anything from addition and subtraction, to robotics and engineering. The history of public education in The United States is unique to each town, state, and culture that it exists in. Public education has been called the great equalizer of society. Everyone has been influenced and impacted by public education in some way. It offers students from any background the same ability to learn basic knowledge needed to survive. This column will explore the diverse history of public education in America, looking at when it began, how it evolved, and what it looks like today. Just like the stories of any society and their people, public education’s story is riddled with trials and triumphs. There are many aspects that have been criticized from its inception, but with a 99% literacy rate for people over the age of 15, success is measurable.


1635 to 1850


When the Puritans came to North America in the early 17th century, they had a strong dedication to education. The first two institutions of public education on this continent came from this community. In 1635 the town of Boston started the Boston Latin School, where the only requirement for entrance was to read a few passages from the Bible. According to the schools website, it was modeled around the humanities with an emphasis on teaching dissidence in a responsible way. The Puritans were products of responsible dissidence. They left their home country of England because of religious disagreement. A tradition of this type of education helped lead to the largest democracy in the world. This innovative thought provided a mechanism of speaking out against the powers that be to impact change. It should be no surprise to see that some of the alumni of this school carry the names of: Adams, Franklin, Hancock, Hooper, and Paine. These products of public education were leaders in the fight for independence. Less than ten years after this school began, the government of the entire Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law that required compulsory education for all. In the Massachusetts General School Law of 1647 it states: “And it is further ordered, that when any town shall increase to the number of one hundred families or householders, they shall set up a grammar school, the master thereof being able to instruct youth so far as they may be fitted for the university, provided that if any town neglect the performance hereof above one year that every such town shall pay 5 pounds to the next school till they shall perform this order.” This law was titled the “Old Deluder Satan Act”. The unique part of this law was that it put the power to enforce education in the hands of the government, rather than the clergy.


Women did not have the same education that men did throughout the colonial period. Women had a role they were supposed to perform and this is made apparent by famed Massachusetts Bay colonial poet Anne Bradstreet. In her poem The Prologue, she wrote, “who says my hand a needle better fits”. Here she is mocking the role of the domestic housewife, which was the role that women were supposed to fill at the time. Educational expectations became clearer for women after the American Revolution in the form of Republican Motherhood. In short, Republican Motherhood was the expectation that women should be be educated with the intent of instilling republican ideals in their children to create a civic minded and healthy society. In a famed letter, future first lady Abigail Adams wrote to her husband while away forming the new American Government to “Remember the Ladies”, she also notes that “all men would be tyrants if they could”.


Following the American Revolution each state had their own autonomy. Massachusetts already had an evolving public education system, but Former President Thomas Jefferson of Virginia spent his years in retirement pondering the idea of public education. In an important letter on the subject he wrote that he believed in :”a system of general instruction, which shall reach every description of our citizens from the richest to the poorest.” He believed in the idea of a three tiered system: primary, secondary and college. He helped establish the University of Virginia and wrote many letters to public officials advocating for public education regardless of income. Benjamin Franklin did something very similar in Philadelphia 60 years prior.


In the early 1800’s schools were sporadic and unregulated. Each community had different ways at educating students. Horace Mann, an educational reformer from Massachusetts presented many ideas on how to reform the system of education. He believed that expert teachers should teach subject matter, students should be banded by age, and every child should be afforded the same educational opportunity. The Whig party supported his ideas and by 1900, 34 states required students be educated by law (U.S. Dept. of Ed).


Dustin Hornbeck is a History Teacher at Piqua High School and Ohio Northern University. He was recently named a James Madison Fellow through the James Madison Memorial Foundation in Washington D.C.

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