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Public Education

The belief that citizens should participate in their own government led to the idea that the government should assist them in gaining an education. At first, publicly supported education only continued through grammar school. The first free high school was established in Boston in 1821. The Massachusetts State Board of Education recommended that free high schools be instituted everywhere and accordingly, the legislature passed a law requiring free high schools to be established throughout the state, to be instructed by persons "of good morals," who would be competent to given instruction in diverse subjects ranging from U.S. history to bookkeeping.

The attitude adopted in Massachusetts was not universally shared. When the Workingman's Party of Philadelphia proposed in February 1830 a proposal for free public schools for children, it generated a reaction. A letter appeared in August in the National Gazette, which argued that:

The more thriving members of the "mechanical and other working classes" would...find that they had toiled for the benefit of other families than their own. One of the chief excitements to industry, among those classes, is the hope of earning the means of educating their children respectably or liberally: that incentive would be removed, and the scheme of state and equal education be thus a premium for comparative idleness, to be taken out of the pockets of the laborious and conscientious....

In Philadelphia, two elements were working against the movement for free public schools. The well-off already educated their children privately at their own expense, and the German community was intent on maintaining its cultural identity. A bill to provide for free public in each district was passed in 1834, but a year later there was a movement to repeal it.

At this point, Thaddeus Stevens, elected to the Pennsylvania legislature as a member of the Anti-Masonic Party in 1833, spoke eloquently in favor of maintaining the legislation:

If, then, education be of admitted importance to the people, under all forms of government, and of unquestioned necessity when they govern themselves, it follows, of course, that its cultivation and diffusion is a matter of public concern and a duty which every government owes to its people. In accordance with this principle, the ancient republics, who were most renowned for their wisdom and success, considered every child born subject to their control, as the property of the state, so far as its education was concerned: and during the proper period of instruction they were withdrawn from the control of their parents and placed under the guardianship of the commonwealth. There, all were instructed at the same school; all were placed on perfect equality, the rich and the poor man's sons; for all were deemed children of the same common parent of the commonwealth. ...

Stevens' speech succeeded in preserving the law, and thrust him into the national spotlight.

William H. Seward used the occasion of laying the cornerstone for a project to improve the Owasco River at Auburn, New York, to describe the benefits not only of improvements such as were then being undertaken, but also a general public education program:

That responsibility can be discharged faithfully, successfully, triumphantly, by the education of the people. This great work it is practicable for us to accomplish : and herein is that great distinction of our lot over that of all preceding republics, and all other states. The improvements in the art of teaching, and in the books of instruction, favor this end; the cheapness of print- ing favors this end ; the interest every citizen feels that himself and his children have in the government, favors this end ; and, above all, the comparatively equal distribution of wealth, and the absolute equality of civil and political rights existing among us, enable us to bring all within the scope of a general system of education.

The administration of public education has led to controversy. In 1824, the state of New York authorized the City of New York to decide which schools should receive state funds. Beginning in 1825, the city sent nearly all its money to Protestant schools, largely excluding the parochial schools that had previously received funding. Catholics naturally objected, but in 1842, a nonsectarian public school system was established in New York City and public funding for religious schools of any variety came to an end.

The cause of public education was advanced when Horace Mann became secretary to the newly formed Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837. During the next decade, Mann worked to improve the quality of public education in that state and expounded his views through lectures and the Common School Journal, which he founded. Through his efforts, Massachusetts established the first normal schools for the training of teachers.

Theodore Parker was a Transcendentalist minister who was described as the "Great Reformer." In an 1849 address to the Onandaga Teachers' Institute at Syracuse, New York, Parker gave a concise statement of the principle of public education:

So, then, as the idea of our government demands the education of all, the amount of education must depend on the same three variables mentioned before; it must be as good as it is possible for them to afford. The democratic state has never done its political and educational duty, until it affords every man a chance to obtain the greatest amount of education which the attainment of mankind renders it possible for the nation, in its actual circumstances, to command, and the man's nature and disposition render it possible for him to take.

The first measure to require school attendance was passed by the Massachusetts legislature in 1850. As amended in 1852, it required at least three months of schooling for every child in the state between the ages of eight and fourteen.

---- Selected Quotes ----

Quotes regarding Public Education.

By James A. Garfield
Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained.
Letter accepting the 1880 Republican nomination for President
By Benjamin Rush
Freedom can exist only in the society of knowledge. Without learning, men are incapable of knowing their rights.
Education Agreeable to a Republican Form of Government
By Edward Everett
Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army. If we retrench the wages of the schoolmaster, we must raise those of the recruiting sergeant.
The Common School Journal and Educational Reformer, 1852
By Rutherford B. Hayes
As knowledge spreads, wealth spreads. To diffuse knowledge is to diffuse wealth. To give all an equal chance to acquire knowledge is the best and surest way to give all an equal chance to acquire property.
Diary, 1878
By William McKinley: The Epitome of the Pro-Business Republican
Illiteracy must be banished from the land if we shall attain that high destiny as the foremost of the enlightened nations of the world which, under Providence, we ought to achieve.
Inaugural Address, 1897

- - - Books You May Like Include: ----

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter.
In Anti-intellectualism in American Life, Hofstadter delineates the social movements that altered the role of intellect in American society from a vir...

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