American Education Then and Now

“You can get it if you really want
You can get it if you really want
You can get it if you really want
But you must try, try and try
Try and try, you’ll succeed at last.”

Reggae musician Jimmy Cliff’s lyrics apply to most situations in life: being a good husband and father, a promotion at work, or learning French. Very often, we truly can get something if we really want it and we’re willing to try, try and try.

And the same holds true for an education.

Old-School Education

Schooling of any kind was often hard to come by in our past.

Go back to 1860 and we find only 40 public high schools in the United States. Most students at that time enrolled in private academies, which were small, local schools supported by their churches and communities, or learned the basics of reading, writing, and mathematics at home. In fact, very few young people who attended school—and many who had to work received no education at all—stayed in a classroom for only a few years.

Go even farther back in time, and we find no state-supported schools whatsoever, though education remained important to many Americans. Settlers in colonial New England, for instance, emphasized literacy, in part so that young people might read the Bible. In the South, the wealthy often hired private tutors, and many children of tradesmen and farmers learned their lessons at their mother’s knee.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, designed to regulate a vast territory that included such future states as Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana, declared that “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of educations shall forever be encouraged.”

To secure that idea, the government set aside one parcel of land in each town for the building of a school.

Built around 1907 in Butler County, Iowa, this one-room schoolhouse was of many located every two miles throughout the countryside. (Public domain)

One Size Did Fit All

As time passed, the one-room school became an American standard. Parents often constructed the buildings for these tiny islands of learning, supplemented teacher pay with goods such as bushels of apples and potatoes, and frequently gave teachers bed and board in their homes to defray their expenses. As late as 1919, there were 190,000 one-room schoolhouses in the United States.

One of my college professors, Ed Burrows, attended a school in rural South Carolina that ran from grades 1 through 7, served about 50 students, and had only two teachers. It operated a little like a one-room school, with grades often sharing the same room; Ed told me one great advantage of this arrangement was that he could learn as he heard the older students doing their recitations and lessons while he and the younger students did their book work. In many other places, these schools were smaller, and grades 1–8 shared the same teacher and classroom.

The Situation Today

Over the past century, of course, large public schools became the norm for education. Today, there are about 100,000 K–12 schools in the United States. Sixty years ago, more such schools existed, but many of these have consolidated.

Like our ancestors, we too have retained an eclectic assortment of other institutions. Charter schools, private academies both old and new, some of them secular and some with a religious mission, and homeschooling give parents an array of educational options.

The Students of Yesteryear

If we look back at that hodge-podge of schooling in the 18th and 19th centuries, so much of it unsupervised by any government, we might wonder, given our own structured approach to learning, how such a system could produce educated young people.

Yet, this was this epoch that give the new nation inventors such as Tom Edison and George Washington Carver, statesmen in the mold of James Madison and Daniel Webster, and women as brilliant and learned as Abigail Adams and Louisa May Alcott. Some of these historical figures came out of those one-room schools, others attended private institutions, and many, like Edison, John Adams, and his wife Abigail, received at least a part of their education in the home.

Which then raises this question: How was it that these schools, so primitive when compared to our own, produced so many people of genius and gave to millions of others a solid foundation of learning for life?

Old Ways From the Old Days

In several ways, those schools had advantages we now lack. In the towns and rural areas, they were generally small, a center of the broader community, and were more socially cohesive. Moreover, the culture of that time was utterly different from our own. The farm boy of 1900 was innocent of the distractions of electronics and technology.

Despite these differences, however, we can discover some techniques and tips from those who lived in that era that might enhance our own methods of education. Here are a few of them:

The old schools focused on the basics. They taught reading, penmanship, civics, history, science, and mathematics. That was the standard curriculum until the 1960s, and thanks to my mother and her scrapbooks, I have the report cards to prove my case.

The most important of these subjects was reading. In 1919–1920, the illiteracy rate among young adults was 6 percent. Today, it is double that figure. To expect a democracy to thrive, much less an individual, while remaining functionally illiterate is nearly impossible. Those schools used phonics and memorization to teach their younger students to decipher words. Many of our schools might want to follow suit.

Until fairly recently, rote learning was another tool of the classroom. In third grade arithmetic, for example, we memorized the times tables. Mrs. Fleming explained to us how this worked, and then we began, chanting both at home and in class: 2 times 2 is 4, 3 times 3 is 9, and so on. These days, many educators deride memory work, ignoring a means of learning that extends thousands of years into the past.

The ancient Roman tag “Repetitio est mater studiorum,” or “Repetition is the mother of studies (learning)” is as true today as it was then.

The Biggest Factor of All

Perhaps the greatest difference between our system of education today and that of, say, 1900, is the pursuit of education itself.

“Get yourself an education,” I’d sometimes hear as a kid, and that same injunction was doubtless given to people like Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Amelia Earhart (who was homeschooled until age 12), Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor (another homeschooler) and Clarence Thomas, and an army of other Americans.

All those young men and women understood that getting an education wasn’t a passive process, that learning was as much up to them as to any school. With that attitude, many of them became lifelong learners. After his father died, for instance, my paternal grandfather reluctantly left school in seventh grade to help work the family farm. For the rest of his life, however, he was an avid reader, particularly of histories and biographies.

We need to inculcate this same fierce desire for learning in our children today. Education isn’t pablum to be delivered on a spoon, but is instead a path to be pursued, not only for the job it may bring, but because a solid education makes us more fully human.

If we can fire up that passion for learning in our children, they will shine no matter what kind of school they attend.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *