Education And Egalitarianism In America
The American educator Horace Mann once said: As an apple is not in any proper sense an apple until it is ripe, so a human being is not in any proper sense a human being until he is educated. Education is the process through which people endeavor to pass along to their children their hard-won wisdom and their aspirations for a better world. This process begins shortly after birth, as parents seek to train the infant to behave as their culture demands.
They soon, for instance, teach the child how to turn babbling sounds into language and, through example and precept, they try to instill in the child the attitudes, values, skills, and knowledge that will govern their offspring’s behavior throughout later life. Schooling, or formal education, consists of experiences that are deliberately planned and utilized to help young people learn what adults consider important for them to know and to help teach them how they should respond to choices.
This education has been influenced by three important parts of modern American society: the wisdom of the heart, egalitarianism, and practicality… the greatest of these, is practicality. In the absence of written records, no one can be sure what education man first provided for his children. Most anthropologists believe, though, that the educational practices of prehistoric times were probably like those of primitive tribes in the 20th century, such as the Australian aborigines and the Aleuts. Formal instruction was probably given just before the child’s initiation into adulthood — the puberty rite — and involved tribal customs and beliefs too complicated to be learned by direct experience.
Children learned most of the skills, duties, customs, and beliefs of the tribe through an informal apprenticeship — by taking part in such adult activities as hunting, fishing, farming, toolmaking, and cooking. In such simple tribal societies, the school was not a special place… it was life itself. However, the educational process has changed over the decades, and it now vaguely represents what it was in ancient times, or even in early American society. While the schools that the colonists established in the 17th century in the New England, Southern, and Middle colonies differed from one another, each reflected a concept of schooling that had been left behind in Europe.
Most poor children learned through apprenticeship and had no formal schooling at all. Those who did go to elementary school were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion. Learning consisted of memorizing, which was stimulated by whipping. The first basic textbook, The New England Primer, was America’s own contribution to education. Used from 1690 until the beginning of the 19th century, its purpose was to teach both religion and reading. The child learning the letter a, for example, also learned that In Adam’s fall, We sinned all. As in Europe, then, the schools in the colonies were strongly influenced by religion. This was particularly true of the schools in the New England area, which had been settled by Puritans and other English religious dissenters.
Like the Protestants of the Reformation, who established vernacular elementary schools in Germany in the 16th century, the Puritans sought to make education universal. They took the first steps toward government-supported universal education in the colonies. In 1642, Puritan Massachusetts passed a law requiring that every child be taught to read. And, in 1647, it passed the Old Deluder Satan Act, so named because its purpose was to defeat Satan’s attempts to keep men, through an inability to read, from the knowledge of the Scriptures.
The law required every town of 50 or more families to establish an elementary school and every town of 100 or more families to maintain a grammar school as well. Puritan or not, virtually all of the colonial schools had clear-cut moral purposes. Skills and knowledge were considered important to the degree that they served religious ends and, of course, trained the mind. We call it wisdom of the heart. These matters, by definition, are anything that the heart is convinced of… so thoroughly convinced that it over-powers the judgment of the mind. Early schools supplied the students with moral lessons, not just reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Obviously, the founders saw it necessary to apply these techniques, most likely feeling that it was necessary that the students learn these particular values. Wisdom of the heart had a profound effect on the curriculum of early schools. As the spirit of science, commercialism, secularism, and individualism quickened in the Western world, education in the colonies was called upon to satisfy the practical needs of seamen, merchants, artisans, and frontiersmen. The effect of these new developments on the curriculum in American schools was more immediate and widespread than its effect in European schools. Practical content was soon in competition with religious concerns.
The academy that Benjamin Franklin helped found in 1751 was the first of a growing number of secondary schools that sprang up in competition with the Latin schools. Franklin’s academy continued to offer the humanist-religious curriculum, but it also brought education closer to the needs of everyday life by teaching such courses as history, geography, merchant accounts, geometry, algebra, surveying, modern languages, navigation, and astronomy. These subjects were more practical, seeing as how industry and business were driving forces in the creation of the United States. Religion classes could not support a family or pay debts.
By the mid-19th century, this new diversification in the curriculum characterized virtually all American secondary education. America came into its own, educationally, with the movement toward state-supported, secular free schools for all children, which began in the 1820s with the common (elementary) school. The movement gained incentive in 1837 when Massachusetts established a state board of education and appointed the lawyer and politician Horace Mann (1796-1859) as its secretary.
One of Mann’s many reforms was the improvement of the quality of teaching by the establishment of the first public normal (teacher-training) schools in the United States. State after state followed Massachusetts’ example until, by the end of the 19th century, the common-school system was firmly established. It was the first rung of what was to develop into the American educational ladder. After the common school had been accepted, people began to urge that higher education, too, be tax supported. As early as 1821, the Boston School Committee established the English Classical School (later the English High School), which was the first public secondary school in the United States.
By the end of the century, such secondary schools had begun to outnumber private academies. The original purpose of the American high school was to allow all children to extend and enrich their common-school education. With the establishment of the land-grant colleges after 1862, the high school also became a preparation for college; the step by which students who had begun at the lowest rung of the educational ladder might reach the highest. In 1873, when the kindergarten became part of St.
Louis, Mo. school system, there was a hint that, in time, a lower rung might be added. Practicality allowed this change in the high school system. Schools now needed to ready the students for college — an even higher form of education — instead of preparing them to immediately enter the workforce. America’s educational ladder was unique. Where public school systems existed in European countries such as France and Germany, they were dual systems.
When a child of the lower and middle classes finished his elementary schooling, he could go on to a vocational or technical school. The upper-class child often did not attend elementary school but was instead tutored until he was about 9 years old and could enter a secondary school, generally a Latin grammar school. The purpose of this school was to prepare him for the university, from which he might well emerge as one of the potential leaders of his country.
Instead of two separate and distinct educational systems for separate and distinct classes, the United States provided one system open to everyone… a distinctly egalitarian idea. As in mid-19th-century Europe, women were slowly gaining educational ground in the United States. Female academies established by such pioneers as Emma Willard (1787-1870) and Catharine Beecher (1800-78) prepared the way for secondary education for women. In 1861, Vassar, the first real college for women, was founded. Even earlier, in 1833, Oberlin College was founded as a coeducational college, and in 1837, four women began to study there. In the mid-19th century, there was yet another change in education.
The secondary-school curriculum, which had been slowly expanding since the founding of the academies in the mid-18th century, virtually exploded. But the voice of practicality cried out again. A new society, complicated by the latest discoveries in the physical and biological sciences and the rise of industrialism and capitalism, called for more and newer kinds of knowledge. By 1861 as many as 73 subjects were being offered by Massachusetts secondary schools. People still believed that the mind could be trained, but they now thought that science could do a better job than the classics could.
The result was a curriculum that was virtually saturated with scientific instruction. The mid-19th-century knowledge explosion also modestly affected some of the common schools, which expanded their curriculum to include such courses as science and nature study. The content of instruction in the common school, beyond which few students went, consisted of the material in a relatively small number of books: assorted arithmetic, history, and geography texts, Webster’s American Spelling Book, and two new books that appeared in 1836 the First and Second in the series of McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers.
Whereas The New England Primer admonished children against sin, the stories and poems in the readers pressed for moral virtues. Countless children were required to memorize such admonitions as Work while you work, play while you play. One thing each time is the way. In the early days, the common schools consisted of one room where one teacher taught pupils ranging in age from 6 to about 13 and sometimes older. The teacher instructed the children separately, not as a group.
The good teacher had a strong right arm and an unshakable determination to cram information into his pupils. Once the fight to provide free education for all children had been won, educators turned their attention to the quality of that education. To find out more about learning and the learning process, American schools looked to Europe. In the 1860s, they discovered, and for about 20 years were influenced, by Pestalozzi. His belief was that the goal of education should be the natural development of the individual child and that educators should focus on the development of the child rather than on memorization of subject matter that he or she was unable to understand.
Pestalozzi’s school also mirrored the idea that learning begins with firsthand observation of an object and moves gradually toward the remote and abstract realm of words and ideas. The teacher’s job was to guide, not distort, the natural growth of the child by selecting his experiences and then directing those experiences toward the realm of ideas. The general effect on the common schools was to shift the emphasis from the memorization of abstract facts to the firsthand observation of real objects. Pestalozzi’s diminishing influence roughly coincided with the rapid expansion of the cities.
By the 1880s the United States was absorbing several million immigrants a year, a human flood that created new problems for the common school. The question confronting educators was how to impart the largest amount of information to the greatest number of children in the shortest possible time. This new, more practical goal of educators and the means through which they attained it were reflected in the new schools they built and in the new teaching practices they adopted. Out of necessity, the one-room common school was replaced by larger schools.
To make it easier and faster for one teacher to instruct many students, there had to be as few differences between the children as possible. Since the most conspicuous difference was age, children were grouped on this basis, and each group had a separate room. To discourage physical activity that might disrupt discipline and interrupt the teaching process, to encourage close attention to and absorption of the teacher’s words, and to increase eye contact, the seats were arranged in formal rows.
For good measure, they frequently were bolted to the floor. It is not surprising, at about this time, when the goal of education was to expedite the transfer of information to a large number of students, that the normal schools began to fall under the influence of Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841). For him, education was neither the training of faculties that exist ready-made in the mind nor a natural unfolding from within. Education was instruction literally a building into the mind from the outside. The building blocks were the materials of instruction in the subject matter. The builder was the teacher.
The job of the teacher was to form the child’s mind by building into it the knowledge of man’s cultural heritage through the teaching of such subjects as literature, history, science, and mathematics. Since the individual mind was presumably formed by building into it the products of the collective mind, methods of instruction were concerned wholly with how this was to be done. Herbart’s interest lay in determining how knowledge could be presented so that it would be understood and therefore retained.
He insisted that education must be based on the psychological knowledge of the child so that he could be instructed effectively. The essence of his influence probably lay not so much in his carefully evolved five-step lesson plan but in the basic idea of a lesson plan. Such a plan suggested the possibility of evolving a systematic method of instruction that was the same for all pupils. Perhaps Herbart’s emphasis on the importance of motivating pupils to learn whether through the presentation of the material or, failing that, through rewards and punishments also influenced the new teaching methods of the 1880s and 1890s.
The new methods, combined with the physical organization of the school, represented the direct opposite of Pestalozzi’s belief that the child’s innate powers should be allowed to develop naturally. Rather, the child must be lopped off or stretched to fit the procrustean curriculum. Subjects were graded according to difficulty, assigned to certain years, and taught by a rigid daily timetable. The amount of information that the child had absorbed through drill and memorization was determined by how much could be extracted from him by examinations. Reward or punishment came in the form of grades.
At the end of the 19th century, the methods of presenting information had thus been streamlined. The curriculum had been enlarged and brought closer to the concerns of everyday life. Book learning had been supplemented somewhat by direct observation. And psychological whipping in the form of grades had perhaps diminished any physical whipping. In one respect, however, the schools of the late 19th century were no different from those, say, of the Middle Ages: they were still based on who adults thought children were or should be, not who they really were.
Before the 20th century, the ideas of such men as Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, and, in the United States, Francis W. Parker (1837-1902) had caused little more than rumblings beneath the floor of the traditional schoolhouse. Because of John Dewey (1859-1952), they gathered force, and in the 1920s and 1930s new and old ideas collided right in the middle of the classroom. Some of the schools, where neat rows of subdued children had sat immobilized in their bolted-down seats listening to a teacher armed with the textbook, lesson plan, grade book, and disciplinary ruler, became buzzing places where virtually everything moved, including the chairs.
The children were occupied in groups or worked by themselves, depending on what they were doing. Above all, they were always doing: reading a favorite book, writing, painting, or learning botany by tending, observing, and discussing the plants they were growing. The teacher moved around the room, asking and answering questions, giving a child the spelling of a word he wanted to write or the pronunciation of a word he wanted to read, and in general acting as a helpful guide for the children’s chosen activities. The chattering and noise and activity were signs that the children were excited about and absorbed by what they were doing. They were, in fact, learning by doing.
Dewey maintained that the child is not born with a ready-made faculty called thinking, which needs the exercise of repeated drills to make it as strong as the adult faculty. Nor, he said, is the mind a blank tablet on which knowledge is impressed. Mind thinking or intelligence is, according to Dewey, a developing, growing thing. And the early stages of growth and of knowledge are different from the later stages. The development of the mind begins with the child’s perception of things and facts as they are related to himself, to his personal, immediate world.
A dog is his dog or his neighbor’s dog; it is something furry and warm, something to hug, feed, and play with. The child may recognize the fact that though his neighbor’s dog looks different from his, they are both dogs. When he sees a wolf at the zoo, he may decide that his dog is a nicer and friendlier animal than the wolf. The child’s zoological knowledge is thus organized around his own experiences with particular animals and his perceptions of similarities and differences between those experiences; it is psychologically organized knowledge.
The last step in the growth of intelligence is the ability to organize facts logically, that is, in terms of their relationship to one another. The formulated, logically organized knowledge of the zoologist is that both the wolf and the domesticated dogs belong to the family Canidae, order Carnivora; that the dogs belong to the genus Canis and species familiaris; and that one dog belongs to the sporting breed spaniel, the other to the working breed collie. Presented to the child in this form, however, the study of zoology has no relation to the animals he plays with, feeds, and observes.
His own experience outside of school does not bring the information to life, and the information does not enrich and extend his own experience. It represents another world entirely a world of empty words. All he can do, therefore, is memorize what he reads and is told. He is not developing the power to think. To stimulate the growth of intelligence rather than stifle it, as Dewey saw it, education must begin not at the end but at the beginning of the growth process; that is, with an activity that engages the whole child mentally, socially, physically, and emotionally.
In school, as in his extra-curricular activities, it is the process of doing something that has meaning for the child handling, making, growing, and observing. The purpose of the school, however, is not to re-create an environment of relatively random activity but to create an environment where activities are carefully chosen to promote the development of intelligence. Carefully selected and guided, they become nets for gathering and retaining knowledge. Instead of presenting children with an already packaged study of elementary science, Dewey might well have recommended that they study life in an aquarium.
The child’s natural curiosity should lead to such questions as, Why does the fish move his mouth like that? Is he always drinking? His search for the answer will lead his intelligence in the same direction as that taken by the scientist the direction of formulated conclusions based on observation of the phenomenon. He will be learning the method as well as the subject matter of science; learning to think as a scientist does.
Moreover, the inquiry process need not be confined to one narrow area of knowledge but can be guided naturally by the teacher into investigations of fishing and then, conceivably (depending on the maturity of the young learner), of the role of the sea in the life of man. The barriers between subjects thus break down as the child’s curiosity impels him to draw upon information from all areas of human knowledge. Books, films, recordings, and other such tools serve this end. Learning the skills of reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic can be made meaningful to the child more easily if he is not forced through purposeless mechanical exercises, which, he is told, are important as a preparation for activities in later life. He should be led to discover that in order to do something he recognizes to be important right now, he needs certain skills.
If he wants to write a letter, he must know how to spell; if he wants to make a belt, he must know how to measure the leather correctly. Of course, Dewey was not suggesting that in order to learn an individual must restate the whole history of the human race through personal inquiry. While the need for a background of direct experiences is great in elementary school, as children get older they should become increasingly able to carry out intellectual investigations without having to depend upon direct experiences.
The principle of experiencing does apply, however, to the elementary phase of all subjects even when the learner is a high-school or college student or an adult. The purpose is to encourage the learner to a habitual attitude of establishing connections between the everyday life of human beings and the materials of formal instruction in a way that has meaning and application. The measuring and comparative grading of a student’s assumed abilities, processes that reflect the educator’s desire to assess the results of schooling, are incompatible with Dewey’s thinking.
The quantity of what is acquired does not in itself have anything to do with the development of the mind. The quality of the mental process, not the production of correct answers, he wrote, is the measure of educative growth. Because it is a process, learning is cumulative, and cannot be forced or rushed. For Dewey, the educative growth of the individual assures the healthy growth of a society. A society grows only by changes brought about by free individuals with independent intelligence and resourcefulness.
The beginning of a better society, then, lies in the creation of better schools. At about the same time that a few pioneering schools of the 1920s were trying to put Dewey’s theories into practice, the testing movement, which started in about 1910, was working up steam. The child had first become the object of methodical scientific research in 1897 when experiments conducted by Joseph M. Rice suggested that drill in spelling did not produce effective results. By 1913 Edward L.
Thorndike had concluded that learning was the establishment of connections between a stimulus and a response and that the theory of mental faculties was nonsense. Alfred Binet, in 1905, published the first scale for measuring intelligence. During the 1920s, children began to be given IQ (intelligence quotient) and achievement tests on a wide scale and sometimes were carefully grouped by ability and intelligence. Many of the spelling and reading books they used, foreshadowing the 1931 Dick and Jane readers, were based on controlled vocabularies. After the shock Americans felt when the Soviets launched the first space satellite (Sputnik) in 1957, criticism of the schools swelled into loud demands for a renewed emphasis on content mastery.
The insistence on cognitive performance and excellence accomplished four things. It increased competitive academic pressures on students at all levels. It stimulated serious and sustained interest in preschool education, which manifested itself in various ways from the revival of the Montessori method in the 1960s to the preschool television series Sesame Street in 1969. In addition, it created a new interest in testing, this time in such forms as national assessments of student performance, experiments with programmed materials, and attempts to gauge when children could begin to read. And it stimulated interest in the application of technology and instructional systems to education as a means of improving student instruction. It was practical to open up new avenues of education… the United States was in competition with the Soviet Union.
The Space Race was well on its way and America needed to change the way they learned. And practicality was the key. From the 18th century onward, as knowledge of the world increased, new subjects had been added and old ones split up into branches. Later, new combinations of courses resulted from the attempt to put the scattered pieces of knowledge back together again. The purpose was to make knowledge more rational and meaningful so that it could be understood instead of mechanically memorized. It also encouraged young learners to begin to think and inquire as scholars do.
In other words, many of the new programs developed for use in schools, particularly in the 1960s, stressed the inquiry approach as a means of mastering a body of knowledge and of creating a desire for more knowledge. Resistance to the 1954 United States Supreme Court decision terminating segregation placed the schools in the middle of a bitter and sometimes violent dispute over which children were going to attend what schools. By 1965, when a measure of genuine integration had become a reality in many school districts, the schools again found themselves in the eye of a stormy controversy.
This time the question was not which children were going to what schools but what kind of education society should provide for the students. The goal of high academic performance, which had been revived by criticisms and reforms of the 1950s and early 1960s, began to be challenged by demands for more humane, relevant, and pressure-free schooling. Many universities and some high-school students from all ethnic groups and classes had been growing more and more frustrated — some of them desperately so — over what they felt was a cruel and senseless war in Vietnam and a cruel, discriminatory, competitive, loveless society at home.
They demanded curriculum reform, improved teaching methods, and greater stress and action on such problems as overpopulation, pollution, international strife, deadly weaponry, and discrimination. Pressure for reform came not only from students but also from many educators. While students and educators alike spoke of the need for greater relevance in what was taught, opinions as to what was relevant varied greatly. The blacks wanted new textbooks in which their people were recognized and fairly represented, and some of them wanted courses in black studies.
They, and many white educators, also objected to culturally biased intelligence and aptitude tests and to academic college entrance standards and examinations. Such tests, they said, did not take into account the diverse backgrounds of students who belonged to ethnic minorities and whose culture was therefore different from that of the white middle-class student. Whites and blacks alike also wanted a curriculum that touched more closely on contemporary social problems and teaching methods that recognized their existence as individual human beings rather than as faceless robots competing for grades.
Alarmed by the helplessness and hopelessness of the urban ghetto schools, educators began to insist on curricula and teaching methods flexible enough to provide for differences in students’ social and ethnic backgrounds. In this way, egalitarianism entered into the education system. Rather than keeping whites and blacks segregated in the schools, egalitarianism provided a way for the two groups to co-exist equally.
In this case, the standards were raised instead of lowered in order to promote this new equality. Previously, whites and blacks studied on very different levels. Unfortunately, blacks were not given the same opportunities as whites were… and they did not receive the attention needed to improve the environment in which they studied. Things changed, however, when egalitarianism raised the standards to promote equality.
Clearly, the American education system has changed drastically over the years. From one-room schoolhouses to acres of college campus… from Pestalozzi to Dewey… from simple religious studies to graduate programs, education has been influenced by many different factors, such as egalitarianism, the wisdom of the heart, and most importantly, practicality. Necessity is the mother of invention, they say… Just as practicality is the mother of educational reform.