History of Inequalities in American Education

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2015

71 Pages, Grade: 5.0




Chapter One History of American Education – an Introduction to Inequality
1.1. Brief Historical Overview of American Educational System
1.1.1. The New England – the ‘Pure’ Minds
1.1.2. The Southern Colonies
1.2. Educational Reformers at Work
1.3. Disruption in Education
1.4. Urbanization, Industrialization and Immigration as a Turning Point in American Education
1.5. Modern Period
1.5.1. Public education
1.5.2. Private Education
1.6. Following World War II

Chapter Two Gender Inequality
2.1. Two Visionaries of Women’s Right to Equality
2.1.1. Plato and The Republic
2.1.2. Thomas More’s Utopia
2.2. Gender Inequality in American Education History
2.2.1. Revolution – the First Step Towards Women’s Education Opportunity
2.2.2. Common Schools and Gender Inequality Simultaneous Development
2.2.3. Catharine Beecher – Critical Thinking, Integrated Learning
2.3. Further Steps Towards Equality

Chapter Three Racial Inequality
3.1. The ante−bellum Negroes history of the education
3.2. Effect of the War on Education - North and The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands
3.2.1. African American Education Dispute
3.3. Towards the Decade of the Brown v. Board case
3.3.1. The South of XIXth century
3.3.2. The North
3.3.3. Brown v. Board of Education




The problems of education inequality are deeply rooted throughout American history. In the South segregation was upheld in the Supreme Court in the Plessy vs Ferguson Case in 1896 which mandated that schools be segregated into black and white.

What is more, the educational inequalities reach out even deeper – not only did race and skin-color made difference in accesss to knowledge. The sex played also a vital role in it. The history of American education is written down by the numerous minor cases of women who were forbidden to learn, just because they were not born men.

Basically, in the North there were no segregation laws, but school officials deliberately drew up districts with the intent of segregation. Segregation caused inferior education for Blacks because the districts in which they were schooled in had less money. This meant that the schools could not afford quality teachers or sufficient facilities. It was not until 1954 when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, thus reversing the position it had held since 1896. By 1980 the federal courts had largely succeeded in eliminating the system of legalized segregation in southern schools. The federal government also investigated many northern cities and mandated that the school districts be redrawn to include minorities and in some cases ruled the busing of minorities to other districts in an attempt to make education equal between districts.

In 1983 a federal commission report entitled, A Nation at Risk, presented statistics suggesting that American students were outperformed on international academic tests by students from other industrial societies. Following this report the federal government began to increase their involvement in education and have passed reforms ever since to strengthened the education system. One of the latest reforms, No Child Left Behind, was passed by President George W. Bush in 2002. This reform challenges schools to achieve results that are driven by the students test scores on state examinations. The new law seeks to identify poorly performing public schools by requiring states to test students in grades three through eight annually in reading and math.

Education affects every part of our lives. For the majority of people education level determines income level, place in the class system, and even health. Without quality education in ones youth, he or she is quickly at a severe disadvantage then a peer who receives one. In doing this research the author of this thesis has found the most important obstacles in the history of American education. in order to present what factors led to such a situation in American schools, the author decided to divide the paper in three following parts – each discussing different aspect of inequalities found in educational history.

The first chapter titled American Education History – an Introduction to Inequality is devoted to discribing the ups and downs of the history that led and shaped the American educational system. It was a fascinating experience to delve deeper into various facts and data regarding the politics and thoughts behind the reasons to build up the system that would educate only the chosen ones.

Chapter Two – Gender Inequality is a bitter part of the research while it can be seen as “a continuous effort to move from the periphery to the mainstream in both formal institutions and informal opportunities”[1] This chapter focuses on the various aspects of the female’s education in America and complex processes which led to public accessibility of learning institution to the ‘weaker sex’. The author will present that women through ages felt that they should be allowed to educate, they had this dire need to know more and to be equal. Interestingly, through ages there were also men who thought that this right should be given to women.

The final chapter Three tackling Racial Inequality is another sad page in an educational history while despite the fact that American education has provided unprecedented educational opportunities, some groups of Americans have benefited from the system more than others. By 1871 every State had a system of free schools; attendance in most of them was compulsory. Except for the single aspect that was not to be discussed – the children colored black and their need to be educated as well.

Throughout the paper, the author tried to show that both the racial and sexual progress in education is neither inevitable nor continuous. A period of arrested justice in education for the women and other than white nationalities need not become permanent. The progress toward equality depends on the action or inaction of people in power and people out of power.

Elwood Cubberly, a turn-of the century historian, stated that schools should be like factories. Referring to the teachers as the factory workers and the students as the raw material to be turned into the product which was to meet the specifications of the needs of the twentieth century.

It is obvious that within the past decades there has been a great deal of work on the way in which social inequalities are maintained through schools. There has been work on schooling and student social class, race, and gender. It is author’s best hope that this paper will shed some light on numerous problems that the American educational system met on its bumpy roads and appreciate the value of uniterrupted access to anyone to the knowledge which mostly is the case nowadays.

Chapter One History of American Education – an Introduction to Inequality

“The origins of education stretch back millions of years to the development of the first primitive vertebrates, which instinctively taught their young the techniques of survival: how to find food and how to defend themselves against predators. Over time, successful education has consistently proved critical to the survival of the individual and the entire species; unsuccessful education has inevitably led to extinction—of many human as well as subhuman species.”[2]

Education of the above mentioned primitive vertebrates as well as modern man begins shortly after childbirth, when parents step-by-step pass on their knowledge, values and skills that allow their children to live and operate safely and efficiently in a society and make self-enhancing decisions.

In early civilizations, children were educated informally, within the family unit, in preparation for the roles they would play in adult life - namely, man as hunter and fighter and woman as caretaker of home and the babies. With humans’ evolution into social beings and congregation in herds for mutual protection, education also evolved, and the number of skills children learned expanded. However, education evolved in other ways as well - and not always for the improvement of the species.

As Unger states: “Enculturation, or institutionalization, of education broadened and hybridized it to add cultural indoctrination to the basic skills taught for the preservation and propagation of the species.”[3] Accordingly, God-centered religions in some societies indoctrinated followers in the belief that women were weaker and naturally inferior to men. For example, Ancient Greece and Rome reserved education solely for men, although a well-known Greek philosopher and teacher Plato advocated equal educational rights for women in The Republic, his concept of the ideal, somewhat utopian state.

It is worth breaking a thought in this place in order to devote a moment to look closer at the problem of civilization as it is. The civilization which we enjoy today is a very complex thing, made up of many different contributions, some large and some small, from people in many different lands and different ages. To trace all these contributions back to their sources would be a task impossible of accomplishment, and, while specific parts would be interesting, for the purposes of this thesis they would not be important. Ellwood P. Cubberley, in his History of Education focuses amongst the others on this particular problem – the origins of the civilization which was the source of the modern education. In his opinion:

“The civilization which we now know and enjoy has come down to us from four main sources. The Greeks, the Romans, and the Christians laid the foundations, and in the order named, and the study of the early history of our western civilization is a study of the work and the blending of these three main forces. It is upon these three foundation stones, superimposed upon one another, that our modern European and American civilization Has been developed. The Germanic tribes, overrunning the boundaries of the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries, added another new force of largest future significance, and one which profoundly modified all subsequent progress and development. To these four main sources we have made many additions in modern times, building an entirely new superstructure on the old foundations, but the groundwork of our civilization is composed of these four foundation elements. For these reasons a history of even modern education almost of necessity goes back, briefly at least, to the work and contributions of these ancient peoples.”[4]

Undoubtedly, the works of Greece lie at the bottom and, in a sense, were the most important of all the earlier contributions to our education and civilization. These people, known as Hellenes, were the pioneers of western civilization. Exactly these Greeks, and especially the Athenian Greeks, represented an entirely new spirit in the world. In place of the repression of all individuality, and the stagnant conditions of society that had characterized the civilizations before them, they developed a civilization characterized by individual freedom and opportunity, and for the first time in world history a focus was placed on personal and above everything - political initiative.

Greek States developed educational systems in part designed to prepare their citizens’ offspring for what might come. Still – their educational system was devoted to the male citizens who were the ruling powers of the States and the country.

Perhaps Greeks gave birth to Plato and his Republic, nevertheless, in the Christian Bible, someone so enlightened and educated as Saint Paul urged Christian wives to be obedient to their husbands. Hinduism promised virtuous women the reward of rebirth as men. The aspect of earlier – historical influences on American path in women’s educational process will be the central point of the subsequent chapter.

Enculturation of education in some societies actually undermined the original goals of education – the natural survival of the species. Whether for good or evil, all modern education encompasses enculturation that teaches children the values of their society and the most praized forms of behavior in it. Churches have practiced such education for centuries, and state-operated schools have followed suit to a greater or lesser degree, in direct proportion to the extent of individual freedom in each society.

If one looks closer, it becomes obvious that the roots of American education reach back to the earliest known Western civilizations, which taught the religion and traditions of the particular civilization as well as essential skills for perpetuating that civilization. The ancient Egyptian temple schools taught writing, mathematics, the sciences, and architecture, as well as religion and national traditions. The Greeks added another element to education: the preparation of young men for self-government and leadership roles in their state and society.

Following this path, the first European settlers in New England, New Netherland (now New York), and Virginia formulated the following pattern of education: parents taught their children the range of skills they would need to survive on frontier farms, and churchmen taught the scriptures – in order to root off the barbarism which the church feared life in the wilderness would inevitably produce.

With the obvious population expansion and the consequent number of children increase, state built schools began replacing churches as places in which the young people were to obtain the ‘proper’ education.

Gary Alten, the author of American Ways, claims that “the American educational system is based on the idea that as many people as possible should have access to as much education as possible.”[5] In his opinion, this fact alone distinguishes the American system from most others, since in those ‘others’ the objective is to get rid of as many people as possible instead of keeping them.

Moreover, the U.S. system has no standardized examinations whose results systematically prevent students from going on to higher levels of study, as for example, the British system does. Through secondary school and sometimes in post-secondary institutions as well, the American system tries to accommodate students even if their academic aspirations and aptitudes are not very high, even if they are physically (and in some cases mentally) handicapped, and even if their native language is not English. However, McMurrin, quoted in Education and Learning in America wrote about the effort to secure equality of opportunity for African Americans which was being played out in the nation’s schools:

“In 1957, through the news media, the American people had watched nine black teenagers take their rightful places as students in previously all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, under the protection of federal forces. In 1962 the public had seen James Meredith become the first African American to register for classes at the University of Mississippi, also with armed federal protection. The integration of schools represented democracy in action, and the military support given to these courageous students made plain the government’s commitment to safeguarding the rights of all.”[6]

According to Lois Weis, students respond to school in ways that often contribute to their own, less-valued, position in society, thus contributing to the maintenance of structured inequalities. They create their own norms and valued styles within the school setting - valuations which may or may not match those of the school.[7] Nevertheless:

“Education plays a crucial role in both offering opportunities for individual mobility, and at the same time legitimating large-scale structural inequalities. The ideology of schooling in the United States is that it offers opportunity to scale the class structure, and the notion of an "open" class structure means that people have to accept their position as at least partially "deserved," as not simply ascribed or "passed on." Not every group or individual has believed this, of course, and the struggle over the racial state in the 1950s and 1960s, and the resurgence of the women's movement in the 1960s, are recent and obvious testimonies to this. Nevertheless, there are no longer any formal barriers to the ‘top’.”[8]

The overall trend in American education by 1850 was toward greater uniformity across state and regional boundaries and less disparity between rural and urban school systems: gradually, a standard system of education was beginning to emerge across the country that shared many essential features. But in one important respect, schooling in midcentury America was moving in the opposite direction, toward greater divergence.

The developing confrontation between different social systems in the free-labor North and the slave South manifested itself in sharply diverging outlooks on schooling. The structure of southern society had produced a very different regional system of education than that advocated by northern educational reformers, making many leading southerners not only indifferent but actually hostile to the democratic vision of public education emanating from the Northeast.

Therefore, at precisely the same time that the reform current was gaining prominence in the North, mounting attacks on slavery were pushing the South to adopt a defensive posture regarding its own institutions, fencing the region off from even the most modest reform ideas. By 1850 two very different systems of education had developed in the United States whose geographical boundaries corresponded closely to the battle lines that would emerge during the Civil War.

“Introduction of the North-eastern public school into the South was an important war aim of the North in the Civil War and found its place in the post-war Reconstruction program. The public school was to have a dual purpose - to stand in loco parentis for the freed Negro and to act as an entering wedge of the New Order, a means of bringing the conquered white people into ideological harmony with the victors.”[9]

In 1952, George S. Counts, assumed that: “With great reluctance and many misgivings we seem to be abandoning our traditional policy of national isolation. Although we were never isolated in any complete sense from the Old World, the great oceans east and west served for almost three centuries as powerful barriers against successful aggression from Europe and Asia.”[10]

On the other hand, Roediger, in his book titled Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past recalls the cover of a rhapsodic 1993 special issue of Time which showed “The New Face of America”. Within, the newsmagazine proclaimed the United States to be “the first universal nation”, one that supposedly was not “a military superpower but …a multicultural superpower.”[11] Moving cheerfully between the domestic and the global, an article declared Miami to be the new ‘Capital of Latin America’. Finally, Mouk and Oakland point out that: “Well into the twentieth century schoolbooks fairly glow with faith in the possibility of endless self-improvement for boys dedicated to American ideals. The schools taught girls to play a supportive role, Blacks to know their place, Indians to be civilized, and immigrants to be American workers. Until recently, only a few private institutions and schools outside the mainstream provided correctives to this hierarchy.”[12]

One could ask ‘What were the factors that shaped such different attitudes towards own nation in the span of only fifty years and what was the condition of education which shaped such people?’

1.1. Brief Historical Overview of American Educational System

Opinions on how best to accomplish the goal of a unified American people bonded by a common culture and shared knowledge and what it means to be an American have varied and changed significantly over time.

1.1.1. The New England – the ‘Pure’ Minds

Indeed, since the very beginning – the colonial period, Americans expected a great deal from their educational institutions. Just teaching the usual subjects rarely satisfied demands on the schools; Americans also wanted learning to serve other social institutions, ideals and goals. According to Mouk and Oakland:

“Such expectations invite disappointment and controversy. Combined with the circumstances of the country's history, they have also led to a very distinctive educational system. With its fusion of church and state, Puritan New England aimed at religious indoctrination, making even learning the alphabet a series of theological lessons, though maxims of 'good sense' for getting on in the world also received attention. American optimism shines through in much later pedagogy. The Founding Fathers hoped schooling would discover natural merit in citizens and nurture an elite to defend the republic from tyranny. People on the frontier dreamed education would be the 'great leveller', a compensator for their alleged inferiority to coastal society and a guarantee of democratic equality.”[13]

As it was mentioned above, to the Puritans who settled in New England in the seventeenth century and their colonial descendants, educating the young was a religious and moral obligation. According to Catherine Reef: “Only the literate could read the Bible and seek salvation, and young minds occupied by study were less inclined to harbor evil thoughts than those left idle”.[14] The responsibility for a child’s education fell on the given child’s parents or to the master craftsman, if the child was bound as an apprentice. It is worth to realize that laws required masters to provide minimal book learning, however, but busy work-worn parents, often neglected this duty, not to mention the craftsmen.

One question arises regarding this dominant power behind the education of the American beginnings, namely ‘who were Puritans and what was so special about them?’

The answer is that they were a group of people who grew discontent in the Church of England and worked towards religious, moral and societal reforms. In fact, not all the settlers who came to America searched for gold or other forms of financial gain. A great number came in pursuit of religious freedom. According to Robert V. Remini: “ Following the Protestant Reformation and the religious wars between the various sects and creeds, persecution of opposing religious beliefs became standard practice. In England the Anglican church was established by the monarchy in opposition to the Roman Catholic church, although Anglicanism retained many Catholic ceremonies and rituals. As a consequence, any number of Protestants felt that the Church of England needed to be purified of such trappings, and they became known as Puritans. Others, more radical in their thinking, felt compelled to separate themselves from the Anglican Church altogether.”[15]

The writings and ideas of John Calvin, a leader in the Reformation, gave rise to Protestantism and were the turning point to the Christian revolt. They contended that The Church of England became a product of political struggles and man-made doctrines. The Puritans were one branch of dissenters who decided that the Church of England was beyond reform. Escaping persecution from church leadership and the King, they came to America.

The Puritans believed that the Bible was God’s true law, and that it provided a plan for living. The established church of the day described access to God as monastic and possible only within the confines of ‘church authority’. Puritans stripped away the traditional trappings and formalities of Christianity which were slowly building throughout the previous 1500 years. Theirs was an attempt to ‘purify’ the church and obviously their own lives.[16]

It is interesting to note that these settlers made an agreement that they committed to paper, stating their position on government and the means by which they formed their society. The Mayflower Compact[17] became one of many more such documents to follow, by which the people of this New World spoke openly about the ways they could be governed and the principles on which their government would rest. Relying on a written document as an authority became an American custom in enunciating principles and practices by which the inhabitants in the society would be governed.

McDougal Littel states that: “The Puritans set up their ideal society - a religious ‘commonwealth’ of tightly-knit communities. Instead of a church governed by bishops and king, they created self-governing congregations.[18] Each congregation chose its minister and set up its own town. Puritan values helped the colonists organize their society and overcome the hardships of colonial life. Puritan colonists valued:

Hard work as a way of honoring God. The Puritan work ethic contributed to the colony’s rapid growth and success.

Education. Because the Puritans wanted everyone to be able to read the Bible, laws required that all children learn to read.

Representative government. Puritans brought their traditions of town meetings and local self-government with them to America.

With already mentioned population expansion and the number of children increase, churches were replaced with state-built schools as means of the education centers. Accordingly, local control over education developed early in America and remains characteristic of its educational institutions. Mouk and Oakland claim that: “During the colonial period, the British authorities did not provide money for education, so the first schools varied according to the interest local settlers had in education. The common view was that parents who were responsible for children's education. In the southern colonies, schooling often came from a private tutor, if the family could afford one. Each town tried to build a school in colonial New England and Pennsylvania.”[19]

The colonists expected the schools to teach religion, and reading skill was highly valued because it allowed people to read the Bible. Puritan Massachusetts founded the first American public school under a law entitled the ‘Old Deluder Satan Act’. Reading, writing, and arithmetic (the so-called three ‘R’s’) were the core subjects, and through them, pupils were prepared for local religious, economic and political life.

“Boston was the first to establish a formal school, in 1635, and nearby Ipswich and Charlestown followed suit the following year. In 1638, Cambridge set aside three acres for “a public school or college” that would become Harvard. Dorchester, Newbury and Salem opened schools the following year. Meanwhile, the Dutch West India Company established the first school in New Amsterdam, and five years later, in 1643, the Virginia Assembly voted to open the first school in that colony. Within a decade, schools were sprouting in villages across the colonies—with churchmen still leading most of them “lest degeneracy, barbarism, ignorance and irreligion do by degrees break in upon us,” explained Jonathan Mitchell, a leading New England minister who helped found Harvard.”[20]

One should not forget that ‘Old Deluder Satan Act’ was a landmark piece of legislation that established education as a basic, universal human right in the New World. As limited as now it may be perceived, it actually represented the world’s first universal compulsory education law, and it made the establishment and administration of formal schools an obligatory function of government.

Of equal importance is the fact that the first colonial law to call for the establishment and support of schools was enacted in Massachusetts Bay Colony as early as 1642. It required towns of fifty or more families to appoint an instructor to teach reading and writing to any child who came to him to learn. Towns of hundred households were additionally required to operate a Latin grammar school, which was a secondary school offering instruction in Latin and classical Greek for the academically inclined.[21]

Six years later, in 1648, Dedham, Massachusetts, became the first North American community to tax property to fund the building of a school and the salary of a teacher, at the same time instituting what would become the standard system for supporting schools in the United States.

The effect of the Old Deluder Satan Act was highly recognizable – within 10 years of its passage, all eight of the 100-family towns in the colony had complied by establishing Grammar Schools, and about one-third of the 50-family towns had established Petty Schools. Connecticut enacted a similar law in 1650, and Plymouth - then a separate colony - followed suit in 1658. By 1689, schooling had become an established element of life in British North America. Virginia had six schools, Maryland at least one, New York at least eleven, and Massachusetts at least twenty-three.[22]

1.1.2. The Southern Colonies

School development came to the South the latest; there were a wealthy white planter class who set themselves above the poor white farmers who lived among them as well as the African-American population, which was largely enslaved. The planters hired private tutors and governesses to teach their children at home, or they sent their sons and daughters to private schools in England.

“School development lagged in the South, the region most segregated by class and race. Young whites living on plantations practiced at home to be gentleman farmers and managers or ladies and household mistresses. Many were also schooled at home by governesses and tutors trained in England. After the mid-18th century, a growing proportion of tutors were graduates of colonial colleges. Parents chose these teachers carefully and treated them less as paid servants than as esteemed members of the household. In addition, dancing and music masters called regularly at plantation homes to convey a degree of refinement. The most elite families sent their children to private schools in England, often entrusting them to the care of relatives or friends residing in the mother country. Some boys remained abroad to continue their studies at Oxford or Cambridge before returning home.”[23]

From time to time tobacco farmers formed cooperative schools for their children, either building a one-room schoolhouse in a farmed-out field or converting an unused tobacco shed for this purpose. While some white children attended these

“old field” schools, a small number of poor white southern children were trained through apprenticeship or charity schools. The majority of the poor, however, learned from their elders to subsist by farming, hunting, and trapping. Enslaved African-American children were trained in the agricultural and vocational skills necessary for a life spent in drudgery and servitude.

Slavery was permitted in all thirteen colonies. Some enslaved Africans - and

American Indians - worked as household servants in the North, but the majority of enslaved Africans labored in the South, and most of these were field hands.

The eighteenth century saw little change in the basic patterns of education in the colonies, as Unger assumes.[24] It did, however, reflect population growth with a startling expansion in the number of schools and colleges and a shift in the curriculum from the religious to the practical, with the introduction of courses on mechanics, agriculture, commerce and business to meet the needs of an expanding society and nation. With the industrial revolution gaining its peak, American colonists required that schools should teach their children courses needed to exploit the wilderness. And the country was visibly growing: “By the 1730s, 13 English colonies were thriving along the eastern seaboard of North America. The colonial economies were growing and the population was increasing dramatically. In fact, the American population was doubling every twenty-five years.”[25]

Interestingly, Indians numbered among the first students admitted to Dartmouth College, one of several colleges established during the colonial period, which was founded in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1769. The Harvard College, founded in Massachusetts and the first in the South - the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia, founded in 1693. Together with Dartmouth College, these colleges limited acceptance to men, because it was thought that only males possessed the intellectual potential needed to pursue advanced learning, and they offered courses of study that emphasized theology and classical languages.[26]

In addition, there was one more social group which was forbidden the formal education – those were the American women. Therefore, Unger points out:

“Education, however, was usually reserved for white males from families who could afford to pay the required school fees. Although some girls were allowed to attend petty school, they were not permitted to attend grammar school or college, and what education they did receive was limited to the “domestic arts,” centering around skills needed for nurturing infants and maintaining the household. Even the expanded role of women necessitated by life in the colonial wilderness did little to expand women’s access to formal education.”[27]

Such an approach towards women was rooted in English common law which was clear about the fact that: “Husband and wife are one, and man is the one”.[28] Girls, like boys, were the property of their fathers, and women became the property of their husbands, having no control of their persons or their children, no right to own land or money and obviously - no access to an academic education. The domestic arts that they learned dealt with child upbringing and household maintenance; the ornamental arts included singing, dancing and other skills to amuse husbands and ‘ornament’ their households.

Blacks and their children were also denied almost all education, despite efforts of school reformers such as Anthony Benezet. The only formal instruction they received was a limited simplistic biblical studies that reinforced the notion that people of color were inferior beings, descended from Ham and condemned by God to serve the white man in perpetuity. A few benevolent slaveholders - notably George Washington - taught some of their slaves basic skills such as carpentry and bricklaying.

1.2. Educational Reformers at Work

Faith-based education began to fall out of favor as relations with Great Britain deteriorated and the colonies moved toward independence. The ideas of the Enlightenment, a European philosophical movement based on individual rights, reason, and observable reality, influenced political leaders such as Thomas Jefferson. In 1779, during the American Revolution, Jefferson submitted to the Virginia Assembly a plan for a statewide school system that excluded religion from the curriculum.[29] Preoccupied with wartime matters, the assembly rejected Jefferson’s plan, but Americans continued to consider how best to educate the populace after the Revolution ended and the United States was an independent nation.

Ironically, independence brought few changes to American education, despite demands from some humanistic signers of the Constitution for a national system of free, universal public education. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush all favored the establishment of “a national school system that would ensure elementary school education for all children and allow all who passed competitive examinations to progress, respectively, to grammar school, college, and, for an elite few, to a national university that would prepare them for national leadership”[30] - a system similar to the one Plato outlined in his Republic. Successful completion of national university was to have been a prerequisite for service in all federal elective offices, including Congress and the White House.

The proposal was immediately defeated by southerners, who feared that education of slaves would lead to manumission, and by northern industrialists, who profited from child labor and indentured female workers. As a result, the Constitution omitted all mention of education and, under the Tenth Amendment, left the question to the states. The latter, in turn, left education in the hands of local communities, and ultimately to parents. Few of them could actually afford not to take advantage of their children’s earning power, and formal schooling declined in the early decades of the republic.

“By the middle of the 19th century, some cities and large towns, including Boston and Quincy, Massachusetts, built multi-room schools and divided the pupils into grades, according to age and achievement. Going to school remained a voluntary activity, though, and it was not unusual for children to interrupt or terminate their education to work on the family farm or in a factory.”[31]

Meanwhile, Horace Mann and Henry Barnard established the first statewide public school systems that guaranteed free, universal elementary school education in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, in this way allowing the first black and poor white children to attend school and acquire basic literacy and numeracy skills. Although children continued to represent the cheapest and most profitable form of labor force, some industrialists discovered that illiterate worker might hurt the quality of their products and gradually cost them important shares within the international markets.

Consequently, many of the factory owners responded by throwing their support to Mann and other educational reformers. In 1852, Massachusetts enacted the nation’s first law making school attendance compulsory for at least fourteen weeks a year for all children between the ages of eight and fourteen.[32]

However, Mann did not stop here and carried on his campaign so that eventually he forced the government to lengthen the school year, add ‘practical’ subjects, raise teachers’ salaries and provide professional teacher-training.[33]

“By the Civil War, all states accepted the principle of tax-supported, free elementary schools. Every state had such schools in some places, but most teachers were poorly trained, and the quality of the schools was considerably lower in the South and West. Most children went to school sporadically or not at all. In the North only one out of six White children attended public school in 1860. In the South, the figure was one out of seven, and it was illegal to give slaves schooling.”[34]

At the time, public opinion rejected the idea of mandatory school attendance, mainly due to the fact that most people believed family, rather than government, should bear the responsibility for education. Moreover, most parents simply needed their children’s labor or wages to support the family budget. Public secondary education was available at some 300 ‘free academies’ across the nation, for those people who were able to spare their children’s contributions to the family time and economy.

It is worth remarking here that in New England, Catherine Beecher, Emma Willard and Mary Lyon were promoting the cause of women’s education. In 1821, Emma Willard established the first female academy that offered an educational equivalent to that which men received. In 1823, Catherine Beecher opened a comparable academy in Hartford, and over the next twenty years she helped to open the teaching profession to women. In 1837, Mary Lyon established the world’s first college for women at Mount Holyoke, Massachusetts.[35]

As the states abolished established religions after the Revolution, church and state became separate. Only gradually, however, Protestant instruction influence disappeared from public schools’ curriculum. In the North and Midwest, immigrant groups began to establish parochial, meaning private, church-related, elementary and secondary schools in the 1840s to preserve their ethnic heritage and avoid pressures to assimilate in public schools.


[1] Linda Eisenmann, Historical Dictionary of Women's Education in the United States. p. xi.

[2] H. G. Unger, Encyclopedia of American Education. p. xv.

[3] Ibid.

[4] E. P. Cubberley, The History of Education. pp. 14-15.

[5] G. Alten, American Ways, p. 54.

[6] C. Reef, Education and Learning in America. pp. ix-x.

[7] L. Weis, Class, Race and Gender in American Education. Contributors. p. 3.

[8] L. Weis, Class, Race and Gender in American Education. p. 1.

[9] L. R. Harlan, Separate and Unequal: Public School Campaigns and Racism in the Southern Seaboard States, 1901-1915. p. 3.

[10] G. S. Counts, Education and American Civilization. p. 7.

[11] D. R. Roediger, Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past. p. 4.

[12] Mouk, Oakland, American Civilization. p. 294.

[13] Mouk, Oakland, American Civilization. p. 294.

[14] C. Reef, Education and Learning in America. p. x.

[15] R. V. Remini, A Short History of the United States. p. 13.

[16] “Puritans”: Encyclopaedia Britannica 2009 (digital edition).

[17] R. V. Remini, A Short History of the United States. p. 14.

[18] Mc. D. Littel, American History. p. 70.

[19] Mouk, Oakland, American Civilization. p. 294.

[20] H. G. Unger, Encyclopedia of American Education. p. 16.

[21] C. Reef, Education and Learning in America. p. x.

[22] H. G. Unger, Encyclopedia of American Education. p. 17.

[23] C. Reef, Education and Learning in America. p. 7.

[24] H. G. Unger, Encyclopedia of American Education. p. 17.

[25] Mc. D. Littel, American History. p. 87.

[26] C. Reef, Education and Learning in America. p. xi.

[27] H. G. Unger, Encyclopedia of American Education. p. 18.

[28] Ibid.

[29] C. Reef, Education and Learning in America. p. xii.

[30] H. G. Unger, Encyclopedia of American Education. p. 18.

[31] C. Reef, Education and Learning in America. p. xii.

[32] H. G. Unger, Encyclopedia of American Education. pp. 18-19.

[33] Mouk, Oakland, American Civilization. p. 296.

[34] Ibid. p. 297.

[35] H. G. Unger, Encyclopedia of American Education. p. 387.

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History of Inequalities in American Education
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American history, education, inequalities, race inequalities, gender inequalities
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MA Marta Zapała-Kraj (Author), 2015, History of Inequalities in American Education, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/288321


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