Brief history of public education

A Liberal Dose


This week, I want to talk a little more about public education, in general, and give you some historical context. Let’s say “American history” in the sense of the U.S., started in the early 1600s with the establishment of English colonies in Jamestown, Virginia (1607) and Plymouth, Massachusetts (1620). Looking at it that way, for the entire first half of American history, there was little to no public education at all. If you wanted your child educated, you had three options: teach them yourself (which means you had to be able to do that), hire a tutor, or pay to send them to a private school. If you were poor, or even poor-ish, you lacked the resources for the latter two options, and it is entirely possible that no one in your family history had ever had the resources to equip them to get an education and “pass it down.” In colonial America, and for the first half-century of the republic, only upper middle-class and wealthy people had a good education. A large number of poor people were illiterate; a surprising number, though, had what we would today call a third-or-fourth grade education -  but very few went beyond that, unless (like Alexander Hamilton) there were wealthy people in their community who saw their potential and helped pay for their education. The result was predictable: only wealthy people had good educations, and only wealthy people ran the country from the local to the national level. Of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, in 1787, more than 50 percent had a college education; in America overall, only 0.1 percent of citizens had one.

That situation meant that working class people were a lot easier to fool and a lot easier to control.

Many of the Founding Fathers wanted things to be different. John Adams said: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”

From Thomas Jefferson: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” He said to “educate and inform the whole mass of the people,” for “They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” How? By establishing elementary schools and taking from those schools students “of the most promising genius, whose parents are too poor to give them further education, to be carried at public expense through the college and university.” He called such poor students a “mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country.”

I could never have afforded an education on my own. Without public K-12 schools, a public state university, and government grants and loans, I would still be mopping floors instead of being a university professor.

The first local public schools were established in Boston, in the 1600s. The first state-supported public schools were established in Massachusetts, in 1820, and made mandatory by 1852. Other northern states followed suit.

Know when the first public schools opened in the South? After the Civil War, during Reconstruction. The South has a long, shameful history of reluctance to invest in education for EVERYONE. A cynic might think that politicians and elites in the Southern past wanted to keep voters from becoming too sophisticated, to make them easier to control. Maybe I should have said “a realist.”

There was an antebellum exception: “The Five Civilized Tribes” of the South. Tribal governments paid the tuition of all children, and paid for the smartest ones to go to college. This is why Cherokees, in the 1830s, had a higher literacy rate than their white Southern neighbors.

But what does all this mean for today? Stay tuned.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.    


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