(This post continues a series of posts about socialism. I thank this week’s ice storm for making the writing of this post possible by canceling a day of work without cutting off electricity to the home.)
In the Declaration of Independence, the Second Continental Congress affirmed that all human beings have three God-given rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Less than a decade later, the new government treated the education of children as a right. In 1785, Congress declared that in all the territories and incipient states of the USA, the sixteenth section of every township would be reserved for a school. A township is a thirty-six square mile piece of land, six miles wide and six miles long. A section of a township is one square mile. The sixteenth section would be near the middle of the township, guaranteeing that every family in the territory or state would live within four miles of a school.
Of course, a school does not need an entire square mile. Congress intended for portions of the land to be sold to raise money to erect a school building, supply it with educational materials, and begin to pay the salary of a teacher. In some places, this plan worked as Congress intended. In others, school board members sold the property and pocketed the profit. Sooner or later, most schools needed additional funding to remain open. Some townships established a tax to support their schools; many others required a fee to be paid by the families of students. In addition to instructing students of varying ages, teachers were also required to maintain schoolhouses, from lighting the stove early in the morning to cleaning the classrooms at the end of the day. They were generally expected to gather fees from the families, which they would often accept as farm produce or volunteer labor when families could not afford to pay directly for their children’s education.
The education of children has always begun in the family. Young children learned to walk and to talk by imitating their elders. In agricultural families, children began working with the crops as soon as they were mobile. Children learned crafts from their parents; in some cases, they would become apprentices to another craftworker in the community. Wealthy families hired or purchased private tutors for their children.
Over time, religious communities began to establish schools for their children. They learned to read and write by studying religious texts. They were taught songs and stories of their religious heritage. Martin Luther was among the first to suggest that governments should support such schools for the benefit of the community. Immigrants to the western hemisphere often established schools along with their congregations—this was especially true of Lutheran and Catholic settlements. In many cases, a group of Lutherans would build a school first and worship there on Sundays until they had raised sufficient money to build a proper church.
Meanwhile, as rural areas benefited from the establishment of a school in every township, American cities often entrusted their children to private academies. No academic standards had yet been set; any man or woman could open a school and call himself or herself a teacher. Sometimes men taught school for a few years while they completed their preparation to work as doctors, lawyers, or other professionals. Larger schools had faculties and accepted boarders from the countryside and from other towns. After the Civil War, many educators came to the southern states to begin schools for African-American children. At the same time, though, attitudes about educating children began to be more specific and more focused.
American thinkers perceived the value of public education to maintain and preserve a uniquely American culture. As immigrants flowed into the New World from many diverse nations and cultures, their children were gathered into schools and taught to speak and read and write in English. They learned to be good citizens of the United States. Instead of Bible stories, they were instructed about Christopher Columbus, the Pilgrims, and the Founding Fathers. They learned to revere George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; later generations were also taught about Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford. American attitudes included patriotism, respect for hard work, and the value of the individual. Tax dollars, usually from property taxes, supported education, so no family was required to pay fees. Private education continued among some religious communities. Still, the “melting pot” of American education fell short in some areas. Many communities used the tax dollars of white families to fund schools for white children while they used the tax dollars of black families to fund schools for black children. Therefore, even when the black children outnumbered the white children, the white children benefited from far better resources in their schools.
Around the middle of the twentieth century, public education in the United States was reevaluated. “Separate but equal” schools were disallowed, and classrooms began to be desegregated, often with children bused into other areas to balance the school bodies racially. In response, many families moved to the suburbs or put their children in private schools. At the same time, new theories about education changed life in the classroom. Baby boomers struggled to understand “New Math.” History and geography were replaced with “Social Studies.” New grading scales replaced the traditional A, B, C, D, and F. Formerly heroic figures like Washington and Lincoln were revealed to have had flaws and shortcomings. Schools began to offer mandatory classes on alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, and on sexual education. Bible readings and prayers were disallowed. Teachers fought for and obtained the right to train students in controversial theories such as Darwinian evolution.
Some families responded to changing school environments by withdrawing their children in favor of private schools or home schooling. A few parents sought positions on school boards in an effort to preserve education as they remembered it. But, at the same time, the federal government became more involved in the education of children, establishing standards to be met by every school in the country, and encouraging testing to ensure that all children were learning the same skills. Earlier schools in the United States saw their goal as rescuing the children of immigrants from their families and making them Americans. Now schools in the United States saw their goal as rescuing children from their families to free them from unfavorable attitudes such as racial prejudice, religious intolerance, and unscientific attitudes toward the world.
Because tax dollars are collected from all property owners to provide public education for all children in a community, public education in the United States sometimes is presented as a successful experiment in socialism. Freedom to choose private schools or home schooling diminishes the argument that American public education is a successful socialist enterprise. Private schools and home schooling are privileges that many families cannot afford. Arguably, though, their existence offers competition to public schools, competition which forces the public schools to maintain higher quality than they might offer otherwise. Many other political factors enter into this discussion, including school choice, charter schools, and discipline problems in the schools. Americans remain largely in favor of education for children as a right, not a privilege. But many questions remain about the best way to teach children and the best reasons to do so. J.