Lawrence Cremin notes that humans receive knowledge about their environment, the world about them, in five main ways. First is through the home, as babies turn into children and then into youths. Until recently, this was probably the sole method of education for most humans. They learned informally from relatives, friends, and others nearby. A second way is through a church, which teaches people how to relate to the parts of their environment that are unknown and in the hands of a superior being. A third way is through a formal school, where information is provided in a concentrated and organized format. A fourth way is through self-learning, by accessing content providers such as books, newspapers, and, more recently, electronic media. A fifth is the workplace, which teaches skills and other learning relevant to the tasks at hand.
Formal education was a basic part of the Puritan community. As early as 1647, the Massachusetts colony passed an act requiring each town — later called “townships” in other parts of the country — of a minimum population to designate someone to provide for the literacy of children. Rather than have some kind of overall supervision of education, the New England colonies left the responsibility for administration to the towns. In truth, because of the entanglement of Church and State, the responsibility for “quality control” was left to the local minister, arguably the best-educated person in the community. Effective separation did not come until 1789.
There were no qualifications for teachers besides religious ones, and the obvious corollary was that they had to be literate. Because of the practical need for land surveyors, some mathematics was desirable as well. Education was generally done in someone’s home, and children of all ages were mixed together, often with the older ones helping to instruct the younger ones. Often, though, the older children went to school only in winter, when they were not needed as much at the farm, while the younger ones went in summer, to get them out of the way during the busy time. The schools were supported by taxation and tuition, as the method of voluntary donations had not worked well among the cash-strapped colonists.
The needs of the society at the time required most children to learn trades useful for a farming community. Education beyond elementary school was more restricted, with most young people apprenticed to learn work skills or simply following their parents into trades. Young women received less education and had few options to pursue besides the domestic arts. In 1821, Boston opened an “English” high school for boys who did not intend to go on to college, and in 1826 opened a female high school. There were also some opportunities for higher education — Harvard, for instance, was created in 1636, shortly after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as a school for ministerial training, though its graduates gradually filled other positions as the society grew more complex. Yale was founded in 1701 to serve the Connecticut towns, and Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire, was founded in 1769.
Key to education was the availability of printed works. Printing in New England began around 1636 in Massachusetts Bay with a psalm book. In the late 1680s, Benjamin Harris produced The New England Primer, based on a Protestant catechism; it became the most popular textbook of its time, and was still being printed and sold in many American colonies as late as 1766. The first successful newspaper was the Boston News Letter, which appeared in 1704, two years before Benjamin Franklin, America’s most famous printer, was born there. At first, printed materials were generally purchased from Britain and shipped over — by 1720, there were only eight printing shops in the American colonies: five in Boston, one in New London, Connecticut, one in New York City, and one in Philadelphia. After the 1720s, however, there was a rapid growth in printing, including newspapers, and more presses were put into use. Much of what was printed, outside of government notices, were republished books from British sources, primers and chapbooks, and even a cookbook.
By the time of the Revolution, there were three types of schools in New England: “petty,” held in homes or small schoolhouses and limited to one or two years of learning to read and write; “grammar,” held in more formal buildings such as day schools or boarding schools and consisting of six or seven years of training in languages such as Latin and Greek; and “colleges,” such as Harvard and Yale, where the education gradually broadened from theology into a variety of subjects, such as science and law — although, for the most part, law was still learned in a semi-apprenticeship fashion, by “reading” in the office of a practicing lawyer; medicine had even fewer formal requirements.
Enter Horace Mann
Horace Mann was born in Franklin, Massachusetts, on the border with Rhode Island, in 1796. He went to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, graduating in 1819 and tutoring there for two years. He then went to the Law School at Litchfield, Connecticut, which produced the most prominent of New England lawyers at the time. He was a successful Massachusetts legislator and lawyer who combined an enthusiasm for railroads and water technology with that for social causes such as mental asylums and education.
At the time, towns such as Lowell and Boston were developing school systems. Lowell, by 1840, was judged as having “built one of the most complete systems of public schooling in any community its size”. Meanwhile, in rural areas, the support of schools, legislated or not, was poor and declining, especially as the impact on agricultural prices of the Erie Canal and then the railroads added to the pressures of overcrowding on poor land. This was of concern to manufacturers in the mill towns, who needed literate and numerate employees, especially women, who generally flocked in from rural areas, but the turnover was high, as they would leave as soon as they had saved enough to bring a dowry to a marriage. The mills and the railroads also needed engineers and surveyors, men who could not be trained in these pursuits without a basic education.
With this concern in mind, in 1837, manufacturer Edmund Dwight approached Horace Mann, then a State legislator, to act as secretary for the new Massachusetts Board of Education. Mann’s own goals included the interests of mill owners in an educated workforce, but were also loftier. Mann was convinced that general literacy, regardless of faith, would create good citizens. To that end, he was a proponent of “common schools,” meaning a school that was common to all the people, as opposed to a school for the common people, which would leave the elite free to pay for better schools for their children, if they preferred.
Mann’s focus was on the primary school, after which the role of the State should stop. This notion was quickly outdated, as John D. Pierce, a New Hampshire preacher, in discussions with Isaac Crary, a Connecticut-born lawyer, both living in Marshall, Michigan, devised a whole public system for the proposed new State. Crary was also instrumental in getting a clause inserted into the new constitution that was unique in the constitutions of the States emerging from the Northwest Territory in that it provided for a comprehensive State educational system. Pierce was named Michigan’s first superintendent of public education in July 1836.
Mann felt that schooling should be compulsory and that schools should admit students of both sexes. Their teachers needed to be trained and schoolhouses should be well designed and well supplied with materials, and there should be free public libraries in each town. He spent twelve years meeting with citizens all over the Commonwealth, and produced annual reports that formed the intellectual underpinnings that led to the acceptance of a relatively standardized set of school systems in most of the country. Mann succeeded in reforming the Massachusetts system and, despite political controversies and Michigan’s claims to the contrary, he is considered the “Father of the American Public School System”.