A History of American Education in the 1800s

Updated on January 21, 2020
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Luke Holm earned bachelor degrees in English and Philosophy from NIU. He is a middle school teacher and a creative writer.

Modern Education Systems

As we look back on history, we see that schools were not always the casual, fun-filled days of learning that many are today. Nowadays, twenty-first-century students wear their pajamas to class; the day is intertwined with food-flying lunch periods, basketball games during recess, and P.E. classes resembling elementary athletics. Compared to the education system in the 1800s, today's schools are a parade.

Logan Non-vested (non-Government funded) School, est. 1870

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Modern vs. Antiquated Education Systems

If an educator from the mid to late 1800s saw schools as they are today, they would likely see them as trivial learning environments, lacking a solid foundation, and devoid of all respect for the higher levels of education. In fact, they might think that their efforts in the past were futile, possibly arguing that the purpose of education has been lost.

Today, we know that this is not true. We understand that education is evolving and changing within the times. Education has taken a new course. To put it simply, the older, rudimentary (or perhaps direct) styles of teaching have given way to more constructive (and perhaps inclusive) learning environments.

Like most aspects of society, the education system was not always as it is today. The first high schools dealt with the first teachers and their attempts to enlighten the first wave of learners. These pioneers of education, as teachers, had to understand why it was important for the next generation to achieve a higher education. Then, they had to figure out what it was that they were supposed to teach these burgeoning brains.

American society was slowly becoming aware of what would happen if it did not pursue higher levels of knowledge. Industrialization was changing the way people thought about labor. Agriculture was still important, but capitalism was on the rise.

After realizing the importance of pursuing higher education, educators had to develop a completely new and formal way of how to teach pupils, which methods to use, how to achieve obedience, and what the eligibility requirements were for accepting incoming students. After this foundation for education was complete, teachers turned toward developing their lessons. What would these educators instill in the minds of young, early Americans?


Education: Why and How

Much like today, education throughout the 1800s was seen as a chance for a better future. A job in the new and upcoming world was all one needed to be happy, but the traditional jobs were slowly becoming obsolete. With new work tasks and environments, the question of why education was necessary was slowly revealed.

The question of why was the basis for all of American education. Why should young Americans become educated? Whig republicanism opted for the highest of lifestyles, and only through perseverance, ambition, and classroom achievement was this believed to be possible. In the new world of America, the educated Whig republicans must have seen the younger generations as uneducated, at least by their terms, because they hurried to better said-generations in order to keep up with the quickly economizing world, thus continuing the growth of their America. Within the system, they saw the values of conscience and literate skill as most important for developing a good education. They developed these ethical skills by integrating lessons on Christianity.

The question of why was answered. Now, the educators had to ask themselves how. How should young Americans be educated? Good consciences allowed for students to be on time and positive within the classroom setting; this reflected who they were as a character, a quality that would follow them into a respectable adulthood. With Christianity and God on their side, along with a stronger moral fiber, a stronger basis of education, and a newly influenced youth, how could America fail? The goal: an educated country. The basis: a good moral fiber and religious denomination.

Admission Tests: Which Students Should Be Educated

As the first pedagogues set to establish higher education, the question of how to begin was first on their minds. Where to start, how to teach, who to accept, and how to permeate such a diverse group of children into American society, was priority number one; bring together, endow the new beliefs and social aspects into the children, and assimilate.

With a goal in mind, the teachers put out a set of standards in which they would begin to sift through the masses of who to accept into their schools. Thus, the admission tests, Olympus, were born, “Admission tests were a major innovation in the evolution of public school systems ” (Reese 142). In order to be admitted into the high schools, the children had to be at least twelve years of age; have a good moral character, “Certified in writing by the instructors of the schools they last attended; and be well versed in Reading, Writing, English Grammar, Modern Geography, the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic, both simple and compound, Reduction, and Vulgar and Decimal Fractions” (142).

These were the rules for admission to Boston’s English Classical School in 1825, and thus the first hurdle of how to accept students was cleared. “As the majority of high school pupils before the 1880's were native born, the defining social characteristics of the schools for many decades was their natively bourgeois characters” (173). However, as the once public schools of these “bourgeois characters” joined a more pauper youth, young girls and boys of all economically fiscal backgrounds were soon learned as one, each with their own opportunities for change.

Discipline: How Students Should Act

Now that the task of joining the qualified students into one school setting had been achieved, the teachers were free to move on to phase two: order among students. As teachers proceeded with their jobs of educating a new generation, they implemented a highly regimented plan of discipline. Teachers taught almost in a sermonic tone that truancy, disrespect of authority, and lack of duty were seen as the topmost reasons for failure in life and would ultimately lead to a weakened conscience.

A student’s conduct reflected his class rank, and those going against the printed rules and regulations of the classroom would surely meet their fate. While the draconian-styled discipline of whipping, slapping, and flogging survived in some schools, the main emphasis was self-control, so as not to excite the bitterest resentments among students and to show that the schools were indeed a higher form of education. To this extent, the teachers still maintained order. They were required, “To keep a ‘register or black book’ to record delinquent behavior,” and, “Daily markings in black books and Saturday faculty meetings were part of a larger effort to maintain educational order” (194-195). Thus the school rituals of being on time, having the lesson memorized, never speaking out of turn, standing as one, sitting as one, and having books out when needed were rarely abused. Often if these practices were abused and, “The school principal believed that a pupil lacked ‘good moral character,’ the path to candidacy ended abruptly” (145).

With these incentives and such a rigorous aptitude test, the students rarely misbehaved. “The scholars were not ordinarily ruffians or ne’er-do-wells. Anyone who entered high school before the 1880s had already demonstrated some of the self-discipline and control of the good scholar and responsible adult” (192). With classroom control, the students were taught by routinely reciting verses and lessons. By the end of reform, the students were becoming what the “ideal American” should be and thence the teachers could begin phase three; creating student-teacher relationships, and proceed to what they would actually teach the students within the classroom setting.

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What Students Should Learn

The first lessons were immediately taught with an intertwined style of learning and religion.

“Educators taught pupils that knowledge was inseparable from the higher intelligence governing the universe and that intellectual and moral growth were intertwined” (162).

Early educators taught what they were once taught in their good English educations. There was no longer a question of why or how, but the question of what was to be taught within the schools now dominated. “Readers, spellers, and other textbooks had nonsectarian but religious foundations” (163).

With classrooms emphasizing that the “Bible is the Word of God,” it gave the educators a bit more control over their students. If students thought that being late to class would make them a terrible adult, and that only the virtuous entered the “Pearly Gates of Heaven,” they were much more inclined to adhere to set standards and rules.

It was taught that American society would prosper on these foundations, and since, “Many high school teachers and principals were evangelical Protestants and Christian activists” (165), not only educational development was concerned, but moral and religious development as well. Along with good educational and religious development being taught in the quickly growing high schools, the principal concern was the student’s character. The teachers taught the children how to have good behavior, strengthened conscience, punctual attendance, be dutiful, be responsible, and all other habits needed to grow up to become good men and women. As seen, the early high schools were meant not only for textbook education but were equally meant for educating young men and women on how to behave in life.

Reimagining American Society

Spawning from these structured rituals and regimented view of education, the students moved as a river does into an ocean, the ocean of America. Joined together for the common goal of learning and socialization, they were quickly emptied into the waters of the burgeoning economy that America was during the mid to late 1800s.

As the educators of the time may have seemed strict and uncompromising in their methods, it may have been the only way to create high schools during that time period. The educators always held the students first in their minds and hearts; they just wanted a better future for the next generation. In wanting this, the educators took up the task of teaching large masses of under-educated children, instilling within them the Christian views of the American culture, and then sent the children back out into society, ready to change the world.

These new high schools promoted the children’s integration into a new age of industrialized society. No longer would they need a hoe and seed to sew in order to survive; the children were now ready for a new industrialized era! Olympus prerequisites, academic ranking systems, rigorous classwork, and the internal belief of God brought into one setting, the high school, was the genius idea of the 1800's. Without these pedagogues of education, who knows if education would have flourished and evolved into what it is today.

History of Education in the United States

Works Cited

Reese, William J. "Good Scholars." The Origins of the American High School. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1995. 182-207.

Reese, William J. "Scaling Olympus." The Origins of the American High School. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1995. 142-151.

Reese, William J. "The Choicest Youth." The Origins of the American High School. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1995. 162-181.

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