The Growth of Public Education in America

By arohmiller, posted on May 15th, 2015.
Filed under: News

Written By: Carl B. Westmoreland, Historian, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Education is a vital resource to people of all races and all world countries. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines “Education, discipline that is concerned with methods of teaching and learning in schools or school-like environments as opposed to various nonformal and informal means of socialization (e.g., rural development projects and education through parent-child relationships).”

We are told that teaching and learning occur in most settings with which we come in contact during our formative years starting with the home, the temple, the mosque, the church as well as the lessons that we learn from our parents and our community. We are reminded that teaching and learning have occurred in all societies, and the educational process has been used to pass knowledge along from one generation to the other in every country, on every continent. In Timbuktu, Mali, West Africa Muslim scholars pursued many of the same intellectual tasks of those performed by Chinese and Greek scholars in mathematics, history, and philosophy, and in the process expanded man’s knowledge base and enabled the world’s population to improve its domain. The University of Bologna in Italy is credited as being Europe’s oldest, and like the University of Karueein in Morocco North Africa those institutions which have existed for over 1,000 years in places with which most Americans are unfamiliar, underwrote through study, research, and scholarship what we have come to call “civilization.”

At the time of the European entry into the America to which today’s generation was born, there was no formal educational infrastructure, and there was a wide disparity of access to educational resources on the part of the working White yeoman class, and none for enslaved people of African descent, and little for those who were free.

William Berkley, the first governor of Virginia, and a graduate of Oxford University in England, understood that education was power, and those who possessed it had begun the first meaningful step toward achieving a degree of freedom through intellectual development. Governor Berkley and other members of his social, educational, and political standing were opposed to the education of the masses, and in 1642 Governor Berkley left us with the following,

“I thank God, we have not free schools nor printing;
and I hope we shall not have these hundred years.
For learning has brought disobedience,
and heresy and sects into the world;
and printing has divulged them
and libels against the government.
God keep us from both!”


Access to public education developed at a faster pace in the Northeastern United States (New England) than in the rest of America. The first steps toward government supported education in America dates back to 1642 when “Puritan Massachusetts passed a law requiring that every child be taught to read. The law required every town of 50 or more families to establish an elementary school and in every town of 100 or more families to maintain a grammar school as well.”[1] New England would again lead the public education pursuit for ordinary people by adapting what we have come to know as the Kindergarten that is still not an educational opportunity available to many children in America. The earliest schools in New England were inspired by those who became familiar with the creation of the Kindergarten. The German educator, Friedrich Wilheim Froebel (1782-1852) is considered the “Father of the Kindergarten for Children.” Johann Friedrich Herdart was also a pioneer in developing an early learning system which enabled 4 and 5-year olds “to learn to read, write, and count.”[2] America would come into its own educationally in the minds of many with the movement toward state-supported free schools for all children. By 1837 Massachusetts established the country’s first State Board of Education. Other states would follow in Massachusetts’ footsteps, and “by the end of the 19th century the common school system was firmly established.”[3]

The pioneering work that allowed ordinary children—at first white males—to obtain basic education enabled working class students to make tangible contributions as adults to the development of “industrial” capitalism and by 1861, 73 subjects were being offered by Massachusetts Public Schools. The curriculum had advanced from one that focused initially on basic Reading and Writing to one “that was top heavy with scientific instruction.”[4]

In the American South the economic model that focused on agriculture and the philosophy of people like Gov. William Berkley, Thomas Jefferson and John C. Calhoun limited access to learning opportunities for children of the White working class and in to the 20th century all but eliminated schooling for the children and grandchildren of the enslaved.

In St. Helena, South Carolina in 1862 the first organized effort at educating people of African descent was started at Penn Center by the American Missionary Society led by Laura Towne. The educational and teaching efforts of Ms. Towne and her mostly White female staff were met by resistance and violence from the very beginning led by South Carolina planters and the Klu Klux Klan. 100 years later the efforts of Ms. Towne and those who had been formerly enslaved resulted in residents of Clarendon County, SC joining in the Brown v Board of Education suit that resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that would reverse the Plessey v Ferguson decision of 1896 which permitted segregated public facilities if they were of equal quality, but the children of Clarendon County and the children of too many places in Black America read from books with missing pages, sat in unheated classrooms, and few of them had the benefit of Kindergarten.

The teaching efforts of people like Laura Towne and the good will of some church leaders, both Black and White, North and South, provided an educational opportunity for a Black Edgefield, South Carolinian, the son of a sharecropper, who would become president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, and a mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, who challenged us to remember “We today, stand on the shoulders of our predecessors who have gone before us. We, as their successors, must catch the torch of freedom and liberty passed on to us by our ancestors. We cannot lose the battle.”

Dr. Mays, the father of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Jesse Grant, of Georgetown, Ohio, Benjamin Franklin, Confucius and all of the parents of the world have come to understand and worked toward creating places of learning because they understood, in the words of Epictetus, “ONLY THE EDUCATED ARE FREE.”



[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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