What You’d Be Surprised To Learn About the 19th Century’s Educational Influence

The 19th century was a time of both change and solidification for the American school system. Old methods were improved; new methods were tried; and a somewhat cohesive schooling system came out of the mix that has influenced education even to the present day.

A major feature of education during the 19th century was the increased involvement of states in education. State-sponsored education gradually replaced the private arrangements for education of the preceding centuries. Largely due to political forces and economic stability, state-sponsored secular education replaced the religiously driven education system of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The intervention by the state in education was not well received by all. Religious groups had their reservations about a state-influenced curriculum. This was especially the case for Catholics, who resented the tilt toward Protestantism. The mistrust of state involvement in education gave rise to many private regional schools, which received the active backing of society’s elite.

In the late 19th century, many urban children were employed as factory workers, and did not attend school. Between 1890 and 1920, technological advances and economic policy changes began to change society’s view: children should be educated, rather than work. This allowed emphasis to be placed on the exclusive education of children during their childhood in America. A prominent system that stemmed from this new attitude was the “common school” movement.

Although Thomas Jefferson was in favor of state funding for public education, his ideals were not universally embraced. Horace Mann (1796–1859), often referred to as the “father of universal education,” was also an ardent supporter of publicly funded education. He worked relentlessly to secure support for a “common school” for American children that would promote equality, opportunity, and a sense of national identity. Mann felt that all children should learn together, and admission from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds was encouraged. However, African American slaves and other minorities were considered automatically excluded from admission at most of these common schools.

As a Massachusetts state senator and the first Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, Mann brought notable changes to the schooling system in the state. One of his great initiatives was professional training for teachers. He believed that standards ought to be set for teachers and that all teachers should receive prior training in instructional methods and practical training in a teaching environment. The first school for teachers was established in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1839. Mann also championed taking a proactive view of education, because it played a role in economic growth by allowing the training and preparation of an incoming workforce for industry and business. He further argued that education was imperative for a democratic society, a notion that is commonly held today.

The model of common schools proposed and established by Mann eventually became the model for schools throughout America. The common school movement resulted in an education system geared to meet the needs of a diverse population. Because states were required to take ownership of the education of their citizens, this model led to a highly localized school system. This meant that the governance of schools was largely left to the district and the state, with little or no federal intervention. This is said to have resulted, both directly and indirectly, in many of the school funding disparities that we see in America today.

Common schools provided the foundations of modern teaching methods and practices as well as the philosophy of education. Before the Civil War, teaching was generally a profession dominated by men. During the 19th century, the number of female teachers began to grow. Women had very few options for admission into higher education and equally few in terms of gaining financial independence. Feminist leaders such as Catherine Beecher, Elizabeth Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony were highly active in promoting the education of women as teachers. These actions laid the foundation for the education of both women and teachers in America.

All in all, the 19th century was a period of major revolution in what education looked like. Without the changes of the 1800’s, the American school system would lag far behind where it is today.

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