Education and Egalitarianism in America

The American educator Horace Mann once said: "As an apple is not in any proper sense an apple until it is ripe, so a human being is not in any proper sense a human being until he is educated." Education is the process through which people endeavor to pass along to their children their hard-won wisdom and their aspirations for a better world. This process begins shortly after birth, as parents seek to train the infant to behave as their culture demands. They soon, for instance, teach the child how to turn babbling sounds into language and, through example and precept, they try to instill in the child the attitudes, values, skills, and knowledge that will govern their offspring's behavior throughout later life. Schooling, or formal education, consists of experiences that are deliberately planned and utilized to help young people learn what adults consider important for them to know and to help teach them how they should respond to choices. This education has been influenced by three important parts of modern American society: wisdom of the heart, egalitarianism, and practicality... the greatest of these, practicality. In the absence of written records, no one can be sure what education man first provided for his children. Most anthropologists believe, though, that the educational practices of prehistoric times were probably like those of primitive tribes in the 20th century, such as the Australian aborigines and the Aleuts. Formal instruction was probably given just before the child's initiation into adulthood -- the puberty rite -- and involved tribal customs and beliefs too complicated to be learned by direct experience. Children learned most of the skills, duties, customs, and beliefs of the tribe through an informal apprenticeship -- by taking part in such adult activities as hunting, fishing, farming, toolmaking, and cooking. In such simple tribal societies, school was not a special place... it was life itself. However, the educational process has changed over the decades, and it now vaguely represents what it was in ancient times, or even in early American society. While the schools that the colonists established in the 17th century in the New England, Southern, and Middle colonies differed from one another, each reflected a concept of schooling that had been left behind in Europe. Most poor children learned through apprenticeship and had no formal schooling at all. Those who did go to elementary school were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion. Learning consisted of memorizing, which was stimulated by whipping. The first "basic textbook," The New England Primer, was America's own contribution to education. Used from 1690 until the beginning of the 19th century, its purpose was to teach both religion and reading. The child learning the letter a, for example, also learned that "In Adam's fall, We sinned all." As in Europe, then, the schools in the colonies were strongly influenced by religion. This was particularly true of the schools in the New England area, which had been settled by Puritans and other English religious dissenters. Like the Protestants of the Reformation, who established vernacular elementary schools in Germany in the 16th century, the Puritans sought to make education universal. They took the first steps toward government-supported universal education in the colonies. In 1642, Puritan Massachusetts passed a law requiring that every child be taught to read. And, in 1647, it passed the "Old Deluder Satan Act," so named because its purpose was to defeat Satan's attempts to keep men, through an inability to read, from the knowledge of the Scriptures. The law required every town of 50 or more families to establish an elementary school and every town of 100 or more families to maintain a grammar school as well. Puritan or not, virtually all of the colonial schools had clear-cut moral purposes. Skills and knowledge were considered important to the degree that they served religious ends and, of course, "trained" the mind. We call it "wisdom of the heart." These matters, by definition, are anything that the heart is convinced of... so thoroughly convinced that it over-powers the judgement of the mind. Early schools supplied the students with moral lessons, not just reading, writing and arithmetic. Obviously, the founders saw it necessary to apply these techniques, most likely "feeling" that it was necessary that the students learn these particular values. Wisdom of the heart had a profound effect of the curriculum of the early schools. As