A very brief history of American education

Every now and then on blogs I follow, the subject of the state -of-the-schools crops up. This usually involves problems in higher education rather than in the public school. That’s partly because professionals in the public schools are continually battling a bureaucratized politics. Their problems are generally quite specific, with quite specific means of addressing them within the bureaucracy. Problems that cannot be handled with this way spill over into quite overt local and state politics. *

Problems in the colleges tend to be more diffuse, and involve social and economic pressures that apply themselves more to administrators than practitioners – professors can find their department axed or their specialty no longer wanted, before they even know they were at risk.

Some of the problems facing college professionals: how much time to devote to research or to teaching? How to deal with students clearly unprepared for their studies (not to mention those who don’t care)? How to deal with theoretical or ideological sea-changes in their field? The problem of over-producing graduate degrees in an era of dwindling job opportunities; and should education be geared toward broad development of an individual, or targeted job-training? Etc.

Those involved in the public schools generally acquire a general knowledge of education history in the United States in a required history course in their graduate programs. College professors, on the other hand, are only required to take a historical review of dominant theories in their field of research. So in my graduate program in English, we debated the relevance of New Critical approaches to poetry; the institutional politics that led to dominance of the New Critics got completely glossed over.

So it comes as no surprise that many with graduate degrees, when struggling with such problems, seem mystified by the question, ‘how did education get this way?’

What follows is a brief history of education in America, its origins and some of the politics and economics that have effected its development. This is merely a snap-shot, hardly even an article; but it might a be at least starting point for further research, and good to keep handy if the question of ‘how did we get this a-way?’ ever comes up.

There are important historical moments in the history of American education. First, of course, the founding: America first brought forth colleges as, effectively, Protestant seminaries for future ministers. The gradual introduction of training in such obviously secular fields as law and medicine eroded this original mission, replacing it with a general training for integration with social needs.

In 1862, the federal government established the land grant colleges in the states, originally intended for the development and dissemination of agricultural knowledge; but the federal grants explicitly denied that education needed to be restricted to such knowledge. These colleges became the foundation of the system of State universities, which by the end of the 19th century had begun to compete with the older private institutions.

Around that time, under various pressures to reform public education at all levels, various educators having political and social influence, hammered out what would become the fundamental curriculum of what we know as a ‘liberal education,’ encompassing the humanities and the sciences. Their primary influence was the academic system established in Germany, grounded in theories developed in German Idealist philosophy. **

This model was primarily aimed at research, and included a subtle structuring of the educational system as a whole along class lines. However, it experienced a severe shock during the depression, when vocational training came to be seen as necessary, not only to train for a continually changing job market during the recovery, but also as means to delay the entry into that job-market by young adults.

The next great change came after WWII. The war had seen the development of a wide range of new technologies. Some of these had been theorized or tested before the war, but the war required actual production and use. By war’s end, it was clear that whole new fields of industry were about to open up. However, the new technologies would need far more educated employees at various levels than were immediately available. This produced two results; immediately, the GI Bill, allowing men of middle and working class backgrounds the opportunity for a college education at little cost; there then followed an accelerating expansion in the establishment of colleges across the country. During the 60s, some 30 community colleges a year were built. **

During the Reagan years, however, it was quite clear that American conservatives had developed a grudge against the university system, not only because they suspected a left-wing bias among academicians, but also because they clearly regretted having allowed the expansion of ‘liberal education’ opportunities across classes. So the principle pressure the college system has worked with for 30 years, is toward restructuring the academy along strictly vocational and professional lines.

The story so far: the American university begins in religious training; expands to include training in secular professions; opens up to include research and training in agriculture; expands to include state universities; gets restructured along German lines but to embrace the ideals of liberal education; competes with vocational training for warehoused young people during the depression; suddenly explodes with federal monies during the ’50s and ’60s; only to get turned into a business following the ‘Reagan revolution.’ What makes American educational systems so confusing, is that all of these influences are still represented and still have impact. (Harvard still supports a Divinity School .) To be truly representative of the American university, you need to be a religiously inclined lawyer with a farm next to the factory you own where you research how to paint masterpieces using quantum mechanics.

Where we are now: The trends building pressure during the Reagan years have not proven the success that was hoped for them. These trends include: limiting of federal funds; privatization of state universities; reduction of community colleges to vocational institutes; integration of educational institutions with commercial interests; re-organization of departments along clearly professional lines (careers). It is not the case that the American education system is not vocationally oriented; on the contrary, many would say that it is too much so.

But here’s the problem : The American economy is not structured to ensure anybody of any jobs. On the contrary; the moves that American governments and businesses have made over the past three decades have been oriented towards maintaining a continuously changing market, and a continuously changing work-force. Among the functions of these moves has been: to rescind any expectation of job security; to dispel the hope that businesses will demonstrate any loyalty to their employees; to reduce the American worker to the level of ‘human resource’ – an additional (and unwanted) expense, indefinitely replaceable and always disposable.

In an economy of this nature, education targeted at training toward any specific professional or career goal can never deliver any promised results. Education was intended by conservatives to become business; but really it’s just a gamble. (Of course, if you already have assured wealth, you can get into Harvard or Yale, and have your friends and family buy your way up, like George W. Bush did.) Most ‘consumers’ (students) are basically throwing dice; come seven, you’re in a profession with promise (for a few years); snake eyes, and you’re working for McDonald’s.

There’s always been an anti-intellectual bias among the American people; but not only have politicians taken advantage of this, but the academy itself has not been able to maintain a strong unified argument for integration of education, research – even knowledge itself – into the larger society as a whole. And in an economy essentially structured as a big casino, people will play the game they feel they are most likely to win.

Unfortunately, the odds are always with the house.


* One of the blogs I follow is by writer with a history in public school activism, The Becoming Radical, which I recommend: https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com.

** After-note: remarking the influence of philosophy on education in America:

The development of modern education in the United States involved 1) secularization, 2) compulsory attendance, 3) diversity of curriculum teaching an accepted body of knowledge in fields believed to be useful for the individual and society as a whole. A major turning point arrived in the 1890s with the work of the Committee of Ten at Harvard, which effectively established what would become the curriculum of the public schools in the coming century. These were ten philosophers and scholars whose main influences seem to have been Hegel, Emerson, and Spencer. The model most education reformers followed in the 19th century was that of Prussia, designed under the influence of Fichte and reformed by the philosopher and linguist Von Humboldt.

The influence of philosophy on education continued throughout most of the 20th century; the influence of John Dewey and his students is well known. This influence helped shape the flourishing of community colleges in the 1960s.

It must be noted, that if it hadn’t been for philosophically informed education activists and reformers, the principle forum for education might still be the church school; science might still be only a study for dilettantes and hobbyists; and many of us would never have made it into college.

Committee of Ten: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Committee_of_Ten

Prussian model: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prussian_education_system

Brief history of educational reform: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_reform

Influence of Dewey: http://www.education.com/reference/article/dewey-john-1859-1952/

*** The boom in colleges in the ’60s was actually grounded in the report of the multidisciplinary task force, The President’s Commission Higher Education for Democracy, 1947: http://courses.education.illinois.edu/eol474/sp98/truman.html


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