New Dimensions in Everyday Life

39a. Education

Aycock Birthplace
Oak Plains School, in North Carolina, is typical of many schools built for white children in the late 19th century. It was in service until 1915.

Demands for better public education were many. Employers wanted a better educated workforce, at least for the technical jobs. Classical liberals believed that public education was the cornerstone of any democracy. Our system of government could be imperiled if large numbers of uneducated masses voted unwisely.

Teaching America's Youth

Church leaders and modern liberals were concerned for the welfare of children. They believed that a strong education was not only appropriate, but an inalienable right owed to all. Furthermore, critics of child labor practices wanted longer mandatory school years. After all, if a child was in school, he or she would not be in the factory.

In 1870, about half of the nation's children received no formal education whatsoever. Although many states provided for a free public education for children between the ages of 5 and 21, economic realities kept many children working in mines, factories, or on the farm. Only six states had compulsory education laws at this point, and most were for only several weeks per year.

Massachusetts was the leader in tightening laws. By 1890, all children in Massachusetts between the ages of 6 and 10 were required to attend school at least twenty weeks per year. These laws were much simpler to enact than to enforce. Truant officers would be necessary to chase down offenders. Private and religious schools would have to be monitored to ensure quality standards similar to public schools. Despite resistance, acceptance of mandatory elementary education began to spread. By the turn of the century such laws were universal throughout the North and West, with the South lagging behind.

Under the laws of Jim Crow, the public schools in operation in the South were entirely segregated by race in 1900. Mississippi became the last state to require elementary education in 1918.

Other reforms began to sweep the nation. Influenced by German immigrants, kindergartens sprouted in urban areas, beginning with St. Louis in 1873. Demands for better trained teachers led to an increase in "normal" schools, colleges that specialized in preparation to teach. By 1900, one in five public school teachers had a degree.

More and more high schools were built in the last three decades of the 19th century. During that period the number of public high schools increased from 160 to 6,000, and the nation's illiteracy rate was cut nearly in half. However, only 4% of American children between the ages of 14 and 17 were actually enrolled.

Higher Education for All

Higher education was changing as well. In general, the number of colleges increased owing to the creation of public land-grant colleges by the states and private universities sponsored by philanthropists, such as Stanford and Vanderbilt.

Opportunities for women to attend college were also on the rise. Mt. Holyoke, Smith, Vassar, Wellesley, and Bryn Mawr Colleges provided a liberal arts education equivalent to their males-only counterparts. By 1910, 40% of the nation's college students were female, despite the fact that many professions were still closed to women.

Although nearly 47% of the nation's colleges accepted women, African American attendance at white schools was virtually nonexistent. Black colleges such as Howard, Fisk, and Atlanta University rose to meet this need.

On the Web
Five College Archives
Unfortunately you must click at least twice to be rewarded, but it is worth the effort. First decide whether you wish to visit Amherst, Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke, Smith or the University of Massachusetts. A click will deliver you to the women's history archives for that institution. Not every link leads to a treasure but many do. You'll find biographical notes on most of the collection pages, and the ones at Mt. Holyoke include images. For a number of good images, don't miss the postcard collection at Smith.
Hail to the Conquering Coed
Beloit College first admitted women in 1895, 48 years after it was founded. This well-researched, well-written paper examines the transition from an all-male school to an co-educational institution over a four year period. Includes a survey of women's education in America from colonial times and looks at the opportunities open to the first graduated Beloit coeds. This material was once available on the website of Beloit college, but is now only available for purchase in book form.
The Long Walk: the Placemaking Legacy of Howard University
A "guided tour" of Howard University, with compelling text and wonderful images. This site loses an owl for not allowing visitors to move at their own pace, but try to visit as long as your patience will allow.
Women's Colleges in the United States: History, Issues, and Challenges
This book examines the role of women's colleges in the United States from the early 1800s to the present. It reviews how they began, how they changed as more colleges became coeducational, and the legality of publicly supported single-sex colleges.
Report No. 12 of the Massachusetts School Board (1848)
A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people, must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house without superintendent or keepers would be on a small one.
-Horace Mann, 1848.
In 1866 there were 4 million freed slaves and 250,000 blacks who were born free. Howard University was formed to meet the challenge of training African American ministers to reach out to them in "truth and service."
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