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A Look Back at American Education

Education has undergone quite a revolution in the last 200 years in the United States. With computers, distance learning, and CD-ROMs, children as young as pre-schoolers are using high-tech tools to learn about the world around them. But we can still learn much about education by examining the way our ancestors were schooled. In some respects, parents may actually want to encourage their school officials to duplicate some of the old, tried-and-true methods of shaping young minds.

Classrooms were far less ornate in the 1800s than they are today. The typical American classroom in the 19th century had few decorations and furnishings. The school design itself was quite stream-lined, reflecting the cost-consciousness of the farm families who sent their children to school. Communities in agricultural areas had little money to spend on education, and the school supply industry had not yet developed, so the schoolhouses tended to be fairly Spartan in appearance. In many cases, children were needed to work on the farm or at home, so schools were opened only a few months a year to accommodate their work schedules.

The schools of the 19th century tended to attract students from a range of ages and skill levels. Usually, there was only one teacher per school--a woman who had not yet married. In a number of cases, the pupils were actually older than the teacher. A teacher’s tools were simple, yet effective: slate, chalk, and a collection of books. Emphasis was placed on reading, math, penmanship, and manners. Given the problems of illiteracy, poor math skills, poor penmanship, and ineffective discipline found in many of today’s schools, school officials would be wise to study the teaching techniques of the 19th century. The teachers of the 1800s tested their students each day through drills, oral quizzes, and recitation exercises.

It was a time when parents and other community residents pulled together to build and maintain their schools. Farmers could be counted on to provide the wood or other fuel to keep the school warm during the frigid winter months. The parents themselves often built the desks their children used and also regularly cleaned and stocked the stable housing the horses the children used as transportation to get to school. In a number of cases, parents would also take turns providing a place to stay for the school’s teacher.

In contrast, today’s school system is much more centralized and, in a sense, de-personalized. Large bureaucracies often govern school districts. Given the demands placed upon workers by employers, parents usually have much less time to devote to the upkeep of their schools. Teachers are also obligated to have a college degree and special educational training. In some areas of the country, pupils attend school year-round, foregoing a summer vacation. Schools also tend to be larger today, often opening up their classrooms to the community. There is also less interaction between students of different ages, since schoolchildren are separated by grade. On the plus side, today’s schools offer a wide variety of sports and extra-curricular activities for students to choose from, although budgetary concerns often force schools to scale back on such “extras.” While the schools of the 21st century are much better-equipped than those of the past, they may be lacking some of the one-on-one attention 18th century schools provided. It’s truly amazing to think about the technological progress that has been made in the last two centuries, but the history of education shows that schools must retain a “personal touch” in order to be relevant in their students’ lives.