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History of Education: Tools of the Trade

In examining the history of education in this country, it is important to look at the resources used to educate, to inspire, to provoke the imagination and to satisfy curiosity. These tools of the trade have evolved over the years, reflecting America’s transformation from an agrarian economy to a high-tech economy. It may be several more generations, however, before we can determine to what extent these new tools have improved education.

Even the selection of books used in the classroom have changed dramatically over the last 250 years. At a time when religious instruction is strictly prohibited in public school classrooms, it is interesting to note that America’s first textbook was probably the Bible. In the nation’s first schools, heavy emphasis was placed on religious, moral, and ethical teaching. But the Bible was not used simply to indoctrinate students. Schoolchildren were also encouraged to read the Bible in order to develop their reading skills. Teachers tested their students’ memories by encouraging their classes to recite passages from the Bible, and many students learned how to write by copying Bible versus onto paper. Following the Bible, the next textbook that was used was the New England Primer, popular between 1760 and 1843. A subsequent book, the McGuffey Reader, was based on the world’s greatest literary works. Six readers in all, each representing a gradual increase in difficulty, the McGuffey reader not only taught students how to read, but also taught basic moral values including honesty and charity. The readers were prized by teachers, who appreciated a text that they could use for students of various ages. In all, tens of millions of McGuffey Readers were sold in the 19th century, following their debut in 1836. In many rural areas, McGuffey represented a student’s only exposure to world literature.

How times have changed. In today’s schools, it’s common to have a large library filled with books specifically designed for children of all ages and skill levels. Often, a child can receive guidance from a paid or volunteer librarian about appropriate reading material. While hardback books remain a popular means of instruction, schools are increasingly turning to electronic means of transmitting information, such as computer programs, CD-ROMs, various high-tech software, and the World Wide Web. Emphasis is placed upon research rather than memorization, encouraging students to explore various subjects on their own. Some educational analysts, however, believe that schools have taken a misguided approach by de-emphasizing memorization as a key to learning. While schools are unlikely to return to the McGuffey Reader, there is a movement to incorporate more traditional teaching methods into school curriculum. For instance, some school districts are actually requiring teachers to use phonics, or the “sounding out” method of reading, rather than a “whole language” approach which involves more guesswork on the part of the student.

To a certain extent, today’s “homeschooling” movement pays homage to education’s past. The homeschool method often stresses the use of traditional textbooks which encourage the teaching of moral lessons in addition to the 3Rs. Some parents believe that the educational practices of the 18th and 19th century actually encouraged students to exercise better judgment and reasoning ability. In fact, a number of families rely heavily on the Bible for their daily lesson plans. By studying the history of education, parents and professional educators alike have the opportunity to learn what has worked, what hasn’t worked, and the best way to blend traditional teaching and high-tech techniques in an academic setting. Certainly, American education can only be enhanced by such attention to the details of teaching’s past.