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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XXIII. Education

§ 17. Early National Legislation

Our national constitution, the great political document of the era, does not mention the subject. Of the sixteen state constitutions adopted during the eighteenth century, only five treat of it, and these, with one exception, in the most general manner. Thus it would seem that our forefathers looked upon education, at least of the elementary type, as a matter of individual concern, or as of local interest only. Two enactments of the national legislature had profound influence on the subsequent development of education and represent all that the national government did for public education until the Civil War period. The third article of the famous ordinance of 1787 reads: “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and means of education shall be encouraged.” Two years previously, however, Congress had passed the Land Ordinance of 1785 by which the sixteenth section in each township was set aside for educational and gospel purposes. These two ordinances, together with subsequent modifications, ultimately gave as an endowment for public education a domain about as large as the Netherlands or Belgium or Denmark.

The local legislation of this period was chiefly permissive, and outside of New York and New England of little significance. In these states as elsewhere legislation was directed to the establishment of a district system of elementary schools. Such a system was the expression in educational terms of the most extreme principle of democracy. For it gave to the smallest unit which had or could have political organization and which could utilize a school, complete determination and control of the method of its support, the length of term, the character and equipment of teachers, the curriculum, and the textbooks. In time this system performed the great service of educating the American democracy to an interest in education, a belief in publicly supported schools, and an educated citizenship. Yet it also greatly limited that education and retarded educational development in other respects, in that the poorest teacher and the briefest term meant economy for the taxpayer, as irregular attendance and cheap textbooks did for the parent; while a restricted curriculum accomplished the same result for both these and the pupil as well. Such a system was destructive of professional interest and injurious to public spirit; but such no doubt was the necessary path to a broader and freer education if worked out in the democratic way. This explains largely the dearth of educational literature during this period, or its limitation to casual interpolations, private letters, legislative matter, or advertisement. One such advertisement contains in itself a further explanation of the indifferent status of education:

  • Wanted—a person qualified to teach school, and as an amanuensis to write grammatically for the press the composition of an old invalid. He must be a proper judge of securities for cash; draw leases; make wills; and undertake the clerkship of a large Benefit Society, with whom he must, by their articles, pray extempore and give them lectures. He ought to be able to sing and play different instruments of music, to teach his pupils to dance, and to shave and dress a few gentlemen in the neighborhood. Bleeding, drawing of teeth, and curing fire-legs, agues, and chilblains in children, will be considered as extra qualifications.