The Prioritization of Education

Edward Everett.

Education was not always such a prominent issue in every state and every American community in the way that modern Americans experience. Horace Mann, who was secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education in 1837, ensured that all schools would have in common: “tuition-free, tax-supported, meeting statewide standards of curriculum, textbooks, and facilities, staffed with teachers who had been trained in state normal schools, modeled on the French école normale.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 453.

Edward Everett, who was the Whig governor of Massachusetts, helped Mann advance his agenda, ensuring that schools would be fostered and protected. See id. at 454. However, when a Democrat governor, Marcus Morton, came in, he tried to persuade the Massachusetts legislature to “abolish Mann’s Board of Education and its new normal schools.” Id. citing Maris Vinovskis, Education and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts (Cambridge, Mass., 1980), 221-28. He would not prove successful.

Democrats across America were suspicious about the education programs modeled after Mann’s, as they were wary of creating “a remote elite; they preferred to leave schools under local control as much as possible.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 454.

Gradually, states assumed assumed responsibility for education, as cities and towns grew and apprenticeships fell to the wayside. See id. As a whole, Americans in more urban areas obtained a solid education, while those in rural areas struggled to balance school and the need for children to work on the farm. See id.

By 1840, Americans had reached a 91% literacy rate amongst white adults, which rivaled that of Prussia, one of the most admired systems at that time. Id. at 455. When “the African American population was included, U.S. illiteracy at 22 percent compared favorably with the 41 percent illiteracy in England and Wales by their census of 1841.” Id.

These developments through the 1830s made education more effective, bringing literacy of Americans to be comparable to the more developed countries of Europe. Beyond that, however, individuals like Mann and Everett had ensured that broad educational standards be set. The Democrats would balance that ambition with ensuring states and local communities maintained power in the sphere of education.

Regardless, education was becoming a more fundamental piece of American life. The Whigs successfully introduced education programs, courtesy of Mann and his advocates, showing all Americans the value of a education.

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