Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The History of Public Education

This is the third time I have posted this article written for The Utah Amicus by Jonathan W. Hebertson, Ph.D.

In viewing education in a historical context, it must be noted that for millennia education was reserved for a very select group of individuals. In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, literacy was confined to a tiny class of men known as scribes who served as secretaries and record keepers for their rulers. In some societies, such as Han China, the language was actually structured to thwart massive numbers of individuals from becoming literate. Even in the Greco-Roman world, where literacy was more wide spread than anywhere else in ancient times, only a small percentage of persons, primarily male, could read and write, while the masses languished in complete ignorance. Even with the rise of universities during the medieval period, and the revival of learning that coincided with the Renaissance, basic education never reached the common people. Even during the 18th century, when England was the most literate, progressive, and enlightened society in the world, the educational system, [consisting largely of the universities Oxford and Cambridge, and very elite private primary and secondary institutions such as Eaton and Harrow,] was closed to all but aristocratic males. Hence, for thousands of years, education was a closed door for the mass of humanity.

It is somewhat ironical and amazing to note that it was the former colony of Great Britain, the newly born United States, which became the first country in world history to attempt to extend basic education to the masses. Early in the nineteenth century, the people of the young American republic created the world's first free public school system by setting aside one section of each township to support the local school. Raising crops, harvesting timber, leasing, or even the sale ofthis land was used to raise funds to build a school house, purchase books, slates, chalk, and pay the salary of a teacher who could educate the local children at the public's expense. The rise of public primary schools was paralleled by that of free secondary institutions. The late nineteenth century witnessed a tremendous proliferation of public high schools from a mere 100 in 1860 to 6000 by 1900. These public schools, providing free, accessible education, humble though they were, succeeded in helping to build great intellects such as Abraham Lincoln, and transforming nineteenth century Americans into the most literate people on Earth. These achievements, and many others were among the fruits of free public education.

As the 1800s progressed, vast tracts of Federal government land were set aside to help the states fund public institutions of higher education. Between 1865 and 1900 over 70 of these "land grant" institutions were founded in this country including Utah State University. These "land grant" institutions formed the basis of our state university systems of today.

By 1900, free public primary and secondary education, and accessible and affordable higher education helped transform the United States into the world's leading scientific, technological, industrial, and economic power. This is a position which our nation enjoys in the contemporary world.

Today, unfortunately, public education is under assault on a number of levels. There is a movement afoot to redirect government funds away from public schools and channel them toward private institutions. While private schools are extremely admirable and worthy institutions, it must be remembered that for decades it has been the public schools and colleges that have educated most Americans. Utah's public schools would be particularly vulnerable to a loss of government funding. We already have the largest class size and lowest per pupil spending in the nation. Further, allotments of tax dollars spent on public education in the Beehive State have recently declined. We must reverse this startling trend on both a national and state level, and restore our public educational institutions to the status they deserve, or run the risk of reverting to the educational system characteristic of ancient and early modem times in which education was reserved for a tiny group of elite, while the vast mass of humanity languished in illiteracy and ignorance.

Jonathan W. Hebertson, Ph.D.


Jesse Harris said...

I see a lot of hand-wringing about what we spend, but nothing whatsoever about educational outcomes. Spending is and should be a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.

In other words, "spend more" without a valid reason to do so is a really crappy argument.

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