When colonists from Europe first arrived in America, they had to decide what to preserve of their cultural heritage, and what to discard.  They also had to decide upon a means to preserve and build upon their legacy.  Their answer was the town school.  Within 30 years of the founding of the first settlement in Massachusetts (1620), all towns were required to hire a schoolmaster to teach reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as religion; larger towns were required to establish grammar schools to prepare children for the university.  In 1787 the Continental Congress required every new township to preserve one plot of land for a public school.

At the university level, Harvard (Massachusetts) was founded in 1636, and William and Mary (Virginia) in 1693.  By 1776, on the eve of its revolution, America had 14 colleges. By 1800 another score were founded.  By that time schooling meant not only preserving parts of the classical education, but also teaching the skills necessary to build a new North American nation.  Americans freely borrowed from English, French and German precedents.  The result was that by the mid-19th century the same school would offer its students Latin and animal husbandry, arithmetic and home economics.

As Americans moved west, their belief in schooling remained unchanged, but the settlements on the midwestern prairie and the southwestern deserts called for adaptation.  Each state, with its own constitutional jurisdiction over schools, determined its own curricula, standards and purposes.  Each community raised funds for buildings and teachers.  Although these factors led to considerable diversity, the role of the school in America was similar in all parts of the country.

It was the Morrill Act of 1862, however, that revolutionized American higher education.  The Act, as passed by Congress, granted public lands to states for the sites of institutions teaching “agriculture and mechanics,” to prepare students for “the ordinary pursuits and professions of life.”  These colleges legitimized vocational and technical education and grew much more rapidly than liberal arts colleges created in imitation of the older private universities of the East Coast.  Today’s great state universities have grown from these pragmatic roots.

In 1834 Pennsylvania established a completely free, publicly supported, publicly controlled state school system.  By the end of the Civil War (“War Between the States”) in 1865, education from primary school through university was becoming available to all, and had attracted to its service many of the best-trained members of society.  The public school became the vessel in which a distinctive American civilization was shaped.

In this role, the schools became an Americanizing agent for the massive numbers of new immigrants who arrived in great waves during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The schools, which taught exclusively in English, required students to take courses in grammar and literature, American history, civics (government) and civilization.  20th century America was the product of nationalism defined in part by the schools; its fast-growing economy was the product of a well-schooled affection for technology.

On the 19th-century frontier, the school, along with the church and jail, was the key public building in the community.  It was the settlers’ social center.  In the 2oth century, too, school buildings have been used outside school hours for community meetings, adult education, farmer training, youth recreation and social gatherings.  First spelling contests and recitations, later sports – always important in building morale where a third or more of the students might be new to the school in a given year – unified rural and village communities.  Town pride was associated with the town school’s athletic prowess.  Attendance at athletic contests brought the whole population into the school'’ life, helping to integrate a diverse population into a common community.

Colleges and universities, concerned with the “ordinary” callings of life, developed similar institutions for social integration.  State universities bear the name of their state, and their achievements are recognized as state achievements.  The work of their technical and agricultural faculties was to facilitate the state’s development.  Agricultural extension and home economics programs were designed to bring the benefits of research into the lives of citizens in the state.  Until much later, private universities stood to one side of this development, regarding themselves as national institutions concerned with universal truths in the classical tradition.  Endowments from successful alumni allowed them to grow, just as tax revenues allowed the state universities to prosper.

Although no other school system in the world deals with students in such great numbers and with so much liberality and persistence, American education today reflects national and social problems.  Because it is principally supported by public monies, it reflects economic stresses.  And because it is one of the vessels in which “America” is molded, it reflects clashing notions of the right pattern for the future.

For example, one of the most important issues in American education during the last 40 years of the 20th century has been curriculum reform.  In the late ‘60s academic curricula changed to suit student interests and tastes.  On the high school level, the “3 Rs” – reading, writing and arithmetic –were badly neglected in favor of experimentation and more “relevant” elective courses.  Resulting national tests scores, however, showed an alarming decline in student proficiency.  During the mid-‘70s, there was a marked departure from experimentation and a return to the basics.  Many states began to administer proficiency tests for graduating high school students.  This emphasis on the basics was augmented in the ‘80s by the realization of the need for training (or at least orientation) in more technologically based fields like computer science and communications.  Traditional courses in science and the humanities have also been reemphasized.  Between 1980 and 1985, most states increased the number of courses required for graduation.  The decade of the ‘90s saw greater dependence on courses designed to prepare students for the exploding technological and communication-computer revolution.  By the end of the decade, most schools in the United States had computer labs; many were linked to the Worldwideweb.  Students routinely used the Internet and E-mail to complete their research and homework assignments.  Catch phrases like “embrace diversity,” “bilingual education” and “declining test scores” kept education reformers busy in the final decades of the century.  Evolutionists and creationists also got into the fray with renewed fervor, testing the limits of the Constitution’s protections for “freedom of religion” and “separation of the church and state.”

Solutions for the college curriculum are more complicated.  On the one hand, students expect their undergraduate studies to prepare them for a complex technical world and an increasingly competitive job market.  On the other hand, educators trained in classical traditions lament a decline in the broad study of the arts, sciences and intellectual history.  At the end of the 20th century the debate still lingers; and, many students realize they can no longer count on their degrees as entry tickets into professional careers.  Many feel that higher education may be becoming more a source for personal enrichment and less a steppingstone towards professional success.  Graduate schools and other venues of post-graduate education are more frequently expected to provide the training and education for tomorrow’s job market.  But there are no guarantees: even though the growing economy of the last decade has alleviated the problem somewhat (the US enjoyed falling unemployment throughout the ‘90s), many find themselves in the frustratingly ironic position of being “over-qualified” or lacking the proper experience when they finally finish their long years of education.  Corporations, companies, even government agencies have been forced address these trends.  Wanting to hire younger employees (who can give long years of service), working in a rapidly changing global economy, trying to stay up-to-date with accelerating technological advances, private and public institutions are devoting ever-increasing resources to in-service training, workshops, and professional development seminars.  There is a growing realization that schools and universities often lag on the knowledge curve, especially in the high tech fields.  Too often what is being taught in schools is already out of date.

For all its many problems, however, the United States system of education has achieved much and aspires to more.  The effort toward equality of educational opportunities advances, and the campaign for excellence in education broadens.  There is little diminution in general support for a system of community-based public schools, and America compares well with the rest of the developed world in educational expenditures.  Above all, there remains a national consensus: from kindergarten to university, high quality education must be accessible to all.

United States Information Agency
United States Department of Education
National Education Association

      Other Essays:

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Control and Financing
Organization and Structure The Role of Higher Education

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