Exploring the Good Old Days of American Education

Before picking over the bones of 19th century American education, let’s demonstrate that in general, the lives of our kids have objectively improved…


According to surveys from the National Assessment for Adult Literacy, the percentage of of illiterate adults in the US has fallen from 20% in 1870 to less than .6% in 1979. Today, that number hovers somewhere near .1%. The juvenile violent crime rate in the United States has fallen 70% since 1996, and the adult violent crime rate has fallen from 51% to 71% in the same amount of time. Teen pregnancy is down 71% since 1991.

There’s plenty of red-faced rhetoric to convince you “kids these days” are in a downward spiral, but that’s just not the case. If you want the facts, check out the links above. Whatever American adults are doing—whether it’s public education, society, the Internet, or something in the drinking water—it’s working, at least for our kids.

By the mid-1800s, most schoolteachers in the United States were middle-class women who had earned their teaching certificate in a normal school, essentially a two-year teacher training college. Then, as now, the vast majority of elementary and secondary teachers were female. This was partially on account of the profession’s low pay, but also reflected the agrarian requirements of early America. Men and boys were traditionally busy laboring in the fields (contrary to modern myth, farm work isn’t the reason for summer break).

In those dark days of women’s rights, community school boards could get away with paying far less to a female teacher while simultaneously applying a strict set of rules governing their behavior inside and outside the classroom. Among these “guidelines” included on a 1923 Texas female teacher’s contract…”not to dress in bright colors” and “not to loiter in downtown ice-cream stores” and “not to wear dresses more than two inches above the ankle.” These rules were absurd, but a reflection of their time.

The early rural American teachers were more than teachers. They were custodians, cooks, and caretakers as well. They were responsible for the cleaning and light maintenance of the school house, and often arrived hours earlier than students to heat the building’s small stove. They’d often cook small afternoon meals for their students over the same stove. These teachers relied heavily on older children to assist not only with running the school, but also with teaching: older students imparted academic lessons to younger ones.

Educational technology was, uh, slim. Blackboards were among the most commonly used tool, and were usually surfaces of smooth wood simply painted with black matte paint with slate eventually replacing the painted wood. Because the cost of pen and paper was too high, students relied on slate tablets and chalk.

The old adage of “walking miles uphill both ways” was true, at least in the days before school transportation. Since most rural homes sat on farmland, walking several miles to school even in the coldest weather was routine. A later start time for early schools, usually 9AM, gave kids plenty of time to arrive. Dismissal time, around 4PM, allowed them to reach home before dark even in the short days of winter.

As quaint as the one-room school house might sound, its reality was simple: it didn’t work very well. The low pay and heavy responsibility of caring for dozens of children led to a rapid turnover, with teachers rarely lasting more than five years in front of a classroom. Families routinely kept children home to labor for weeks or even months at a time, causing great gaps in education. And, until the 1920s, education ended at eighth grade, with a high school education seen as the modern equivalent of today’s associate’s degree.

These families can’t be faulted for the poor quality of early American education, because it was generally the best these frugal communities could do. The state of public education today is far from perfect, but it has improved, as have the lives of those being educated. And it will continue to improve, as long as our chief concern isn’t political oneupmanship or pinching pennies but molding our children into an informed, civic-minded generation.