Four Centuries of American Education (2004)

by David Barton

Wilbraham Academy Students The Junior (possibly senior) class of the Wilbraham Academy, 1890. This photo was taken from the 1890 Wilbraham Academy Yearbook. Source:
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Four Centuries of American Education (2004)

America is now entering its fifth century of educating students. For four centuries, religion, morality, and knowledge formed the core elements of American education, but in recent decades, a secularized approach to education has gained prominence. This title discusses the effects of both religious and secular philosophies and presents stories of early American heroes in the field of education. Throughout the first four centuries impartation of three essential elements -- religion morality and knowledge -- was the core of the education system that produced some of the world's greatest leaders in areas from science and government to theology and jurisprudence. In recent decades however the secularization of education has become the new American paradigm; and statistics clearly demonstrate that the more secular American education becomes the less successful it is academically.

Introduction Transcript, by David Barton:

America is now entering in its 5th century of educating students. For every generation of Americans through the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th and now the 21st centuries, a good education has been a major emphasis. But by what standards should a good education be measured? It must be measured by more than just technological advances. It must also be measured by how much content the students learn, and well by how well those students are taught to think, and to reason. Unfortunately, there is abundant evidence that while the technological advances in this generation has been significant, the --- of events have not been nearly as great. Consider, for example, this 1862 Geography test from Chicago Public Schools. Note some of the 4th grade questions on Geography:

1. How many degrees of Longitude are there?

2. How many degrees wide are the temperate zones?

3. What is a water-shed?

4. Name the principal animals of the frigid zones.

This represented, basically, 4th knowledge in 1862. That same year, this math text was one of the most popular elementary math text in American schools. Note some elementary math questions from 1862:

5. I insured 2/3 of a shop worth $3600, and 4/5 of a house worth $6000, paying $126: what was the rate of insurance?

6. How much money must be given with nine $100 shares, at 15% discount, in exchange for eight $100 bonds, at 2% discount?

And these were elementary math problems. This math book for elementary students provides exercises that the students had to solve mentally only. That was only in their minds. No pencil, no papers allowed. Notice some of the mental math problems for elementary students in 1877:

13. A boat worth $864, of which 1/8 belonged to A, ΒΌ to B, and the rest to C, was lost. What loss did each sustain, it having been insured for $500?

This was a mental math problem in elementary schools in 1877. Here is another:

16. On a farm there are 60 animals – horses, cows, and sheep; for each horse there are 3 cows, and for each cow there are 2 sheep: how many animals of each kind?

Or try this one:

16. If 7 men can do a piece of work in 4 days, in what time can it be done if 3 of the men leave when the work is half completed?

In 1877, these were math problems that elementary students solved in their minds. Or try a few basic History questions from 1882. History questions about the U.S. Constitution:

What is a writ of Habeas Corpus?

What is a bill of attainder?

What is an ex-post-facto law?

Enumerate the powers denied to the several states.

What are bills of credit?

How many elementary students today, or even adults in the so called modern and advanced generation could answer such elementary academic questions as these from a century ago. Consider one final example of the educational content of previous generations. It is this book: The Federalist Papers.

Written in 1787-1788 by three prominent founding fathers - James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay - this work explained to the citizens of the new United States why a Federal Constitution is needed. Even today, this work is still considered the single most authoritative source on the intent of the Constitution. There is currently a Law professor in Alabama who requires all his law students to read this book. And why not? Before they can become attorneys, they’ll swear an oath to uphold the Constitution. So why not learn about the intent of the document they'll swear to uphold? Yet those Law students, enrolled in today’s graduate level Legal Studies, regularly complain to him about the difficulty in read in that old book. That professor not sympathetically response: "I understand. This book was not written for someone in your educational level. This book was written for the common, average, upstate New York farmer of 1787. Perhaps someday you, as a graduate student, will attain the educational level of those early New York farmers.”

Indisputably, our early educational system was remarkable. In fact, since it was responsible for the longest ongoing constitutional republic in the history of the world, it is worth looking more closely what, for four centuries, made the American educational system so successful and so different from all others.

“The Philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next”

Abraham Lincoln


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