The popular agrarian history explanation for the lengthy summer vacation taken by most schools in the United States is inadequate and misleading. It evokes a sense of historical inevitability and shared experience which fails to reflect reality. In the last post, we acknowledged that, prior to the heavy mechanization of farms, children in rural, agricultural regions were, indeed, needed to help out on farms over the summer, but that they were needed even more in the spring and autumn. Looking farther afield, other nations with agricultural pasts, across Europe, Asia and South America, generally did not develop inordinately long summer vacations from school. Just as a concrete example, while in school in the United States, my daughter’s vacations lasted for over eleven weeks in the summer, from early June to late August. When she went to school in England, she was out for just over four weeks, corresponding, basically, to the month of August. Her American summer vacations were more than twice as long as her English ones. The United States and England have a language (more or less) in common, why not the school year, as well?
The English speaking settlers of the New England colonies were early advocates of education, and Massachusetts was particularly proactive. Boston town officials hired a schoolmaster in 1635, the Boston Latin School was established that same year, and what is now Harvard University was founded the following year. The Massachusetts Bay Colony also passed some of the earliest legislation mandating education for children. The School Law of 1642 required that the Selectmen of every town “have a vigilant eye over their brethren & neighbors” to ensure that “none of them shall suffer so much barbarism” as not to see to the education of their children and servants. Another act, in 1647, set up requirements for the hiring of masters (meaning teachers, in this instance), or the creation of grammar schools, in all townships, based on the number of households. This may sound very progressive, but the devil, as they say, is in the details.
Early English settlers, particularly Puritans, did not view education as a foundation for opportunity, but as a barrier against any competing religious and cultural influences. The Massachusetts Bay School Law of 1642, mentioned above, mandated that children and apprentices have “so much learning as may inable them perfectly to read the english tongue, & knowledge of the Capital Lawes.” In addition, it required that “all masters of families doe once a week (at the least) catechize their children and servants in the grounds & principles of Religion.” Heads of households were deemed to have failed in their educational duties if the Selectmen considered their “children and servants … rude, stubborn & unruly.” Under the law such young people could be removed from their homes, and placed with a master who would “force them to submit unto government.” The authors of the subsequent Massachusetts School Law of 1647, sometimes credited with establishing the first public schools in America, were equally explicit about its purpose. In fact, it is known to APUSH* students across the country as the Old Deluder Act, a tribute to its opening words, “It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures”. The men (and it was only men) writing these laws established schools to educate children for the protection of the colony from alternate world views.
* AP (Advanced Placement) United States History
Now, you may be asking yourself, where does summer vacation enter into this? The answer is, it doesn’t. Vacation was not a meaningful idea. This was a pre-Enlightenment society in which both children and education existed for for the sake of the settlement, and the settlement existed for the sake of a particular religious ideology. On the one hand, the New England colonies developed the model of the town school, often coeducational, and governed by a group, or board, of local trustees, which was to serve as a template for later development of formal elementary schools. On the other hand, while the curriculum might include reading, writing, and arithmetic, it emphasized religious hymns and catechism, and was expressly meant to produce biddable members of society who were able to read the Bible, and know the crimes for which they could be executed.
The early American republic in which Massachusetts became a state, however, was not a product of Puritanism, but of the Enlightenment and revolution. Thinkers from the newly minted mid-Atlantic states, notably Thomas Jefferson, reflected shifting opinions on education. It was still viewed as a means to a collective good, but now a suitable education would improve the state by producing citizens who were not only responsible, but rational and happy, as well. As governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson proposed A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge in 1779. Among other things, this legislation would have provided a primary school education to all free children, without charge. The bill didn’t pass, but we can see the beginnings of trends which still influence American scholastics, the idealized linkage between citizenship and education, and the reluctance of the citizenry to systematically commit to paying for the education of children other than their own.
Before we head back to Massachusetts, I’d like to draw your attention to one of the first bits of U.S. federal legislation to mention education, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, adopted by the Second Continental Congress. Designed to guide the development of the Northwest Territory into states in the new union, it was officially titled “An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States North-West of the River Ohio.” The far-flung northwestern frontier of the time was still east of the Mississippi River. We know it now as Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and a bit of Minnesota. Article 3 of Section 14 of the Ordinance begins by stating that, “religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Here, as in Jefferson’s bill, we see Enlightenment thinking in the overt linkage of education, government and happiness. Of course, the very next line of Article 3 begins, “the utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed.” So we also run headfirst into the gulf between ideals and practice.
While leading thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster (of dictionary fame, and the founder of Amherst College) called for universal public education, actual schooling presented a completely unstandardized hodgepodge of approaches and availability. Returning to Massachusetts, Horace Mann, the “Father of the Common School Movement,” received precisely the sort of early “one room schoolhouse” education that the agrarian explanation of summer vacation evokes. Born to a farming family in Franklin, Massachusetts in 1796, Mann spent much of his time “haying, planting, and plowing,” and attended school sporadically as leisure and finances allowed. This amounted to ten weeks or less of school per year. For those of you counting, his time in school each year was about the same as the average modern American child is out of it for summer vacation. At the age of twenty, Mann had accrued around 36 weeks total of education. Translated into days, this represents almost exactly the same number that are in a single year of public school in the U.S. today. At that point, he invested a hefty chunk of the $200 inheritance, left him by his father, in half a year of uninterrupted tuition at Barrett School. This record qualified him for admission as a sophomore to Brown University (try that today, boys and girls!) from which he graduated first in his class in 1819. The influence of Enlightenment thinking is crystal clear in the title of his valedictory oration, “The Gradual Advancement of the Human Species in Dignity and Happiness.”
Horace Mann believed fervently in the value, not only of education, but of universal education. He devoted much of his life to the Common School Movement. In this context, the word common was intended to signify that all people, regardless of family finances, social class, country of origin or gender, should have access to high-quality, state-supported, cost-free schools. Proponents of the Common School Movement considered government financing of schools a necessary investment in the common good. The government of the American republic was, ideally, elected by and from a range of people (all white and male at that time), and the economy was driven by the activity of a diverse workforce (not all white and male at that time). Common School activists pointed out that political stability, social harmony, and a functional workforce required an educated citizenry. Horace Mann expressed this bluntly, saying, “a republican form of government, without intelligence in the people, must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be on a small one.”*
(* Sensitivity to mental health issues was not even a blip on the horizon, clearly.)
At the same time, Mann and his colleagues had no illusions that Americans would plunk down the necessary funding for universal schooling without appeals to their immediate self-interest. He pointed out to working men that education could be the “great equalizer.” Knowing that the wealthy would be less enthusiastic about being equalized, he suggested that educating the working class would make them more competent workers, and instill in them a respect for private property and a desire to be law-abiding (and thus, nonthreatening) neighbors. Universal schooling also appealed to English-speaking residents of the northeastern states as a means of “Americanizing” the children of incoming immigrants, particularly as the United States expanded westward. It was evident to many Anglo-Americans that the structure and pedagogy of schools had the power to influence the identity and development (not to mention language) of “American” culture in the forming nation.
Thanks largely to the efforts of Mann and other like-minded individuals, many of the goals of the Common School Movement took root in Massachusetts and Connecticut. As reformers pushed to raise the caliber of teaching, particularly for schools in rural areas, training teachers took on increased importance. Champions of universal education established teaching colleges, called “Normal Schools,” for both men and women, to fill the increasing demand for professional teachers. Massachusetts was the first state to sponsor a Normal School, in Lexington, in 1839. A major goal of Normal Schools was, as the name suggests, to normalize the curriculum being taught by the the teachers they graduated. Particularly in the primary grades, the topics covered became more homogenous, stressing reading, grammar, writing, spelling, arithmetic, history, geography, and hygiene but also including American patriotism, supposedly non-sectarian Christian morals, and an avowedly Protestant work ethic. These last met with the most resistance, and Catholic Irish immigrants, in particular, responded by setting up their own, parallel system of parochial schools. Nevertheless, Common Schools became, well, more common, at least for the primary grades, spreading from New England through the northern states, and following the frontier westward into the Northwest Territory and beyond.
Not surprisingly, the faithfulness with which the tenets of the Common School Movement were followed decreased with distance from its origin in New England. Remember, education in the United States was not a federal matter. State and territorial laws often created local school districts, governed by elected boards (a structure harking back to the Massachusetts model) in the frontier regions, but these districts were then left on their own to provide and maintain schools. Opposition to the taxation necessary for funding schools (even when local governments made primary grade attendance compulsory) ran high. Well funded or not, schools often, of necessity, had to diverge from the full Common School model. Horace Mann succeeded in creating a system of age-specific grades (taken for granted in American schools now) in many Massachusetts schools, but this format was impracticable in sparsely populated rural and frontier areas. Instead, the region that we might currently consider the eastern heartland and midwest developed the quintessentially American one-room schoolhouse beloved by modern Laura Ingalls Wilder fans and small-town “Pioneer Day” organizers. The ungraded, mixed, multi-age system in these schools worked well, in the sense that it could be adapted to local needs. This included allowing children to leave school when they were needed for farm work and return at any time, without the worry of failing out of a grade. There was no particular call for a summer vacation, because schedules were already individually adjustable. In cases where formal school-terms existed, there were often two terms, summer and winter, with spring and autumn free (as we looked at in the introductory post), but the school year was not standardized in low density, rural regions, even as late as 1900.
This returns us to the conundrum with which we began. If the rural, agrarian explanation of the American school year doesn’t work, what does? Well, agriculture is only one part of America’s past. The Industrial Revolution overlapped (even given the inevitable debates about dates) the emergence of the United States as an independent nation. Factories, capital, and cities were critical to the development of America and its educational system. We’ll explore that more in the next posts when we take a look at New York, both state and city.
other posts in this series:
Endless Summer: Why Do American Schools Have Such a Long Vacation? (An Introduction)
Endless Summer (2) From Massachusetts to Rural New York: Latin Grammar Schools, Dame Schools and the Two-Term School Year
I’ve linked to a couple of on-line accessible papers by William A. Fischel in this post, but for in depth examination of the development of American school districts, and the transition away from one room school houses in rural areas, you should check out his book, Making the Grade: The Economic Evolution of American School Districts.
Some of the links above go to transcriptions or scans of primary sources. Those are always worth reading through, so I’ll re-link here:
– The Massachusetts Bay School Law (1642)
– The Old Deluder Act (1647)
– The Northwest Ordinance (1787) and also
– a selection of Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on education, including the unsuccessful Virginia education bill, can be found here
From the Library of Congress digital collections:
– Featured Image: The Mayflower in Plymouth harbor, photo of painting ca 1900.
– Lucy Saunders hitching the team to the horse rake. See Hine Report, Rural Child Labor, August 1915. Location: Western Massachusetts?
View of the first home of the Boston Latin School, 1635.
Satan, from the First Church Boston History.
A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge
map of Northwest Territory location
Noah Webster’s “A Grammatical Institute of the English Language . . . Part I”. Hartford, Conn.: Hudson & Goodwin, for the author, 1783.
Horace Mann – Daguerreotype by Southworth & Hawes, c1850
First Normal School in Lexington, Massachusetts
One-room Agenda Schoolhouse in northern Price County, Wisconsin.
Garment Workers, New York, NY, 25 January 1908; National Archives and Records Administration; Records of the Department of Commerce and Labor, Children’s Bureau