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Schooling for Poor Children in 19th-Century America Essay

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Updated: Jun 13th, 2022

One of the major changes in 19th-century American life was the establishment of mass public common schools. The article “Schooling and Poor Children in 19th-Century America” by Vinovskis (1992) explores the development of 19th-century education, the reasons behind the reforms, and the relationship between schooling and poor children. The author draws factual evidence to illustrate two theories explaining the developments: the industrialization theory and the idea that the changes were primarily due to the Puritan efforts. Compared to the textbook approach, the article focuses more on the contradictions between the supposed reasons behind the changes rather than their ideology and aims.

According to Vinovskis, there are considerable disagreements on the origins of the educational reforms of the early 19th century. One group of scholars believes that common schools were organized as a response to industrialization, while others see the changes as a continuation of the colonial Puritan activities to promote literacy (Vinovskis, 1992). The author regards the second hypothesis as more plausible and provides evidence to confute the industrialization theory.

The evidence that the author draws to explain both points of view come from reliable sources. The industrialization hypothesis originates from the classic 1976 Marxist analysis of education Schooling in Capitalist America by Bowles and Gintis. In the book, the scholars express the idea that the education system reproduces social class inequality and aims to further strengthen the structure of the capitalist society. They claim that manufacturers and merchants spearheaded the public school expansion and reforms to instill in future workers the respect for law and authority necessary in the newly emerging capitalist economy (Vinovskis, 1992). To support this idea, they draw evidence from the public school expansion in Massachusetts, where the educational changes coincided with rapid urban and industrial developments.

To confute this theory, the author draws data from other sources: the 1974 research by Lockridge on literacy in colonial New England and the 1980 study of public education in Massachusetts by Kaestle and Vinovskis. The evidence suggests that the rise of industrialization was not such a major factor in the development of the school system. In Massachusetts, mass literacy and education occurred before economic developments, and it was not only the industrialized areas of the country that witnessed the educational changes at that time (Vinovskis, 1992). The factual data challenges the Marxist theory by proving that the causal relationship between the rise of mass education and industrialization is overestimated.

The second hypothesis that the author analyses is that the establishment of common schools can be regarded as the continuation of the colonial Puritan activities aimed to reinforce the religious enthusiasm for education. To prove it, the author uses data from the book Pillar of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society by Kaestle, and her own 1989 conference paper. They view the rise of mass education as a means of promoting widespread literacy and a way of preserving moral values (Vionvskis, 1992). The sources provide speculative evidence in support of this theory based on the analysis of the general social tendencies of that time.

When comparing the data from the article with the analysis of the common school system from the textbook by Spring, some similarities and differences in the approaches can be identified. In the textbook, the development of the American education system is viewed from the perspective of purposes rather than reasons. Spring claims that “common school reformers believed that education was used to assure the dominance of Protestant Anglo-American culture, reduce tensions between social classes, eliminate crime and poverty, stabilize the political system, and form patriotic citizens” (Spring, 2018, p. 67). Both books use the same sources but analyze them from different perspectives. While Vinovskis focuses on the discrepancies between the two theories, the textbook regards the changes as a product of the combination of political, economic, and social concerns of the early part of the 19th century.

Based on the evidence from the article and the textbook, the development of the 19th-century American education can be considered as a result of a combination of processes. On the one hand, it can be linked to the emergence of the capitalist economy, which required educated workers. On the other hand, it was seen as a means of promoting and preserving moral values by religious groups. Being essential to both the growth of the economy and moral and character development, education became one of the public goals of the government, which led to the establishment of the common school system.

Overall, the article by Vinovskis, while focusing on the poor children’s education in the 19th century, provides a new view on the reasons behind the establishment of the common school system. It uses factual evidence to confute the industrialization theory developed by the Marxist scholars in the 1970s. They claim that common schools were established primarily due to economic reasons in order to support the emerging capitalist society. However, factual data shows that it was not the main factor behind the reforms, which were the result of a combination of processes occurring in the 19th-century American society.

References

Spring, J. (2018). The American school: From the Puritans to the Trump Era (10th ed.). Routledge.

Vinovskis, M. (1992). American Behavioral Scientist, 35(3), 313–331. Web.

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