U.S. History of Civics part 2: School reforms for COVID-19 point us to successful ed reformers in American history

Written by Christine Cooke

May 18, 2020

The following essay is part 2 in a series that discusses the history of civics education in America.

U.S. History of Civics part 1: The Founders’ vision — ‘What species of knowledge can be equally important?’

State education leaders are looking toward adaptations in the upcoming school year due to the pandemic (as local news has recently highlighted). Proposed public school reforms have both positives and negatives.

The government’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic has also increased American interest in our civic processes. Public interest in both education reform and civic understanding is, it seems, being brought together by COVID-19.

American history reveals a narrative of trying to advance both civic understanding and education reform.

Early American students were taught geography, history and government – education that the American Founders believed was crucial to the preservation of the republic – but often with irregularity and without much consensus as to the individual topics’ relationship to one another.

Still, long before early 20th century efforts to consolidate and standardize these topics into the “social studies,” early reformers laid the foundation for these topics in ways that established them in American education broadly.

The development of American geography

Jedidiah Morse (1761-1826), an American minister and geographer, significantly influenced the study of geography in the nation. His interest in the field started when he was young after growing tired of inaccurate accounts of America, which led him to feel that “very little knowledge of this country can be gained” through materials available at the time.

In 1783, while studying divinity at Yale University, Morse established and began teaching at an all-girls school in New Haven, Connecticut. He again recognized the need for a textbook on geography, so in 1784 he published what would become America’s first geography textbook, titled Geography Made Easy. He followed this with The American Geography in 1789, and then in 1793 The American Universal Geography. Because of these early textbooks, which were widely cited in the field of geography in the United States at that time, Morse became known as the “Father of American Geography.”

An American education

Similarly, Noah Webster (1758-1843), whose name is associated with the modern dictionary (Merriam-Webster), had a lasting impact on American education. Webster was more than just a lexicographer (compiler of dictionaries), he was an author, editor, journalist, lobbyist, lecturer and spelling reformer. He fought in the American Revolution, and perhaps because of this, he became a tireless defender and promoter of things that were uniquely American – for example, American English, arguing its dignity and legitimacy, as well as promoting a distinctly American education. All of this earned him the title of “Father of American Scholarship and Education.”

In 1785 Webster published the Grammatical Institute of the English Language, which consisted of “The American Spelling Book” (the famous “blue backed speller” still in print today), a “grammar,” and a “reader” – terms for collections of writings used for instruction. One section of the reader included historical and civics concepts and was said to be created to “diffuse the principles of virtue and patriotism.” It included American writings that promoted democratic principles and appropriate political conduct. Notably, this was the first time that an American reader included history as a specific topic for school instruction.

The status of history as a subject

Although the first U.S. history textbook was published in 1787 by Philadelphia printer John McCulloch, according to some scholars it wasn’t until the 1840s – a couple decades before the Civil War – that history as a subject would become a distinct subject widely offered in schools. Even then, by 1860 only five states – Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Virginia – had passed laws requiring that it be taught. Likewise, textbooks predating 1880 included explicitly “moral and patriotic values,” offering a sort of civics education. But a student’s exposure to these textbooks and themes varied greatly based on region and access to school. All of this reveals the diverse and fragmented landscape for educating students in the areas that the Founders believed important, but it also shows that scholarship in these fields was developing.

A shift toward public education

Some scholars attribute the earliest foundations of American “social studies” to the general shift toward the free public education movement in America and its earlier sister education movement in Great Britain during the 1820s. This education reform movement in Great Britain was intended to promote social welfare by advocating that children attend school rather than work in factories. American reformers would likewise envision public education with similar benefits to society.

It is impossible to ignore iconic American reformers like Horace Mann and John Dewey in laying the groundwork for modern American public education and its uses for social outcomes. Much like the Founders, these men well understood education’s direct impact on society at large.

The Common School movement

Horace Mann (1796-1859) the American reformer credited with starting the Common School movement, advocated for the type of public education that has been passed down to today – school that is both provided by and funded through the state, free from sectarian or religious control, and universally accessible to all students regardless of wealth or heritage.

It’s easy to imagine how Mann’s philosophy of education may have come from his childhood. He grew up in great poverty and had infrequent and poor opportunities to learn from teachers as a child. A desire for public education, as he later envisioned it, would have been a natural response for someone in his situation. He also argued for explicitly patriotic objectives of public education, believing that the mission of public school was to take unruly children and turn them into “disciplined, judicious, republican citizens” as well as to socialize immigrants into American life.

Mann became the first Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education in 1837. During this time Mann published the Common School Journal, a publication that discussed a number of educational issues, including the idea that the American republic could not be ignorant and retain its freedom.

Like the American Founders, Mann sincerely believed that education was a necessary component for continuing liberty in America. He believed the “common school” was one of the ultimate tools for doing so.

Public education and societal reform

Then came John Dewey (1859-1952) – an American education scholar, psychologist and reformer – who profoundly influenced American education with his own views of schooling as a tool for democracy and social reform.

Like the Founders and Mann before him, he believed and championed the idea that school had a public mission. His work focused on making the school environment democratic. He advocated for the student’s interests and learning by doing. And he talked about the interrelationship of our experiences with education, democracy and society.

Dewey believed that school was a little slice of the real world and that a child’s experience in school impacted how she would engage society. In his 1899 published work, The School and Society Dewey said that school is:

an embryonic community life, active with types of occupations that reflect the life of the larger society and permeated throughout with the spirit of art, history and science. When the school introduces and trains each child of society into membership within such a little community, saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely and harmonious.

Dewey’s views have continued to inform educational philosophy in college campuses, teacher training courses and the public schools today. Not only generally, but also in how we approach history, civics education, and the social studies.

The American Founders, early educators, and iconic education reformers – all well understood the relationship between education and the country.

Each of these leaders provided the backdrop for policies that would be adopted in American education for decades to come. As Utah’s education leaders consider reforms fitted to the pandemic, will the policies they decide upon similarly change the course of education in the coming decades?

The future is hard to predict – so it is possible that what current education reformers implement as pandemic adjustments in the short term will become a new normal for the future. That possibility highlights the value of looking to the history of things like civic education reforms in order to keep not just the pandemic, but the long-term future for our nation, in mind.

U.S. History of Civics part 3: The ‘birth certificate’ of social studies

U.S. History of Civics part 4: The U.S. Department of Education (as we know it) is born

U.S. History of Civics part 5: The early 2000s to the year 2020

U.S. History of Civics part 6: Utah’s story

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