Chapter 7

The Purpose Behind Education

What purpose does studying how children learn serve, if not for the intent to manipulate?


There is much that has been said about the purpose of education, especially since the 1970’s. The rise in people who are questioning the education system’s purpose and their willingness to participate has grown substantially in the last 50 years. Homeschooling alone has grown significantly in the last 20 years. It is no longer something that is considered a religious focus. It is a resistance to the way in which the education system treats, educates, and fails to protect children. It is also the way in which the education system has increased its demands, while consistently failing to improve outcomes, and destroying what was once treasured family time. How did it get to be this way? 

As was discussed in previous chapters, school was never designed with the family or the individual in mind. Its sole purpose was initially to serve the Emperor or King and then later used to pre-program children for industrial revolution employer needs. One cannot also ignore the fact that compulsory education was not enacted until 10 years after the abolition of slavery in the United States. Prior to this, there were small schools, but they were not mandatory and they usually only served those who planned to take on roles of leadership (usually the children of prominent families). Private tutors were also not uncommon prior to this. Learning was always happening. It wasn’t always available to the poor. 

The poor frequently had their children working to help support the entire family’s survival.  Businesses employed children to cut expenses (United States Department of Labor, 2017). Paired with the compulsory education laws, child labor was soon banned. Although it was likely done to protect children, it was ultimately a mere redirection of the children to prepare for future employment while also taking away earnings from the family. In order to gain support from these families, promises of better lives had to be made. Without this, there would have been riots. 

Child Labor

Child labor was not eradicated quickly in the United States. As a result of Puritanism in New England, the belief that children needed education in order to read the Bible was aggressively purported (Trattner, 1970). This took precedence over the horrid conditions and tireless hours that the children were working (Trattner, 1970). Secularists were just as adamant about education to support the idea that an educated citizenship was essential to maintaining democracy (Trattner, 1970). What neither group understood was the way in which education had been utilized to program citizens for governmental purposes for centuries previously. This would become a critical factor in the 20th century. Many governments utilized education to provide propaganda education in order to perpetuate beliefs that would assist them in their goals (Wooddy, 1935). Many would soon become communist or fascist dictatorship states. 

So how did compulsory education in the United States really start?  In 1813, the Connecticut legislature passed a law that would require that all child factory workers must be educated in reading, writing, and arithmetic (Trattner, 1970). The parents’ rights to raise their children according to their own desires were ignored by this law, which was passed by more states by 1850 (Trattner, 1970). The National Trades’ Union called for a factory worker minimum age requirement in 1836, which was followed by further legislation in Massachusetts limiting the number of hours children under age 12 could work (Trattner, 1970). The limit was 10 hours per workday. Connecticut’s response was similar, but applied to children under 14 (Trattner, 1970). All New England states had similar laws by 1850 (Felt, 1965).  These limited regulations covered children under varying age ranges, depending upon the state. Those ranges went as low as only including children under 9 years of age (Trattner, 1970). None of these laws did anything to stop or prevent child labor.

Public Concern

Child welfare in the 19th century focused exclusively on the issue of vagrant and idle children (Zelizer, 1994). The concern for the child worker wasn’t truly focused on until after 1870, due to the large numbers of child laborers represented in the census of 1870 (Trattner, 1970). The use of children in industry became a national platform for the Prohibition Party in 1872, but no widespread support could be found (Trattner, 1970). Child safety became a concern after reports of children being burned alive, suffocated, or died in an attempt to flee a factory fire in 1874 (Trattner, 1970). This only brought focus on safety in factories, not on the number of children working in the factory, despite some of those children being as young as 5 years old (United States Department of Labor, 2017).  Child worker numbers continued to increase in the United States. By 1890, 18% of all children between the ages of 10 and 15 were employed (Wood, 2011). Children in northern states found more enrollment of students in secondary school, whereas children in the south remained employed. The north saw a 150% increase in secondary school enrollment between 1890-1900, and the south only had a 21% increase during the same time period (Wood, 2011). Compulsory education laws were being implemented outside of the South post-Civil War (Troen, 1976).

Early Education Reform

The period between 1902 and 1906 saw tremendous increase in publications against child labor and the health concerns for children in the workforce (Trattner, 1970). The push for education, more specifically for the purposes of reading the Bible in order to lead a moral life, was also reinforced by those attempting to protect children from abusive work environments. Reformers began shifting the public focus from viewing child labor as “beneficent social institution” to “an unrighteous and harmful consequence of industrial capitalism, destructive to the child and community” (Wood, 1968, p.6). Parents, industry, and even children opposed the education reform. 

Reform in the South was led by Edgar Gardner Murphy, a clergyman from Arkansas, who founded the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) in 1904. This was the first true effort from the South to address child labor restrictions and his efforts prompted legislation efforts across many states. His organization supported nationwide efforts to assist individual states with what he drew up as the model child labor bill. This bill declared a minimum working age of 14 years old for manufacturing work and 16 years old for mining labor. Workday hours were limited to 8 per day, no night work allowed, and proof of age was required (Trattner, 1970).

In the North, Mary Harris “Mother Jones” took up the cause alongside the 10,000 children who left their mill work to strike in Kensington, PA in 1903. Her efforts generated public demonstrations and marches that provided public awareness of the physical injuries endured by children working in the mills. She attempted to get the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, but he determined the cause to be a state issue and that “under the Constitution, Congress had no power to act” (Mofford, 1997). However, Roosevelt did raise the issue of child labor in his State of the Union address to Congress in 1901, and 1904 through 1908. He did not recommend a federal law, but emphasized national rules to be passed down to the state level for implementation (Hindman, 2002).

What became a new strategy by the NCLC was to focus on the welfare of children by demonstrating the dangerous work conditions, greed of mill owners, and the irresponsibility of the children’s parents. Fathers who weren’t working due to alcoholism and mothers were painted in a negative light as neglectful and selfish, wanting to wear finery at the toil of their children (Schmidt, 2010). The Wisconsin Child Labor Committee determined that the parents were to blame for all violation of the child labor laws (Wisconsin Child Labor Committee, 1907). Some parents used their children as their financial sustenance, while others competed with children for work (Addams, 1925; Nearing, 1925). The cost of hiring a child was less expensive, usually three times cheaper than the price of hiring an adult (Hindman, 2002). Some parents had doctors write notes stating that the child was unable to attend school due to a handicap, but was then later found working in the coal mine and supervisors never asked for age certificates, especially if they felt sorry for the family (Lovejoy, 1907). Physical abuse by employers was not uncommon (Trattner, 1970). Night work was utilized by business owners who wanted to put fear into the children who did not want to be caught working (Hindman, 2002). Some factories were also surrounded by barbed wire to prevent children from running away (Van Der Vaart, 1907). Most of the children working in the mills were illiterate (Trattner, 1970). Mill workers on the whole were against government regulation of child labor (Trattner, 1970). 

A federal child labor bill was introduced to Congress by Republican Senator Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana in 1906. This bill outlawed the transportation of any items produced by child labor between states (Coenen, 2004). This was arguably the most constructive way in which to circumvent the ways that mill and manufacturing owners would violate state laws and also prevent them from hiring underage children who would willingly cross state lines to do work illegal in their own states (Miller, 1907; Beveridge, 1907; & Wood, 1968). This bill was the first to tip the conversation into meaningful and impactful reform. This does not, however, stop the topic of poverty, orphaned children, and those whose parents are too ill to work. Passing laws at the state level was minimal by 1912. Enforcement was often lax and every state violated age-limit laws (Lindenmeyer, 1997). Public concern was minimal and some manufacturers felt the need to violate the laws in order to economically compete (Watson, 1910). 

It was determined that the only way to reinforce compliance with child labor laws was to reinforce the compulsory education laws (Davies, 1907). At the time, only 80 percent of children 14 years of age were attending school (McCune Lindsay, 1907). The NCLC found that “school authorities are able to do more through their ability to hold children back from work than a whole army of inspectors” (Felt, 1965, p. 86). Concern that children would not attend school if child labor laws were not enforced concurrently with compulsory school attendance was expressed by mill owners (Hindeman, 2002). There was an understanding that children should only work or go to school, anything else was unacceptable. This is important to note as it speaks of the views of children at the time. Encouraging play and exploration of the world was not important. It was about economic productivity alone.

Child labor and compulsory school attendance laws had been enacted in states as early as 1903 (Davies, 1907). However, after turning age 14, only 40% of children went into employment after completing their school requirements. Parents who kept their children at home felt that work was more important than school (Gibbons, 1925). Children also expressed preference of work over school in a 1909 survey of children working in various factories around Chicago (Todd, 1925). They preferred knowing that they were helping the family over spending time sitting in a room learning things they felt were unimportant to them. Propaganda materials that reinforced the increased wage potential for those who attended school were then utilized to encourage the families against schooling to choose schooling for their children (Sallee, 2004). Money is what most people paid attention to. Promise of increased wealth.  

The Keating-Owen bill, which emancipated children from labor, was passed and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on September 1, 1916 (Trattner, 1970). The law only affected 150,000 out of 1,850,000 employed children nationwide (Trattner, 1970). Those affected worked in quarries, mills, factories, mines, and interstate commerce. Those who worked on the streets, from their homes, or in the fields were left unaffected.  The Keating-Owen Act was later struck down by the Supreme Court two years later. A series of acts were to follow; including taxation and an attempted constitutional amendment to outlaw child labor. They were all found unconstitutional. The first child labor law to be left standing was the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938 (The United States Department of Labor, 2017). However, this law only addressed 850,000 children working in 1938 as some child labor types were not covered by the legislation. Additionally, the national standard of living had improved by that point in time and families could afford to send their children to school (Zelizer, 1994). This was a turning point in the nation, where the expectation that a man would provide for his wife and children took precedence over having his wife and children working. Immigration also impacted the hiring practices of the labor market due to increased immigrants fleeing the wars in Europe arriving with skills that were in demand (Zelizer, 1994; Rosenberg, 2013). This only changed when wartime production needs and labor shortages pressured President Roosevelt to encourage older children to work. Employed children ranged from one to three million in the 1940s (Lindenmeyer, 1997). Child labor protections had to be reversed in order to accomplish the labor demands at that time. This exception has been very exclusive to the demands of World War II and have not been seen since. That does not mean that children under the “legal” limits have not been employed, they are simply not included in the Bureau of Labor statistical reporting.

School Reform History 

Schools in America began as early as the 17th century, but were uncommon. By the latter part of the 18th century, through the end of the 19th century, much had changed. The consistent basic focus areas were reading, writing, and arithmetic. Teachers were also required to know Latin. As long as teacher had these skills, they were hired. Teachers were  predominantly men until shortages became an issue. Many men only looked at teaching as a stepping stone before they began their real careers in law or the church (Pinto, 2019). Frequently, small towns would find people who were farmers or even innkeepers at the front of the classroom (Pinto, 2019). Students faced changing teacher realities as the employment and seasons impacted the access to a teacher. 

The early 1800’s began the first real reform, which is known as the Common School Era. “The grammar school teachers have rarely had any education beyond what they have acquired in the very schools where they have to teach. Their attainments, therefore, to say the least, are usually very moderate.” — James Carter, Education Reformer, 1826 (Pinto, 2019). This led to the rise of the education reformer, one of whom was Horace Mann.

Horace wished for a more democratic, universal, and non-sectarian educational experience for students. He joined forces with Henry Barnard, Catharine Beacher, and James Carter to also improve the quality of teachers. This led to the beginning of female educators. By changing society’s acceptance of women working outside of the home, more stable teacher experiences could be accomplished and this also led to school districts realizing they could pay the teacher 1/3rd of what they paid a man for the same job. “God seems to have made woman peculiarly suited to guide and develop the infant mind, and it seems…very poor policy to pay a man 20 or 22 dollars a month, for teaching children the ABCs, when a female could do the work more successfully at one third of the price.” — Littleton School Committee, Littleton, Massachusetts, 1849 (Pinto, 2019).

The term Common School was coined for the acknowledgment that anyone, regardless of religion or social class, could attend. These new district provided schools were the first to be funded through taxes and parent fees. Prior to this, most education came from religious private schools where tuition was required and many were unable to afford the fees.

Other changes included broader education topics such as social philosophy and common political principals (Pinto, 2019). The goal was to help prevent  political instability and upheaval that could destabilize the communities and the nation. Teaching students democratic principles was critical to achieving this aim. Due to the increased numbers of schools, the education of many female teachers took place through formalized teacher training through Normal Schools (Pito, 2019). The appeal included that women were by nature maternal, and would nurture high moral character in the students. “The school committee are sentinels stationed at the door of every school house in the State, to see that no teacher crosses its threshold, who is not clothed, from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot, in garments of virtue.” –Horace Mann, 1840 (Pinto, 2019). Expectation was that the teachers would provide an exemplary example of upright living. 

Classroom management was a concern as the reformers doubted women’s ability to maintain order and to discipline students. Many of the female teachers were merely 14 or 15 years old. Older male students would flirt, tease, or disobey them (Pinto, 2019). Additional concern was also focused on the intellectual capacity of females. Many were more educated than previously. As such, requirements were placed upon the teachers to meet certain academic competence and ongoing training attendance (Pinto, 2019). Normal Schools were then developed to ensure the proper training of teachers in order to address the concerns brought up by the school reformers. Eventually, the training was moved to colleges and universities.

The latter half of the 19th century had better trained teachers, but the curriculum had not become more demanding. Classrooms had up to 60 students in the one-room schoolhouse. The work was challenging for the teachers due to the large groups of non-age-segregated classes. The only major change to the curriculum was the addition of history and a little geography. Morals and virtues were still a predominant fixture in the daily curriculum, which also included the Bible. Women were excited to have the opportunity for independence and to have more access to political and other information that would have been out of their daily experience without teaching. Women could affect change. They were considered outsiders. They developed associations and friendships, which contributed to community transformations. The way that women were viewed changed just as much as the way the women viewed themselves. Liberation and growth for women began.

Additional changes that occurred as a result of the Common School was the liberation of other groups of people who had previously been cut off from education access. Freed slaves were being prepared to participate in a post-Civil War society. Former slaves were taught literacy, economic independence, and civil rights. The Hampton Institute was founded in 1868 to provide vocational training to Black Americans. The focus was on manual skills rather than academic pursuits. The Indian Department was launched shortly thereafter. The turn of the 20th century brought floods of immigrants who needed to be assimilated to American society. Schools had to adapt once again to address the new challenges that faced them. Methods utilized were not always humane. Indian Boarding schools were ripe with abuse and the immigrants were subjected to extreme treatment to correct their attempt to communicate in their native tongue.

The turn of the 20th century brought a lot of change. As previously mentioned, child labor was still a contention. Now women began rebelling due to their experiences in the classroom. Some were displeased with the inability to move into administrative roles. “It was with that first class that I became aware that a teacher was subservient to a higher authority. I became increasingly aware of this subservience to an ever growing number of authorities with each succeeding year, until there is danger today of becoming aware of little else.” — Marian Dogherty, Teacher, Boston, 1899 (Pinto, 2019).

The majority of teachers were women at this point, and their work was under constant scrutiny. They despised the control over them and wanted more autonomy, which was decreasing rapidly. Many teachers felt spied on and dictated to (Pinto, 2019). Poor pay and lack of benefits did little to alleviate the issues. Conditions were frequently deplorable, and teachers were given no real flexibility to adapt to the challenges in their student experiences. Overcrowding was common, poor students spoke little English, and classrooms were dirty and poorly ventilated (Pinto, 2019). The conditions were quite similar to those in the factories. Limited resources were a plight for the rural schools in addition to run-down buildings. Lack of funding was a constant issue.

Emphasis was on professionalism and City Boards of Education were seated by men who wanted reform that represented business professionalism. The goals of achievement and improving the teaching practice were admirable, but these men had no experience in a classroom. Business model efforts were used that included hierarchy, leaving teachers at the lowest level (Pinto, 2019). Uniformity and efficiency for classrooms containing 50 students were pressed on teachers, which also negated teacher initiatives as they were deemed too limited in knowledge. 

Teacher rebellion ensued. Teacher’s associations formed into unions. Two such unions continue to stand today: the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. There is much to discuss regarding teachers rights at this juncture, but little has changed since the turn of the 20th century in this regard. We can see the same fight for equal pay and autonomy in the classroom in 2019. 

A new philosophy regarding education took flight in the early 1910’s. Progressive education that took more focus on the experience and development of the individual child was beginning to be addressed. Today, we see branches of what began at that time when we look at schools of thought that brought about Montessori education, Waldorf education, and many more. “How can the child learn to be a free and responsible citizen when the teacher is bound?” — John Dewey, Philosopher of Education, 1918. The focus of these schools was that if we remove autonomy from the teacher, we remove autonomy from the student. How can we achieve a free and democratic society if our population is being raised in such bondage? John Dewey demanded that democracy be embedded in the classroom so that democracy can flourish in society. What has transpired since his initial attempts to influence education has resulted in small branches of educators starting their own schools, independent from school districts, in order to accomplish such aims. These schools do not receive government funding and are frequently underfunded. Many rely upon the tuition provided by families who can afford it. This disproportionately leaves out those without financial means to attend schools that respect the whole child.

The 1950’s brought about change in America, and this included the segregation of schools. Segregation was legalized in 1895 provided that the students received separate but equal education and facilities. Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954 removed the segregation, and new levels of challenges arose. The segregated schools had been deemed unequal and that the Supreme Court agreed that desegregation needed to commence immediately. Busing was later addressed with Swan vs. Charlotte-Mecklenberg to ensure desegregation was supported through proper transportation in 1971. The 1960’s launched more civil rights issues, community control over schools, as well as anti-poverty programs. Focus was also thrust upon Latino and Native American students. The continuous fight for the rights of students and teachers never ceased. By the 1980’s, it was determined that schools were failing. 

The “A Nation at Risk” Report in 1983 laid out the under-qualified teachers, underpaid teachers, poor working conditions, and poor student results (U.S. Department of Education, 1983). This was followed by “A Nation Prepared,” which provided a guide for rehabilitating the education in the United States (Carnegie Corp., 1986). “This report argues that if the United States is to have a vibrant democracy, avert the growth of a permanent underclass, and have a high-wage economy, schools must graduate the vast majority of students with achievement levels long thought possible only for a privileged few” (Carnegie Corp., 1986, abstract). The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards was launched in 1987 as a result.

Education issues from 1990 to today are exactly the same as they have been since the inception of the one room schoolhouse and implementation of female teachers. Teachers remain underpaid. Class sizes remain too large. Conditions remain poor in many districts, especially those who serve minority or underprivileged communities. Additionally, teachers have had autonomy removed and even more standardization has been implemented. So much standardization took place after 2000 that nearly all classroom time was spent preparing for the numerous standardized tests required for schools to continue to receive government funding. Teacher performance based upon testing scores also dictated the stability of their employment. Schools have been sanctioned and many resorted to illegal activity in order to ensure their students achieved the desired results in order to maintain school funding (Chen, 2018).

The call for uniform, high standards in teaching and learning has echoed throughout American history. Catharine Beecher and Horace Mann despaired of the low standards for teachers in the mid-19th century; 50 or 60 years later Progressive educators like John Dewey complained about ineffective teaching methods; all Americans worried about the state of our children’s learning in the 1950s in the wake of the Russian rocket Sputnik, and in the 1980s we were convinced we were a “Nation At Risk” because of our low educational standards. With each outcry has come a new determination to define and implement better standards for our schools (Pinto, 2019). 

With each new outcry, new pressures have befallen teachers and students alike, yet there has never been satisfactory results. The complaints remain the same, and the results unmoved. New efforts have focused on privatization of schools for better results, but they frequently use the same methods reinforced by other existing schools. Just a new pie with the same ingredients. Some ingenuity has come to fruition, but that often corresponds with technological developments, rather than teaching methods or school structures. One thing that has definitely grown out of the pile of pressure is increased student behavior issues and attempts to control them.