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Richard J. Elliott, Professor Emeritus
EDFR 6400--History of American Education
February 25, 1997
To what extent did the culture of the American colonies influence the development of colonial education? From the beginnings of colonial education, do you find elements of this education in our present schools?
The American colonies were divided culturally as the Puritan north and the Angelo-Saxon south. The middle colonies were a mixture of both. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut comprised the north. Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia comprised the south. New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware were considered middle colonies. Colonial education was virtually absent in the southern colonies, whereas it was an integral part of society in the north. This difference is an accurate reflection of the culture of these regions. The middle colonies represents a mix of these two extremes. In the Puritan north, learning to read was considered necessary in order to be saved--the "Reading and Writing Law" of 1642 emphasizes this. In the agrarian south, a strong notion of class developed. With no middle class, only sons of upper class planters (property owners) were offered any chance of an education. This was usually done with tutors, or by travel to Europe. With few towns, schools were almost non-existent.
In this same sense, every community school of today reflects the culture of its community. These community cultures developed gradually inside of the "American experience." No one should be surprised to find the elements of colonial education in our present schools--for the same reasons that we find elements of colonial culture in today's society. As an example, we still use north and south to distinguish states and to characterize the culture of these states--with west added as another descriptor.
The United States represents the first experiment in nation building with citizens of very diverse cultural backgrounds. From the original thirteen colonies right up to today, American culture is built by mixing peoples with different language, religion, customs, beliefs, art, music, and literature. The success of this "melting pot" is partly because our democratic government bends without breaking--partly because education, especially public education, has blended essentially foreign societies into "American Popular Culture." Civil War and Civil Rights is evidence of our mistakes, but evidence of our success is that American culture and American education is recognized and copied through the world.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, with its French and Spanish heritage, south Louisiana shared little in common with its growing nation neighbor. There were no common town-schools like those in New England. There were no democratic visions such as that of Thomas Jefferson in Virginia. Then Jefferson purchased the Louisiana territory, and by 1830 Americans were moving to New Orleans in numbers for the first time. Because of this unique circumstance, public education in New Orleans developed into the largest experiment of how a young republic could impose its language, institutions, and democratic government upon an essentially foreign society. In varying degrees, this scenario was and continues to be played out in almost every major area of the US. Along with the problems of mixing cultures, New Orleans also represented a laboratory for America's other great unsolved problem. Prior to 1860, Louisiana was the only state with a majority slave population. After the Civil War, New Orleans public schools were alone among Southern schools in the level of and experience with extensive integration. These successes proved to be great disruptions when radical reconstruction ended and segregation was restored.
Public education in New Orleans celebrated 150 years of service in 1991. In honor of this Donald E. DeVare and Joseph Logsdon wrote "Crescent City Schools." It is a well researched historical account and worth reading. This book documents how community culture influences education and shows that foreign cultures are blended to form American culture.
It is interesting to note that in 1841, leaders in New Orleans called on Horace Mann to help organize its public education system. Mann eagerly accepted their offer and was impressed that his reforms had reached even New Orleans, then the most distant point in the US from his office in Boston. Mann's success was that not only did he offer reform, but that he offered a system that could be replicated in other states and communities. New Orleans was a challenge for him because it lacked both the New England town-schools and the pauper schools of the Old South. With Mann's help, an ambitious plan based on New York and French models was passed by the legislature. It included major appropriations of public funds, but failed. William C. C. Claiborne, the first territorial governor, quickly learned that imposing American institutions on foreign cultures was no simple undertaking. Because south Louisiana was so unlike all of the rest of America, it represented an excellent example of what public education had faced in colonial American, and would face throughout the rest of the 19th century and most of the 20th.
My father's grandfather immigrated from England just after the Civil War. He settled in Algiers, a small town just on the west side of the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Not all of his children were born in the US, but my grandfather was. He lived all of his life in Algiers. After finishing grammar school, he attended a trade school. Like most adult men in Algiers, he worked all of his life for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Having a trade meant a good job. It meant being chief engineer on the boat that ferried trains across the Mississippi River.
As was the custom of English peasants, all of my father's brothers were named for Kings of England. But, unlike their counterparts across the Atlantic, my father and his four brothers and one sister completed grammar school and four years of high school. Being the youngest, my father was the only brother to complete all of his schooling in Algiers. Martin Behrman School opened its doors in 1930, and was the first high school in New Orleans west of the Mississippi. My mother also had four years of schooling after grammar school, atting Robrin--a high school for girls teaching homemaking skills. I suppose that his high school education saved his life.
Not long after high school, my father's number was called in the newly established military draft. The Arm Band 'Louisiana Selected Man' was pinned to the arm of pre-Pearl Harbor draftees on the day they left for their one year tour of military duty. The popular song of the day 'Good Bye Dear I'll Be Back In A Year' was played as they departed for Camp. For most of the war, my father worked a desk job, processing the paper work needed to transfer soldiers to Europe. After D-day, he was sent to Italy. Without ever firing a shot, he was captured while processing paper work in a farm house in the Po Valley.
I was born in May 1946, making me one of the oldest possible "baby-boomers." Through kindergarten, eight years of elementary, and two years of high school, I attended Catholics. These years are remarkable for how little I remember of them. My only memory of kindergarten at Holy Name of Mary school was walking through the Southern Pacific railroad yard--which, at that time, was still rebuilding steam locomotives and remodeling Pullman cars. Eight years of elementary school at St. Joseph is only a blur now. I was taught by nuns in every other grade, and only in fourth grade did I have a top-notch teacher, Mrs. Bawer. I am sure not all were, but my memory of nuns is mostly of their cruelty. By eighth grade, twelve of fifteen boys in my class were thinking about the priesthood; so these nuns did carry out their jobs as religious teachers. Eventually, these twelve went on to Holy Cross high school. This is quite an accomplishment, seeing that traveling to Holy Cross from Algiers required an hour and a half bus ride ... each way. My best friend, Donald Greco, went on to graduate first in his class. I suppose something was going right at St. Joseph.
During this time, Holy Cross was a boarding school including grades six through twelve. It was also a community school drawing many students from the neighborhoods along the east bank of the Mississippi River. It was a regional school with students from all over the New Orleans metro area. It was an international school, with boarding students from throughout the world, especially South America. And as a boarding school, it was also used by wealthy parents to house their problem children. The curricula included at least four years of Latin (and another language), biology, chemistry, physics, trigonometry, calculus, and of course religion--but not the Bible. This was a giant wake-up call for a small, naive boy who hardly ever left his small neighborhood. I transferred to Martin Behrman public high school for my junior and senior years. These two years remain my fondest memories of school as a child.
I did not realize at the time, the financial burden that going to Holy Cross placed on my family, even with my mother taking her first job since being married. And when considering college, still I did not think finances, wishing to attend Louisiana Tech in Rustin Louisiana to become a nuclear engineer. My mother bribed me saying I could have my own car if I agreed to attend the public university in New Orleans. What a deal UNO was in 1964, tuition and books were less then $100 a semester. Like many others, I had a tuition exemption from my state representative of $50 per semester. UNO was a very crowded place then, given that the only way to stay out of Viet Nam was to stay in school. In 1969, I left college to begin my family and for what has turned into a thirty year career in information systems. Only recently did I discover that I was a slow reader and poor speller, not because I was a slow learner, but because I am dyslectic. It turns out that in computer programming dyslexia is an advantage, not a disadvantage.
In fifty years as a student, my experience tells me that culture is the largest influence on the progress of education, that our schools are an accurate reflection of this culture. My experience tells me that one constant in education is change--change that is rooted in colonial education. We must understand the roots of education, its history, if we ever hope to keep up with its ever increasing rate of change.