News & History

HISTORY MINUTE: Back to School edition

By Kenneth Bridges | For The Arkadelphian

School is starting once again across the nation. Millions of students are returning to classes. It is part of a time-honored ritual, sometimes loved and sometimes loathed, all in an effort to help make better, wiser citizens and to show students the heights they are capable of reaching. Public schools have been a part of American life for nearly four centuries.

Many ancient societies had systems of learning, and children have been learning from parents from times long since past. The earliest public schools date to Massachusetts in 1635, the first being the Boston Latin Grammar School. The Puritan settlers believed in education and made it a priority for children to be able to read and write well so they could read the Bible themselves and be able to represent their communities well in town meetings when a community’s spending and priorities for the year would be set by the townspeople. The most important principle of these schools was that not only was every child welcome to attend, they had a responsibility to attend.

In 1636, the first college was founded in the United States. Harvard College was originally set up as a seminary to train future preachers and eventually expanded to become one of the world’s most respected institutions for learning in regard to science, medicine, law, business, and even still today, theology. By the time the American Revolution began in 1775, there were eight colleges operating in the colonies, including what would become Columbia, Yale, and Princeton universities.

After the revolution, many northeastern states were attempting to establish a system of free public schools. Under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Congress set aside some proceeds of land sales to give communities in what became the Great Lakes states the means to establish public schools in their own areas. For the Founding Fathers, establishing a lasting republic meant education was a must. Well-educated citizens meant not only better merchants and builders, it also meant good government. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence made education a priority in his years as governor of Virginia. However, his efforts to bring education to the people were thwarted by the upper-class planters who would not think of having their children mingling with the poor. Nevertheless, schools spread across the North, and the children of farmers attending school beside the children of wealthy bankers was increasingly a common experience.

Education came slowly to Arkansas. The first public school opened only in 1851 and had trouble gaining support. Cane Hill College was the first college, opening in 1852 in Washington County, but the Civil War forced its closure.  Schools would only begin to flourish in the state after the war.

In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, Congress began looking ahead to a time after the war and wanted to give the states the means to set up their own colleges, particularly ones dedicated to agriculture, engineering, and the sciences.  The Morrill Land Grant Act provided these funds through proceeds of federal land sales.  This legislation ultimately led to the creation of 69 state college systems across the country.

One of the results of this was the founding of the University of Arkansas in 1871.  For the first few years of this college, there was no tuition charged to students.  The State of Arkansas believed that by developing a population of engineers, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, they were laying the groundwork for the future success of the state.

In 1860, there were only 100 free public high schools in the United States.  By 1900, there were more than 6,000.  This number had doubled by 1914.  Many southern states did not have a statewide system of public education before the Civil War and would only establish these schools by the 1870s.  By the early 1900s, school standards varied widely.  The quality of education in many areas was very poor, with some schools not having the resources to teach some fields as science.  And many teachers were unqualified.  Reformers worked to establish teaching colleges in many states and push for compulsory attendance laws across the nation, including Arkansas, to create educators who understood what to teach and how to teach it well.  In 1890, only 27 states and territories had compulsory school attendance laws, a number that had increased to 43 by 1914.  The efforts would pay off.  By 1940, nearly 50% of Americans had a high school diploma, a five-fold increase in just 30 years.  In just a few decades, the United States had built the best education system in the world.

In 1900, there were just under 1,000 colleges operating in the United States, with 160,000 students.  These were a mix of public colleges, private colleges, and church schools.  Today, there are more than 19 million students, from dual-credit high school students to citizens well into their 80s attending the more than 3,000 colleges across the nation.  At the lower grade levels, more than 3.2 million teachers are at work teaching students reading, math, art, writing, music, science, and especially that there are no limits to their dreams for the future.

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