LETTER from DOUGLAS GEERTGENS
Often when we ask ourselves a question, it brings up another question. You might ask, “what is a school?” Merriam-Webster offers that it is; “an organization that provides instruction: such as … an institution for the teaching of children.”
Okay, so why do we have these institutions known as schools? For as long as there have been humans, there has been the need for the young to learn. Some learning is instinctive.
Some learning is necessary for survival. Each civilization had its own reasons beyond that for children to learn. It may have been to perpetuate the culture. It may have been to reinforce the religion or other beliefs. It may have been to go beyond just basic survival and learn how to enhance life.
For the sake of this essay, I am going to begin by looking at the first European settlers to this country. One of the primary motivating forces that drove the early settlers to face the dangers and unknown of the ocean voyage to the “New World” was that of religion. They wanted to be free to follow their respective religions and not be forced to follow a different system. The Bible was the guiding document for most and once they were on North American soil, they could focus on teaching their children Biblical lessons as they saw fit. But when the settlers came to Plymouth, the adults had agreed on the Mayflower Compact to guide them in structuring their society. It was important that the next generation knew about it and followed it.
In 1642 in Massachusetts, a law was passed to have children attend schools to be sure they learned “religion and laws of the commonwealth.”
In 1647, the Old Deluder Satan Act was passed to address “families’ negligence to educate their children in the home.” For the next 150 years, parents and some organized schools provided the education for the children of our society. The organized schools were still set up to teach children to obey with no questions asked, to memorize what they were told to and to learn to read for the basic purpose of studying the Bible. The individual colonies and areas within the colonies often set up their own guidelines. Thomas Jefferson, in Virginia, felt that education should be for all children, regardless of the wealth of the parents. In New York City in 1787, the African Free School was established to teach freed slaves. One can find several other examples throughout the colonies.
Following the Revolutionary War and with the establishment of the Constitution, one of the founding fathers, John Jay, stressed that the Constitution must be read, studied and then taught to the next generations. This was much like the needs put forth in the Massachusetts law of 1642.
It is important to note here however, that the founding fathers did not feel it was the federal government’s role. There were limited roles assigned to the federal government and education of children was not one of them. The 10th Amendment made that clear.
The winning of the Revolutionary War and the establishment of the Constitution did not suddenly make all the thirteen colonies, now states, the same. For example, there were vast differences between Massachusetts and Georgia. But they were all made up of people with the same basic needs. And, for the most part, there was a shared desire to teach children things that addressed goodness, truth and untruth. The McGuffy Reader and the New England Primer were examples of books used in many schools throughout the country to achieve this end. As the economies of the states evolved, there was a need to have literate working people to help maintain these economies. Each state responded to this need in their own way to meet their specific needs. Churches, and in particular the Catholic church established their own schools to help further general studies and the study of the church doctrines.
In 1920, the Smith-Towner Bill was passed at the federal level and stated that ALL children MUST attend public schools. This was partly to educate the influx of immigrants from various parts of the world and to “Americanize” them. It may have also been a way to limit the influence of Catholic schools. It was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court.
As you can see, from the time the settlers first landed and up to around the mid 20th century, schools existed for pretty much the same reasons. You might say to teach the three Rs. And with that was the ability to read the Bible and other books or work-related documents, and to have a citizenry that was good and knew the truth. But then some rather significant changes started to take place and schools began to take on a much larger responsibility. Fast forward to 2021 and we find ourselves in a situation that educators of 100 years ago could never have imagined nor would approve of.
Douglas Geertgens is a retired Cooperstown Elementary School principal.