We hear a lot of chatter about the “crisis in education” — as if this was a completely new and unexpected situation. My home state, long proud of its public education system, is ready to permit anyone with a bachelor’s degree to teach in its charter schools. Everyone considers themselves an expert on schools, it seems, simply because they attended them. I have suffered through many plays and movies, but hardly consider myself qualified to write, act, or direct them. We forget that our public education system — especially the mandatory attendance requirement — is barely a century old. It was designed for a completely different purpose in a completely different world.
The arguments we hear today about irrelevant curriculum, high costs, irresponsible parents, lazy students, and pandering to immigrants were all in play by the 1870s. My home state once voted to ban public funding of lessons in any language but English; after the law passed they discovered that many school districts only used their native tongue. German, Polish, Russian, Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian schools had to sue to get public funds. This was at a time when few children went to high school — even fewer to college. The rapid industrialization of the country needed a trained and literate workforce. A rapid transition from an agricultural economy to an industrial one required experimenting with the lives of millions of families.
A thousand years of experience with the apprentice system was pretty much ignored in favor of having children sit in classrooms and get lectured. Then they were supposed to memorize and recite what they had been told. It took many years before the incoming students caught on and played along. Meanwhile, the skilled trades continued to produce high-quality craftsmen. Between the railroads and the rapidly mechanizing Navy and Merchant Marine, thousands of farm boys were learning mechanics. Steam tractors and threshers freed enough laborers for our huge new factories while still producing record crops.
Could it have been done without mandatory school attendance? Millions of people were self-disciplined enough to buy correspondence courses in subjects that interested them; a form of “distance learning,” “home schooling” and “on-line education” — long before the Internet. The self-taught man or woman was celebrated in the 19th century. How can we encourage that type of dedication today?