America Goes to School: Law, Reform, and Crisis in Public Education

By Robert M. Hardaway | Go to book overview

Chapter Four
The Origins of Public Education

An understanding of public education today requires knowledge of its heritage. Without this knowledge, it is not possible to assess current policies or promote workable reforms that take into proper account the culture and society within that public education has developed.

American public education can trace its earliest roots to education in Renaissance and post-Renaissance Western Europe. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, education consisted primarily of the learning of Latin and Greek and was taught at the institutions of higher learning that, after the eleventh century, had spread northward from Italy into the heartland of Europe. 1

After Martin Luther translated the Bible into German in 1523, the leaders of the Protestant Reformation recognized that the success and acceptance of their religion depended not upon the classical education of the nobility, but upon the vernacular education of all children. The invention of the printing press made such education possible. Luther was on the forefront of this movement, declaring that "in my judgment there is no other outward offense that in the sight of God so heavily burdens the world, and deserves such heavy chastisement, as the need to educate children." The example of sectarian vernacular schools in Lutheran Germany was soon adopted in the neighboring countries of Europe, including England.

Prior to the mid 1700s, over 90% of the immigrants to colonial America came from England, where rates of literacy and education soon surpassed those of other European countries. 2 In 156, 3 Parliament passed the Statute of Artificers, and later the Poor Laws, which provided for the apprenticeship and education of poor children. 4 The notion that it was in the interest of society to provide for the education of all its members was a revolutionary one. By 1640 literacy in London exceeded 50%, a remarkable rate for those times. The printing presses of Elizabethan England poured out literary works penned by Johnson, Bacon, and Marlowe, and even those on the very lowest rungs of the social scale flocked to watch the plays of Shakespeare. 5

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