We are often told that “American government has always been involved in education, because land grant universities” – or something similar. Well, yes – one can point to the Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647, and similar actions – but closer study reveals important differences – distinctions which matter.
The ODSA of 1647: One colony – Massachusetts – did other colonies do likewise, so early? Or was Massachusetts an outlier?
The ODSA of 1647 is short enough to include in its entirety:
It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times by keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these latter times by persuading from the use of tongues, that so that at least the true sense and meaning of the original might be clouded and corrupted with false glosses of saint-seeming deceivers; and to the end that learning may not be buried in the grave of our forefathers, in church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavors.
It is therefore ordered that every township in this jurisdiction,after the Lord hath increased them to fifty households shall forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read, whose wages shall be paid either by the parents or masters of such children, or by the inhabitants in general, by way of supply, as the major part of those that order the prudentials of the town shall appoint; provided those that send their children be not oppressed by paying much more than they can have them taught for in other towns.
And it is further ordered, that when any town shall increase to the number of one hundred families or householders, they shall set up a grammar school, the master thereof being able to instruct youth so far as they may be fitted for the university, provided that if any town neglect the performance hereof above one year that every such town shall pay 5 pounds to the next school till they shall perform this order.
Three short paragraphs. The first paragraph is all about motivations: to thwart Satan by arranging that everyone learn to read the Scriptures in their own language. How much instruction is required to obtain this objective? Twelve years times 180 days? Not even close; about 30 hours would suffice.
Second, every township “shall appoint one within their town” whose wages shall be paid “by the parents or masters of such children, or by the inhabitants in general.” — that is, these government-mandated schools normally charged tuition. Note also the intimacy of scale: one teacher for fifty families; a small school for a hundred families.
What else is not present in the ODSA of 1647? Not one hint of compulsory attendance; the first compulsory attendance law in America was passed in Massachusetts in 1850.
When I investigate the claim of extensive government involvement in the past, as often expressed by today’s professional “educators,” I am tempted to put it in the category of “We have always been at war with Eastasia.”
The Eastasia reference comes from Orwell’s novel 1984. A manipulative, dictatorial government trains people to unquestioningly accept everything said by the government. The government switches alliances from Eastasia to Eurasia – then announces that “We have always been at war with Eastasia.”
Orwell was actually referencing a bit of real history – the switch from the USSR being the greatest ally of the West, joined with them against the specter of National Socialism, to the USSR being the greatest enemy of the West.
Did you recognize the reference? Did you know the backstory? It’s a fairly important bit of Western history and thought, and my informal reckoning is that it has dropped down the Memory Hole – yes, that’s another 1984 reference. It might be that 1984 is no longer assigned reading. It is probable that most students, at best, were in “read and forget” mode. They were not, for the most part, curious enough to dig into it, to understand it, to inquire about the historical background.
Now, let us inquire into Horace Mann, educated in the early 1800s, credited as the Father of the Common School movement. There is no doubt that he was educated – but where, precisely? When? By what means?
Horace Mann went – voluntarily – to the local school for six weeks or 30 days per year, for six years; a total of at most 180 days, altogether.
Horace proceeded to college at the age of 20, and graduated 3 years later, as valedictorian. Did he enter with only the knowledge obtained during his 180 days of formal instruction? No.
During the intervening years, he went to the library and read independently. In this way, he learned enough to enter college and to do so creditably. Such self-teaching – autodidactism – was common practice.
Does this not cast today’s high schools in a completely different light? When today’s parents think about home education – which was very common in times past – their biggest concern is often the high school years. Parents worry that they cannot teach high-school subjects. This might be true – but from the example of Horace Mann and many others (modern-day experience of Sudbury Valley and other Democratic Free Schools, for instance), high school is precisely when adolescents display the ability to drive their own education, by reading and seeking mentors.
Second, if you went to school for twelve years times 180 days, if you graduated high school, how is it that you are so deficient in math, science, and other subjects which were supposedly taught in high school? Even if you were a straight-A student, chances are that you feel yourself inadequte to the task of teaching your own children.
Why? I would argue that your ability to self-educate, your belief in the power of your own mind, has been vitiated. You feel powerless because you spent twelve years in a situation where you had no power; you had to ask permission for the simplest of acts, even to pee in a pot. Far from improving your natural abilities, twelve years of compulsory schooling have weakened you, deprived you of the ability and confidence to seek out knowledge and to teach yourself and your own.