Among the issues most commonly discussed are individuality, the rights of the individual, the limits of legitimate government, morality, history, economics, government policy, science, business, education, health care, energy, and man-made global warming evaluations. My posts are aimed at intelligent and rational individuals, whose comments are very welcome.

"No matter how vast your knowledge or how modest, it is your own mind that has to acquire it." Ayn Rand

"Observe that the 'haves' are those who have freedom, and that it is freedom that the 'have-nots' have not." Ayn Rand

"The virtue involved in helping those one loves is not 'selflessness' or 'sacrifice', but integrity." Ayn Rand

25 February 2016

The Educational Attainment of Americans Before 1850

It is widely assumed that few Americans prior to 1850 and the development of government-run school systems were capable of reading and that knowledge was sparsely distributed.  This is a myth which there is much evidence to refute.

Here is an excerpt from an article by Andrew Berstein which was published in The Objective Standard, Vol. 5, No. 4 (2010) under the title The Educational Bonanza in Privatizing Government Schools.

Prior to the mid-19th century, government schools did not exist in America. All schools were private, and education was widespread and outstanding. For example, in the Middle Atlantic colonies during the pre-Revolutionary period, professional educators established numerous schools to satisfy the demand for education.15 Philadelphia, for instance, boasted schools for every subject and interest. Between 1740 and 1776, 125 private schoolmasters advertised their services in Philadelphia newspapers—this in a city whose population was miniscule relative to today. Professional educators provided mentoring services in English, contemporary foreign languages, science, and a wide variety of other topics.16 Children who grew to be such brilliant scientists, writers, and statesmen as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington received their education at home or in private schools.
(As to higher education, by the late-18th century six private colleges operated in the colonies: Yale, the College of New Jersey [Princeton], the College of Philadelphia [Penn], Dartmouth, Queen’s [Rutgers], and Rhode Island College [Brown].)17
Predictably, the educational results of such a free educational market were superb. The literacy levels of Revolutionary America were remarkably high. For example, Thomas Paine’s book, Common Sense,written in plain style but enunciating sophisticated political principles, sold 120,000 copies during the colonial period to a free population of 2.4 million (akin to selling 10 million copies today).18 The essays of The Federalist, written by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay in support of a Constitution for the nascent republic, were largely newspaper editorials written for and read by the common man.
Sales of American books and educational materials in the early- and mid-19th century likewise indicate a high national literacy rate. Between 1818 and 1823, while the U.S. population was under 20 million, Walter Scott’s novels sold 5 million copies (the equivalent of selling 60 million [actually more than 77.5 million] copies today). Early in the 19th century, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper likewise sold millions of copies.19 The McGuffey’s Readers, first published in 1836, routinely used such terms as “heath” and “benighted” in third-grade texts. They asked such questions as “What is this species of composition called?” and gave such assignments as “Relate the facts of this dialogue.” The fourth-grade reader included selections from Hawthorne, and the fifth-grade text, readings from Shakespeare. “These were not the textbooks of the elite but of the masses,” explains Thomas Sowell. “[F]rom 1836 to 1920, McGuffey’s Readers were so widely used that they sold more than 122 million copies.”20
Given the high quality of education in early America, it is no surprise that two renowned French visitors observed and reported on the phenomenon. In an 1800 book Vice President Thomas Jefferson commissioned, titled National Education in the United States of America, Pierre Du Pont de Nemours reported that Americans received an education far superior to that of other peoples. “Most young Americans,” he wrote, “can read, write, and cipher. Not more than four in a thousand are unable to write legibly.”21 Several decades later, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that Americans were the most educated people of history.22
The bracketed text in red is my correction.  Footnote 17 explains that Harvard College, King's College in New York City (now Columbia University), and William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia, which are all private colleges now, were founded by governments.  Harvard was founded by the Massachusetts Bay Colony and King's and William and Mary Colleges were founded under Royal Charters in the colonial period.  It is clear that the 1800 book Vice President Thomas Jefferson commissioned, titled National Education in the United States of America, Pierre Du Pont de Nemours stating that "not more than four in a thousand are unable to write legibly" did not include slaves.

The idea that a private education system would leave many Americans less educated than the government-run education system of today is belied by this history and by the fact that the approximately 11% of schools today that are private out-perform the government schools readily.  Home-schooled children also greatly out-perform government-schooled children.

The government-run schools have little reason to teach children good reasoning skills, the knowledge they need to earn a living, and the habit of independent, critical thinking.  Without these attainments, it is a very uphill battle for individuals to achieve wisdom and the necessary skills to make their own value choices well.  Government-run schools have a tendency to propagate myths that support Big Government and diminish the exercise of individual rights.  Government-controlled education endangers children, future adults, and our constitutionally limited republican government of a few enumerated powers.  Government-educated students generally have no idea what purposes and achievements define a legitimate government, no sound understanding of individual rights, no thoughts about the intelligibility of laws and regulations, and no commitment to the Rule of Law.  Because the People are divided about ideas of morality, the government schools downplay moral principles.  They have little knowledge of history and the many lessons of how governments have deprived their citizens of their rights.  They have no understanding of basic economics and are taught to believe in policies that deny the basic Law of Supply and Demand and the importance of production itself.  They massively promote group identifications and victim-hood and victimizer status for these groups in a highly divisive manner.  They systematically undermine the much greater diversity and wealth of individual choices provided by the private sector in favor of the rigid, group oriented controls of the government sector.

The government-run education system wallows in a profound conflict-of-interest and because it is coercive and tax-funded, it has no reason to improve.  In fact, the schools are more commonly provided with more money the more they fail, providing them with no incentive to provide a decent education.  Government-run and controlled schools very commonly put the welfare of their under-performing employees well ahead of that of their under-performing students.

The state of education in America today is tragic and is much of the reason that the state of government in America today is increasingly harmful to the freedom, security, and general well-being of Americans.

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