The Right to Learn: A History of School

1855 One Room School / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

In this isolated time, we can appreciate the value of our teachers and educational system. School wasn’t always considered a right, especially one that was extended to every child. For this lesson, we use media sources to examine 19th century schooling and the various obstacles that prohibited many kids from receiving an education.

Starting in the 1830s, The Common School Movement led to the development of public schools, which offered free education to all children (more on its limits below) For kids who were lucky enough to go, what was school like in the 1800s? In rural areas, many children learned in one-room schoolhouses, if they lived close enough to walk. Kids across ages gathered together under one teacher.

These country schools existed into the 20th century so you may know people that attended them. Call and ask about their experiences.
Some questions to ask:
—How did you get to school?
—What was it like to have multiple age groups under one teacher?
—How was the day structured?
—Did your school have indoor plumbing? How was it heated?
—How were children disciplined?

You can see a fictional depiction of the one-room schoolhouse in the TV show Little House on the Prairie.

Who didn’t get to go to school?–African American Children
Not every 19th century child got to attend school. Some groups of kids were not allowed to go to school. Seven states had anti-literacy laws that prohibited enslaved and free children from learning to read and write. Read here about the history of African American education. Then watch this overview. Why is literacy so important?

Who didn’t get to go to school?–Children with Disabilities
Some children with disabilities were also left out of the Common School Movement. Unfortunately, inclusive education wouldn’t happen until the late 20th century. Watch the video below. Why did it take so long for the United States to provide education for everyone?

Who didn’t get to go to school?–Child Laborers
Other kids couldn’t attend school because they had to go to work to earn money for their families. The number of children working grew over the the 19th century. In 1900, approximately 18% of children ages 10-15 were employed.

Photo by Lewis W. Hine / Public domain
“10 years old. Working 3 summers. Minds baby and carries berries, two pecks at a time. Whites BogBrown MillsN.J. This is the fourth week of school and the people here expect to remain two weeks more. Witness E. F. Brown. Location: Browns Mills, New Jersey.”  

With adult supervision, research online to answer the following questions:
1. What were some of the jobs held by children?
2. Describe the conditions for these jobs. Were they dangerous? How many hours did kids have to work per day?
3. Why did children have to work?
4. When did child labor become prohibited in the United States? Why?

Reflection Essay
In a short essay, identify three reasons that prevented children from getting to attend school. Next, discuss why school and good teachers are so important. What would your life be like if you weren’t allowed to go to school?

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