Chartered Schools: Two Hundred Years of Independent Academies in the United States, 1727-1925
reviewed by Peter Gow - 2003
Title: Chartered Schools: Two Hundred Years of Independent Academies in the United States, 1727-1925
Author(s): Nancy Beadie and Kim Tolley (Editors)
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415931185, Pages: 384, Year: 2002
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A paradox of contemporary school reform is the call by charter school supporters to, in effect, “let a hundred flowers bloom,” even as “standards” advocates insist that school success be measured by batteries of annual tests. In Chartered Schools: Two Hundred Years of Independent Academies in the United States, 1727-1925, editors Nancy Beadie and Kim Tolley represent an era when hundreds of flowers did bloom in a collection of essays that explore the educational diversity that existed before the advent of the homogenized system that “school reform” claims to be trying to fix.
In fifteen essays, including several by the editors, Chartered Schools provides an overview of the American academy movement clustered around the themes of “Institutions,” “Students,” “Teachers,” and “Systems.” The “Institutions” sections includes essays on the nature of the “academy,” which Beadie and Tolley are at pains to differentiate from purely tuition-driven, for-profit “venture schools” as being institutions with some degree of community support in the form of oversight, a government charter, or even public or private financial support. The raisons d’etre of such schools ranged from sectarian missionary zeal to community boosterism; the village with an “academy” would be signaling its readiness for greater things. Many of the essays selected also stress the role played by academies in offering a substantive experience in traditional academic subjects to female students—and the role of academies in expanding the horizons (geographical as well as vocational) of women entering the field of education.
The reader is reminded through many of these essays of the ephemeral nature of the educational experience for all but the most affluent of Americans, at least through the Civil War era. Academy students, for many of whom a total of a few months’ attendance over a period of years was all the education they received beyond the “three R’s,” were well enough trained to enter business, read law, or even become elementary teachers. Academy curricula tended to focus on the practical, and twenty-first-century polemicists who visualize the existence of a lost “Golden Age” of American education in which all students learned Latin, classical rhetoric, and Euclid will find nothing here to support their fantasies.
Chartered Schools also explores the educational opportunities made possible by academies for members of oppressed and marginalized groups. The editors have included separate essays on Moravian boarding schools (by Amy C. Schutt), ante- and post-bellum Southern academies for African Americans (by Mary Niall Mitchell and Christopher M. Span, respectively), Cherokee schools (by Teri M. Castelow), early twentieth-century “Chinese Western Military Academies” (by Carol Huang), and Roman Catholic convent academies and parish high schools (by Kim Tolley). These essays make it clear that the diversity of early academies was at least in some places (and for too brief a time, in all cases but those of the Roman Catholic schools) a source of vitality and richness in a society generally unwilling to acknowledge its multicultural nature. That such schools once existed, and flourished, ought to be a source of both wonder and inspiration, even as their demise reminds us of the destructive power of racism and nativism.
Most compelling are two essays in the “Systems” section that detail the fate of the academy movement in general against the backdrop of late-nineteenth-century cultural and economic expansionism. The first, by Sevan G. Terzian and Nancy Beadie, describes the transition of the academy into the public high school. Based largely on a case study from Ithaca, New York, this essay uses documentary evidence, including curricular material, to remind us that education was a very hot political issue in the post-Reconstruction period (especially for the Republican party, which hoped to use education as the issue by which they would recapture the moral high ground lost in the failures of Reconstruction) and that support for the idea of publicly supported local high schools was not easily won. The second essay, by Christine A. Ogren, shows how other academies were transmogrified into state normal schools in roughly the same period; many of the smaller branches of today’s State University of New York, for example, were once local academies until local authorities responded to a state call for the expansion (and standardization) of teacher training to meet the needs of a growing public school system.
Implicit in both essays is the suggestion that the unseen hand behind the transformation from academy to something else was that of “industrialization”—the American belief in standardized systems of production (interestingly, under state control) that could regulate processes and outcomes and ensure the quality of the product. In this case, the product was the “educated” citizen, ready to take her or his place in both the democracy (if not as a voter then at least as an informed person) and the expanding economy of the late nineteenth century. Lost in the shift from the academy as cottage industry to the high school and normal school as factory was much of the diversity, and the tolerance for different missions and methodologies that the academies had represented for the previous century and a half. Lost as well was the specific outreach to non-white, non-Protestant communities that at least some of the earlier academies had represented.
Although in a final essay the editors summarize the effects of the academy movement and the lessons to be learned by those advocating an increasing diversification of educational models today, there is little mention of other later directions taken by academies—the development into leading independent schools, for example, or even the persistence of some academies in New England that still serve as local public schools. But the editors’ enumeration of the institutional, cultural, and policy legacies covers the ground in both breadth and depth. In the end, Beadie and Tolley have provided an important field guide to the study of an important element of the early educational “system” in the United States and a thoughtful analysis of the significance of the early academy in the context of current thinking.