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The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth Century Massachusetts

reviewed by Jack K. Campbell - 1971

coverTitle: The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth Century Massachusetts
Author(s): Michael B. Katz
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: , Pages: 325, Year: 1968
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Looking back in anger, Michael Katz sees mass public education coming to Massachusetts more as a conservative conspiracy than as a response to democratic, humanitarian, and working-class demands. By reinterpreting the motivations of the common school founders, he stimulates constructive controversy. His thesis will not shock the younger generation disenchanted with the Establishment, nor will it surprise the educational historians who hold that formal education is always a reflection of the dominant class. More than a new look at the past, however, this provocative study offers a fresh look at the present and shows how the deep cultural division between school and working class has complicated urban reform from the beginning.

Even though his chronology weaves back and forth between the 1820's and 1860's, Professor Katz builds effective models out of school and industrial-urban development in selected Massachusetts communities. He begins his case with the 1860 vote to abolish the high school in Beverly. Using the roll call of voters, tax books, and census records, he sees a middle-class majority for the school and significant lower-class opposition. Why would the lower classes vote away this "people's college"? Except for the relevancy of the curriculum, he considers many points in detail. The promotional argument that schools would attract industrial prosperity could hardly persuade craftsmen feeling the effects of machine competition. The promoters themselves were caught in a paradox on this point because, while they would reap the rewards of increased productivity, they would likewise suffer the whirlwind of social disintegration accompanying industrialism. These proponents blamed their social ills on urbanism, ineffective parents, immigrants, and the "lower stratum" in general. Stirred by the "social dynamite" in their slums, they promoted popular education as the means to achieving what they considered a well-ordered and integrated society. At the same time, they hoped to induce both prosperity and domestic tranquility. Through the "whip hand" of school committees, they ruthlessly attacked the rival private academies as well as the decentralized system of public school control. They sought greater concentration of power, not, as is usually supposed, to facilitate financial and social equality, but to spread costs over a broader base and take initiative away from the local district.

Yet in spite of educational reform, social conditions only worsened. The common schools were not for the common man, as reflected by school attendance records. Thus the reformers devised the "reform school." Under the guise of penal reform, they attempted to grade prisons as well as schools and used the courts to reach the hard-core juvenile miscreants. Professor Katz chose to call this development the real beginning of compulsory education. The implication, obviously, was that the lower classes were vicious, immoral, and needful of educational correction. But the appeal for public schools was always couched in terms of social mobility. Even the new "soft line" pedagogy of the reformers, which would make the prison a school, the school an ideal home, was only a ruse to imprison all children in a middle-class bias.

Who were these reformers? Analysis of their class interests showed they were those who controlled legislatures and commercial enterprises. They crossed political lines. They were mostly laymen. (They recruited schoolmen in their machinations by inspiring them with a "messianic" complex. Teachers were to save the world. Professionalization of their ranks was to close out opposition.)

By making education the single panacea of reform, the promoters oversimplified the problems of industrialization and even misdirected the needed impetus for reform. Professor Katz makes no attempt to disguise hostility for these reformers, but he underscores his points with objective evidence using the empirical and statistical techniques of the various social sciences and methods of historical research.

Even if all these conclusions about reform in Massachusetts are true, however, one ought not to generalize too broadly. Massachusetts may be found more conservative in education than her sister states to the west where tradition was less sacred, but this comprehensive study should be extended to subsequent reform in Massachusetts if the sweeping condemnation of reformers is to be substantiated. Contrary to the contention that pedagogical reforms were sufficiently well fixed by the Civil War, a perusal of debates in the Boston School Committee and Massachusetts Teachers Association in the 1880's would cast some doubt. Reformers of this later period also complained of some conditions deplored by Professor Katz. Colonel Francis Parker, of Quincy fame, said he did not blame educational "statesmen" of an earlier age for popularizing an "aristocratic" education. It was all that was known. He labored to inaugurate a new education dedicated to the exigencies of a democracy. Professor Katz insists that this is still the need. He does not offer a call for reform but an invitation for a completely new departure in urban education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 72 Number 3, 1971, p. 467-468
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1705, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 1:42:49 PM

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  • Jack Campbell
    Texas A & M University

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