Posted: March 12th, 2023

Compare and contrast the authors argument about an historicak figure or trend that differs from prior interpretations

compare and contrast the authors claims with other known claims. (make your own argument)

Schooling and Poor Children in
19th-Century America

University of Michigan

Societies are always confronted with the problem of dealing with poor
children. Often, this means finding ways of overcoming or compensating for
the disadvantaged backgrounds of these children. Indeed, concern about the
fate and well-being of disadvantaged children in the United States today has
lead many policymakers to look once again to the schools for assistance.

Despite our strong and persistent belief in the importance and necessity
of education in preparing future citizens, not everyone agrees that American
schools are designed or prepared to help disadvantaged children. Some
contend that family background rather than the quality of the school is the
main determinant of student achievement and of subsequent job placement
(Jencks, 1979). Although these scholars acknowledge that the total amount
of schooling received matters, they argue that the length of schooling is more
dependent on a child’s home environment than on the school setting. Other
analysts have gone even further to argue that public schools in 19th-century
America were deliberately designed to perpetuate the existing inequalities
within the expanding capitalist economy (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Katz,
1975). Rather than helping poor students in the past or today, these critics
argue that the school system was created in large part to allow middle- or
upper-class parents to help their own children while ensuring that those from
disadvantaged backgrounds would not advance.

To investigate the relationship between schooling and poor children
historically, this article examines the origins and development of 19th­
century education in the United States with particular attention to whether or
not schools helped poor children obtain better jobs. First, the establishment
and expansion of schools in the early 19th century are analyzed. Next,
contemporary views of schooling and poor children are noted and their ideas
about the relationship between education and economic productivity ex­
AMERICAN BEHAVIORAL SCIENTIST, Vol. 35 No. 3, January/February 1992 313-331
© 1992 Sage Publications, Inc.


from the SAGE Social Science Collections. All Rights Reserved.

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plored. Then, the article looks at three antebellum educational reforms
intended to help poor children: (a) monitorial charity schools, (b) Sunday
schools, and (c) infant schools. Doing so allows us to assess to what extent
early 19th-century Americans were interested in dealing with the problems
and needs of poor children. In addition, school attendance among poor
children is investigated to see if they were excluded from these new institu­
tions as some historians have claimed. Finally, the important question of
whether or not schooling actually fostered occupational mobility among poor
children is addressed.

By examining the development of schooling in the United States in the
19th century and its impact on poor children, we can ascertain the intentions
and evaluate the achievements of early efforts to deal with disadvantaged
children in our society. We analyze the relative roles of parents and schools
in educating children and assess the importance of schooling in fostering
social mobility in the past. Furthermore, by investigating the different ways
in which school reformers tried to alleviate the problems associated with
poverty among 19th-century children, we can place our current educational
reforms in a broader historical perspective.


Schools have not always been the primary institutions for socializing and
training children. In colonial New England, the household had the primary
responsibility for educating children and servants (Bailyn, 1960). Ministers
and churches were expected to assist the household since the goals of
education were primarily religious. Initially, the father rather than the mother
was entrusted with the education and catechizing of the children in the home.
Only after the mid-17th century, when males stopped joining the New
England churches as a matter of course, did Puritans slowly and reluctantly
turn to women as the chief agents for home education (Moran & Vinovskis,

Even if parents were expected to educate their own children and servants
at home, they sometimes used schools to assist them. Older women, often
widows, set up dame schools to educate young children (Cremin, 1970). In
some communities private elementary schools were created to cater to those
parents who did not want to educate their own children at home (Murphy,
1960). In addition, the few children who continued their education beyond
the rudiments of reading and writing went to grammar schools established
in the larger communities (Vinovskis, 1987). Increasingly, during the colo-

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nial period, parents placed their children in private or public schools when­
ever they became available in the local communities, but at least one scholar
(Cohen, 1974) has argued that opportunities for formal education may have
actually declined in the 18th century.

One of the major changes in 19th-century American life was the develop­
ment of mass public elementary or common schools. Yet there is considerable
disagreement on when or why this occurred. In the 1960s and 1970s, a group
of scholars, sharply critical of the existing educational system, reexamined
the origins of American schooling and concluded that common schools were
established as a response to industrialization (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Katz,
1968). These historians, often designated as “revisionists,” argued that man­
ufacturers and merchants spearheaded the public school expansion and reforms
to instill in future workers a respect for law and authority necessary in the
newly emerging capitalist economy (Bowles & Gintis, 1976, pp. 178-179).

The revisionists’ particular focus on Massachusetts parallels the concen­
tration of other scholarship on the educational and economic developments
in that state. This is significant because the Commonwealth was not only a
leader in educational changes but in urban and industrial development. In
addition, the revisionists dated the emergence of public schooling in the 2
decades before the Civil War and used the appointment of Horace Mann as
the Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837 as a starting
date (Bowles & Gintis, 1976, p. 154).

There are numerous problems with the revisionist interpretation of the
development of mass education and school reforms in 19th-century America.
For one thing, it equated the movement for public school reforms in the 1840s
and 1850s with the expansion of mass education and did not look at devel­
opments outside Massachusetts.

Yet mass literacy and education in Massachusetts occurred well before
the 1840s and 1850s. Lockridge (1974) documented that about 90% of men
and 60% of New England women were literate by 1790. According to the
census figures on literary, only 1.1 % of the White population, aged 20 years
and older, in Massachusetts in 1840 were illiterate (Vinovskis, 1989). In
addition, estimates of Massachusetts school attendance in 1800 indicate that
it was already high in 1800 and gradually increased over the next 4 decades.
Contrary to the interpretations of the revisionists, the percentage of children
in Massachusetts schools actually decreased slightly from 1840 to 1850
(Kaestle & Vinovskis, 1980).

There were important changes in some aspects of Massachusetts educa­
tion in the 2 decades prior to the Civil War, such as the shift from private to
public schools and the establishment of public high schools. But even here,

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one needs to acknowledge that some of these changes were a continuation
of earlier trends. For example, the proportion of children in school receiving
at least some private education dropped from 18.7% in 1840 to 8% in 1860.
Nevertheless, more than four of five students were already going to a public
school in 1840, and therefore the major changes from private to public
schooling occurred earlier (Vinovskis, 1989).

Another reason why the revisionist equation of the rise of mass education
with industrialization is incorrect is that most of the expansion in schooling
in the two decades prior to the Civil War occurred in areas which were
predominantly rural and agricultural. The largest increases in the percentage
of White children attending school or in the total number of new students
between 1840 and 1860 was not in New England or in the Middle Atlantic
states but in the North Central region (Fishlow, 1976).

If the revisionists exaggerated the causal relationship between the rise of
mass education and industrialization, they overestimated the role of the
manufacturers and merchants in achieving educational reforms (Bowles &
Gintis, 1976; Katz, 1968). While both of these groups generally supported
the public school movement, they were less important than others, such as
clergymen, at the local level (Vinovskis, 1985a). In addition, school reform­
ers were active not only in the more industrialized states, such as Massachu­
setts, but in agricultural states, such as Michigan and Ohio. Nor were school
reformers restricted to urban areas, as the revisionists imply. They were also
present in rural communities, although in those communities, reformers often
faced a different set of problems than in urban areas. Finally, rather than
seeing education imposed on an indifferent or hostile working class, as many
revisionists believe, there is considerable evidence of widespread public
support for education, including strong enthusiasm among Northern workers
for common school education (Kaestle, 1983; Katznelson & Weir, 1985).

Instead of seeing mass education as the result of mid-19th-century indus­
trial development, it is more accurate to view it as a continuation of the
colonial Puritan activities to ensure that everyone was able to read the Bible.
This religious enthusiasm for education was reinforced by the establishment
of the United States in the late 18th century and the extension of suffrage to
almost all White adult males in the early 19th century. Given the perceived
fragility of the early republic, mass public schools were seen as essential not
only as a means of promoting widespread literacy but as a way of preserving
moral values. As mothers were now regarded as the natural caretakers and
educators of the next generation of citizens, women received access to public
schooling that had been denied to most of them in the colonial period.
Combined with a growing recognition in the 1840s and 1850s that education

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may foster individual social mobility and stimulate overall economic devel­
opment, it is not surprising that mass public schooling for Whites expanded
rapidly in all regions of the United States exceptthe South, where geographic
and social conditions limited the establishment and maintenance of common
schools (Kaestle, 1983; Vinovskis, 1989).


Concern about poverty and disadvantaged children does not necessarily
imply support for mass education. In early 19th-century England, a rapidly
industrializing nation beset by problems of poverty and social unrest, calls
for mass education encountered strong opposition. English opponents of
education for the poor argued that schooling would encourage unrealistic
occupational aspirations and lead to discontent among children of common
laborers. They also feared that education would facilitate the dissemination
of dangerous ideas against religion and civic authority (Silver, 1965).

There was almost no opposition to the education of poor Whites in the
United States. Given the creation of the republic and the need for an educated
electorate, conservatives supported schooling as a means of instilling proper
values (Kaestle, 1976).

Although there was strong and widespread support for educating poor
children in the United States, it was usually justified in terms of protecting
society rather than of helping individuals get ahead. The value of education,
according to most commentators, was to improve the moral character of the
poor rather than to enhance their occupational skills or to foster individual
social mobility. This orientation was due, in part, to the expectation that
workers would acquire their specific job skills through apprenticeship instead
of schooling (Rorabaugh, 1986).

Unlike today, 18th- and 19th-century British classical economists did not
emphasize education as a key to individual or even societal economic
productivity (Blaug, 1986). Adam Smith (1937), for example, briefly ac­
knowledged that monetary rewards should compensate workers for acquiring
skills, but he did not elaborate on the important implications of this insight.
Most early 19th-century American political economists agreed, although
some placed a little more emphasis on the benefits of education than did their
British counterparts (Phillips, 1828; Wayland, 1843).

The leaders of the American workers in the 1820s and 1830s stressed the
importance of universal common school education (Carlton, 1908) but paid
scant attention to the value of education for enhancing economic productivity

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or fostering social mobility (Kaestle, 1983; Vinovskis, 1989). Instead, they
saw in schooling a means of educating workers to recognize and protect their
rights through the political process (Luther, 1832; Simpson, 1831).

The one person who did stress the economic productivity of education
was Horace Mann. Responding to the legislative efforts to abolish the
Massachusetts State Board of Education in 1840, Mann sought to broaden
the support for public education by demonstrating its economic value to the
state economy and to the individual in his Fifth Annual Report (Massachu­
setts Board of Education, 1842). Based on a flawed, but seemingly objective,
survey 0f textile mill managers in Lowell, he argued that educated workers
earned about 50% more than uneducated ones. Although Mann’s estimate of
the value of antebellum education was clearly exaggerated and based on
faulty data and reasoning, it appeared scientific and plausible to his contem­
poraries (Vinovskis, 1970).

Thus while early 19th-century Americans valued and promoted education,
they usually did not acknowledge or emphasize its economic value for the
individual or the society. Thanks to the work of Mann and his supporters,
however, the economic productivity of elementary education was recognized
and praised by the time of the Civil War. This reinforced the growing
widespread belief in 19th-century America that the children of the poor could
escape their poverty through education. Education became even more highly
valued as an alternate means of occupational mobility, once other ways of
training young people, such as apprenticeship, declined in early 19th-century
America (Vinovskis, 1989).


Did 19th-century Americans develop special educational programs to
help poor children? And if programs for poor children were set up, were they
altered over time to adjust to the development and changes in the common
schools? To answer these and other related questions, we look at three
antebellum educational programs: (a) monitorial charity schools, (b) Sunday
schools, and (c) infant schools. Although these programs were not the only
or even the most typical of antebellum efforts to educate children, they
exemplify and illustrate how concerns about poverty and disadvantaged
children were translated into special educational programs.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, efforts were made to establish
charity schools for poor children in American cities. These institutions were

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intended for children whose parents were either incapable of educating their
children at home or unable to enroll them in a private school. Many of these
charity schools were sponsored and funded by religious groups, and they
catered not only to poor White children but to free African-American children
(Cremin, 1970).


Establishing and maintaining charity schools was expensive, and their
philanthropic sponsors looked for ways to economize. One of the most
promising and innovative approaches was to adopt the ideas and organization
of Joseph Lancaster, a young English teacher who established monitorial
(Lancasterian) schools for poor children in London and other communities
in Great Britain. Lancasterian schools emphasized memorization and recita­
tion and used older students to oversee and monitor the progress of younger
ones (Kaestle, 1973).

Lancasterian schools quickly spread to the major urban areas in the United
States in the 1810s and 1820s. The schools were efficient and economical
and were usually organized on a nonsectarian basis. Students were allowed
to progress at their own pace, and large numbers of poor children received
their education in them.

Although American educators were at first enthusiastic about Lancaster­
ian schools, complaints about the rote memorization and the impersonal
education surfaced. As American school reformers of the 1830s and 1840s
were exposed to the ideas of Johann Pestalozzi (Barlow, 1977), who stressed
the need for more individual attention and for a close emotional relationship
between the teacher and the pupil, the Lancasterian approach gradually fell
out of favor and use.

The movement away from monitorial schools was reinforced by the
growth of public schools and by the efforts to make these institutions
attractive for children of middle-class families. Although the highly regi­
mented and inexpensive Lancasterian schools were seen as adequate for poor
children, they were viewed as inappropriate for middle-class children whose
parents demanded a better education for their own children (Kaestle, 1973).

Poor children benefited by the abandonment of Lancasterian schools in
the 1830s and 1840s because they were able to enroll in one of the smaller
classes in public schools rather than being taught by older students in a large
monitorial charity school. Nevertheless, for a few decades in the early 19th
century, monitorial schools provided education for many disadvantaged
children -who might not have otherwise received any schooling.

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Sunday schools were another educational innovation intended for the poor
which was borrowed from England (Laqueur, 1976). They were introduced
into the United States in the 1790s and proved to be equally popular here.
Some of the first Sunday schools were set up in factory towns by industrial­
ists, such as Samuel Slater, who wanted to provide schooling and religious
training for poor children working in their textile mills (Tucker, 1984). As in
England, religious activists played a key role in the establishment of Sunday
schools in the larger cities, like Philadelphia, but initially these institutions
were not controlled by or oriented toward a single religious denomination
(Rice, 1917).

At first, Sunday schools emphasized teaching both poor children and
illiterate adults how to read and encouraged the memorization of long
passages from the Bible. Sunday schools often provided a basic education
for those who were denied one elsewhere. Not surprisingly, many African­
Americans in northern cities received their limited education in them. In New
York City, nearly 25% of the pupils in the Sunday School Union Society’s
institutions were African-Americans (Boylan, 1988).

As public common schools became more available and adult illiteracy
declined, Sunday schools changed their clientele and goals. Fewer illiterate
adults attended, and increasingly middle-class children attended the Sunday
schools alongside the children of the poor. Because children now acquired
reading and writing in the public schools, it was no longer necessary to teach
literacy in the Sunday schools. Instead, by the 1830s, Sunday schools
emphasized evangelical training and became a religious complement to the
public schools (Boylan, 1988; Rice, 1917).


Monitorial and Sunday schools tried to educate poor children of all ages.
But another institution, infant schools, was especially designed for young
children as a means of overcoming their disadvantaged backgrounds. Al­
though we often think that early childhood education for poor children
originated in the mid-1960s, infant schools antedated the Head Start program
by nearly 150 years.

Based on the pedagogical ideas of Pestalozzi and on Robert Owen’s model
infant school at New Lanark, Scotland, these institutions spread rapidly
throughout Europe and America in the 1820s and early 1830s. Much of their
popularity stemmed from the popular belief that by reaching disadvantaged

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children at the age of 2 or 3 years, it was possible to save them before they
adopted the harmful habits and dangerous values of their impoverished
environment (Whitbread, 1972).

Early 19th-century Americans believed that children were capable of
intellectual development at an early age. Therefore, the idea of special infant
schools for children of poor parents seemed reasonable and natural. Because
the educational practices in infant schools ranged from allowing the children
to play to teaching them to read, there was widespread agreement that
educating poor young children helped them to overcome their disadvantaged
backgrounds (May & Vinovskis, 1977).

Although infant schools initially were intended for poor children, once
middle-class families heard about them, they feared that the poor in infant
schools might gain an advantage over their own children. As a result,
middle-class parents wanted these institutions made available to all children.

Infant schools and early childhood education spread rapidly in the United
States. Although, at first, infant schools were set up only in the larger urban
areas like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, many rural communities
established them. It is estimated that in 1840 approximately 40% of all
3-year-olds in Massachusetts were either enrolled in a special infant school
or in a regular common school (Kaestle & Vinovskis, 1978).

Despite the initial enthusiasm for infant schools by parents and educators,
they did not last long. In 1833, Amariah Brigham, a prominent physician,
argued that early intellectual activity among children weakens the develop­
ment of the brain and eventually may lead to insanity (Brigham, 1833, p. 15).

Brigham’s ideas, based on the best medical and scientific thinking of the
day, were widely disseminated among middle-class families through popular
magazines. Support for infant schools and early childhood education quickly
faded, and by 1860, there were almost no children under the age of 5 years
in Massachusetts public schools (May & Vinovskis, 1977). What had started
out as a means of helping poor children overcome their deficient home
environments was now seen as detrimental to any young children in school.
Middle-class parents were more likely than lower-class ones to withdraw
their own children from the infant schools, partly because they were more
likely to read about the injunctions against early education in popular
magazines and advice books. But once philanthropic support and public
funds were withheld from the infant schools and educational authorities
barred very young children from entering public schools, the early schooling
for all antebellum children in America collapsed (Kaestle & Vinovskis,

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Having examined monitorial charity schools, Sunday schools, and infant
schools, it is clear that antebellum Americans did set up special educational
programs for poor and disadvantaged children. Their motivations were
mixed. Some feared the social and economic disruptions caused by urban­
ization and industrialization and believed that educating poor children would
help to minimize these difficulties. Others were more concerned about the
political stability and felt that an educated electorate was essential in the new

republic. Many philanthropists and educational reformers were genuinely
concerned about the well-being of disadvantaged children and felt it was their
religious duty to help those less fortunate than themselves.

Many of the educational efforts aimed at poor children originated abroad
and came to the United States from Great Britain. Indeed, historians have
often ignored or minimized the importance of the transmission of ideas and
institutions from abroad by viewing American developments in isolation
from other countries. Yet the establishment and growth of educational
institutions for the poor in the United States was not identical to that of
comparable programs in Great Britain. With virtually no opposition to the
education of the poor Whites in 19th-century America, it was much easier to
promote such innovations here than in England, where strong opposition to
mass public education persisted.

Educational programs for the poor in the United States frequently started
out as private, charitable efforts in the early 19th century but quickly sought
and received public funding. Indeed, one of the interesting characteristics of
many of these programs is that they shifted from efforts aimed exclusively
at poor and disadvantaged children to ones intended for everyone.

There were many advantages to having educational programs designed
for the poor expanded to include all children. The stigma attached to attend­
ing private charity schools was largely eliminated once these institutions
became public schools intended for middle-class as well as lower-class
children. The quality of the education in these institutions also often im­
proved because middle-class parents insisted on better facilities and teachers
once their own children were affected. But there were also some disadvan­
tages for poor children which did not receive much attention at the time. Once
schools were intended for everyone and not just poor children, 19th-century
reformers usually assumed that disadvantaged children in the public common
schools did not need any special help or guidance. Indeed, as was seen in the
case of infant schools, there was concern among middle-class parents that
any special efforts on behalf of the poor might actually disadvantage their
own children. As a result, the focus of much of 19th-century educational

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reforms were on getting poor children into public common schools rather
than in looking for ways of helping poor children once they had enrolled.

Finally, although there was little distinction by gender, the special educa­
tional programs for poor children in antebellum America were intended
mainly for Whites. African-American children usually did not receive equal
access either to these special programs or to the regular public common
schools. Sometimes, separate monitorial charity schools, Sunday schools, or
infant schools were established in large cities for African-American children,
but not often. In the North, African-American children faced strong racial
prejudices and often segregated schools that limited their education in
antebellum America. With the increased fearofabolitionists and slave revolts
in the 1830s and 1840s, Southern states tried to restrict education for their
slaves. As a result, African-American children in antebellum America, who
were clearly among the most disadvantaged individuals in that society, did
not receive equal access to schooling.


Despite the availability of public common schools, especially in the
Northeast and the Midwest, were most poor children able to attend, or were
they forced into the labor force because of poverty? To answer this question,
we look at Massachusetts, a state where public schools were well-developed
and where several scholars have investigated patterns of school attendance
in 1860 using individual-level census data.

Most analysts agree that by 1860 almost every child in Massachusetts,
including those from poor or working-class families, received some common
school education. During their teens, however, children from poor or working­
class families were more likely to drop out of school than were those from
wealthy or middle-class families (Katz, 1987; Katznelson & Weir, 1985).

The classic and still most frequently cited study of school attendance of
poor children in antebellum America is Thernstrom’s (1964) analysis of
Newburyport, Massachusetts. He analyzed the lives of common laborers in
that community in 1860 and concluded that poverty forced almost all of their
children to drop out of school at an early age.

Themstrom ‘s pessimistic portrayal of school attendance among children
of the working class in antebellum Newburyport is exaggerated and incorrect.
Based on a more detailed statistical manuscript census analysis of all 13,000
residents of Newburyport in 1860 rather than of the 400 common laborers in
Themstrom ‘s study, lower-class children received more schooling in that

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community than Thernstrom believed. Thernstom said that the chances of
school attendance of an 11- or 12-year-old, whose father was a common
laborer, were nil, but a statistical reexamination found that over 90% of them
were still in school (Vinovskis, 1985b ).

Were the patterns of school attendance in Newburyport similar to those
in other Massachusetts communities? Another individual-level manuscript
census study of Lawrence, Lynn, Salem, and five other smaller communities
in Essex County in 1860 produced similar results, although a somewhat lower
overall rate of school attendance (Kaestle & Vinovskis, 1980).

If most antebellum poor children in Massachusetts received at least some
common school education, and many remained in school as teenagers, did
they also have access to the newly created public high schools? Again, the
consensus among historians is that few public high schools existed in the 19th
century and the small number that were established served almost entirely
children from the middle or upper classes (Krug, 1969; Peterson, 1985).

Public high schools were certainly rare in antebellum America, but in
some areas of the county, such as Massachusetts, they were more common­
place. Nor were high schools confined only to large urban cities like Boston,
New York, and Philadelphia; they also existed in smaller communities. In
most large cities, there was only one high school, and hence only a small
percentage of children could ever attend. In the smaller communities with
high schools, however, a much higher proportion of children enrolled. An
analysis of high school attendance in Essex County, Massachusetts in 1860
found that a substantial minority of youths passed through such an institution.
Combining both public high schools and comparable private academies, 19%
of Essex County children received at least some high school education.
However, because most students entering high school did not stay long
enough to complete the degree, it is not clear exactly what benefits, if any,
came from a limited exposure to secondary schooling (Vinovskis, 1988).

Were children of working-class families in effect excluded from public
high school education, as some historians have argued? Not entirely. Al­
though children whose parents were wealthier and in white-collar occupa­
tions were more likely to attend high school, some children from poor
families also enrolled. In Newburyport, almost a third of all children in 1860
enrolled at some time in one of the local public or private high schools, and
30.8% of them graduated. Although two thirds of those attending high school
were children whose fathers were in high white-collar occupations, about one
third of those whose fathers were in skilled occupations and one sixth of those
whose fathers were in unskilled occupations also enrolled (Vinovskis, 1985b).

This detailed examination of the patterns of elementary and secondary
school attendance has been confined to Massachusetts, a state with well-

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developed common and high schools. Although the overall levels of antebel­
lum school attendance would be somewhat lower in the Midwest, the same
general patterns appear. Only in the South, where the common schools were
slow in developing, might one anticipate much lower rates of school atten­
dance and perhaps more of a differential in education between children from
poor and more affluent families. Finally, we need to remind ourselves that
while many poor White children had considerable access to public and
private schooling, the same was not true for African-American children
(Kaestle, 1983).


Was social mobility possible in 19th-century America? According to
popular thought, everyone had an opportunity to get ahead through hard work
and some luck. As was noted earlier, education was not always seen as a key
factor in social mobility, but good habits and character were considered

But was there real social mobility for 19th-century Americans ifwe look
at their behavior rather than their beliefs? This is a very complicated issue,
as it depends on one’s definition of social mobility and which particular case
studies were used.

The findings of social mobility studies of 19th-century Americans were
mixed when we look at those near the bottom of the occupation structure
(unskilled or semiskilled). Overall, it appears that most unskilled or semi­
skilled workers or their children were able to improve slightly their occupa­
tional standing and/or to purchase their own home. It was much less likely,
however, that either unskilled or semiskilled workers would move directly
into high or low white-collar positions, although their children were more
likely to do so. Surprisingly, there was little difference between America and
Europe in regard to overall career mobility, but there was slightly more
upward mobility among unskilled workers in the United States than in Europe
(Kaeble, 1985).

But was education a key factor in fostering social mobility among un­
skilled or semiskilled workers and their children? According to most revi­
sionists, the answer is clearly no (Graff, 1979, pp. 114-115; Katz, Doucet, &
Stern, 1982, p. 275).

On the other hand, scholars, such as Thernstrom (1964), have implicitly
assumed in their studies that education was a major factor in social mobility
in the 19th century. Unfortunately, most of the early studies of the relationship

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between education and social mobility in 19th-century America are so flawed
methodologically that one cannot draw any reliable conclusions from them
(Vinovskis, 1989).

Recently, several studies have appeared, including some by a conceptually
and methodologically more sophisticated new generation of revisionist
scholars, that address the relationship between education and social mobility.
Whereas earlier scholars, such as Bowles and Gintis (1976), argued that
schools simply reproduced the existing capitalist structure by excluding
children of working-class families from them and then discriminating against
the few who did enter, Labaree ‘s (1988) study of Philadelphia’s Central High
School found that once students were admitted, they found themselves “in a
model meritocracy where academic performance was the only characteristic
that determined who would receive the school’s valuable diploma” (p. 37).

If Labaree’s study demonstrated that working-class children, once admit­
ted to a high school, could do just as well as middle-class children, what
about their subsequent occupation mobility? Unfortunately, his study of
Philadelphia’s Central High School did not trace the students to their jobs,
but Ueda ‘s (1987) analysis of the intergenerational mobility of grammar and
high school students in Somerville, Massachusetts in the second half of the
19th century did. Ueda discovered that blue-collar sons who went to high
school did better than those who did not.

The most sophisticated study of late 19th- and early 20th-century social
mobility is Perlmann ‘s (1985, 1988) logit analysis of schooling and occupa­
tional achievement in Providence, Rhode Island between 1880 and 1935.
Even after controlling for the effects of family background, Perlmann found
that for most children, some high school education (but not necessarily
having graduated) was a great advantage occupationally.

A high school education was not equally useful for everyone in Provi­
dence. Perlmann found that whereas White children of poor and immigrant
parents benefited from entering high school, African-American children who
received some high school education still faced almost insurmountable racial
job discrimination. As a result, although many African-American children in
Providence attended the high school and did well academically, education
by itself was not sufficient to overcome the racial barriers to their social


Americans have always been concerned about poor and disadvantaged
children, but the ways in which they have tried to help them have varied

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considerably. Part of the 19th-century concern about poor children was due
to a fear of what would happen to society if the next generation did not share
its values and goals. Part of Americans’ interest also grew out of Christian
benevolence toward less fortunate individuals. Whatever the source of that
concern, and it was complex and mixed even for the same individuals within
that society, there was general agreement that it was easier to change the
young child than reform the adult. Most 19th-century Americans also saw
education as an effective means for guiding and controlling the development
of disadvantaged children into productive citizens.

Colonial and 19th-century Americans believed that the primary responsi­
bility for education rested with the parents. Over time, private and public
schools were acknowledged as substitutes for inadequate training at home,
but these institutions were never seen as a total replacement for the family.
Instead, in the 19th century, the family and the schools were each expected
to play an important role in the upbringing and socialization of the child.

Today, we need to return to the idea that both the family and the schools
have an important responsibility in the education of our children. Compared
to our colonial or 19th-century ancestors, most parents today neglect their
responsibility and role as educators in the home. Also, many education
policymakers, while acknowledging the importance of the family, often do
very little to foster parental involvement with their children’s education
(especially in the junior and senior high schools). Although we should not
idealize parental participation in education in the past, at least it was a goal
commonly accepted by 19th-century Americans, although not always put
into practice.

Nineteenth-century Americans also established special educational pro­
grams for poor children. We have seen how monitorial charity schools,
Sunday Schools, and infant schools were designed to help poor children
overcome their disadvantaged family backgrounds. Rather than isolating the
poor within these programs, efforts later were made to integrate poor and
middle-class children in public schools. Although we should not always
applaud the results of their efforts (especially in those cases of late 19th­
century tracking, where poor children were systematically excluded from
more academically oriented training), on the whole, children from poor and
disadvantaged backgrounds often received classroom education roughly
comparable to their more fortunate compatriots, especially since the more
rigid neighborhood segregation by class and wealth occurred only after the
Civil War.

Nineteenth-century Americans were open to new ideas about programs to
help educate poor children and frequently borrowed ideas and models from
other countries. Today, we need to recapture that openness and experiment

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more with alternative ways of helping disadvantaged children through our
schools. We also need more awareness of comparable educational efforts in
other countries, such as Japan and Germany, and a willingness to learn from
their school programs. We cannot afford to be as insular and provincial in
our educational knowledge and policies as we have become since the 19th

Most 19th-century Americans believed that those who were hard-working,
but came from disadvantaged backgrounds, could succeed. Although their
faith in the openness of their society was exaggerated and did not pay enough
attention to the structural components of inequality, it did foster a climat.e of
opinion in which individuals were led to believe that all people could succeed
through their own efforts. Today, while acknowledging and working to
eliminate the structural impediments to social mobility, we also must stress
the importance of individual and family efforts in getting ahead in our society.
Thus the recent educational successes of the children of the “boat people”
provide testimony to the role of family and cultural values in motivating
disadvantaged students to excel in schools.

Surprisingly, most early 19th-century Americans did not emphasize edu­
cation as a key either to individual success or to the growth of the economy.
Only after the efforts of Horace Mann and others in the 1840s and 1850s was
our current notion that education is central to growth of the economy
explored and publicized. But they did recognize the importance of moral and
character development in building good citizens and workers. Today, in our
own discussions of the economic productivity of education, we often fail to
acknowledge the importance that values and character play in preparing the
next generation.

Contrary to the strong and often cited claims of the revisionists of the
1960s and 1970s, it does appear that schooling in 19th-century America
promoted individual social mobility. Although so far there are few method­
ologically sound studies on this issue and almost all of them are confined to
students who entered high schools, the weight of the evidence suggests that
schooling in the past did matter. This is not to imply that children of poor
parents were not disadvantaged- they clearly were. Nor does it imply that
schools could overcome all of the disadvantages of poverty for the individual.
It docs, however, suggest that schools did more than just reproduce the
existing capitalist structure- they also provided some real opportunities for
advancement for those poor children able to take advantage of them.

Finally, schooling by itself is of limited value if society refuses to
acknowledge and reward those with better educational preparation and
training. Unless successful students in school have equal or near equal access

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to better jobs and the other material rewards of our society, any advantages
conferred by further schooling will be quickly lost. African-Americans in the
19th century faced not only discrimination in schooling but even those who
were educated could not compete effectively with Whites in the labor force.
As a result, the great enthusiasm and interest in public schooling among
African-Americans after the Civil War began to wane by the early 20th
century once they realized that education had little impact on their subsequent
occupational opportunities. Therefore, current educational campaigns to help
poor and disadvantaged students must be accompanied by serious and
sustained efforts to eliminate any remaining discrimination in our society on
the basis of class, ethnicity, race, or gender.

Although this review of 19th-century efforts to help poor and disadvan­
taged children through schooling does not and cannot lead to any simple or
mechanical prescription for how to organize or implement comparable
programs today, it should reinforce our commitment to helping disadvan­
taged children through our schools. Education has in the past played an
important complementary role in our efforts to help poor children have equal
access to the full range of opportunities in our society. I think it can continue
to do so today.


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