The History of American Education

"I thank God, we have not free schools nor printing; and I hope we shall not have these hundred years. For learning has brought disobedience, and heresy and sects into the world; and printing has divulged them and libels against the government. God keep us from both!"- Sir William Berkeley


The above quote by Sir William Berkeley blatantly states the motives and general ideals of colonial leadership in America, as it relates to providing education to the mass population. Educating the masses was not a primal interest of colonial society and in fact by interpretation of this quote it was despised. If Sir Williams quote represents the thought of the majority of colonial leadership in his time, then one could believe the authoritative bodies of this country at the time of settlement, were appointed by England, to specifically ensure that the development of education or free thinking never flourished. If we use this quote as a reference to the current American educational system and its curriculum, you will find support for the idea that, the development and implementation of the education system today is not really any more sophisticated than it was in colonial times, it has not deviated far from its original intentions, and continues to provide nothing more than moderate appeasement to the masses demand for more education. One can also argue that this disobedience, heresy, and sect of the American people, against the church, state, and good society, have been created by introduction of a free education system in the first place. In this paper I hope to further discuss what this quote means to the current educational system, with support of Joel Spring’s book The American School, and how I interpret it with support of The New York Times articles from class, class notes, and supplemental readings.

We must acknowledge that Sir William Berkeley’s quote does not imply he is opposed to education; however it does confirm he is opposed to free education. His blatant statement “I thank God we have not free schools nor printing and I hope we shall not have these hundred years …” confirms that he agrees with education, but only for particular groups of people that can afford it, and are willing to be obedient members of the elite society that respects his God and his Government. It is quite clear that it is the poor who he hopes will never obtain free education nor free access to printing, books, news, etc. Sadly his words still have distinct relevance today even though we do have a free education system in place. If you read The New York Times article Feb 15, 2009, “Our Greatest National Shame”, it proves that classism is still ingrained in the education system today, it says, “One of the greatest injustices is that America’s best teachers overwhelmingly teach America’s most privileged students. In contrast, the most disadvantaged students invariably get the least effective teachers, year after year—until they drop out.” This same injustice was rampant in southern colonies where Sir William Berkeley served as Governor of Virginia for 28 years! Classism in colonial America is supported by Springs book, The American School Chapter 2 page 11 when he references Merle Curti’s article, “The Social Ideas of American Educators” it reads, “In southern colonies, the class system was most in evidence; there the children of the rich were educated by private tutors or attended schools while other children received minimal education”

Throughout history and even today the south continues to lag behind in access to education, and educational achievement, particularly amongst African Americans. In the book, Common Schools for Black Children, Chapter 6, “The Black Public High School and the Reproduction of Caste in the Urban South 1880-1935” Anderson says, “The virtual absence of black public high schools reflected the opposition of the vast majority of white southerners, particularly in rural communities and small towns, to black secondary education”. What this means is that the ideals like Sir William Berkeley’s have had a perpetual affect on the achievement and wealth attained by Africans Americans and other minorities, in the south. When Sir William says, “For learning has brought disobedience, and heresy and sects into the world; and printing has divulged them and libels against the government. God keep us from both” it appears he is quite aware the amount of power that is harbored in education and that this key to knowledge and power must be kept from the masses for as long as possible. If shared freely it could inspire free thinking, unprecedented socioeconomic advancement, social mobility, and could eventually lead to the overturn of government. It also appears that Sir Williams’s agenda was definitely targeted at perpetuating separation within society between the elites and the poor. This direct attempt to keep education away also meant keeping wealth away indirectly perpetuating poverty through today!

In New York City the poor typically is stereotyped as being minorities, particularly African Americans and the elite refers to White Americans. The disparity between education quality, achievement, and wealth distribution also correlates in this city with racial lines as it does in much of America. Thus far in this course, we have also learned that the ingestion of racial stereotypes has a detrimental impact on minority student achievement causing a negative effect on their future status and earning potential. In The New York Times article Feb. 8, 2009, “Education is all in your mind”, social psychologists have described a, “stereotype threat, which hampers the performance of African Americans. Additionally in The New York Times article, “Our Greatest National Shame”, it confirms that these attempts of leaders like Sir William Berkeley to foster stereotypes against inferior classes have sustained throughout the past 400 years, it reads, “Perhaps we should have fought the war on poverty with schools…Some education programs have done remarkably well in overcoming the pathologies of poverty…” it’s almost as if Sir William could be knighted one of the founders of our modern day status quo.

If Sir William Berkeley were alive today I believe he would be pleasantly satisfied at the current state of the education system. This country still maintains a strong status quo and the schools, churches, and government still promote ideological management subtle to most Americans but overt to me now having read this quote and pursuing this course. The system ingrains on our minds the ideas of keeping the peace, being good members of society, and the promotion of patriotism. In The American School Chapter 4 pages58-59 Spring discusses the creation of, “a dominate Protestant Anglo-American culture including winning the loyalty of citizens. An important source of loyalty is patriotism or a “love of your country”. Perhaps Sir William would have disagreed with that portion being that he was an Englishman appointed to this country to rule Virginia by King Charles, but the nationalist tactics of honoring and practicing a dominant government may have been to his liking in a post-revolutionary America.

The education system today is still extremely disparate between the elite and the poor as it was in Sir Williams’s time and opportunities for social mobility for the average American are inconspicuously limited. Advancement has been conferred, for some, but as we have discussed in class the percentage that actually break through the glass ceiling is extremely low, particularly when we examine the African American community, where only 2.6% have graduate degrees, compared to 57% of white Americans. The current education system in America that we rely so heavily on to bring us advancement is the exact institution that keeps the majority of us from attaining that dream as originally conspired by our forefathers, like, Sir William Berkeley.

In the dawn of the first black President, Barack Obama, $100 billion in emergency aid from economic stimulus package for education, and a education chief Mr. Arne Duncan who has no interest in self-gratifying political power, there lies a tremendous opportunity to dismantle the status quo from its highest level, the perpetuators, also known as government, down to school near you where it can not only allow for an explosion of information, equitable curriculum between the best and worst schools in this country, but most importantly, a close on the achievement gap, wealth distribution, and the potential elimination of poverty. Classism, racism and poverty can be addressed in a way that government and political leaders like Sir William Berkeley never allowed before.

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