Mass Education for Mass Production

October 24, 2008 at 3:13 am 4 comments

By Brian Van Slyke

This is the first in our new series “History of Schools.” Please note, also, that this is a first attempt and it needs some editing.


The history of mass and forced schooling in the United States can speak a great deal to the current nature of our educational model. It can also help us understand the culture of work in this nation. Our contemporary structure of education prepares the vast majority of the country’s children for a specific form of work that mirrors the industries that arose during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Compulsory schooling’s legacy thus has much to teach us about our current society – and also where we can go from here.

Yet, when this topic is discussed, it is often dichotomized into a tail of heroes and villains, purely nefarious forces or people’s movements. In reality, as is the story of nearly all political, social, economic, and cultural histories; compulsory schooling was born out of a mixture of aims from different groups, movements, interested parties, and alliances. In the end, the alliance in favor of compulsory schooling was victorious. Resistance and non-compliance ensued; but the most powerful faction of the pro-compulsory schooling alliance, some of society’s elite citizenry and businesses, were able to effectively enforce the system and tailor it to their interests and goals. While humanitarian players were involved in the initial implementation of compulsory schooling, including anti-exploitative child labor concerns and labor unions, their struggles were usurped by the powerful and were instead used to create a mass population of diligent, obedient, and complacent workers and “Americanized” citizens.

It is therefore important to examine the driving factors behind compulsory schooling and its immediate aftermath. Such an exploration will allow us to exam what systems our current structure of education serves, how it came into being, and what lessons we can take away from these histories to help us work for a more just and equitable future.

This is the story of compulsory education.

Colonial Massachusetts and the Prussian Empire

It all began with Massachusetts. The first compulsory school attendance law in the United States was passed in this small, but powerful, northeastern state. While required attendance became law in Massachusetts in 1852, it is vital to realize that the story of mass education in the United States goes beyond this and has its roots and origins in other historical moments.

While still a colony of Great Britain, Massachusetts had its very first encounter with compulsory education in 1642. The rationale that lay behind this law was the colony’s need for both social control and economic survival (Deffenbaugh, 1914). At the time, Massachusetts was a small colony and a religious community struggling for survival on a vast continent it knew little about. Thus, in order to survive, these early puritans felt that parents had a “moral obligation” to provide an education for their children and apprentices, who were to be raised as proper puritans. In addition, the children were to be trained as “honest labor” – not part of a “pauper class.” Leaders of the colony became fearful that this obligation was not being met and that too many parents and masters were neglecting their child-raising duties and responsibilities. This, they believed, was putting the continued existence of the community at dire risk (Katz, 1976), (Ensign, 1969).

Education in the early colonial period was much different than that of one based around schools or school-houses. Rather, its primary focus was on work with parents, the passing on of chores, apprenticeships, or through some other form of work (Katz, 1976). However, the point of this new act was to especially focus, as the law proclaimed, on the children’s “ability to read and understand the principles of religion and the capital laws of their country” (Deffenbaugh, 1914). While the law emphasized what should be taught, it did not give direction as to where this instruction should take place. It did not have to happen in a school room but could just be added onto the duties of parents or masters (Deffenbaugh, 1914).

This changed in 1647. With the leaders of Massachusetts feeling that parents and masters were still ignoring their duties and now also the law, an amendment to the 1642 decree proclaimed that any town with fifty or more households was to provide an instructor to take over the educational duties of the town’s children. The 1647 measurement proclaimed that the “old deluder, Satan” was infiltrating the Massachusetts colony and that the children must be trained in the religious, social, and economic structures of the colony and puritan life correctly. This was something that the leaders deemed they could no longer trust within the ordinary citizens to perform. Social, religious, and economic instruction and control was to be handed over to the colony elite (Deffenbaugh, 1914).  However, this compulsory education measure did not find much support amongst the population and parents, and it remained largely ignored. In the end, this first attempt at compulsory schooling failed because it lacked support and compliance from the towns and residents of Massachusetts (Katz, 1976). Although this effort died out, the idea of compulsion schooling as a means of social and economic control did not.

The story now jumps almost two-hundred years into the future, where the world found itself shocked at the defeat of the most feared French general by a small, resource-poor country named Prussia. Only a short time ago, Napoleon had trounced the heavily militarized nation into a panic. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the country turned the tables and helped end the rule of the mighty French Emperor. Around the globe, Prussia’s surprising victory was attributed to the basis of their new social and economic order: mass, compulsory schooling (Gatto, 2003).

What’s important to realize about Prussia is that they weren’t the first to implement compulsory schooling, but that they were the first example of a truly successful enforcement and utilization of the system. After a thousand years of a fragmented Germany, the divisions that kept it apart were finally mended by this new societal structure. And while it was a resource poor area, under the new system of schooling, private industry surged, and the Prussian army became one of the most powerful on the planet – demanding respect from leaders worldwide. (Gatto, 2003)

The Prussian idea of compulsory education, which was one of the most respected of the day, identified the following as the ideal outcomes of a centralized form of schooling: obedient soldiers, obedient and subordinate workers for industry and agriculture, and an almost total uniformity amongst the ideas and opinions of the citizens it produced – to name a few. This system, which was up and running in full by 1819, was recognized as the absolute best way to defeat the new and potentially powerful menace that was the industrial proletariat. As well, Prussia’s system of mass schooling seemed to create sudden material prosperity and military might for the German people all throughout the 19th century. It is important to note that this impressive method of mass social and economic control would influence national leaders and elites all across the planet. In 1868, for example, Japan adopted large themes and portions of the Prussian constitution. With this, it also modeled the Prussian style of education (Gatto, 2003).

An Idea of Utopia

Back in the United States, the Civil War had shaken the young country to its bones. But it also gave rise to a new discussion and vision shared amongst the policy elite of the northeast. These were discussions of utopian visions, fueled by the newly founded conviction that the “productive potential” of machinery that ran on coal was limitless. Localized and village-central life was becoming a thing of the past – railroads and telegraphs shrunk distances, and a new governing mind was being born. It was essential to the triumph of this new vision that a vast amount of “human resource” could be manipulated and used as a massive “workforce” (Gatto, 2003). Industry had been shaken by the Civil War, but it was on the rise once again (Deffenbaugh, 1914).

Taking a hint from the Prussian success, these utopian idealists also considered compulsory schooling the key to defeating the power that the “idiosyncratic family” had over society (Gatto, 2003). The 1642 colonial law had been a failure largely due to this power, which had been regarded as the primary source of education for centuries. Children were taught almost all of their social, economic, and cultural beliefs within the family unit. This structure would have to be destroyed in order to make room for the new utopian way (Gatto, 2003): one which would depend on the Prussian model of an obedient, uniform citizen and a subservient worker.

Along these lines, before the country could become modernized, both the past and the present had to be completely uprooted. The village cultures, tight-knit family structures, “pious populations,” and an overall sense of an independent livelihood would need to be done away with. However, the United States lacked the structures of other industrializing countries to make powerful shifts in society – like the state religion of England and Germany and the centralized military force of France. However, with the innovative systems of mass and rapid transportation across great distances, these utopian visionaries saw that society could now function like an “orderly social hive.” These New England elites considered the chaos of the growing pains of cities and the unorganized immigrants as an advantage which they could utilize with mass regimentation. With great subordination, people could learn to emulate the actions and reliability of machines. The struggle to institute, expand, and strengthen centralized schooling in the United States was consequently a product of the country’s elite and powerful elements. The four major coal powers, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Henry Ford all played a major role in the development in this new system. (Gatto, 2003)

Prior to the middle of the 19th century, the responsibility to educate one’s child had remained firmly in the place of a child’s parent (Katz, 1976). This would all change and continue to be massively challenged when Massachusetts introduced its 1852 law. In fact, almost every advance in the expansion of compulsory school attendance and the child labor laws that were of the same movement can find its roots in the state of Massachusetts – or to those people who fashioned their visions inside of it (Ensign, 1969).

The Two Faces of Horace Mann

In order to understand the history of compulsory schooling in the United States, and especially its introduction to the state of Massachusetts, it is critical to recognize the two faces of Horace Mann. His name is invoked both by compulsory school critics and defenders, and his legacy is contrasted by these different parties as one of a school reformer versus a Prussian-influenced elite. These two historical memories may seem like completely different interpretations of a single individual, but instead they should be regarded as reconcilable.

In 1837, Massachusetts created a State Board of Education and it named Horace Mann to its secretaryship (Ensign, 1969), a position he filled from 1837 to 1848 (Katz, 1976). Horace Mann has often been lauded as a champion of anti-child labor legislation, but in fact he did not express direct concern with factory children until towards the end of his secretaryship. Yet, even when he did, he did not deem it important to resolve the unique problems that related education and labor. While he highly praised the factory act of 1836, which compelled children who were employed in factories to go to school twelve weeks a year, he complimented the factory owners and agents for their support of the law. Parents who attempted to evade these requirements, however, were to be condemned and Mann argued that they considered their children to be articles of property (Ensign, 1969). Mann failed to mention, however, that the family’s ability to scrape by a livelihood depended directly on the wages brought in by their children. Simply leaving work was not going to be so easy.

At the time of Horace Mann’s secretaryship, many political scientists deemed the parent control over a children’s upbringing and education to be a “principle of American democracy” (Ensign, 1969). While Mann wanted all children to be in school, he initially agreed with this sentiment. He wanted to battle the “evils of non-attendance” (Ensign, 1969) with other means than compulsion. However, Mann’s survey of the different European systems left him with a new outlook on what the functions and goals of education should be. There was one system in particular that impressed and convinced him more than any other: the now tried and tested Prussian method of forced and mass schooling (Ensign, 1969).

In Horace Mann’s Seventh Report to the Boston School Committee of 1843, he ranked the Prussian educational model as the finest system in the world (with England’s being the worst). In this report, he made the case to the Massachusetts State Board of Education that in order to catch up to the Prussians, the state and the nation would need to adopt their system of mass and compulsory schooling – before it was too late (Gatto, 2003). Mann had become convinced that the only solution to school non-attendance would have to be that of “state interference” (Ensign, 1969). In fact, he proclaimed that the State would have to assert itself as the “primary parent” of the child. On top of that, Mann argued, the school was “the cheapest [form of] police” (Gatto, 2003).

Furthering the message, Horace Mann argued that this system would glue together Christian ethics with democratic values; it would crush the wickedness of ignorance, as well as eliminating most crime and aristocratic privilege; and it would assimilate the immigrant masses, while morphing them into virtuous, industrious, and “Americanized” citizens (Katz, 1976).

It is interesting that while Mann promoted this argument, he also insisted that the common school knew no difference between the rich and the poor, or between those who were bond and those who were free. It would convert immoral individuals into do-gooders, and it was a tool to combat the evils that had rooted themselves in United States society and cities (Katz, 1976). This became the mantra that defined the pro-compulsory schooling movement and that was repeated to the masses and to the immigrants: mass, forced schooling would be a place where the playing field was level, where everyone was on the same stage, and where your class in society would not affect where you started and where you ended up. The rich would compete directly and fairly with the poor, and whoever was the best would come out on top (Althea & Woods, 2008). While this notion was a promising and appealing pledge, we will come to see that this was not what actually came to pass in the system of compulsion schooling.

An Industrializing Country

Early on in the 19th century, the factory system of Massachusetts began to expand and grow in economic strength. Alongside this, the population of cities and villages increased significantly, and it was discovered that much of the manual labor that was needed to support this structure could be performed by children. As a result, those who were in poverty were exploited. Both children who had never been to school and those who were attending were taken from whatever life they were living and put to work in the factories and mines. Because of this new economic structure, many family incomes grew to be dependent on that which was produced by the labor of their children.

Especially in the forty years that separated 1820 and 1860, the enlargement of cities and villages changed the social and physical landscape of the United States. Before 1820, only five percent of the nation’s population resided in cities which contained more than 8,000 people. But by 1860 that number increased to over sixteen percent. In a matter of only decades, small towns turned into industrial “meccas” (Katz, 1976). A large portion of the increase in population was due to the waves of immigrants that poured into the country. This resulted in the dissolution of existing heterogeneity, and forced the United States to adopt a new dimension. The influx of new immigrants simultaneously fueled industrial growth while putting strains on the normalization of the “social fabric” (Katz, 1976). The city of New York alone had its population increase by tenfold between 1800 and 1850. The physical segregation of economic classes deepened, and the population increasingly depended on institutional resolutions to social troubles. In a response to this, social reformers attempted to rationalize charity, homogenize schools, and imprison vagrants. As Karl Kaestle, quoted in “A History of Compulsory Education Laws,” stated – this was “[a] general effort to impose systematic solutions on chaotic urban conditions” (Katz, 1976).

As different European groups entered the country, they brought their diverse cultures, customs, and languages with them – making major challenges to and reshaping the “character of the population” (Katz, 1976). This incoming of peoples was not welcomed by those who were both hostile to change and foreign languages and customs. The feelings of such people can be heard in the words of John Commings, as quoted in Compulsory School Attendance & Child Labor, “the number of destitute, ignorant, and criminal… increased until they began to press heavily upon the ways and means of public charity” (Ensign, 1969). Quick and continuing institutional and technological transformations put even further strains and struggles on city dwellers. In addition, the mass arrival of immigrants fueled cries and warnings of a “breakdown of the American culture” (Katz, 1976).

This was simultaneously matched by the expanding corporate state’s demands for extreme quantities of hardworking and submissive workers (Katz, 1976). This so-called need was filled by the cheapest workforce it could find, the immigrants. The children of immigrants, in particular, were manipulated and abused the most; they were forced into factories and mines, working for low wages and in horrible conditions, while the structure of the new industrial-economic system forced their families to become dependent on the wages they earned (Gatto, 2003). As child labor was increasingly being used and abused by the industrialists and factory-owners, adult laborers continued to lose their jobs and found it increasingly difficult to find new ones – as the children were willing to work for much lower wages. In 1842, a Massachusetts law restricted all children under the age of twelve to the maximum of a ten-hour workday. It is important to note that this bill also made significant changes to the labor-attendance law of the state, and gave more power to local school committees to enforce school attendance and prosecute for non-attendance. This law was backed by labor unions and was regarded as the first victory for organized labor in the lengthy drive for a shorter-work day, as well as a sign that labor unions were increasingly becoming involved in the extermination of child labor in order to provide more work for adults. It became increasingly obvious over time that the concern of working children was closely tied to that of labor unions and adult labor. (Ensign, 1969)

The Compulsory Schools

Thus, we can see in detail here how numerous forces came together in a complex web to drive Massachusetts to passing the 1852 compulsory education law: the craving to “Americanize” (Katz, 1976) tens of millions of European immigrants who were seeking employment; the effort to free millions of youth caught in an abusive system of working in the factories and mines; the tremendous dedication of labor unions to protecting adult labor and eliminating labor taken by children; and those who were influenced by utopian ideals, the Prussian example, and/or who wanted a subordinate workforce and an obedient civilian population. It is now important to examine what forces drove the influence of the continued development, expansion, and implementation of the mass education idea.

The 1852 law demanded that all children between the ages of eight and fourteen attend school for three months a year. This was unless these children could prove that they already had a handle of the material (Epstein, 2007), if they were participating in some other form of instruction that would result in a similar educational outcome, if they were physically or mentally incapable of attending, or if they lived in an extreme state of poverty. In that same year, a maximum incarceration of one year in a county jail was made the proper punishment for a truant child.

However, until about 1873, the compulsory schooling law was regarded as primarily a dead letter and unenforceable (Ensign, 1969). There were several reasons for this. The forces that influenced the adoption of the 1852 law were primarily political, including that of organized labor and philanthropy. Large quantities of the donated money came from the four major coal powers of the United States, and especially that of Rockefeller and Carnegie (Ensign, 1969), (Gatto, 2003). In addition, Horace Mann’s great influence had secured the support of many of Massachusetts’s political and economic leaders, and had convinced them of the “evils of non-attendance” (Ensign, 1969).

While the state’s elites may have been convinced, it did not seem as if the rest of the population was. Towns and cities were provided the ability to enforce truancy laws in 1850. This capacity was slightly strengthened in 1852, and even more so in 1859. Yet, these towns and urban centers did not take even modest steps towards using their new enforcement powers. Thus, in 1862, the law was amended so that it became mandatory for the towns and cities to “care for their delinquent children” (Ensign, 1969). However, the law still lacked any capability to coerce a community into enforcing the compulsory schooling requirements, and only seventy-seven out of three hundred-seventy five towns had completely addressed these obligations. Some pro-compulsory education forces grew increasingly frustrated, feeling as if Massachusetts was wasting years of precious time with the futile hope that towns and cities would respect the law without muscling them into it. As one educational report in favor of compulsory attendance laid out in 1969, “[Massachusetts thought] she might nurse her delinquent children and still more delinquent parents into voluntary conformity with her lofty ideals of education” (Ensign, 1969). On the bright side, these same believers argued, the continued attempts to put mass and forced schooling into action kept the subject alive and served as a method for convincing public and elite opinion. In addition, Massachusetts held great influence over some of the younger states, and its actions would help persuade them in adopting compulsory schooling laws (Ensign, 1969). The more states that used forced schooling, the easier it would be to impose in general. Regardless, compulsory schooling laws remained mostly unenforceable everywhere. An 1888-89 report by the United States Commissioner of Education chronicled one failure after another in implementing the new educational method. Another major factor was that in the early years of compulsory attendance, the states that had adopted this method had failed to develop an “administrative machinery,” reflective of the corporate and bureaucratic model, to enforce such laws (Katz, 1976).

This lack of enforcement due to an absence of any “administrative machinery” was only exemplified by the near impossibility of locating immigrant children in large cities. However, new measures continued to be implemented in the hopes of tracking down such evaders. These efforts were driven by the belief that, as one 1914 report from the Bureau of Education illustrated, the “welfare of the nation depends upon the control of illiteracy” (Deffenbaugh, 1914). Though thousands of immigrant children escaped attending school, and there were almost no records of their existence, the pro-compulsory agitators argued for a massive campaign to compile lists of all of them. With the access to such information, the school authorities – by way of aid from the police – would be able “enroll immediately all who belong under their control” (Deffenbaugh, 1914). As the demand for well-trained labor grew alongside an increasing population, more capital, effort, and support were allocated towards creating a functioning and effective bureaucratic machinery for enforcement (Katz, 1976).

Some of the earlier compulsory laws in different states excused children from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Though this was a relief to a number of immigrant families, many members of school committees and bureaus argued that it was necessary for the states to educate both the wealthy and poorer classes. Who was benefiting, these voices argued, if one class was getting educated while the other was not (Deffenbaugh, 1914)? While it is true that this concept has egalitarian overtones, the class dynamics of it are apparent. Those from wealthy backgrounds and neighborhoods were already able to impact their schools more and fit it to their ideals. Poorer neighborhoods and families, however, had access to less wealth and thus were not able to afford the same amount of influence over the schools that their children attended. The schools that were comprised of immigrants and poor children were more dependent on what the state supplied and ordered, increasingly subjecting them to the “good worker” attitudes of the compulsory schooling movement. Those from higher income backgrounds, however, were able to pay their way out of such situations. Parents who did not send their children to the schools were deemed selfish and regarded their children as nothing more than property.

Yet, it should be noted, that some measures were taken in select states to encourage children from poverty-stricken homes to attend school. Michigan, for example, paid some of the lost income to a family whose child left work for school. The Michigan measure allowed for “not more than $3 a week to be paid a family for one child, nor more than $6 a week for the children of any one family” (Deffenbaugh, 1914). Other states, including Massachusetts, decided to take a different approach to the situation and argued that if a child who was working in the factories or mines was not forced into the schools and given an education, they would always remain an “unskilled laborer” (Deffenbaugh, 1914). If this same child received an education, however, they would receive more earnings in the future and would raise the child out of the ranks from “a class verging upon pauperism” (Deffenbaugh, 1914). While this argument had merit, it came directly from those who were not dependent on their children’s income and thus could not realize the immediate pain and pinch that such a loss of wages would force. Much of the burden for truancy in the early days of compulsory schooling is often put on the children or the families from poorer backgrounds, but it should be recognized that other factors played into the continued lack of attendance. One such example of this is that, even with the new compulsion laws, some school authorities were not overtly enthusiastic in upholding this law – others were outright hostile. These authorities did not want the “poorly trained” and the “uncultured” children of the factories and mines in their “well-ordered” schools (Ensign, 1969).

Resistance and Enforcement

Except for the 1642 Massachusetts law, the family was largely the responsible body for the education of children in United States history. The family unit was regarded by many as not just a “principle of American democracy,” but also the bedrock of the population’s social organization. Thus, the new system’s goal of replacing the family with the State as the “primary parent” of the children met with resistance. This resistance was not only limited to avoiding compliance with compulsory attendance. Rebellions at schools, both by parents and students, took place – some examples include: the burning down of school houses, students locking teachers in building, or parents breaking in to free their children from being held after hours for detention (Gatto, 2003). Both the refusal to comply with the new system of mass schooling and the rebellions once at school were reflections of an immense resistance to an attempt to uproot and change the social order by an elite class. It was also defied by those parents that would have preferred their children to not work in the factories and mines, but who were dependent on their income to sustain a livelihood due to the poor wages they were paid in their own employment. The previously mentioned 1914 report from the Bureau of Education divides the stance against compulsory schooling into six distinct arguments: (1) although some crime is deterred through putting children in schools, a new societal crime is created; (2) it interferes with the liberty of parents; (3) new powers are arrogated by the government; (4) it is un-American and not adaptable to the country’s “free institutions,” (5) compulsory and forced schooling is monarchal in both its origins and history; and (6) school attendance is just as great without the law (Deffenbaugh, 1914).

The pro-compulsory responses to such arguments can be represented in an 1872 letter from B.G. Northop, the secretary of the Connecticut State Board of Education. In this letter, Northop attacked each individual point. In his argument, he claimed that compulsory schooling should create a new crime and that to bring up children in ignorance was a crime in itself. Northop asserted that all “modern civilizations” and legislations have created new crimes in order to address the otherwise barbaric world that lives on within societies. Each child put in a factory, Northop held, was a crime itself and could only be solved with the crime of compulsory schooling. As for the liberty of parents, it was his view that this autonomy ought to be violated. If parents couldn’t or wouldn’t provide the basic needs to their children, the government had the right to address such needs and become the new primary care-holder. “The child,” Northop wrote, “has rights which not even a parent may violate. He may not rob his child of the sacred right of a good education… When a parent is disqualified by intemperance, cruelty, insanity, society justly assumes control of the children.” The State would thus protect the “helpless,” who would otherwise become “vicious as well as weak” (Deffenbaugh, 1914). This argument, of course, implied that the income provided to families by child labor was for some personal gain of selfish parents – ignoring the realities of the economic strains put on immigrant and poor families by the new corporate state. Northop also dismissed the importance of new powers assumed by the state without a right to do so, claiming that all new laws have such results – including hygienic regulations. Ignorance, however, was just as “noxious as the most offensive nuisance,” and it was more “destructive than bodily contagious.” Thus, this arrogation of powers was an act of self-protection from the ignorance of the masses, and self- protection is a “fundamental law of society.” The freedoms that were restricted due to compulsory laws were pre-emptive measures. The secretary from Connecticut argued that if the child was not dragged by police to school if necessary, they would just be dragged to jail by the police a few years later. Northop also continued to make the case that it was the compulsory education laws that were responsible for awakening the original interest for public education, and therefore they should be protected in order to continue the teaching of the public in regards to the benefit of such a system (Deffenbaugh, 1914).

Yet, as the promotion and agitation for compulsory education persisted, the length of school years continued to expand (Althea & Woods, 2008). Alongside this growth, the bureaucratic machine for enforcing the adherence to such laws was strengthened and perfected by putting more power into the hands of the state (Ensign, 1969), and more and more children (including those who were child laborers and those who were not) were funneled into the system of mass schooling. The new corporate and industrial systems began to absorb increasing amounts of time from the parents, who worked long and difficult hours in the factories and the mines for little pay. As a result, the schools progressively began to fill the role of the family (Althea & Woods, 2008). Following this breakdown of the home and village life, and the industries that arose alongside the destruction, a new way of learning began to develop. This would come to take the place of the traditional learning processes – such as by the passing of chores and the apprenticeship system. As we will see shortly, this would allow those who held the financial control over the schools and educational system to create and maintain an army of workers to be trained in large scale production and the division of labor (Gatto, 2003).

Largely in part because of Horace Mann’s legacy and efforts, and his emphasis on the “evils of non-attendance and truancy” (Deffenbaugh, 1914), the 1852 law was passed in Massachusetts. But by 1900, thirty-two other states had implemented similar mass schooling laws. Finally, in 1918, Mississippi approved of a compulsory attendance law and all existing states implemented mass education. As in the 1914 Bureau of Education report, it is claimed by many that these laws, and especially in Massachusetts, were passed because “public sentiment” demand such measures (Deffenbaugh, 1914). Yet it is important to question such notions. What is meant here by “public sentiment”? The general population, immigrants, or those who had the resources and the necessary social prestige that was required for making ones voice heard and respected? The early laws were mostly records of failure and were regarded as dead letters (Deffenbaugh, 1914). If “public sentiment” had been so aroused in order to pass these laws, why was there a small record of volunteer obeying? Why did the school and state authorities find them so difficult to enforce? It seems extremely possible that this was because the “public sentiment” voiced was disproportionately represented by those of powerful elites and other dominant members of society. It is undeniable that the call for compulsory schooling also came from the labor unions of the time, but it appears that the masses of the nation as a whole did not choose to accept and comply with the law and the arguments behind them. The lack of the ability to enforce these laws was a direct result of disinterest and disagreement with their purposes by the majority of the population. Yet, those authorities and powers entrusted with the responsibility of enforcing the compulsory attendance laws were about to get a shot in the arm in the 1890’s from some of the most powerful individuals and groups in the nation.

The Industrialization of the Schools

Between the years of 1896 and 1920, a select and small collection of industrialists spent more money on mass and compulsory schooling than the entire government of the United States. These funds came through either philanthropic donations or their private charitable foundations. They also began to subsidize university chairs, university researches, and school administrators. As late as 1915, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were spending even more (Gatto, 2003). It was because of this that their voices and desires held more sway than that of any public. For an entire century, Prussia had served as a mirror to this group of powerful elites as to what the United States could become with discipline. This point was emphasized in 1871 when Prussia crushed France in a lightening war. Suddenly, the entire world’s attention snapped back onto this “hypnotic, utopian place” (Gatto, 2003). An obvious link became forged between the Prussian ways of government, the academic mind, and industry. Simultaneously, coal was making ordinary citizens both physically and socially more dangerous. Simple citizens could now travel great distances quickly with revolutionary ideas or rebel with the actual explosive power that was contained in coal. The Coal Age also furnished the rise of industries that depended on wars for economic growth. For a combination of all of these reasons, it was becoming even more imperative to have a workforce that was tame, dependable, and submissive (Gatto, 2003). The mass and forced system of schooling, which had worked wonders in Prussia, was a source of inspiration as to how this end goal could be reached. With the influx of immigrants, now concentrating from eastern and southern Europe, there was a continued loss of any sense of religious consensus in the nation. Business leaders recognized, as had the Prussians, that best way to shape a new social order would be with the use and manipulation of the growing power of the school systems. The compulsory schools were to undergo a massive and systematic restructuring process to reflect the needs of industrialization. It would be the steam and coal powers of the country that would provide the required funds necessary to establish and maintain such a colossal national system of elementary and forced schooling (Gatto, 2003).

As a disorganized population, immigrants and folks from impoverished backgrounds served as easy targets for this novel system of mass schooling (Gatto, 2003), (Althea & Woods, 2008). A 1912 essay, entitled “The Country School of Tomorrow,” composed by Rockefeller’s General Education Board stated this (as quoted in The Underground History of American Education):

We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poets, or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have ample supply. The task we set before ourselves is a very simple as well as very beautiful one… we will organize our children… and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way…

(Gatto, 2003, Page 174)

Prior to 1900, school boards were large in membership and functioned as clumsy organizations, but a seat was available to represent almost every interest. Following 1910, however, they were dominated by concentrated and small groups of businessmen, politicians, and lawyers. This business interest and involvement in elementary education was complimented by the fact that child labor had been deemed unnecessary by 1900 due to a rapid onset of mechanization in factories and mines. In addition, child labor was becoming deemed a detriment to business interests because it kept workers too unskilled, and did not allow them training in the art of obeying orders. In fact, by 1905, industrial corporations employed up to seventy-one percent of all wage earners in the United States and mining companies employed another ten percent (Gatto, 2003). Thus, one of the major shifts to mass education for mass production was to support a new mass population, whose offspring would enter the mass education system, and who would then be trained to work in this new mass production economy. It is here that we can see a self-supporting cycle of mass education for mass production.

This cycle, based on the industrialization of the country and the solidification of the compulsory schooling system, would depend on a new trend and direction: industrial education. This method of education intensely influenced later compulsory legislation in Massachusetts and elsewhere. The importance and stress that was put on this new method of education can be found in that previously mentioned report on education and child labor from 1969:

The industrial education of the twentieth century is but a part of a great social movement arising from the new philosophy of education which demands that every child be given opportunity to develop such abilities as he may potentially possess, to attain as nearly as possible his maximum capacity as a contributor in an economic and broadly social sense, not as an individualistic exploiter of the goods of life, but as a social unit whose welfare cannot be considered apart from that of society, and in whose limitations society must also suffer.

(Ensign, 1969, Page 74)

Children, then, were to be trained as good foot soldiers in the economy. This becomes evident in the industrialization of the schools.

In 1870, the Massachusetts legislature decided to insert drawing as a subject mandated to be taught in every school across the state. In towns and cities of over 10,000 individuals, instruction in both industrial and mechanical drawing skills were made obligatory. Industrial education continued to make grounds, and by 1884, training in manual labor was authorized by law. Then, in 1895, this became a requirement for high schools within cities that’s population exceeded 20,000. Three years later, this mandate was expanded to elementary schools. The trend continued, and in 1906, some form of the manual arts was a compulsory component in elementary courses of study. However, this was no longer restricted to the cities – but was expanded to the smaller towns as well.

Yet, something about the schools was still bothering the business interests. As the industrialization of the country continued, labor unions were rapidly gaining in strength against big businesses (Althea & Woods, 2008). The failed populist revolt of 1896 most likely fanned these fears, as industry leaders were becoming increasingly nervous by the strength of the ordinary worker (Gatto, 2003). Responding to these concerns, the senate and the Bureau of Education released several reports indicating that education was providing workers with too much power in the workplace. On top of this, workers were becoming too aware and discontent with the poor conditions that they lived and worked under. As a direct response, critical thinking classes were cut from curricula. These classes included philosophy and any other subject that raised questions about economics, justice, and society. The funding required to make such drastic changes in the schools possible were provided by none other than Rockefeller and Carnegie. Recreating a controlled-factory environment, bell systems were put in place throughout the schools. And even though it had been promised that schools would be even playing fields, were class backgrounds were of no importance, schools divided students into a system of levels – or “tracks.” This further emphasized the conditions that were characteristics of the factories and the mines. The working class children were most often kept in vocational and rudimentary classes. Children of wealthy backgrounds, however, were afforded more educational resources and independence. The worst and the fewest resources, however, were reserved for immigrants and children of color (Althea & Woods, 2008).

However, those whose voices were heard by the school systems remained dissatisfied with the direction industrial education was going. These influential bodies felt that there was too little power to enforce schools to follow the new industrial education laws and curricula. This was driven by the feeling that only a small number of children “destined to become industrial workers” were being trained in what the architects of the laws had “intended for them” (Ensign, 1969). For Massachusetts, if it were to maintain a status of industrial leadership, these laws would need to be respected. Thus, it was once again that the insistence for a new educational order came from business interests. In 1905, the Massachusetts Legislature commanded the governor to assign a commission to investigate the topics of technical and industrial education. Governor William L. Douglas, who was a successful manufacturer, designed a commission which compiled a wide-ranging study of industry, education, Massachusetts, and their relations. The 1969 educational report informs us about the conclusions reached by the commission:

After careful consideration of the entire industrial-educational situation the commission concluded that a radical modification in the school system was required. It was proposed that both instruction and practice in the elements of productive industry should have a place in elementary schools; that in the high schools, mathematics, the sciences, and drawing should be presented with particular reference to local industrial life.

(Ensign, 1969, pages 76-77)

It becomes evident that whatever egalitarian elements that were a part of the development of compulsory schooling laws had become completely overtaken by the interests of the economic elite, business leaders, and industrialists. Industry interests became the basis for the future advancement of schools. Indeed, the science, math, and drawing curricula of schools were adjusted by law to fit local industrial needs and wants. At this point, the synthesis of academic and industrial education became indivisible (Ensign, 1969).

William Torrey Harris served as the U.S. Commissioner of Education between the years of 1889 and 1906. Harris was one of the most prominent and influential educational figures of his time and was also a staunch supporter of compulsory schooling. Yet, the Commissioner also believed that children were property – and that the nation retains an undeniable right to use these children as it pleases. Mass and forced schooling, he held, would create a citizenry so reliant upon the State and the leaders that internal ruptures and revolutions would become a thing of the past (Gatto, 2003). This would seem to be a direct reference to the population in poverty, immigrants, and people of color. In his 1893 book, The Philosophy of Education, Harris had this to say,

Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual…

He took this concept further:

The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places… It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world.

(Gatto, 2003, pages 105-106)

Developed, effective, and well-funded bureaucracy was the reason that from 1900 to 1930, compulsory schooling laws were significantly strengthened in many states. These laws were no longer dead letters, but instead effective statutes (Katz, 1976). The materialization of efficient enforcement methods resulted in the success of a massive attempt at social control and manipulation. Mass schooling was transforming from just a legal standard into the normalized social order. On average, over one high school a day was opened in the years between 1890 and 1920 – this is a four hundred-sixty seven percent increase compared to the thirty years before (Katz, 1976).

The population of the United States exploded from 31 million to 91 million between 1860 and 1910, almost tripling over fifty years. Communities were experiencing a massive transformation from “simplicity” and “lack of differentiation” into metropolises of specialization, urbanization, and industrialization (Katz, 1976). This societal change was matched by a new influx of European immigrants from the southern and eastern countries of the region. Normalized citizens and the powerful elite were becoming increasingly fearful of “crime,” “vagrancy,” and a class of foreign-speaking “paupers”. Schools were promoted as agents and tools of assimilation and social control for this intimidating, new society (Katz, 1976). While the concept of schools as a means of social control was nothing new, its popularity thrived as the concentration of immigrants exploded in the cities (Katz, 1976).

Conclusions and Implications

As we have seen, the development of mass education in the United States coincided directly with both industry’s need for good, obedient workers and a demand for social control by powerful business interests and citizenry. Yet, the initial introduction of compulsory schooling was a result of a multitude of factors – both egalitarian, nefarious, and everywhere in between. Even many of those who were attempting to implement forced schooling as a means of social control were legitimately working to eliminate the wretched conditions of such things as child labor. Every force, from the labor unions to the utopian idealists, believed that they were in one way or another doing what was best for society. These different visions and intentions, including all that were for and against compulsory schooling, would participate in the introduction of compulsory schooling in the 1852 law of Massachusetts. However, with this implementation, the powerful business interests and elite citizenry would be the ones to influence and direct what goals schools would strive for and the methods they would use for execution. Although the methods of the 1852 law were different, it would end up having an equivalent aim as the 1642 colonial law: cultural, social, and economic control over society. Thus, if the intention was to have a national workforce, the country would need a national and standardized education. The forced, regulated, and controlled distribution of knowledge served as a means of manipulation. The control over knowledge equaled the control over workers. Powerful and influential societal powers, such as Rockefeller and Carnegie, made sure that the means of mass education for production was actually a method of mass producing good workers and good nationalists. It is not unheard of, nor uncommon, for movements in the United States that have egalitarian intentions to be absorbed by those in power for their own interests, as did happen with compulsory schooling.

However, it is important to reject two arguments that generally accompany the critical analysis of the origins of compulsory education in the United States. The first is that the system of learning prior to compulsory schooling, through working and apprenticeship, is the model that we should return to. Such an argument ignores the truth of the difficulties that persisted, especially amongst children from impoverished backgrounds and children of color. In fact, the concept of mass education or education available to everyone is not inherently a bad one – but it is when the educational system is not equitable, and is used to enforce class systems and other forms of oppression, that we run into problems. Education that is used as a means for the collective and individual good, not for social control and the maintenance of power structures, and that allow for individual choice in participation, is essential for moving towards a more just society. Additionally, it is important to realize that if we were to suddenly abolish the system of education that we have in place now – children could once again be taken advantage of and used as instruments to grow individual elite’s wealth. In fact, it is irresponsible to deny that child labor has completely been abolished. Instead, it has just taken on a more invisible role to the larger society. Most child laborers who are being exploited today are from countries south of the United States border and work in agriculture. However, the difficulties that they face are extremely similar to the ones faced by immigrants of the late 18th and early 19th century: if they leave work and enter school, their families will be unable to sustain a living; and if they do not acquire some form of education, they will most likely remain in poverty. Such a social crisis must be faced with a three-pronged attack: first, the exploitative child labor must be abolished; second, families must receive just, fair, and more than complete compensation that they would lose because of this; and third, individuals must have their liberty respected in order to learn freely.

Finally, one last question should be posed. If mass education for mass production was so effective, shouldn’t that serve as a lesson for those of us interested in promoting alternative economics? Would it not follow that the best way to promote cooperative and democratic work would be through cooperative education? Forced schooling that followed the model of industrial work was the most successful tool used for creating a workforce prepared to toil under the conditions set by the wealthy business interests. If we are to take any lesson from this, it should be that the form of education a society of children experience will prepare them for a specific form of work. Cooperative, democratic, and equitable education are thus essential prerequisites for a culture of humanized work.


Anderson, James D. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860- 1935. New York: University of North Carolina P, 1988.

Althea, Amina, and Amber Woods. “A History of Compulsory Schooling.” I Want To Do This All Day. Internet Archive. 14 Aug. 2008 <;.

Coleman, J. S., et al. (1966). Equality of Educational Opportunity. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Deffenbaugh, W.S. “Compulsory Attendance Laws in the United States.” United States Bureau of Education. Washington, D.C.: Washington Government Printing Office, 1914. 7-56.

Ensign, Forest C. Compulsory School Attendance and Child Labor. New York, NY: Arno P & The New York Times, 1969.

Epstein, R. (2007). “Let’s abolish high school”. Education Week. Retrieved April 18, 2007, from

Gatto, J. T. (2003). The Underground History of American Education. New York: The Oxford Village Press.

Gutman, Herbert G. Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America. New York, NY: AlfredA. Knopf, Inc, 1976. 3-78.

Katz, Michael S. “A History of Compulsory Education Laws.” Fastback Series (1976): 1-39.

Kendrick, Stephen, and Paul Kendrick. Sarah’s Long Walk : The Free Blacks of Boston and How Their Struggle for Equality Changed America. New York: Beacon P, 2006.

Langhout, R.D. (2005). “Acts of Resistance: Student (In)Visibility”. Culture and Psychology, 11, 123-158

O’Keeffe, D. (2004). Libertarian Alliance. “Compulsory education: An oxymoron of modernity”. Retrieved September 10, 2007, from

Rothbard, M. (1978). “Public and compulsory schooling”. In For a New Liberty (chap. 7). Retrieved September 10, 2008, from


Entry filed under: Anti-Oppression and Free Schools, History of Schools Series, Related To Free Schooling. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Read “The Underground History of American Education” Online and For Free The Education of Mondragón

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