May 25, 2010

"...and thereby to secure a more arbitrary and unlimited authority"

Yesterday afternoon (at least afternoon in California, where the radio station operates), Sara Goldrick-Rab and Richard Vedder debated who should attend college on KPCC's Patt Morrison Show. I am disappointed but not too surprised that Vedder skipped over who he generally thinks are the types of people who don't benefit from college: other people's children. (Amy Slaton made a similar point in this morning's IHE column: "These two assertions [of the not-everyone-should-aspire-to-college crowd], the first based on very selective logic and the second baldly elitist, become particularly nasty in tandem, making the college aspirations of minority or poorer Americans seem positively uppity.") Let me step away for a day from the question of who should attend college today and see how that logic would have been applied in the past--discouraging formal schooling for those who would not necessarily finish a certain level and for whom there wasn't an economic payoff.

To put it bluntly, that logic would have prevented the coeducation of primary schooling in the nineteenth-century North. As David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot explain in Learning Together, the first half of the nineteenth century witnessed a quiet revolution in formal education, from schooling being the domain of boys and men to coeducation in the first few years of schooling (which was generally what was available for most children in the North). There had been some colonial examples historians can identify of coeducation and women teachers outside dame schools, but they're the clear minority of experiences. When Benjamin Rush helped John Poor obtain a state charter for the Ladies' Academy of Philadelphia in the early 1790s, he was using his influence to break down existing barriers. Five years before, he had spoken at the new school, and the written report of his remarks starts with a justification for the school that (at least to me) looks to men as the audience, and only at the end does he start to speak to the students in the audience:

To you, therefore, YOUNG LADIES, an important problem is committed for solution; and that is, whether our present plan of education be a wise one and whether it be calculated to prepare you for the duties of social and domestic life.... I have sometimes been led to ascribe the invention of ridiculous and expensive fashions in female dress entirely to the gentlemen in order to divert the ladies from improving their mindsa nd thereby to secure a more arbitrary and unlimited authority over them. It will be in your power, LADIES, to correct the mistakes and practice of our sex upon these subjects by demonstrating that the female temper can only be governed by reason and that the cultivation of reason in women is alike friendly to the order of nature and to private as well as public happiness. (pp. 91-92)

To us more than 220 years later, this quaint and charming language obviously lacks the fire of Tom Paine and the righteousness of Mary Wollstonecraft, but for all its gentility it is an affirmation of common humanity and educability that Rush and his audience knew could not be taken for granted, even in Quaker-influenced Philadelphia. Tyack and Hansot struggle somewhat with the question of how coeducation could happen without significant public debate, and I struggle with it as well: how much to ascribe to the coeducational experience of dame schools, to early-national ideologies of Republican motherhood, to a practical "I want the girls out of my hair, too" attitude of rural Americans (who often sent children as young as two and three to tag along with older siblings), to the Second Great Awakening, or to the fact that rural apprenticeship was a system of sharing childrearing that included girls as well as boys (if the girls were often distributed to neighbors' houses to help with domestic responsibilities).

Whatever the causes, there are two undeniable facts about the coeducation of primary education in northern states: the expense was not easily justified by the legal or economic role of women at the time, and it had enormous benefits for the entire society for generations to come. I am sure Vedder and others would contest the first claim, but there are plenty of agrarian societies where the majority of work is or has been done by women who have little or no formal schooling. Why do you need to read and write if you're in the fields all day? Just go to a taro-harvester certificate program for a few weeks and get a job! Oh, wait: no community college currently offers a taro-harvester certificate.

More seriously, one could imagine a different history, closer to the history of the South, where coeducation happened much later, incompletely, or not at all. Primary education was an expense for communities, and coeducation was an added expense either for the community or for the parents who paid extra tuition (or private payments to schoolmasters on the side). We know that formal education was a considerable expense in part because even in Massachusetts, communities resisted the creation of high schools until late in the 19th century. The 1860 town vote of Beverly, Massachusetts, to abolish the high school was notable because it was a clear violation of state law (Beverly was one of the towns sued by the legislature earlier because they didn't have a high school) as well as because its public recording of individual votes has bee the subject of two books. Only a relative handful of students could continue to high school, and the majority of voters at that town meeting clearly thought the benefits of high school did not justify the expense. Yet by 1860, most towns in the north had coeducational primary schools, and thousands of parents had been willing to pay extra money (and had been willing to pay it for decades) to get their daughters some education, though the daughters would never be able to repay them in any concrete sense.

Yet despite the lack of immediate calculable returns, the coeducation of primary schooling in the North was one of the smartest social policies for the long term. The education of girls doubled the pool of potential teachers one generation later. Combined with lower fertility over the 19th century, the increased pool of potential teachers dramatically shifted the ratio of children to potential teachers in favor of children and education. Apart from arguments I could make about lower fertility's being a consequence of coeducation, the combination effectively provided a bootstrap for American mass education, making it easier for states to expand formal schooling generation by generation. Some parts of that bootstrap were not what we'd choose today, since it partly depended on restricted employment opportunities for educated women generally and educated men who were not white. But it would not have existed without primary education for girls and without the willingness of parents and communities to spend money that they could have easily not spent.

Part of the case against expanded educational opportunities is a show me what it'll do today argument. That's a narrow reading of the potential of people who don't currently attend college, a narrow reading of the purpose of education, and a narrow reading of the consequences of education. Yes, I think a lot more children from poor families can succeed in college than do currently. Yes, I want the people who pick up my garbage to read Shakespeare and pick out the lying statistician on a witness stand. And, yes, I am confident that there will be positive consequences for expanding college opportunities far into the future, consequences we cannot imagine today and that will dwarf the real costs of expanding those opportunities in the institutions where they will exist.

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Posted in Higher education on May 25, 2010 9:52 AM |