By Mark Boonshoft / Special to The Washington Post
The coronavirus pandemic poses an existential threat to American education. As schools decide whether classrooms will take shape online or in person this fall, some parents are not taking any chances. The struggles of distance learning experiences when the virus hit this spring has incentivized wealthy Americans to use their vast resources to educate their children privately in small “pandemic pods” or expensive private schools. But there is a serious cost to this decision: The transition to distance learning already exposed deep inequality in education, and this move will only exacerbate it.
The advent of pandemic pods and more families opting out of public schools may set American education back generations because it will deprive schools of funding at a time when it is most needed. It also resurrects the educational ideals and practices of European aristocrats and their early American admirers, reminding us how private education sustains social inequality, as it was designed to do.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, English aristocrats usually hired tutors for their kids, before sending them off to elite boarding schools and universities with other aristocrats. There were no public schools that served the whole community because education itself was seen as an elite pursuit. Only those who were destined by birth to rule needed an education. Everyone else could safely remain uneducated.
Some British colonists challenged this view of education and the aristocratic mentality it upheld. Beginning in its earliest years, Massachusetts required towns to maintain tax-supported elementary schools. At first, these existed to teach Puritan boys and girls to read the Bible. By the American Revolution, they were the foundation of New England’s system of township democracy, which gave ordinary white men considerable political power. The state’s 1780 constitution mandated that the system continue because “Wisdom and knowledge … diffused generally among the body of the people” was “necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.”
Belief in public education as an antidote to aristocracy flourished in revolutionary America. Four other state constitutions adopted similar provisions to Massachusetts, though none was immediately effective. So, too, did the federal government. Congress required townships in the Northwestern territories — which were under its control — to set aside land to fund public education. That accessible education was necessary to undercut aristocracy and empower the white citizenry became a cliche. Yet very few of these plans took effect.
The aristocratic educational mentality lived on among the least democratic Americans, notably Southern plantation owners. Many hired tutors to educate their children, sometimes along with the children of cousins or close neighbors. Back then, northern colleges played matchmaker, recommending talented recent graduates. One of the best surviving accounts of 1770s Virginia is the diary of Philip Vickers Fithian, a 1772 graduate of Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) who tutored the children of Robert Carter III on a plantation that was also home to hundreds of enslaved people.
When wealthy early American parents could not, or would not, send their children to tutors, they turned to class-segregated schools. So-called academies were the most popular institution of this sort in the early United States. Though privately run, many academies received a charter from the state government to operate; similar to private colleges in the contemporary United States. The schools offered a range of curriculums, from the basics to the classics. Students varied widely in age and in their education level. Yet nearly all of them came from wealthy families. Tuition was expensive and room and board was even more.
During the 1780s — the first full decade of American independence — just under half of the academies in the United States were founded in the five states south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Like private tutoring, academies allowed the planter elite to educate their children mostly with other wealthy children. Consequently, public schooling was virtually nonexistent in the states that later became the Confederacy. The planter elite confined access to education to those they believed deserved to influence public life: other wealthy, white men.
Yet academies also became popular in the post-revolutionary North. In fact, some of the earliest Northern academies — including Philips Andover and Exeter — are still among the wealthiest and most prestigious private schools in the country. Support for academies in the North tended to come from elite men who thought the post-revolutionary United States was too democratic. In 1786, one essayist argued that “men possessed of property are entitled to a greater share in political authority.” Because they educated these wealthy men, “academies are … greatly promotive of the public weal.” He was “told by many” that he “favor[ed] too much the principles of aristocracy.”
Indeed, critics railed that academies posed a mortal threat to New England’s long-standing system of accessible public education, which was essential to self-government. One magazine essayist from Boston, in 1784, worried that the rise of “PRIVATE ACADEMIES” ensured that “the importance of publick schools will be diminished.” Wealthy people who educated their children in separate institutions would no longer be invested in the schools that served the whole community. If Massachusetts let that happen, the whole “government will be subverted from a republic to an aristocracy.”
Northerners remained on guard against the threat that aristocratic private education posed, and these concerns actually helped spread the New England model of strong, public elementary schools to the rest of the region. In 1812, the New York legislature set up a committee to recommend a system of what they now called “common schools,” to counter the influence of academies. One of the committeemen, Jedediah Peck, hated academies and had argued more than a decade before that “in all countries where education is confined to a few people, we always find arbitrary governments and abject slavery.” Unlike academies, common schools aimed to serve all children. Yet they did not entirely eliminate inequality. White New Yorkers increasingly relegated black children to segregated schools. The rhetoric of educational equity has always been constrained by some white Americans’ narrow vision of who counted as citizens.
New York in 1812, and soon the rest of the North, had nevertheless decided to hold its government accountable for providing strong schools for all the state’s future citizens, which required disincentivizing wealthy people from educating their children separately. Northern public-school advocates understood that when wealthy and powerful parents decide to educate their children only with one another, they can actually create aristocracy. When it does, the results are striking: It not only worsens educational inequality; it makes equitable schools impossible to achieve.
Mark Boonshoft is assistant professor of history at Duquesne University and author of “Aristocratic Education and the Making of the American Republic,” to be published by University of North Carolina Press later this month.