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Trends in Massachusetts Education, 1826–1860

  • Maris A. Vinovskis (a1)


Historians have recently begun to examine the contribution of education to American economic development during the antebellum period. To a large degree the study of education and its effects on economic productivity during this period is a reflection of similar efforts by economists analyzing education in the 1960s. Unfortunately, the few historical studies of the role of education in American economic and demographic development have suffered from a lack of educational data and the resulting generalizations have been based on very fragmentary evidence. Particularly lacking is any series of educational data over time that might be compared with a series of economic or demographic variables.



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1. A good introduction to this field can be found in T. W. Schultz, “Investment in Human Capital,” American Economic Review 51, no. 1 (1961): 1–17, and in M. J. Bowman, “The Human Investment Revolution in Economic Thought,” Sociology of Education, 39, no. 2 (1966): 111–37. For a useful bibliography of this vast topic, see Mark Blaug, Economics of Education: A Selected Annotated Bibliography (Oxford, 1966).

2. Fishlow, Albert, “The American Common School Revival: Fact or Fancy?“ in Industrialization in Two Systems: Essays in Honor of Alexander Gershenkron, ed. Rosovsky, Henry (New York, 1968), pp. 40–67; Maris A. Vinovskis, “Horace Mann on the Economic Productivity of Education,” New England Quarterly 43, no. 4 (1970): 550–71. For a summary of the types of problems encountered in studying the role of education in economic development from a historical point of view, see Stanley L. Engerman, “Human Capital, Education, and Economic Growth,” in The Reinterpretation of American Economic History, ed. Fogel, Robert W. and Engerman, Stanley L. (New York, 1971), pp. 241–56.

3. Fishlow, , “American Common School Revival,“ pp. 4243, 46, 54. Fishlow's essay is more concerned with educational reform in antebellum America as a whole than with Mann's efforts in particular. Nevertheless, he makes numerous references to Mann's activities in Massachusetts and challenges his role and achievements as an educational reformer. Fishlow's analysis of the trend in Massachusetts education is based on only four points in time, which makes any analysis of a thirty year period very difficult—especially in view of the questionable reliability of the earlier data. Lacking data on the average length of the school year before 1861, Fishlow is forced to extrapolate from the data after 1861. It is to Fishlow's credit that he recognized these difficulties and admitted that the in-depth analysis of any individual state might reveal a different pattern. This article will only attempt to test Fishlow's hypotheses in regard to Massachusetts. It does not challenge or test his overall interpretation of American education before 1860.

5. The amount of education per person is widely used in analyzing economic and demographic development. For example, see Robert M. Dinkel, “Education and Fertility in the United States,” in Population and Society, ed. Nam, Charles B. (New York, 1968), pp. 517–20; John K. Folger and Charles B. Nam, “Educational Trends from Census Data,” Demography 1, no. 1 (1964): 247–57.

6. Mann felt that the keeping of the daily registers greatly improved the accuracy of the school returns (Second Annual Report of the Board of Education Together with the Second Annual Report of the Secretary of the Board [Boston, 1839,] pp. 34–35 [hereafter cited as Annual Report, II]).

7. For example, in 1826 the questionnaires asked for the number of public school students under seven, between seven and fourteen, and over fourteen. In 1829, 1830–1831, 1831–1832, 1832–1833, the forms requested the total number of students enrolled in public schools regardless of age. However, between 1834–1836 the questionnaires only asked for the number of public school students between the ages of four and sixteen.

8. For example, the town of Carlisle in 1831–1832 differentiated on its returns public school students under seven, between seven and fourteen, and over fourteen even though the questionnaires for that year only requested the total number of students. Usually any problems arising from these changes can be avoided by using only the total number of students. If this procedure is followed, the only serious difficulty is in 1834–1836 when the forms only asked for public school students between four and sixteen.

9. Since a large percentage of the unincorporated schools and private schools were only kept to prolong the common schools in the interim between the winter and summer terms, it was estimated that only 45 percent of these students were served exclusively by the private schools. This estimate was based on Mann's own rough approximation in his analysis of the school returns.

10. The school returns before 1837 do ask for the total number of months the schools were kept during the year. But these returns usually did not specify how many schools were kept so that it is impossible to calculate the average length of the school year. However, it is likely that there were no dramatic changes in the length of the school year between 1826–1837 so that the trends in the enrollment rate would be a good indication in the changes in the amount of education per person.

11. Data on the enrollment of children under four or over sixteen is unavailable before 1840. At that time there was a significant number of children in those age groups in the public schools.

12. Even making this adjustment does not eliminate all the problems since some of the original town returns are clearly inaccurate because they indicate that everyone under twenty would have been enrolled in the school system. However, no adjustment could be made for this since there is no way of knowing how inaccurate the returns were throughout the state.

13. The average of the student winter and summer enrollment rates per person under twenty in 1840 of those towns that also sent in returns in 1829 was 45.9 percent compared to 47.2 percent for the state as a whole.

14. Unfortunately, detailed age breakdowns for students are only available for the public schools. However, it is likely that the trends were similar in the private schools. Furthermore, the number of students in public schools constituted the large majority of students attending school anyway.

15. See Table 4. When Mann first inaugurated the procedure of requiring school committees to report the number of children under four in school in 1840, many of the school committees were unable to give information on this question because they had not required their teachers to keep sufficiently detailed records. Unfortunately, when Mann reported the number of children under four in his annual report, he did not make the distinction between towns that were able to provide information on this question and those that were unable to because of inadequate records. Therefore, calculating the percentage of children under four in 1840 who were attending school from Mann's annual report underestimates that figure. An examination of the manuscript local returns for 1840 indicates that the actual percentage of children under four in school in 1840 would be about thirteen percent rather than the ten percent figure based on Mann's annual report for 1840. Most local school committees immediately remedied their lack of information on this question by 1841 so that the number of children under four reported by Mann is a very good estimate of the actual number of children in that age-group in school after 1840.

16. Mann used the twenty-eight-day month in calculating the average length of the school year for the annual abstracts.

17. Although a reexamination of Horace Mann's accomplishments in increasing the amount of education per person under twenty has supported the educational historians who have assumed his effectiveness as a reformer, it is necessary to make one further point on this issue. Fishlow argued that Mann and Henry Barnard have misled educational historians by stressing the poor condition of the educational system before 1837. Fishlow supported his position by trying to demonstrate that school enrollment in 1832 was already very high. He has, however, missed the thrust of Mann's indictment of Massachusetts education before 1837. Horace Mann did not assume a low enrollment rate before 1837 in arguing that the educational system had degenerated. Instead, Mann focused on the dilapidated condition of the school houses, the increased enrollment in private schools, the lack of supervision of the common schools, the inadequate training of teachers, and the general public apathy toward education. Fishlow, “American Common School Revival, p. 46; Annual Report, II, pp. 27–28; Annual Report, XII, pp. 15–28.

18. Duncan Grizzell, Emit, Origins and Development of the High School in New England before 1865 (Philadelphia, 1922); Alexander James Inglis, The Rise of the High School in Massachusetts (New York, 1911).

19. Mann never really came to terms with the decrease in enrollment rates among younger children. Whereas he analyzed in great detail most other educational changes, he did not comment on or even acknowledge this particular development in his reports. This partly explains why most educational historians have ignored or missed the importance and extent of infant education in early Massachusetts. For a detailed analysis of infant education during this period, see Dean May and Maris A. Vinovskis, “A Ray of Millennial Light: Early Education and Social Reform in the Infant School Movement in Massachusetts, 1826–1840,” paper presented April 22, 1972, at the Clark University Conference on the Family and Social Structure.

20. For example, see Hess, Robert D. and Meyer Bear, Roberta, eds., Early Education: A Comprehensive Evaluation of Current Theory, Research, and Practice (Chicago, 1968); Jensen, Arthur R., “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement,” Harvard Educational Review 39, no. 1 (1969): 1–123; Jerome S. Kagan, et al., “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement—A Discussion,” Harvard Educational Review, 39, no. 2 (1969): 273–356; Marshall S. Smith and Joan S. Bissell, “Report Analysis: The Impact of Headstart,” Harvard Educational Review 40, no. 1 (1970): 51–104; Victor G. Circirelli, John W. Evans, and Jeffrey Schiller, “A Reply to the Report Analysis,” Harvard Educational Review 40, no. 1(1970): 105–129.

21. Becker, Gary S., Human Capital: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis, with Special Reference to Education (New York, 1964), p. 128.

22. The one major exception is Mark Blaugh, An Introduction to the Economics of Education (London, 1972), pp. 266–84.

23. Katz, Michael B., The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth Century Massachusetts (Cambridge, Mass., 1968), p. 14.

24. Also there was an increasing stress on teaching children habits of regular attendance and punctuality that would have been important factors in an economy that became increasingly time conscious.

25. Ben-Porah, Yoram, “Production of Human Capital and the Life Cycle of Earnings,“ The Journal of Political Economy 75 (August 1969): 352–65.

26. May, Dean and Vinovskis, Maris A. are currently working on an analysis of the spread of Pestalozzi's influence on the educational practices of Massachusetts before 1860.

I am indebted to Bernard Bailyn, David H. Fischer, Dean May, and Peter McClelland for reading an earlier version of this article and making useful suggestions, but I am solely responsible for any errors of fact or judgment.

I would like to acknowledge financial help from the Harvard Population Center in preparing this essay.


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