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The Algebra Project

Algebra Project Student
Society and Community:
American Education and Civil Rights
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From "Separate But Equal" to Title IX, education in American has long been an important battleground in the struggle to define our democracy.

General education is the best preventive of the evils now most dreaded. In the civilized countries of the world, the question is how to distribute most generally and equally the property of the world. As a rule, where education is most general the distribution of property is most general.... As knowledge spreads, wealth spreads. To diffuse knowledge is to diffuse wealth. To give all an equal chance to acquire knowledge is the best and surest way to give all an equal chance to acquire property. --President Rutherford Birchard Hayes (1822–1893)

Broadside for mathematics books, c. 1780

America's first foray into publicly sponsored education came in the Massachusetts Public Law of 1647. The law recognized the importance of education in binding a community together, in this case through a common religion:

It being one chief point of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of Scriptures, as in former times, by keeping them in an unknown tongue...Massachusetts Public Law of 1647
The law established elementary schools in every town of fifty families and secondary schools also in towns of over one hundred families. At first the schools charged sliding fees, but within the century the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took up the burden and the schools became free.

However, free schools were not the norm in other colonies, or the first years of the Republic. Although all the founding fathers expounded on the importance of education, collecting taxes to support such schools was unpopular. For nearly the first half-century of the United States education remained the domain of those who could pay their way.

Immigrant girl in Sunday School reader, c. 1840

Urbanization, industrialization, and immigration were the impetus behind the nation's first public school movement. In the 1840s the swelling ranks of immigrant poor in America's cities were a visible, and troubling, presence. Public education was seen as an effective way to bring these new Americans into the fold. Education was also thought to protect the nation against the unrest of the working classes manifest in the Chartist Movement of England and the European Revolutions of 1848.

Schoolbooks from this era emphasized moral lessons, industry and loyalty. Many also focused on religion and proper American pronunciation. These lessons were especially directed at "dangerous" Catholic Irish immigrants. Though the influence of Protestant churches was still strong during this period, the early public school movement also spawned America's premier early pedagogues, Horace Mann and Henry Barnard.

Freedmen's School, c. 1867

In the antebellum South many states had laws on their books prohibiting anyone from teaching a slave to read:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, "If you give a n***** an inch, he will take an ell. A n***** should know nothing but to obey his master — to do as he is told to do. Learning would ~spoil~ the best n***** in the world. Now," said he, "if you teach that n***** (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy." --Frederick Douglass, A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
After Emancipation education was a primary goal of the newly freed. Ex-slaves built schools all over the South, with and without the help of Northern Abolitionists. It is interesting to note that many of the reading primers provided by Northern charity groups stressed "turning the other cheek" and forgiveness in their texts.

Prairie schoolhouse, c. 1890

In the later years of the 19th century the public school movement became reinvigorated. Mandatory attendance laws were passed and the school became crucial element in evaluating whether frontier settlements passed muster as towns worthy of incorporation.

Teaching and educational administration were also a focal part of the professionalization drive of the era. Normal (teaching) schools sprang up in each state to prepare teachers for increasing numbers of school children. Teaching became more and more a woman's profession, and school administration became the domain of male social scientists.

The Progressive Era of the early 20th century also saw the invention of the idea of "social sciences" — a concept readily applied to educational theory by thinkers like John Dewey and David Snedded. Some cited statistics in favor of training children for specific occupations — others stressed individuality and citizenship skills.

WPA poster, c. 1938

The Great Depression put a great strain on American families, and American schools. But the Depression also instituted educational and training programs on a national level for the first time. This wealth of opportunities ranged from schools dedicated to preserving American folkways to arts programs for young people and adult literacy and job skill programs for adults.

By World War II most of the country's children between the ages of five and sixteen were in school. Nearly three-quarters of high school-aged young people were enrolled. School systems were primarily governed by local school boards, and funded by the state and local government, much as they are today.

The G.I. Bill, which paid for college education for all returning veterans changed the educational structure of the United States forever. More people than ever before went to college — and more Americans expected their children to attain higher educational goals.

Bob Moses registering and education voters in Mississippi, 1962

In 1954 the Supreme Court issued the landmark decision Brown v. the Board of Education which struck down the "separate, but equal" that had condemned African American children to substandard schools for decades. Because the case was based on equal educational opportunity, schools in the South again became a battleground — knowledge the currency of freedom.

The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. --James Baldwin (1924–1987)

Algebra Project student, c. 2002

The American public first became worried about their childrens' math and science skills during the Cold War. The surprise Soviet launch of Sputnik raised concerns that the U.S. was falling behind in the science race. The National Science Foundation was founded in 1950 and public schools put increasing emphasis on math and science curriculum.

Today, as statistics show, U.S. kids are well below the international average in math skills. The Algebra Project attempts to combat the trend where it is at its most severe — in minority and poor school districts.

Sources: THE OXFORD HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES; American Memory, the Library of Congress; PBS African American World; The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress; Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer's Project, 1936-1938, Library of Congress; A NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF FREDERIC DOUGLASS

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