America has always been terrified of its children. Never more so than in the early decades of the 1800s, when packs of youths roamed the bursting new cities of the new united States. Small wonder, then, that a reformer who promised to round up these youths, to Americanize them, civilize them, and educate them, would be greeted with open arms.
As have so many school reformers after him, Joseph Lancaster promised everything. His new schools would sweep city streets clean of lounging, threatening urchins. Lancaster’s system would teach them to be citizens, to read, write, and pray properly. It would turn feckless youth into proper Americans, and it would do it all without costing a single extra cent.
Lancaster’s schools promised to turn New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore into modern cities, not just collections of provincial villages. They promised more than just new schools; they’d create a whole new system, a new way of ordering urban chaos.
The eager city boosters who pushed for Lancasterian schools learned their lessons the hard way. They were the first generation of school reformers to find out that school systems needed more than just schematics and instruction manuals. They needed more than flashy new technology and assurances that they were on the cutting edge of modern city planning. They needed more than earnest, energized, self-sacrificing teachers, parents, and students. As reformers in every century have discovered over and over again, there is no silver bullet. No matter how painstakingly modern, how alluringly metropolitan, how theoretically feasible, no school reform can solve all of society’s problems, especially if it promises to do so on the cheap.
By the middle of the 1830s, city leaders in the United States found out what London’s elites had decided years earlier. Lancaster was no savior. His overinflated promises couldn’t match the difficulties of corralling and educating a modern city’s children. His relentless self-promotion couldn’t erase the complicated issues of finance and discipline that modern urban school systems needed. The promise of Lancasterian schools collapsed just as suddenly as it had taken over.
Historians have tended to walk away from Lancaster’s story at that point. From the ashes of Lancasterian mania, they’ve explained, rose the new, totally different common-school reform movement. But that’s not really the way it happened. Instead, the true importance of the Lancasterian movement emerges in spite of Lancaster himself. Lancaster’s ideas flopped, but by committing city leaders to providing schools for all–what they often called “universal” education–the Lancasterian movement became the starting point for America’s urban public-school systems.
In my new book, tentatively titled Joseph Lancaster and the Roots of America’s Public Schools, 1800-1840, I’m exploring these poorly understood roots of America’s urban public-school systems. Here’s how I’m thinking about it: Lancaster was not the father of American public education, nor even its unintended midwife. No, Joseph Lancaster was more like a bumbling birth-control quack, selling shoddy snake-oil contraceptive devices. When they didn’t work—as it seems clear in retrospect they obviously wouldn’t—American urban public-school systems were born by accident.
Lancaster’s fantastical descriptions were the bait that hooked urban elites on the promise of education for those who couldn’t afford it. Once they took that bait, they were committed to making the system work, even if it was not recognizable by the time they were through.