The SYSTEM: Joseph Lancaster and the Roots of America’s Public Schools, 1800-1840

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.

lancaster schools
Keep those toes on the line!

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.

In my new book, tentatively titled The System: Joseph Lancaster and the Roots of America’s Public Schools, 1800-1840, I’m exploring this first episode in America’s long struggle with systematic urban school reform. In the first decades of the 1800s, reformers and politicians learned the bitter lessons that new generations of reformers from John Dewey to Michelle Rhee have found themselves relearning in every century.

new york free school
Urchins check in…citizens check out.

Why is school reform so difficult? As Joseph Lancaster’s dramatic story illustrates, reformers overpromise. They sell an impossibly simplistic bill of goods. Politicians latch on, desperate for votes, desperate to be seen taking decisive action. Parents and teachers allow themselves to hope. Every time—in every city, in every century—when the dust settles, ambitious reformers and politicians have moved on and schools stay the same.


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