School Children: The Real Founders of American Public Education

The King of England vouched for it. The President of the United States, too. At the turn of the 19th century, the great and good of the world agreed on a plan for America’s public schools. But in the early 1800s, children—like fourteen-year-old Billy Demerest—brought it down. Billy had been promised thirty-six dollars per year to help teach at one of New York’s first public schools. But the trustees ran out of money to pay him, so he quit. Without free teaching from children, New York’s first public schools collapsed.

Billy was far from alone. His decisions—and the decisions of children like him—shaped America’s public schools. In 1844, nineteen-year-old Robert Morris forced white Massachusetts to crack open their segregated schools. In 1821, a group of Black girls between the ages of ten and fourteen foiled the plans of their white school administrators. The administrators had decided that the girls could only learn “knitting and plain sewing” but the girls cajoled their teacher into teaching them more advanced “ornamental” techniques.

It wasn’t always about protest or subversion. In a million unheralded ways, children directed the course of their own schooling. Like the day in 1827 when a public school in New York had to face the facts: their unpaid, untrained child teacher was unable to stop the rest of the children’s “disposition to Levity and Laughter, which Seemed rather generally to prevail.”

It’s not too much to say that it was those children who shaped schools, just as adults were so sure that the schools would shape children.

Historians have done a lot to explore the history of children, but there is still no book that connects children to the institution closest to them: the public school. My new book digs deep into the archives to unearth the ways children influenced the structure and content of public schools in the first half of the 1800s.

The story of school changes a lot when we put children at the center. If, as David Tyack and Larry Cuban said long ago, education relies on a deep “grammar of schooling,” then children are the native speakers. As every teacher knows so well, students determine what can and can’t go on in the classroom. It’s not only dramatic walk-outs and petitions that matter; it is all the everyday decisions children make. Will they skip school? Will they accept their phrenological diagnosis? Will they listen to their teacher, or will they wreck the plans of adults by indulging in “Levity and Laughter”?

much levity 1827
Thomas Hale was a white visitor at New York’s “African Free School.” This was his report on April 5, 1827. We have to ask: How many other adult attempts in school have been foiled by children’s “Levity and Laughter”?

I aim to find out. Though children don’t claim the same headlines and resources as adults, they leave a clear trail in the archives. My ambition is to write a new history of America’s public schools, beyond the old “reform-and-resistance” model that focuses on the decisions made by adults. The history is crystal clear: Those adult decisions were never the last word. Sometimes they changed schools. Sometimes they didn’t. But every time, the people that mattered more than superintendents and politicians were the people who actually experienced schools—the children themselves.


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