July 21, 2010 12:39PM

Standards Were Higher, More Local, a Century Ago

I think it's important to study historical trends in education, but I always chafe when people talk about how difficult high school graduation or even entrance examinations were in the mid-to-late 1800s. As late as 1890, only about one student in 10 attended high school (though the figure was higher in New England), so these tests tell us only what the best and brightest were expected to know and be able to do.

But the same is not true for the earlier grades.

There were 380,000 children between 5 and 16-years-old in New York State in 1821; 342,479 of whom--90 percent--were enrolled in school. Granting that the North Eastern states lead the nation in enrollment, it was still the case that obtaining a grammar school education was the norm in the United States by the mid 1800s. So how challenging was the content these children were taught? How does this strike you:

It was during one of my lonely journeyings, amid a far distant region of mountain locked within mountain, and sad rivers and melancholy tarns writhing or sleeping within all--that I chanced upon a certain rivulet and island. I came upon them suddenly in the leafy June, and threw myself upon the turf, beneath the branches of an unknown odorous shrub, that I might doze as I contemplated the scene. I felt that thus only should I look upon it--such was the character of phantasm which it wore.

That's an excerpt of Edgar Allan Poe's "Island of the Fay," which appeared in William Elson's Grammar School Reader, Book Three--published in 1910. As late as a century ago, adolescent children were still taught rich and complex prose written by masters of the language. Not simplified. Not dumbed down.


It wasn't because the federal Department of Education was pushing it; it didn't exist yet. And it wasn't because a consortium of governors banded together to raise standards, either. In 1910, control over the content of instruction was still chiefly local--as it had been throughout the 1800s.

After generations of centralization of authority--district consolidations, the rise of state education bureaucracies, and increasing federal intrusions in the classroom--standards are lower now than they were a century ago. Why, then, should any sane person expect that further centralization--the kind advocated by national standards advocates--would improve rather than worsen matters?