Prior to the 19th century, only the rich and well-connected could expect a formal education. Learning for most children was done at home and focused on the practical aspects of life. Namely, gaining the knowledge needed to feed your family. If you were lucky, you might get an apprenticeship with a local tradesman to learn blacksmithing, carpentry, masonry, etc.
In the latter half of the 19th century, there were efforts to improve education in America. It was during this time that the iconic one-room schoolhouses flourished across the country. These schools were established in urban neighborhoods and rural communities to educate the youth of that area. There were no mandated standards for the curricula, although there were publications that helped guide teachers. Consequently, the subject matter often varied as much as the abilities of each teacher.
In this system, students of all ages learned in the same room and were taught by the same teacher. Advancement to the next “grade” occurred whenever the student demonstrated the appropriate level of knowledge in order to move up. Teachers would tailor each student’s work based on their abilities, not on their age.
Surprisingly, attendance wasn’t mandatory. Students typically went to school when they didn’t have work to do at home. By the time they became teenagers, most students were expected to quit school entirely and go to work. Discipline was at the discretion of the teacher. Their preferred paddle was often prominently displayed to discourage bad behavior and liberally applied whenever they felt it was necessary.
By Floyd N. Turner II
President of the Berks History Center