America at School
From 1894 to 1915, the goals of Progressive reformers influenced education in the United States, since education was seen as a way to teach children the proper values needed to be a productive American citizen. It was thought that society's ills could in part be alleviated by education for all classes that would fit children for their proper role in society. Public education was also seen as a way to "Americanize" the vast number of immigrant children flooding into cities. Compulsory attendance laws were enacted to ensure that children from all classes received a basic, "common," education in elementary grades.
Fewer children attended high school, however, since immigrant and working-class families often had to rely on their children working to support the family. High schools were typically attended by middle- and upper-class students who aspired to white-collar jobs or a higher academic education. As an improved economy brought slightly higher wages after 1900, more working-class families started sending their children to high schools in the hope that they, too, could achieve better jobs. Vocational and industrial programs in high schools were offered by reformers during this period in large part to entice the working class and poor to stay in school and to prepare them adequately for what the reformers thought was their appropriate role in society.
European models of schooling influenced U.S. schools in the late 1800s, most notably the German kindergartens and industrial schools. The first kindergarten was established in Germany in 1837 and in the U.S. in 1856. In a kindergarten, creative activities were used to stimulate the child's inner potential. Although the initial kindergartens were private and for the privileged, the idea expanded by the end of nineteenth century to public schools where it was seen by reformers as an antidote for what they believed to be the poor home environments of the underprivileged. Industrial training was thought by some to be part of Germany's success as an industrial power that could serve to siphon those who would not go to college to appropriate working-class careers. It was not as successful as reformers had hoped it would be, in large part because working-class parents wanted their children to receive academic educations and gain white-collar jobs as a result.
After 1900, as more achieved a high school education, high schools gradually took on the ideals of the "common" school that elementary schools had espoused. Typically only the middle or upper classes could afford to send their children to college or university. Although hundreds of colleges were established after the Civil War, universities began to grow in rapid number toward the end of the century. Universities, and later colleges, started offering a wider curriculum and choices of electives. Universities offered graduate education beyond college and opportunities for research within fields.
Several minority groups suffered worse deprivations in education than even the immigrant groups had. African Americans in the Southern states had to attend segregated schools with inferior resources, since the states typically gave such schools only nominal support. African Americans in northern cities had better neighborhood schools to attend in general than in the South and northern African Americans at the turn of the century had school attendance rates equal to or better than white students, including high school.
During this period the Federal government mandated the establishment of special schools for American Indians. The schools were designed to assimilate American-Indian children into white American culture by stripping them of much of their heritage. Some attended reservation day schools, while others attended boarding schools where children were removed from their parents, sometimes forcibly, and from any other kind of American Indian influence. Although they were administered by the Federal government, these schools frequently had poor conditions. The system was in many cases badly managed with a lack of proper facilities, hygiene, and educational materials.
Many of the motion pictures in this section focus on physical education in the schools at all levels. School reformers instituted physical education programs on a wide scale in the 1890s as the importance of exercise for both sexes came to be appreciated. Intercollegiate sports such as football, baseball, and track and field became popular at colleges and universities. Collegiate sports were also instituted for women during this period, although female students were typically given less strenuous sports to play than men. Some popular sports for female college students included basketball, gymnastics, and dance.
[Sources for essay: see Selected Bibliography.]
NOTE: Film titles used in this presentation are the original production titles, which may include archaic or incorrect spellings.