Back to School

August is almost upon us and that means it’s back-to-school season. The unseasonably fall-like weather has also geared up my desire to purchase new pencils and attempt to better organize my desk. Although my days of back-to-school shopping are over, my graduate school career exists in my not to distant past and I can’t resist the urge to organize folders, projects, and lunches. I always the loved the fresh start that a new school brought with it.

Well, that’s enough about me. While parents are rejoicing at the fact that their children will once again be busy with school, I began reflecting on the myriad of changes that took place in the educational system during the time of the Whaleys. School was not required and children who did attend likely went to a Common School, or a one room school that served students from kindergarten through anywhere from fifth to eighth grade. Generally, the older the students, the less likely they were to attend school. Familial needs, such as farm work, earning money for the family, or starting a family of one’s own, took precedence over reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. Additionally, attendance for children of all ages dropped during planting and harvest seasons. Sometimes, depending on the location of the school and one’s proximity to it, students wouldn’t be able to make it to school throughout the winter months. These schools were also often run by one instructor who had to balance the needs of a variety of ages, education levels, and interests. Sometimes schoolmasters were viewed as outsiders by the local community. Sometimes they were seen as an enemy, someone who wanted to take their children away for useless activities. Additionally, the schools often received little funding and the schoolmaster and students performed general maintenance on the building.

For a great look into the world of the Common School, see Jesse Stuart’s brilliant memoir, The Thread that Runs so True.

Of course, this is all true of the country school and the country schools outnumbered the city schools in the decades leading up to the Gilded Age. But, as the cities grew, so to did the need for schools in larger towns and cities. Post-Civil War America saw the creation of the high school and the birth of the adolescent, the teenager. Gilded Age Americans were uneasy about the changes in urban society during the Gilded Age and the myriad pressures and temptations placed upon young people. Thus, they wanted to protect them in schools and spend more time preparing them for entrance into adult society. This, of course, was a fact of life for upper-working and middle class Americans, especially those in the city. Overall, the percentage of American children attending common schools steadily increased, along with the number of days these students attended school per year. Additionally, educational pioneers such as John Dewey and Maria Montessori worked to revolutionize educational practices during this era.

Colleges and higher education were also transitioning during this time as well. Their numbers increased immensely from the end of the Civil War to the end of the century, funded, in part, by donations from the great businessmen of the Gilded Age, such as John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt. The professionalization and standardization of fields, such as law and medicine, also necessitated the creation of specialized universities. Finally, the Morrill Federal Land Grant Act of 1862 allowed states the land needed to create state universities; Michigan State University was the pioneer land grant university!

Justin Smith Morrell introduced the Morrill Land Grant Act.

This was all fine and dandy if, of course, you were a white, moneyed, man, because college entrance, as well as access to a quality education, was, of course, largely limited. Women were attending college in record numbers during this era, however ( 39% by 1900). The creation of women’s colleges, such as Wellesley, Bryn, Mawr, and Radcliffe took off during the Gilded Age. Additionally, universities, such as Fisk, Atlanta, and Howard aimed at educating African Americans. There were also colleges that attracted Catholics (Notre Dame) and Jews (New York University). These various groups needed to look outside of the traditional university setting, where they were largely excluded.

As for the Whaleys, they enjoyed the privilege of education. Florence Bickford Whaley Orrell attended Kemper Hall, an Episcopal girls’ preparatory school in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after receiving a general education in Flint. Laura Kidder Whaley Jones graduated from National Park Seminary, also an all female school, in Forest Park, Maryland. Robert Whaley Orrell, having been born at the tail end of the Gilded Age, attended the University of Michigan, where he received a degree in engineering. There is no doubt that, in addition to being part of a well-placed family, Florence, Laura, and Robert all benefited from this revolution and expansion of education that took place during the Gilded Age.

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