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No matter whether you went to school in the year 1800, 1900, 2000, or 2020, chances are you spent a large portion of your school day daydreaming. Chances are you’d have preferred to be playing outside or goofing off at home instead of sitting politely in class, whether in a one-room schoolhouse or a modern, sprawling, state-of-the-art campus. Education may have changed in many ways across the last two centuries, but students — and their teachers — have largely remained the same. 

The Curriculum

School curricula in the 18th-century were often quite different than what we find in schools today. For example, students today are educated primarily to prepare them for productive work in a high-tech economy, meaning education is largely centered on technology, with much of the learning actually occurring through the use of highly engaging and interactive digital experiences and software.

 

In the 1700s, however, education was largely focused on preparing boys — and almost all students were male — for the life of a gentleman. That typically meant pursuing a “classical” education, with training in Latin, music, logic, philosophy, and mathematics, and this type of education still exists in the UK. Affluent children were frequently educated by tutors at home or attended schools headed by male schoolmasters. There was often no separation by grade or subject, and boys of all ages and skill levels studied together under the direction of a single schoolmaster. Or, at least, that was how the education system worked for the upper classes.

 

For the lower classes, education was often more limited, with children taught the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic, along with education in Christian doctrine. Often children were taught at home, and those who did attend school frequently did so for just a few short years.

The Students

Schools in the 1700s were not only determined largely by class, but also by gender, race, and physical ability. Girls were often excluded from formal, public education, though they were often trained in the responsibilities of home-keeping and child-rearing. For upper-class girls, this also often meant training in the “decorous” arts, from fine needlework, painting, and music to social etiquette.

 

Lower class students with disabilities often fared far worse. Today, students of all abilities are intended to be equipped with the essential life skills they will need to lead the happiest and most productive lives possible. Meanwhile, in the 1700s, if you were a poor person with a disability, you had very few choices outside of begging or depending on the charity of family members, and there were very few protections in place for them.

 

The education of racial and ethnic minorities was similarly circumscribed. It was a criminal offense for slaves to receive any form of education, including their learning privately or independently to read and write. Native Americans and other minority groups were also educated in ways that would, basically, maintain the status quo and encourage them to accept the oppression they suffered. This often included religious teaching with a focus on the virtues of submission and earthly suffering, as well as training for labor in subordinate positions throughout the economy.

Student Health

The 1700s saw the advent of vaccinations to prevent some of the deadliest and most contagious diseases in human history, including the terrible scourge of smallpox. Still, acceptance was slow, and much like the growing — and dangerous — anti-vax movement of today, parents were often reluctant to vaccinate their children. The result was that epidemics were widespread, especially in crowded cities, where poor sanitation, combined with frequent malnutrition and a lack of understanding of infectious disease often made schools ground zero for the outbreak of devastating epidemics.

The Takeaway

Education has changed in significant ways since the 1700s. First and foremost, today’s education system is far more inclusive than in the 18th-century, with girls and racial and ethnic minorities learning alongside their white male counterparts. And while class continues to play a role in the education system, the differences today are not quite as pronounced as they were three centuries ago.

 

Further, students with intellectual, developmental, and physical disabilities are better integrated into the mainstream education system than they were in the 1700s, with educators committed to preparing all students, regardless of ability, for a productive and well-lived life. Additionally, educators of today have turned away from the classical curricula of yesterday, focusing instead on the development of the advanced technological skills students need to thrive in the modern workforce.

 

Despite modern advances in the education system, however, some of yesterday’s challenges continue to afflict students, teachers, families, and communities today. The most significant, perhaps, is the growing reluctance of parents to have their children vaccinated, and the resulting spread of dangerous diseases. While parents of yesteryear were faced with the terrors of smallpox, today’s families must confront the ravages of measles, whooping cough, chickenpox, and influenza, making the schoolhouse of today, just like the schoolhouse of old, a place of both tremendous promise and of terrifying threat.

 


About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.