Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Henry Barnard, advocate of common schools, dies in poverty at age 89

Henry Barnard, one of the greatest educational reformers of the 19th century, dies after a long life dedicated to the support of common schools. Born in 1811 in a wealthy home, Barnard dedicated most of his time and resources to educational reform--to the point that he died in virtual bankruptcy. Following a path opened by James Carter, Horace Mann, and others, Barnard was one of the architects of the universal system of public education and a strong advocate of the education of women. In his early twenties he abandoned a promising career in law (he graduated from Yale) and concentrated on studying educational reforms.

After a trip to Europe, where he observed school practices and the implementation of Pestalozzian methods, Barnard became a legislator in Connecticut. During this phase of his career, he proposed laws similar to those passed by Mann in Massachusetts. Among them was the creation of a state board of education, of which he became the first secretary in 1838. Due to his progressive approach, conservative forces ousted him from office in 1842 and eliminated the board of education. He continued his work in Rhode Island until 1849, when he returned to Connecticut invited by the liberals, who then had regained power. There Barnard rewrote the educational legislation, developed an efficient model of school supervision, and published and edited a variety of journals, including the American Journal of Education.

With Barnard's death, in the first year of the 20th century, a cycle of educational reform that shaked the U.S. during the 19th century came to an end. For many years, Carter, Mann, and Barnard had to fight several bitter battles with political conservative forces (for whom universal education meant less availability of child labor and more taxes), with parochial schools (who perceived public education as a threat to their religious values), and with parents (who perceived common schools as a charitable, low quality instruction for the poor). Their effort was not in vain. As the new century began, the ideological and pedagogical bases for a massive, secular, modern system of public education open to all were finally established. The struggle for inclusion was far from over, but the seeds planted by these pioneers were establishing firm roots.

The common school movement was a complex dynamic that exhibited elements of oppression and emancipation. On the one hand, the movement for common schools constituted a rebuilding of the educational system to respond to the needs of expanding capitalist industries and the realities of growing cities. Among these needs were the training and disciplining of the new immigrants so they could become productive and docile workers, and the provision of stability and control in the populated urban areas. In other words, a massive and authoritarian educational system facilitated the emerging massive and authoritarian productive system. On the other hand, the common school movement removed the walls of an elitist educational system and opened its doors to large numbers of children who were previously excluded.

In sum, the common school movement amalgamated the need of factory owners for a disciplined and productive workforce, the need of the emerging liberal state for social and ideological control (removing it from the church), the hopes of working class and immigrant groups for upward mobility, and the good faith and drive of many well-intentioned educational reformers who conceived education as the main avenue to build a more democratic, more egalitarian, and better society.


Rippa, S. Alexander (1997). Education in a free society: An American History. New York: Longman.

Daniel Schugurensky, 2001

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