USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

National Public Education

Today, we take for granted the existence of broad-based national education. This was, however, radically new in the late 19th century. Just about everywhere in Europe and the United States the percentage of children who attended state-funded school shot up precipitously after 1848. The rise was particularly dramatic in Germany, France, and England. England, which had no public educational system before 1870, saw enrollment increase dramatically during the years before the First World War. Sweden, Norway, and Holland tripled the size of their primary schools during the years from 1875 to 1914. The main thrust of these national public educational systems was twofold. First, nations wanted to ensure that new citizens could read, speak, and write in the national language. This meant that these students could be future participants in the increasingly complex national workplace or economy. Second, the schools were important places (as they are today) for creating a sense of civic responsibility, shared history, and a common identification with one’s nationality as central to identity. Schools were so important to the advance of nationalism that the historian Eric Hobsbawm writes, “Until the triumph of television, there was no medium of secular propaganda to compare with the classroom. Hence, in educational terms, the era from 1870-1914 was above all, in most European countries, the age of the primary school.” The connection between national education systems and a new sense of nationalism is nowhere clearer than in the United States, which in the late 1880s introduced the first form of secular worship into society: the daily pledge of allegiance to the greatest of all national icons, the flag (the first articulation (1892) of the pledge in conjunction with the commemoration of Columbus's voyages is presented here). It should also be noted that schools were a solution to a vexing problem created by the transition from agricultural to industrial labor: what to do with the children of working-class parents when they were no longer needed on the family farm? One solution to this was the brutal system of child labor. By around 1900, however, social reformers had campaigned against the violent, dangerous, and exploitative nature of child labor. Increasingly, state-mandated schooling would take children out of the factories, mines, and sweatshops and off the streets of the swelling cities.

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