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In the summer of 1876, the citizenry of the United States celebrated the centennial of their nation’s independence from Great Britain.  To be sure, many Native Americans, African Americans, and members of other ethnic and racial minorities viewed the previous century with a somewhat jaundiced eye, but most Americans of northern and western European descent were proud of what they regarded as a century of progress. The country had grown from thirteen states strewn along the Atlantic seaboard between British Canada and Spanish Florida in the late eighteenth century to encompass the vast continental expanse that would become the lower forty-eight states.  Its population had increased from just under 3 million in 1790 to roughly 38.6 million in 1870. This dramatic geographic and population expansion facilitated an agricultural and industrial revolution that was rapidly transforming the country’s economy from that of a fledgling under-developed nation to that of one on the brink of becoming an economic world power. 

However, change, even positive change, rarely occurs without challenges and the accomplishments that the citizenry of the United States celebrated in their centennial year did not come without real or perceived problems.  As the population of the U.S. spread rapidly across the continent and as that population became steadily more racially, ethnically, religiously, and economically diverse, many Americans grew concerned about what they perceived as an unraveling of the fabric of American society and a potential threat to social stability and to the ideals, values, and institutions they believed at the heart of the American dream.  They became convinced that if the nation were ever to realize its hope of establishing a free and prosperous republic the people must develop effective means by which to address the social and cultural changes that were the corollary of growth and material progress.  Consequently, in the second quarter of the nineteenth century a host of idealistic and ambitious reform movements emerged, addressing a variety of issues. Among these was the effort to expand access to, and improve the quality of, public education.  

Since the birth of the republic there had been figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Noah Webster who recognized the importance of a system of organized public education to the American experiment, but educational reform initially proved more evolutionary than revolutionary.  However, as the nation witnessed the explosive expansion and socio-cultural diversification of the early decades of the nineteenth century the idea that access to education was a key to an orderly and cohesive society began to gain credence in many quarters.  As a result, a “common schools” movement emerged in the middle decades of the century.  As educational pioneers of the day contemplated their task, they understood that they must answer for themselves and others the questions of what was to be the goal and substance of mass education and how was it to be delivered most effectively.

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