22 August 2015

Southern aristocartic attitudes on Education return to haunt us

Ever wonder why the people of a state, say North Carolina, might turn against public education? We've all been taught, and poor working class southerners once believed, that public education was a good thing, something that would allow their children to have a better life. Well, as someone one said, the more things change the more they stay the same.

Here is an excerpt from Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer (p. 347), a ground breaking study in its time on how the origins and attitudes of the first English settlers to America shaped regional culture and thus, regional history. It is the historian's answer to our question. This is the way the "better" folks of the south did it, and now they are returning to it. North Carolina, in effect, was an offspring of Virginia, the colony of the colony so to speak.

During the eighteenth century, literacy rapidly increased on both sides of the Atlantic. As it did so, differences between people of high and low status tended to diminish in New England and Britain. But in Virginia the opposite was the case. Disparities in literacy between rich and poor actually grew greater. Here was yet another system of inequality in the cultural life of the colony.
As it was with literacy, so also with learning. There was a stiking paradox in attitudes toward schools and schooling in Virginia. The elite was deeply interested in the education of gentlemen. “Better be never born than ill-bred,” wrote William Fitzhugh in 1687. By “ill-bred” in that passage, he meant “unschooled.”
At the same time, visitors and natives both agreed that schools were few and far between, that ignorance was widespread, and that formal education did not flourish in the Chesapeake. This condition was not an accident. It was deliberately contrived by Virginia’s elite, who positively feared learning among the general population. The classic expression of this attitude came from Governor William Berkeley himself. When asked in 1671 by the Lords of Trade about the state of schools in Virginia, he made a famous reply: “I thank God,” he declared, “there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these [for a] hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!


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