The Origins of the American High School


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William J. Reese

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This engrossing book tells the story of American high schools in the nineteenth century. William Reese analyzes the social changes and political debates that shaped these institutions across the nation—from the first public high school, established in Massachusetts in 1821, to the 1880s, by which time a majority of secondary students in the North were enrolled in high schools. Reese also explores in generous detail the experience of going to school. Drawing on the writings of local educators and school administrators as well as on student newspapers, diaries, and memoirs, he brings to life the high schools of a century ago, revealing what students studied and how they behaved, what teachers expected of them and how they taught, and how boys and girls, whites and blacks, and children in different parts of the nation perceived their schools.

America's earliest public high schools were built in major cities along the eastern seaboard, and they became an important factor in the building of free public school systems, bringing a broad range of middle-class citizens into their orbit. Reese shows that although high schools were condemned by critics as elite institutions of classical learning, they were in fact largely dedicated to offering talented, mostly middle-class youth a quality education in modern, practical subjects.

William J. Reese, professor of education, history, and American studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, is editor of the History of Education Quarterly.

"An authoritative and important book, the first to capture historically the early American high school. Combining social and political analysis with a rich use of historical example and telling detail, the book gives the reader both an explanation and a feel for the early high school, re-creating the voices of the participants—the people who organized, fought against, taught in, studied in, and argued about this new institution."—David Labaree, author of The Making of an American High School

"Reese provides needed attention to US educational history, outlining and discussing critically the origins of our secondary school system. His reconstructed history places the public school movement within the larger currents of American history and specifically interprets the high school movement within the social structures of class, race, and gender. . . . Readable and well documented, the book should be required reading for anyone interested in the broader issues of school reform."—Choice

"Will be the standard guide to the early history of the American public high school into the foreseeable future. . . . Will occupy and important place in the field for years to come."—Stephen Lassonde, Journal of Social History

"William Reese skillfully situates the nineteenth-century movement to establish high schools within its broader social and political context. . . . This study provides fascinating glimpses into the early history of what have proved to be perennial controversies in American education: liberal versus vocational studies, centralism versus local control, and of coeducation. . . . Worth reading for its ample stores of food for thought."—Lorraine Smith Pangle, Journal of the Early Republic

"A valuable contribution to our understanding of how and why the high school emerged in the nineteenth century, largely to satisfy the needs of the white middle class. With so much good social history on the origins and development of public education in this period, the significance of this book rests in its ability to explain how and where the high school experience fit within the developing system of public education and to illuminate at the same time how the high school became the jewel in the crown of a democratic people."—Nancy J. Rosenbloom, Journal of Southern History

"The Origins of the American High School is carefully researched and well documented. . . . As an archive of data of United States high schools placed into historical context, the book is first rate. . . . A reader may choose this book for a close look at how the high school came to be. Another reader may select the book to enhance understanding of the diverse forces that shape public education in the United States. Either reader will feel fulfilled once her or she turns the last page of this illuminating volume."—Roger G. Baldwin, Journal of Educational Administration and History

"Using the words of reformers, administrators, teachers, and students, the author has written a thoroughly researched, insightful, and convincing study advancing our understanding of an important American institution that has often been in the center of controversy in recent years."—Eileen H. Tamura, Journal of American History

ISBN: 9780300063844
Publication Date: July 26, 1995
352 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
14 b/w illus.
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