The Educational Institutions of the United States: Their Character and Organization [ 1853 ]
by P. A. (Per Adam) Siljestrom
Translated from the Swedish
No thinking person can behold with indifference the political movements at present taking place in Europe. No one can ask himself, without a feeling of anxiety for the future, whither these movements are tending. No one who has any feeling for the commonweal can refrain from speculating upon the forces which are in action, and from endeavouring, if possible, to contribute, at least in some slight measure, to direct them towards an end which promises benefits to humanity.
I shall not, I trust, be understood as meaning hereby that a necessity exists for a new theory of social organization; and still less as having one myself to propound. It is not theories that are required. Indeed, could theories secure the happiness of mankind, there would be nothing left for us to desire. But it has often struck me that the present moment is peculiarly suited for taking a survey of the political state of the world, from the simple point of view of experience, and—if there be a country in which there is liberty without licence, progress without revolution, and order without oppression—for making ourselves thoroughly acquainted with all the conditions and circumstances that have secured to that country such extraordinary blessings.
That there is indeed a general tendency in this direction, is proved by the existence of strong predilections, which, though less commented upon than many phenomena of minor importance, are, nevertheless, highly deserving of notice, and cannot therefore have escaped the observation of those who are earnestly watching the signs of the times.
I shall now proceed to explain the nature of these predilections, and how they are evinced. In our country [i.e en Suède, LePontissalien] , as well as in the other continental States of Europe, French civilization has hitherto exercised a powerful and undisputed influence. The French language and French manners have taken root everywhere, and every social and political movement in France has given the signal for similar movements in other States. In a word, as regards general civilization, France has always been the leader among the continental nations of Europe.
In the meanwhile, England, notwithstanding her immense weight in the political scales, as regards all questions of external policy, has exercised comparatively but little influence on the internal development of these nations. Separated by her geographical position from the rest of Europe, her civilization has been regarded as eccentric and peculiar. English literature has indeed been much admired; but the number of those who have studied this literature in the original language has hitherto been small. The extraordinary progress of England in material development has been much spoken of, as also the general piety and morality of the English people; but comparatively few persons have taken the trouble to examine these matters on the spot. The political institutions, also, of England have been much lauded; but considerable ignorance has nevertheless been betrayed as to the true nature and character of these institutions, and they have not unfrequently been represented as being dependent on conditions so peculiar, that other countries could learn little or nothing from them.
In these respects a great change has taken place of late. Those who remember how unusual it was, about fifteen or twenty years ago, to meet with individuals among our countrymen who were acquainted with the English language and literature, must be astonished to find how common such knowledge is in the present day. Indeed, it is now almost considered an indispensable part of a good education, and even of the education of young women, whose mental training was formerly regarded as pretty nearly complete when they had learned to repeat parrot-like a few commonplace French phrases. It cannot either escape observation, how many more of our countrymen visit England now than formerly, and how all who have thus become acquainted with that country return more or less impressed in favour of English civilization. In a word, it is manifest that sympathy with England is in this country daily increasing, at the expense of the French sympathies which have hitherto prevailed.
The same may be said to be the case in the other continental States. Even in France—which, as the leading representative of the continental civilization of Europe, has always stood so sharply opposed to England—the former hatred of that country is gradually giving way to a more friendly disposition, and English literature and English manners are being more studied and adopted, while, at the same time, it is becoming more and more unusual to hold up English men and manners to ridicule on the stage.
The great world-exhibition which took place in London last year has contributed, in a remarkable degree, to strengthen this amicable disposition towards England; and by its peaceful means English civilization has effected untold conquests among the continental nations.
If we inquire into the origin of this general change of feeling, it may no doubt be asserted with truth, that a growing appreciation of the intrinsic value of the English literature, as well as the immense influence exerted by England through means of her industrial enterprise, have greatly contributed to bring it about; yet these circumstances are far from being the only, or even the most important, causes.
In the present day, every endeavour to account for sympathies and antipathies between nations must necessarily lead us into the sphere of politics; and, in my opinion, if there be anything at the present moment that attracts the feelings and the attention of the European nations towards England, it is a presentiment, or an instinct (and the instincts of nations are powerful and clear-sighted), that tells them that it is from the English race that they are to learn the solution of those social problems which have so long puzzled the continental States, and which they have hitherto in vain endeavoured to solve.
At first sight it may appear strange, that in the midst of the republican tendencies of the Continent there should be any desire to seek examples for imitation in monarchical England; that in the midst of the struggle for the introduction of the principle of individualism into the social organization, a thought should be turned towards a country whose social constitution is so strongly impressed with an aristocratic and plutocratic character.
If, nevertheless, such be really the case, it must be because the nations have come to the conviction that a republican form of government, and the establishment of the principle of individualism, do not in themselves constitute a sufficiently secure foundation for the prosperity and the liberty of a nation. It has been proved in practice, that the monarchical and aristocratic-plutocratic constitution of England offers much surer guarantees for national prosperity and individual liberty than any of the republics which have of late been tried on the Continent. Why this is so will be shown as soon as I have removed my readers to the field on which I have carried on the inquiries, the results of which are given in this work.
Having visited England in 1848, I flattered myself that I understood pretty well the nature of the forces which had in that country led to such great political results. But I found, at the same time, that these forces were so hemmed in by antiquated, and sometimes conflicting, institutions, that it was often difficult to form a clear judgment of their activity. It struck me at once, that the matters which I am here alluding to might be more thoroughly studied in the United States, where, notwithstanding the differences caused by the republican form of government, the fundamental powers at work in the social system are the same as in England, but are allowed freer scope to develope themselves, and must, therefore, necessarily manifest themselves more clearly. The desire to visit the United States, to which this conviction gave rise, was supported by a stipend from the public exchequer, and I trust that the communications I am about to make may, in some measure, repay the debt which I have thus incurred to the public.
It was not my object to study the political institutions of the United States. These are well known, at least so far as regards the fundamental principles, and there is little or nothing to add on the subject. But, on the other side, it has occurred to me that there was much call for inquiry into specific points of American civilization, and the more so as it is only through the study of details that a clear and distinct conception of the whole can be acquired.
The subject to which my inquiries have been particularly directed is the state of general intellectual cultivation in the United States, together with the organization of national instruction in all its branches. I have aimed at ascertaining how all matters relating thereto have been developed under a system of government such as that of America, and what are its effects on the intellectual as well as material culture of the people; and I have flattered myself that a full investigation of this subject would be the more interesting, because, as far as my knowledge goes, neither my own country nor the rest of Europe possesses any further information relative to these points than such detached and cursory notices as may be found in books of travel treating of miscellaneous subjects.
While pursuing the interesting task of observing how mental culture is conducted and promoted in a country whose institutions are such as those of America, we are, by means of the organization of the agencies at work, enabled to obtain many important glances into the nature of the whole social fabric. I know of no field of observation from which a more perfect conception may be formed of the American system of government than the department of public instruction, or which affords a more comprehensive view of the life of the community; because in this department the observer is less exposed to be misled by political partizanship, or other disturbing causes.
In no other department are the effects of local administration, and of the exertions of individuals and of private associations for the promotion of public objects, more clearly manifested. In a word, in connection with no other question can we obtain a clearer insight into the nature of what the English and the Americans call self-government, the essence of which is, in fact, a strong spirit of local association.
As regards this spirit, America is greatly in advance even of England, and all other countries have nearly everything to learn. A nearer view of the present political circumstances of Europe will show that here lies the only road by which the continental nations can escape from revolution as well as from despotism; and, if I be not greatly mistaken, it is an indistinct feeling of this fact which, more than anything else, at this moment draws them closer to the Anglo-Saxon race—the only one which has as yet developed, in any prominent degree, the idea of self-government.
Self-government—the only social organization which offers trustworthy guarantees for liberty; which, where it exists, can secure freedom even in a monarchical State, and without which freedom will never prove anything but a chimera even in a republic; which is so little known on the continent of Europe, but under the protection of which England and America have enjoyed tranquillity and security in the midst of the political storms that have so violently shaken this quarter of the world: this is the goal towards which political movements must be made to tend, if we are ever to hope for lasting tranquillity and true liberty.
It is curious to contemplate the development of political life in Europe from the point of view I have here selected. We see how the governments, animated by a spirit of centralization, sometimes well meaning, but always despotic, have endeavoured to destroy local liberties wherever they existed, in order to interfere directly or indirectly in even the most minute affairs of the community; while, for the same reason, or from some absurd and groundless fear, they have opposed the right of association with all their energies, and would, had they been able, have destroyed even its very spirit. De Tocqueville observes, that government in France has, in modern times, become much more centralized than it was even under Louis XIV.; and in other countries as well, the despotic spirit of the governments has, under the less offensive name of centralization, encroached more and more on the liberties of the people.
For a time, the instinct of self-preservation in the privileged classes formed a strong bulwark against the increasing lust for power in governments. Inimical as these privileges were to popular liberty, they, nevertheless, frequently served to protect the people against the encroachments of despotism. Based upon an unnatural foundation, class prerogatives, however, gradually declined in power and influence, until they were completely undermined, and partially destroyed, by the principle which has played the most prominent part in the political movements of modern times, viz.,- the principle of the rights of the individual. What have been the consequences of this change?
Admirably and beneficially as the principle of individualism has operated, in as far as it has been raised in opposition to the power of corporations, it has, nevertheless, hitherto been so far from affording any guarantees against despotism, that it has, on the contrary, rather laboured in the service of the latter. Municipal and local liberties have in no way been increased by its action, while, on the contrary, the principle of association has under its influence assumed the chimerical forms of Socialism and Commnnism. Thus, the final effect of the principle of individualism has merely been to place the individual in face of despotism, powerless, isolated, and shorn of all support from class, corporation, or commune. What would be the results where such a state of things existed it was easy to foresee, and the experience of our day proves it but too clearly; for it is through these means alone that despotism has been enabled to celebrate its supreme triumph, by letting centralization assume its ideal form, in that military dictatorship whose iron sceptre presses heavily upon Europe, and from which, as circumstances now stand, there seems to be no means of rescue save through violent revolutions. Will these revolutions again result in an increase of despotism? and will Europe constantly be kept balancing between these two extremes?
My conviction is, that there is but one means by which to escape from this unfortunate position, viz., national self-government, such as it is understood in England and America. Nothing hut a gradual extension of well-established local liberties, and a gradual development of a sound system of association, can restore the lost equilibrium of the European communities.
To those who view the matter in this light, nothing can be of more pressing importance than to study in all their details the character and workings of selfgovernment in those countries where it is already established, and more especially in America; and from this point of view every investigation of details acquires a general interest.
One thing in particular relating to this subject I must point out. It is the generally-received opinion of Europe, that whatever evils may otherwise result from a system of centralization, it possesses at least one decided advantage, in as far as it gives greater strength and uniformity to the administration. Now, although in theory this opinion may have appearances in its favour, the evidence of experience proves it to be utterly untenable. No one can maintain with truth that the administration in England, or in the United States, is in any way more feeble than that of the strongest centralized countries in Europe. Centralization, it is true, leads to greater outward uniformity, at least, apparently, but under this is but too often concealed much real weakness; whereas, in a country where local government prevails, there are many causes which not only tend considerably to strengthen the general administration, but which also contribute to produce greater uniformity in practice than would at first sight be supposed possible.
This is, however, a point on which certainty is of importance, and this cannot be attained by general arguments, but solely by an investigation of facts in connexion with both systems of government. For this reason it is desirable that inquiries should be made into the workings and organization of various public matters, such as the internal means of intercommunication, the poor laws, public instruction, &c,, under both systems, in order to ascertain in which case the greatest amount of efficiency and strength is manifested *.
I hope that the present work will serve to throw some light upon this important question, as far as regards the various details of which it treats; and that it will also make the reader acquainted with other points relative to the decentralised system of government in America, which are highly worthy of notice, and which I will touch upon in a few words.
One of the most interesting circumstances connected with the latest development of the national life of America is, indeed, the introduction of increased centralization, but in such a form, that without encroaching in any way on the people's right and practice of self-government, it serves to introduce greater uniformity in the administration, while on the one side it stimulates, and on the other it controls the action of the local bodies. How this is done will be shown in the sequel. At present I will only add, that the introduction even of the mere shadow of centralization, to which I have alluded, was not attempted before the system of self-government had attained to a stability and firmness which rendered it evident that there was nothing to fear from such an innovation.
In no instance have the effects of this measure been more clearly manifested than in the organization of the system of popular instruction, which thereby acquires a new interest, independently of a great many regulations relative to details which are worthy of being inquired into, and, in many instances, of being imitated. The first volume of the present work will be exclusively devoted to this subject. In the second volume I will endeavour to give an account of the material development of the United States in some particular directions. Each volume will form a separate whole.
As regards my exposition of all these matters, I have endeavoured to appear simply in the character of a narrator, feeling persuaded that I should thus best meet the wishes of my readers. I have therefore intruded but few arguments of my own; and, when I have done so, it has merely been for the purpose of calling attention more particularly to points which I deem important. I trust, however, that my reflections have always been introduced in the narrative in a manner that will at once enable the reader to distinguish between the facts as they exist, and my individual mode of viewing them.
As regards local investigations, my activity has, in a great measure, been limited to some few of the eastern States; but, as regards many of the other States, I have enjoyed opportunities of collating the records of a great number of official proceedings, and other authentic sources of information. If, nevertheless, I venture to describe not only the state of things in individual States of the American Union, but the state of things in the whole Union, it is because of the indisputable truth contained in the words of the eminent English author which I have selected as a motto for this work.
The first section of the present volume treats of the organization of the popular schools, and the general education of the people; the second, of charity schools (in a very summary manner); the third, of the higher branches of education, and the especial means provided for obtaining a learned and practical education.
* For one purpose, indeed, centralization affords the strongest means, and that is for the perpetration of coups d'etat. Such cannot take place in countries where self-government has taken root.