America's Country School Legacy

Paul Theobald, 1-10

  • What is the legacy of country schools in American educational history? Theobald makes a careful study of thorny issues affecting these schools: local versus state control of the schools, an increase in women’s power in school matters, battles over the location of schools, and the move for publicly-provided textbooks. He views these conflicts as partial victories demonstrating a slow but inexorable progression toward democracy. This struggle is the legacy of the country schools.

Responses to "America's Country School Legacy"

  • Theobald's article is followed by reflections on his essay by three leading historians of education. These scholars─affiliated with universities in the U.S., Sweden, and Australia─analyze Theobald’s paper from divergent viewpoints, drawing from different knowledge traditions, ideologies, locations, and values. They illuminate various aspects of Theobald’s study and raise new lines of inquiry. The purpose for this dialogical arrangement is to further stimulate readers’ thinking about the legacy of the country schools and about educational trends in both the U.S. and abroad.

No. 1            Gerald L. Gutek, 10-12

  • Gerald Gutek commends Paul Theobald for avoiding the nostalgia that often clouds memories of country schools. He focuses on Theobald’s examination of issues affecting these schools. Like Theobald, he raises questions. For example, he asks whether farmers’ preference for local control was based on their belief that they should decide on issues facing them where they lived and labored, or was their proclivity based on a larger ideology? He concludes by asserting that more country school research like that of Theobald may result in a greater understanding of the role of country schools in American educational history.

No. 2            David Hamilton, 13-15

  • David Hamilton limits his response to an analysis of Paul Theobald’s terminology and to further reflections on Theobald’s quest for the “deeper significance” of the country school experience. He defines relevant terms that are pregnant with historical meaning, e.g., “public,” “free,” and “common.” Using these terms, he asserts that for centuries public schooling was viewed as necessary preparation for involvement in the public sphere. In sixteenth-century England, for example, this privilege was granted to a tiny group of male elites: members of the nobility, landowners, and senior officials of the church. Gradually, other groups—including women—demanded access to the public sphere. This struggle, which has lasted for centuries, should not be ignored when seeking to understand the legacy of America’s country schools. 

No. 3            Michael Corbett, 16-22

  • Michael Corbett views Theobald’s research project as an examination of the development and legacy of country schooling beginning in what is called the Common School Era. Theobald’s argument follows some of the tensions that developed in the transition from schools that were less standardized and more locally controlled to what are now modern, bureaucratic institutions. Like Theobald, Corbett asserts that the tensions, debates, and politics represented by this historical development remain relevant today. He suggests a geographic dimension to his analysis, arguing that as North America urbanized, those places outside the metropolitan core became marginal to the central current of social and economic development. Theobald and Corbett argue, in different ways, that the schools were caught up in this marginalization and became institutions that were evaluated in terms of their connections or disconnections to hegemonic urban space. 

Contributor Biographies, 23-24 


  • Key words: common school, commonwealth, country school history, critical theory, Daniel Tanner, democracy, domestic education, educational history, elections, elite, farmer, free school, high school, ideology, John Dewey, legacy, local control, Martin Luther King, Jr., nineteenth century, normal school, one-room school, private school, public school, public sphere, school board, small country school, social justice, state control, subscription school, teacher, tenant farmer, textbooks, women 

school improvement and the Ilinois Standard School program

Robert W. Frenz, 25-48

  • Robert Frenz argues that contemporary responses to school reform give scholars reason to pause and look back on earlier efforts at school improvement. He focuses on the Standard School Program in Illinois, and argues that lessons can be learned from an examination of state-wide efforts to improve country schools from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1940s. Contributing significantly to school reform were the establishment of the first statewide Board of Education in 1857 and the election of the state superintendent of public instruction that same year. Illinois law gave the state superintendent broad power to supervise the common schools. Frenz explores the Standard School Program as one of a group of strategies designed to reform Illinois country schools. 

  • Key words: consolidation, cost per pupil, country school, county institute, director, Illinois State Board of Education, normal school, one-room school, salary, Sanitation Act, school improvement, school inspection, Standard School Program, standardization, state superintendent of public instruction, standard school, state aid, superintendent, superior school, teacher  

West Bay Common school program : a hands-on historical reenactment

Catharin Lewis, 49-68

  • A goal of the Country School Journal is to publish noteworthy curricula developed for country school museums. The award-winning curriculum by Catharin Lewis, published here, includes program objectives, detailed instructions, and a variety of activities designed for use by a museum educator, parent, or classroom teacher. The aim of publishing this curriculum is to provide a model of excellence in curriculum design for those who wish to develop or enhance a “living history” program for their country school museum.


  • Key words:  common school, copybook, country school, curriculum, geography, hand washing, hands-on, historical reenactment, history, math, McGuffey readers, rules, museum, objectives, pen and ink, Pledge of Allegiance, post-visit, pre-visit, program, reading, spelling, spelling bee, slate