A Ninth Grade Education

Recently a beta reader sent me an email questioning my portrayal of children being in school in June. This story (which I should finish soon) occurs in Golden Colorado in 1865. That is Golden City, Colorado Territory. I sent the reader a brief note that schooling wasn’t the same in the 19th century as it is today. Then in an offhand remark stated, “you must realize that most young people completed school by ninth-grade.”

Nowadays when you hear the term, he has a ninth-grade education, you take it to be an insult. That hasn’t always been the case. During the 19th century obtaining a nine-grade education meant you had completed the required schooling of the day. How valuable did this level of schooling end up being? To answer that question, you should look at what, and how, the school systems functioned.

Some states during this time had universal state-funded education through twelve years. When I say some, that is what I mean, less than a handful. Most states didn’t fund or mandate education at all; this duty fell to the individual community. Teachers had no formal requirements for any specific level of training themselves.

For our purpose today, we will confine ourselves to education west of the Mississippi River. Most education systems stopped at the ninth-grade level. A 15 or even a 14 year-old was expected to help earn his keep. Further schooling for the average student was deemed unnecessary. Schools, for the most part, were one room affairs. Students ranged in age from six to 14 or 15. McGuffy Readers, or something similar, provide the basis for teaching.

While students of different ages work side by side, they didn’t study the same material. As a child progressed, they moved from one reader or math book to another. Yes, the Bible was also used, but not exclusively.

The world had large cities, but most people lived outside them, in small towns, or in the country. School often began at 8:00am or 8:30am and the school day ran until 3:00pm or 3:30pm. Students that lived out in the country would leave home as early as 6:00am to arrive on time, bright eyed and bushy tailed, after having walked five miles, or more, to get there.

The world ran on agriculture. You need food to survive, and a large portion of the population was involved in its manufacture. Planting ran from March to Mid-May. Harvest commenced in September and ended in October. There was no winter wheat to bring in during June in America of the nineteenth century. The children of farmers and ranchers were needed to help during these seasons; therefore, the school didn’t run at the same times that it does now.

School seasons ran according to the requirements of the local community. Weather could play a part in the decisions, what the norm for planting and harvest was in the area. In general, the winter session started in November and ended at the beginning of March. The Summer Session started about the middle of May and continued until September.

In the West, the schools were financed by the generosity of citizenry, not by taxes. Teachers, in general, were single men and women of good character. The expectation was that the teacher would educate the student, not only in reading, righting, and arithmetic but socially acceptable behavior. (Yes, I know it’s ‘writing’ but when you say the three r’s, well you know.) How to act with good manners was a large part of the training the teacher provided. The educators received a small amount of money and generally were provided a room in the home of one of the more prominent members of the community.

As soon as a female teacher married their job fell into jeopardy. The requirement to the educator by the community was, the children came first. Should she become pregnant she would be retired, as her own children should then come first.

This brings us back to a ninth-grade education. How significant was it? How well were people prepared for the world by this education. There was a dreadful disparity between the races at the time; you can’t avoid that issue. In the United States as whole, 10% of the white population were illiterate, and a staggering 45% of the black population. I’m not going to look at prejudice and its ugly part in that equation, at least, not today. I’m just looking at the education system in the west.

As it turns out, a ninth-grade education at that time is impressive. When I graduated high school, my education was comparable to the same education level of a ninth-grade graduate in 1873. When you graduate college today, you have the same basic education provided to a child graduating ninth grade, taught in a single room school and by a solitary teacher in the 1870’s. While the education wasn’t as wide it was much deeper.

Granted, there’s more to learn now - video games, how to send emojis on your phone, the proper care and feeding of your computers. However, with that said, people between 1860 and 1900 knew how to take care of themselves. They knew how to read, and to use reading for entertainment. They could add and subtract and figure out how the ever-changing technology of their day worked.

Some people contend that it was a simpler time. I don’t know how true that is. Living was a harder proposition then. Still, if you had a ninth-grade education you stood a good chance of doing well. So, if someone tells you a person has a ninth-grade education ask them when he got it.


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