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'American ABC:' Back to School in the 19th Century

As summer dwindles away and back-to-school time approaches, an exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum looks at life around the schoolhouse in the 19th century.

The exhibit -- called American ABC -- includes The New Scholar, an 1845 painting by Frances William Edmonds. It shows a scared little boy being pushed by his mother toward the schoolmaster. The boy is right to be afraid -- the schoolmaster is holding a hickory switch behind his back.

This painting is part of an ongoing debate in 19th-century America over whether children should go to school. The whole idea of universal, free education was an invention of the 1820s and 30s. Before then, children were taught at home or in church.

Museum Director Betsy Broun says citizens began seeing children as the future of America.

"Suddenly it occurred to people that, 'Gosh, if we're going to continue a democracy we're going to have to educate a population,'" she says.

Some Americans worried that the frontier spirit would be taken from their children -- that they'd be made to conform.

And some children weren't crazy about being cooped up in classrooms -- like the subject in The Truant, a painting from the 1860s by Thomas LeClear. It shows a little boy, with his books and lunch pail hiding from his teacher.

Another work, Edward Henry's 1889 painting Kept In shows an African-American girl who's left alone in a classroom while other students enjoy recess outside. After the Civil War, there was much discussion about educating former slaves and their children. Education was seen then -- as now -- as a path to success.

"The message here, I think, is focus on what you need to do -- persevere so you can make it too," Broun says. "So she's kept in so she can keep at it."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.