Before the Formal Education System

Educating the young is a vital part of every culture. Whether in schools or at home or in vocational activities, the older generation trains children to survive and to produce the goods and services a society needs. How children are educated reflects the needs of the surroundings in which they live. In early Iowa children learned both at home and at nearby schools.

In the early 1800s when pioneers were moving into Iowa and building houses and farms, women and men had very well defined work roles. Women worked in the home and garden while men worked in the barn and in the field. Boys learned how to farm and take care of livestock from their fathers. Girls learned how to manage the home by learning to cook large meals, make clothing, tend the sick and take care of a garden by working with their mothers. The large gardens produced food for the family. Most families relied on large flocks of chickens to supply meat and eggs. While the distribution of tasks normally followed gender lines, boys and girls, men and women often had to learn new tasks in the necessities of frontier living.

As the economy developed, more work opportunities became available to boys and men, but not for women. For the most part only single women worked outside the home and when they did, few occupations were available to them. Before the Civil War most school teachers were male. But in the latter part of the 19th century, single women began taking teaching positions in Iowa's many one-room schools. 

Learning a Trade

To learn a craft, trade or profession, a boy often worked with a skilled adult. To become a blacksmith, for example, a boy would work in a blacksmith shop, observing the master smith and performing simple tasks. Most doctors and lawyers learned their trades by studying in the offices of practicing doctors and lawyers. There were few law schools or medical schools anywhere in the nation to provide formal instruction. “Reading law” was the common way to become a lawyer. An older youth would do simple clerical tasks in a law office in exchange for the opportunity to read law books in the lawyer’s library and to watch him in court. When the young man had studied enough, he went before a judge who asked him questions about the law and legal procedure. If he demonstrated his competence, the judge would certify him as a member of the bar and he had the right to practice law in the courts.

Even on the Iowa frontier, however, parents at least wanted their children to learn how to read, write and do basic arithmetic. Especially for families from a Protestant religious background, reading the Bible was a vital part of religious training. In addition, American political leaders promoted education as an essential part of democracy. Voters needed to keep themselves informed about public events by reading newspapers, attending lectures and participating in public discussions. Democracy could not survive if voters were ignorant.

Laws Supported Schools

Therefore, in one of its earliest pieces of legislation, Congress passed a law providing financial support for public education. The Land Ordinance of 1785 required western lands to be surveyed before they could be sold to private buyers. The survey lines created townships six miles on each side. Of the thirty-six sections (each section equals one square mile) in each township, Section 16 was designated to support local schools. The money from the sale of Section 16 would be given to local officials to build a school or pay a teacher, and it was the original intention that the schools would be open to all children in the area.

However, most early schools depended upon the financial support of the families of the students attending. Families built and maintained the schools, furnished fuel for a stove or fireplace, built benches or desks and hired the teacher. Berryman Jennings was Iowa’s first known school teacher. He taught in a log cabin schoolhouse in Lee County in 1830 in southeast Iowa even before Iowa became a territory. Teachers rarely stayed at one school for more than a year or two. The pay was very low and teaching conditions were difficult.

Iowa’s early settlers included many immigrants. Germany supplied the most immigrants in 19th-century Iowa, followed by Ireland. Immigrants often formed their own communities or neighborhoods and continued to speak their native language. In these cases, schools were usually taught in the native language of the students.

Attendance Not Required

Early schools taught reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic, penmanship and geography. Learning by rote (memorization) was the standard method of instruction. Schools used whatever textbooks local families possessed and the books were handed down from older to younger students and from one family to another. There were no laws requiring children to attend school. Farm families often kept their boys home to help with planting and harvest times. They attended school in the winter and worked on their studies at their own pace.

Most parents desired at least a basic education for their children. As Iowa’s population increased, the state legislature passed laws to provide more support for a broad system of public education. No longer would it be just parents who paid the salaries of teachers and maintained school buildings. In Iowa as well as throughout the United States, there was a commitment to free education for all.