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The "Virtues" of the Past: Education in the First Hundred Years of the New Republic


  • Claudia Goldin
  • Lawrence F. Katz


By the mid-nineteenth century school enrollment rates in the United States exceeded those of any other nation in the world and by the early twentieth century the United States had accomplished mass education at all levels. No country was able to close the gap until the last quarter of the twentieth century. For much of its history U.S. education was spurred by a set of 'virtues,' the most important of which were public provision by small fiscally independent districts, public funding, secular control, gender neutrality, open access, a forgiving system, and an academic curriculum. The outcomes of the virtues were an enormous diffusion of educational institutions and the early spread of mass education. America borrowed its educational institutions from Europe but added to them in ways that served to enhance competition and openness. The virtues of long ago need not be the virtues of today, and they also need not have been virtuous in all places and at all times in the past. In this essay we explore the historical origins of these virtues and find that almost all were in place in the period before the American Civil War.

Suggested Citation

  • Claudia Goldin & Lawrence F. Katz, 2003. "The "Virtues" of the Past: Education in the First Hundred Years of the New Republic," NBER Working Papers 9958, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:9958
    Note: ED DAE LS CH

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Claudia Goldin & Lawrence F. Katz, 1999. "Education and Income in the Early 20th Century: Evidence from the Prairies," NBER Working Papers 7217, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Claudia Goldin & Lawrence Katz, 2003. "Mass Secondary Schooling and the State," NBER Working Papers 10075, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Raquel Fernandez & Richard Rogerson, 2003. "Equity and Resources: An Analysis of Education Finance Systems," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 111(4), pages 858-897, August.
    4. Goldin, Claudia & Katz, Lawrence F., 2000. "Education and Income in the Early Twentieth Century: Evidence from the Prairies," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 60(03), pages 782-818, September.
    5. Caroline Minter Hoxby, 1996. "Are Efficiency and Equity in School Finance Substitutes or Complements?," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 10(4), pages 51-72, Fall.
    6. Easterlin, Richard A., 1981. "Why Isn't the Whole World Developed?," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 41(01), pages 1-17, March.
    7. Field, Alexander James, 1979. "Economic and Demographic Determinants of Educational Commitment: Massachusetts, 1855," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 39(02), pages 439-459, June.
    8. Fishlow, Albert, 1966. "Levels of Nineteenth-Century American Investment in Education," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 26(04), pages 418-436, December.
    9. Landes, William M. & Solmon, Lewis C., 1972. "Compulsory Schooling Legislation: An Economic Analysis of Law and Social Change in the Nineteenth Century," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 32(01), pages 54-91, March.
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    Cited by:

    1. Moshe Hazan, 2006. "Longevity and Lifetime Labor Input: Data and Implications," DEGIT Conference Papers c011_065, DEGIT, Dynamics, Economic Growth, and International Trade.
    2. Sun Go & Peter H. Lindert, 2007. "The Curious Dawn of American Public Schools," NBER Working Papers 13335, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Francisco A. Gallego, 2010. "Historical Origins of Schooling: The Role of Democracy and Political Decentralization," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 92(2), pages 228-243, May.
    4. Murtin, Fabrice, 2006. "American economic development since the civil war or the virtue of education," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 19775, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
    5. Maristella Botticini & Zvi Eckstein, 2006. "Path Dependence and Occupations," Carlo Alberto Notebooks 3, Collegio Carlo Alberto.
    6. Vollrath, Dietrich, 2013. "Inequality and school funding in the rural United States, 1890," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 50(2), pages 267-284.

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    JEL classification:

    • N3 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy
    • I2 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education

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