Lancer Letter – Nobles, Peasants and Education

Submitted by Richard Scaletta, GM School District

Nobles, Peasants and Education: A reflection on public education.

I often think back to a world civilization history class I had in high school. I particularly enjoyed learning about the Middle Ages in England. I was intrigued by the idea of nobility and the peasantry. It was a time when a caste system was the order of the day. A caste system is a class structure that is determined by birth. If you’re born to nobility, you are rich. If you are born the child of a peasant, you are poor and will always be a peasant.

The problem with the caste system is that nobles who were incompetent, stupid and lacking integrity kept their jobs as leaders because they were born into them. Conversely, if you were a peasant with skills and intellect to do something other than the labor your family performed, you were never given a chance.

Integral to this caste system was education. Only the nobility were permitted to be educated. They were sent to fine, private schools to learn many subjects as well as to learn the manners and behaviors expected of one born to noble birth. Peasants were not given access to education and could not read. It was known early on that “knowledge is power” and for the nobility to keep it, the peasantry had to be uneducated.

As the centuries unfolded after the “Dark Ages,” the nobility fought hard to keep their privilege. Occasionally, an educated person would break ranks and propose that not only the nobility should be “in the know.” Such was the case when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door at the Church in Nuremberg in1517. That act started what is now known as the Protestant Reformation. One of the radical ideas Luther ushered in was to conduct religious services in the vernacular of the people – not in the traditional Latin that the uneducated did not understand.

When you think about the founding of our country, you know it started with the goal of escaping religious persecution. As the 1600s and 1700s unfolded and man entered the “age of enlightenment,” it became apparent to more and more people that the caste system could not be allowed to stand. What is interesting in all this is that the importance of education for all was recognized as early as 1698 when William Penn’s School Grant opened the first public school in Philadelphia. “A public school. . . . Where poor children of both sexes may be taught and instructed in reading, writing, working and other good and useful literature and maintained gratis. . .”

Despite Penn’s efforts, in early America, most children who were educated were those whose families could send them to private school. In 1834, Pennsylvania passed the Free Public Schools Act to guarantee a quality free education to every child in the Commonwealth. But one year later, the Senate voted to repeal the bill because tax payers were revolting as they did not want to pay for it. Before the House voted on the bill, Thaddeus Stevens gave a great oration which changed the mind of the Senate and prevented the House from voting in favor of the repeal of the Free Public Schools Act. Had Stevens not been such an impassioned orator, it is not known if public education would exist today. Next week, I will publish sections of Stevens’ oration.

I remember in high school thinking that if I had been born into a caste system, I would have been a peasant. I did not come from a “book educated” family. My parents dropped out of high school to participate in the war efforts. Our family blood was definitely not the lineage of nobility. And so it was education, particularly the affordable education at the public institution known as Edinboro State College, that was my ticket to a different life where hopefully, my intellect and skills have been put to good use rather than being forced to work in a mill where my father worked. (I have respect for this profession, I just recognize I wouldn’t be good at it!)

When I reflect on this all, I wonder where it is all headed with the assault on public education. The siphoning of funds from public school districts to charter schools. The allocation of tax credits for gifts to scholarships for private schools. Talk of ESA’s or educational student accounts where the state just hands over a sum of money to parents to pick the school for their child under the guise that choice will create competition and a free market will somehow create schools of excellence. What will happen with our under-funded public universities?

I’m generally not a cynical person or one that believes in “conspiracy theories.” During one of our many meetings on the Erie School’s financial situation, I remember Jay Badams lamenting the lack of support he was getting from legislators outside of Erie on one of his many trips to Harrisburg. He said, “I couldn’t help thinking that this is how it is meant to be.” What he was saying is that the demise of public schools may just be the plan. While school choice proponents insist school choice is to help poor children trapped in bad schools, who really will benefit the most?

The Lancer Letter is a weekly editorial by Richard Scaletta, Superintendent of Schools, General McLane School District. Opinions expressed are Mr. Scaletta’s views on the issues and subjects of discussion, and not necessarily those of or our sponsors.

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