John Davis Pierce Essay

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The first Superintendent of Public Instruction in the state of Michigan, the Reverend John Davis Pierce was among the vanguard of educationalists in nineteenth century America. Pierce combined his unique educational vision with Victor Cousin’s writings on the Prussian system of public education to create a comprehensive system of schooling. Michigan’s system of education and the policies developed by Pierce became the model for many states in the Midwest and West.

What is most remarkable about Pierce’s accomplishments is that, unlike his contemporaries in the field of education, who established their systems of public instruction in the more established states of the East Coast, Pierce carved a public school system, a state university, an agricultural college, and a state teacher’s college out of the wilderness of the Michigan Territory.

Convinced that the organization of schools should unite all levels of schooling in a system provided at public expense and under state control, Pierce was able to convince the authors of Michigan’s constitution to create a special department of public education controlled by the state and governed by a state officer—the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Appointed to this new post, Pierce became the first in the United States to hold such an office under a state constitution (1836) and oversee a constitutionally distinct department of education.

In addition, rather than having the sixteenth section lands created by the Northwest Ordinance to fund schools allocated to the townships, Michigan’s ordinance of admissions was worded so that these school lands were conveyed to the state. Consequently, a state school system rather than a local system of schooling was developed. To ensure that these would be “public” schools, Pierce saw to it that Michigan’s constitution became the first to include a specific prohibition against appropriating funds for the use of sectarian or religious institutions.

Pierce was also determined to create a system of public instruction capped by a single state university. Rather than creating a pool of money from the lands granted to the territory by the U.S. Congress that would be available to any and all who would seek to establish a college, Pierce structured higher education funding into a specific trust to be used only by a single college—the University of Michigan. In addition, Pierce would see to it that the University of Michigan was the only institution able to grant degrees in the state until 1850. He believed that this would make Michigan’s state university a stronger institution, avoiding the competition from various interests that would otherwise dilute the state’s resources. Like the primary schools, the university was to be open to all citizens. As a result, the University of Michigan became the first Western state university founded and constitutionally maintained on nonsectarian principles.

To create an intermediate level of schooling and provide access to all citizens, Pierce formed university branches with the dual purpose of preparing teachers for the common schools and more advanced students for admission to the university. These intermediate academies became the first public institutions in the United States engaged in the training of teachers. Established in 1837, these schools were opened prior to the first public normal school in the United States, which opened in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1839. These schools would be the forerunners of public high schools that would emerge in Michigan and across the country in the 1860s and 1870s.

Recognizing the need for a method of communicating with his far-flung school system, Pierce established the Monthly Journal of Education in 1838. This publication was the first educational journal west of the Appalachians and the first in the United States to circulate to a whole school system. It preceded by almost a year the publication of the Common School Journal by Horace Mann in Massachusetts.

Leaving his post in 1841, Pierce continued to influence the development of public education until his death in 1882. He led the way in founding the first normal school west of the Alleghenies in 1849 (today Eastern Michigan University) and the first state supported agricultural school in 1855 (today Michigan State University). He also played an influential role in the founding and development of the Michigan Schoolmasters Club, a predecessor of today’s North Central Association.

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