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Education is a big deal for us here in America; literacy is akin to human rights. Being able to do basic math is freedom, and knowing that gravity is common to all of us is the spice of life. This is all good. But something that we might erroneously think about these good things is that it only comes from the education system. This was not the case back in Uncle Zach’s childhood, or even in his entire life time.

Uncle Zach obviously knew how to read and write, and did so well enough to write for the Florence Times, and to be elected as a school board member for Rodgersville. However, he only attended school for three or four months, and those three or four months may not have been consecutive! He was either needed on the farm to help his father, Peter, there probably wasn’t a school teacher in the area, or both.

We can presume that Peter and Sarah Romine taught Zach and his siblings to read and write. In the 1850 census, all Romine family members were recorded as being able to read and write, yet it was also recorded that none of the children had attended school in the last year. The 1850 US census data reveals, however, that only one in ten people could read and write; the Romine household was an exception. It wasn’t until around 1900 that school attendance was required by the state, but by 1851 mistrust of parents was spreading among education leadership. Andrew J. Coulson wrote in a Massachusetts Teacher article: “In too many instances the parents are unfit guardians of their own children … the children must be gathered up and forced into school”.

Education is a great and wonderful thing and having a system certainly makes it all more consistent and fair. Opportunity for education across the board is necessary. But back in Uncle Zach’s time, it wasn’t the responsibility of the state to make sure that everyone was educated, but the parents’ and community’s responsibility. One way is certainly better than the other, in terms of consistency of opportunity, but is one way more right than the other? Is there a right and a wrong way to educate, and do these two systems exemplify that? What do you think?

Sources: 1850 census of Lauderdale County, Alabama