Learn: History of Education in America

While we don't often consider "learning" as "doing something", it's important that each of us understands how much education has changed in America. It's hard to debate what's wrong with the current system without understanding how much education has become a monopolistic system that hardly stands up to the educational performance of the past. To help you gain clarity and knowledge on this issue, we've put together five topic overviews that tell the story of education in America. 

The five overviews are listed below and trace the evolution of education in America from the colonial period to today. If you haven't already, go through each topic page and consider the quotes, charts, primary documents, analysis, and more. We all but guarantee that you will come away with a great appreciation for true education and a greater understanding of the problems inherent in the modern, progressive education model. 

Education in Colonial America
Education in Colonial America

Horace Mann and American Education Reform
Horace Mann and Education Reform 1840.jpeg


John Dewey, Pragmatism, and Progressive Education
John Dewey Progressive Education


Progressive Education Since World War II
Progressive Education since WWII


Cost of Public Education: Good Return on Investment?
Education Costs



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Quote Page

Commentary or Blog Post

Andrew W. Mellon belonged to a remarkable American generation which witnessed the creation and accumulation of individual fortunes in unprecedented abundance by such men as Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, Morgan, and Frick.

"There's a big difference between entrepreneurs who make a fortune in the market, and those who do so by gaming the government."

Overwhelming evidence belies Google’s ‘Don’t be evil’ credo and corroborates that Google has become the 21st century’s quintessential robber baron. No 'law abiding company' has this long of a rap sheet.

"Vice President Joe Biden is an affable fellow, which sometimes makes his tendency to exaggerate the truth somewhat amusing. However, Biden’s latest tall tale is as unamusing as it is wrong.

From the New York Daily News:

'Every single great idea that has marked the 21st century, the 20th century and the 19th century has required government vision and government...

James Jerome Hill, builder of the Great Northern railroad, was the only railroad entrepreneur of the nineteenth century who received no federal subsidies to build his railroads.

Senate Republicans blocked President Obama's jobs bill last week, calling it more of the same old stimulus that didn't work, and objecting to a 5.6 percent surcharge on taxpayers that earn more than a million dollars.

When Matthew Josephson wrote The Robber Barons in 1934, he tipped his hand as to his personal prejudice against the capitalists of the late 19th century.

This week we resume the story of the Sherman Antitrust Act and the way it has been applied in United States corporate history, specifically the case of Standard Oil. And when you're talking Standard Oil, you're talking John D. Rockefeller.

Honest, objective historians of the so called 'robber baron' era, such as Gabriel Kolko and Burton Folsom, know that the capitalist bogeyman perspective is simplistic and overwrought.

The judge in the Microsoft antitrust trial, Thomas Penfield Jackson, recently stated that he 'didn’t see a distinction' between Bill Gates’s Microsoft Corporation and John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company.

John D. Rockefeller, like Bill Gates, achieved his economic success by offering the best products for the lowest prices on the free market.

Government as fairy godmother could not, however, subsidize everyone: 'Governmental gifts go to the largest investments'—a survival of the wiliest under laissez-faire slogans. Here were the men called 'Robber Barons' by their critics.

In the ongoing war of ideas in American history, those who advocate government action as an engine of economic development have been encouraged by a general and all-too-human tendency to avoid thinking deeply.

"All the ire at banks and multinational companies by dangerous communists and anti-globalisation hippies is misdirected. They should reserve their venom for the rustic rich-world farmer living the life of Henry David Thoreau."

While tech start-ups are busying themselves inflating the bubble, the Googles and Apples of the industry have bigger ambitions: creating a monopoly.

"Although Barack Obama is the first black president of the United States, he is by no means unique, except for his complexion. He follows in the footsteps of other presidents with a similar vision, the vision at the heart of the Progressive movement that flourished a hundred years ago.

Many of the trends, problems and disasters of our time are a legacy of that era. We can only imagine...

We are now at the mercy of modern Robber Barons, and if history is any judge, it is either them or us.

The Gilded Age expressed Mark Twain’s disillusionment over the decline in his nation from the ... kindly America he remembered from his boyhood to the America of Black Friday, Credit Mobilier, Boss Tweed, Tammany, and the hustle for the fast buck.

This piece comments on the Standard Oil Trust case. According to Epstein, history shows that during Rockefeller's time in the oil industry, prices dropped dramatically, suggesting that Rockefeller's drive and ability to do exceptional business helped rather than hurt the American people.

Can America's schools teach history? The question ought to be ridiculous -- of course they can. What do we pay them for? History is as essential as reading and writing to a republic of free citizens. America's schools have always taught America's history.

It sounds like such an ugly term, 'Robber Baron.' The phrase brings to mind thoughts of abuse and theft. But who and what exactly did these so called Robber Barons rob?

t is worth noting that the term 'robber barons' was first applied to 19th-century captains of industry by Matthew Josephson in his 1934 book of that name.

The AP History view of the 'robber barons' like John D. Rockefeller is that they monopolized entire industries, forced smaller competitors out of business ... and generally did all of this much to the detriment of the American consumers.

Chart or Graph

Look at America's billionaires as they stood at the peak of wealth concentration--and the peak of the relative frequency of billionaires-- in approximately 1900.

Created by G.F. Keller in 1882, this cartoon depicts the octopus-like reach of the railroad industry monopoly.

John D. Rockefeller founded the Standard Oil Company in 1870. He retired from Standard Oil in 1897. Look at what happened to the price of oil during the time he ran the company.

Created by Udo J. Keppler in 1904, this famous cartoon depicts John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company as an octopus wrapping its tentacles around all areas of government.

Analysis Report White Paper

"From 1906 to 1911, antitrust authorities prosecuted Standard Oil, a case that culminated with John D. Rockefeller's company being forcibly broken up into several smaller businesses."

This work traces the business enterprises of notorious Robber Baron Jay Gould.

"Some years ago I wrote an article for the Business History Review that bore the title 'In Search of Jay Gould.'"

"Early in 1869, the more sensitive citizens of New York became aware that an insufferable hayseed from Vermont named James Fisk Jr. was exceeding even his previous demonstrations of vulgarity."

Contrary to popular opinion of John D. Rockefeller, this article declares that his chief goal was to provide oil for the poor at a decent price. Folsom goes on to describe Rockefeller's strong work ethic and philanthropic spirit, while also describing his sharp and successful career in the oil business.

College and university administrators have always been scrambling for money, and the papers, pledge books, and office files of John D. Rockefeller document the fund-raising efforts of many school administrators in the late nineteenth century.

"The purpose of this paper is to determine whether the pre-dissolution Standard Oil Company actually used predatory price cutting to achieve or maintain its monopoly."

"'Robber Barons': that was what U.S. political and economic commentator Matthew Josephson (1934) called the economic princes of his own day. Today we call them 'billionaires.'"

Robber Barons and the pyramid of wealth in the late 19th century.

This paper traces the rise of the Robber Barons in American history. Specifically focusing on Cornelius Vanderbilt, T. J. Stiles describes how Vanderbilt's competitive spirit and enterprising nature led the way in the growth of American corporations.

"Carnegie and the other great business leaders of his generation inaugurated a golden age of American philanthropy."

This document contains a variety of classic cartoons relating to the monopolies generated by the Robber Barons in the late 19th century. Many of the cartoons portray these monopolies as invasive and detrimental to society.

This piece describes the growth of the petroleum industry and how the law of supply and demand played a big role in it. It also discusses John D. Rockefeller's role in the oil refining industry.

"The most vehement and persistent controversy in business history has been that waged by the critics and defenders of the ‘robber baron’ concept of the American businessman."

"Too many generations of Americans have swallowed whole Matthew Josephson's portrait of the great nineteenth-century entrepreneurs as Robber Barons...."

This piece briefly describes the lives and habits of two prominent Robber Barons: J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are often referred to as the time of the 'robber barons.'

"Among the great misconceptions of the free economy is the widely-held belief that 'laissez faire' embodies a natural tendency toward monopoly concentration."


Simply put, Vanderbilt helped to shape our modern corporate economy, often ruthlessly.

LeFevre discusses some common arguments against the "Robber Barons" of the 19th century: the idea that these businessmen acquired their wealth at the expense of other people; that they wanted to become monopolists; and that they had poor taste.

Don Boudreaux of George Mason University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about when market failure can be improved by government intervention.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr. discusses various conceptions about American history, including the idea that the "Robber Barons" were harming Americans.

Burt Folsom spoke to conservative students about the role of government, the free market economy, and the history of business and industrial regulation. He also responded to questions from the audience.

"Mr. Krass talked about the life and legacy of Andrew Carnegie. Mr. Krass is the author of Carnegie, published by John Wiley and Sons."

"Edward Renehan, Jr., talked about his biography Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, published by Basic Books. In his book he recounts the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), who built his fortune on the development of transportation systems and became synonymous with American business. His wealth was historic as upon his death his fortune in today's dollars would have...

John Davison Rockefeller, Sr. (July 8, 1839 - May 23, 1937) was an American industrialist and philanthropist. Rockefeller revolutionized the petroleum industry and defined the structure of modern philanthropy.

"Professor Friedman explodes the myth that America's 19th century industrialists exploited the ordinary man."

"Edward Renehan talked about The Dark Genius of Wall Street: The Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould, King of the Robber Barons, published by Basic Books. In the book, he argues that Jay Gould, owner of the Union Pacific railroad company and one of the largest investors of his day, has been portrayed unfairly by the press and in previous books about his life. Mr. Renehan says that Mr. Gould's...

"T.J. Stiles talked about his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Knopf, 2009). He was interviewed by Paul Hutton, author of Phil Sheridan and His Army. He also responded to questions from members of the audience."

"America’s experiment with laissez-faire capitalism in the 1800s was a disaster, historians tell us, because businessmen used anticompetitive tactics to form giant, invincible monopolies. The textbook example of these evils of Big Business is John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust. In an era before government regulations and antitrust laws, the story goes, Rockefeller wielded market power to...

"Mr. Chernow discussed his biography Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., published by Random House. Mr. Rockefeller, the world's first billionaire, created the powerful monopoly, Standard Oil, which at one time refined and marketed almost 90 percent of the oil produced in America. Mr. Chernow talked about the life of the industrial tycoon whose life was clouded by controversy and...

Reed explains the many flaws with the prevailing theory that Standard Oil was a monopoly or that the company's founder and president, John Rockefeller, was exploitative....

Primary Document

James J. Hill was a great businessman and amassed the immense fortune typical for an early 20th century robber baron. As the title suggests, this book compiles his many speeches.

This economic classic is noted for providing us with terms for and expositions of such key economic ideas as the division of labor, "invisible hand," self-interest as a beneficial force, and freedom of trade.

"This is neither the time nor the place to characterize or eulogize the maker of ‘this strange eventful history,’ but perhaps it is worth while to recognize that the history really was eventful. And strange. Nothing stranger ever came out of the Arabian Nights than the story of this poor Scotch boy who came to America and step by step, through many trials and triumphs, became the...

This archive from the New York Times gives an interesting glimpse into the philanthropy of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Senator Stanford explained the objects to be attained by the bill recently introduced by himself in the Senate of the United States, with reference to the formation of co-operative associations, substantially as follows….

Written in 1877, this New York Times article provides a contemporary account of the life of a famous Robber Baron, Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt.

Written in 1902, this letter to the editor of the New York Times describes medieval robber barons and then compares them to the robber barons of the early 20th century.

This archive from the New York Times briefly chronicles the life of Henry Clay Frick. Frick worked closely with Andrew Carnegie and was classified as one of the great Robber Barons.

Gibbons v. Ogden is considered a landmark supreme court case on the issue of the Interstate Commerce Clause. Aaron Ogden was given an exclusive license to operate a shipping business within the State of New York. He sued a man named Thomas Gibbons, who ran a competing shipping business between New Jersey and New York City, claiming that Gibbon's operations in the...

Written at the time of his death, this archive from the New York Times describes Jay Gould's impressive rise from a fourteen-year-old determined to make his own way in life, to a successful businessman amidst the interests of Wall Street.

In this message, President Grover Cleveland addresses the issue of trusts and monopolies often related to the Robber Barons.

Nations, like men, are travelers. Each one of them moves, through history, toward what we call progress and a new life or toward decay and death.

This citizen was J. Pierpont Morgan, who had just organized the most powerful industrial and financial institution the world has ever known.

This piece presents an extensive biography of J. W. Gates at the time of his death. Classified as a Robber Baron, Gates built his success through steel-related initiatives and investments in the stock market.

This archive from the New York Times presents an obituary for Jay Gould, one of the infamous American Robber Barons.

This document provides a selection of letters written between John D. Rockefeller Sr. and John D. Rockefeller Jr.

Autobiography of John D. Rockefeller.

"The Sherman Act authorized the Federal Government to institute proceedings against trusts in order to dissolve them. Any combination 'in the form of trust or otherwise that was in restraint of trade or commerce among the several states, or with foreign nations' was declared illegal. Persons forming such combinations were subject to fines of $5,000 and a year in jail. Individuals and companies...

For many years, John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company dominated much of the oil production in the United States. In the early twentieth century, Standard Oil was taken to court on the allegation that they had violated the Anti-Trust Act of 1890. This Supreme Court decision delineates the outcomes of this lawsuit.

This archive from the New York Times details the politics in the early 1900s involving the Standard Oil company. Apparently an attempt at an "October surprise," John D. Rockefeller announced his support for the Republican candidate, William Taft. Due to the anti-trust issues Teddy Roosevelt had hurled at Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company in the preceding years, Roosevelt's White House...

The problem of the Government is to fix rates which will bring in a maximum amount of revenue to the Treasury and at the same time bear not too heavily on the taxpayer or on business enterprises.

This document provides a look at J. P. Morgan and his business dealings and practices from the eyes of one of his contemporaries.

In this book, Andrew Carnegie, one of the members of the "Robber Baron" class, describes his views on wealth, business, and moral character.

This famous example of early twentieth century "muckraking" was produced by Ida Tarbell in 1904. According to Ms. Tarbell, the Standard Oil Company "was the first in the field, and it has furnished the methods, the charter, and the traditions for its followers." Part two of this volume can be found...

In this book, ‘Masters of Capital’, we have a most remarkable ‘Time and Motion Study’ of Capitalism in action.

Seven men dominate the financial and railroad policies upon three-quarters of the railroad mileage of the United States. Every great highway of commerce lies within the control of one or another of them.

The rise and progress of the Standard Oil Company, from its inception in 1865 till its control, in 1878, of ninety-five per cent. of the oil business of the United States, has presented itself to different critics in somewhat different characters....

Written by Matthew Josephson, this book coined the term "robber baron" and influenced several generations of Americans against the industrial capitalists of the late 19th and early 20th century.

This article offers a look at some of the robber barons through the eyes of their contemporaries.

The old laws, and the old customs which had almost the binding force of law, were once quite sufficient to regulate the accumulation and distribution of wealth.

In this speech, President Teddy Roosevelt addresses several issues related to the Standard Oil Company's monopoly on the American petroleum industry.

"The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship. The conditions of human life have not only been changed, but revolutionized, within the past few hundred years. In former days there was little difference between the dwelling, dress, food, and environment of the chief and those...

Along with Ida Tarbell's The History of the Standard Oil Company, Henry Lloyd Demarest's Wealth Against Commonwealth portrayed the oil monopoly in a negative light and influenced Americans against business and enterprise.

In May last the Supreme Court handed down decisions in the suits in equity brought by the United States to enjoin the further maintenance of the Standard Oil Trust and of the American Tobacco Trust, and to secure their dissolution.

This piece from 1859 compares Cornelius Vanderbilt to German robber barons. According to T. J. Stiles, this piece is probably "the first known use of the metaphor in American journalism."