Throwback Thursday: How Electricity Changed Education

The publication The Next Greatest Thing was conceived by staff members at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in 1985 as a way to recognize the Rural Electrification Administration’s (REA) 50th anniversary. Three years of research were put into the making of the publication. The Next Greatest Thing recognizes the bumpy road the REA traversed over in the construction of their institution, including where we were before electricity, how they were started, and how we got to where we are today. This blog post is an excerpt from The Next Greatest Thing to examine how education was influenced by electricity. All information and quotes in this post were gathered from The Next Greatest Thing. 

Children have been educated for centuries. The levels of education have varied on the time period in which the child grew up and where they grew up. Rural children did not have as extensive a background in education as urban children because of their busy work lives and lack of resources. The entrance of electricity changed rural children’s education substantially.


Electricity made a considerable adjustment to education for rural kids. Children were able to complete their homework in the evenings under lights that wouldn’t falter. Photo by: John Collier Jr.

Before electricity, many students would work on their homework to the light provided by kerosene lanterns. Fortunately, children have better eyesight than adults so they were able to read in the minimal amount of light. The book, The Next Greatest Thing, discussed how much light the children would have to work on homework in the evenings. “The approximately twenty-five watts of light provided by most such lamps was adequate for children doing their homework – although surveys would later find that the educational level of rural children improved markedly immediately upon the introduction of electricity,” (page 36).

After electricity, specifically artificial light, was introduced into schools and homes, education for rural children changed significantly. “‘To my mind, the coming of electricity began a new kind of life for most of us,’ a South Carolina schoolteacher related. ‘It meant much more than gadgets and appliances. Tenant children used to quit school in the third grade. Now they go through high school, and many finish college. It all happened after the lines came through.’ The replacement of the coal-oil lamp with electricity changed rural education,” (page 121). Because students were able to do their homework at night with light that was considerably brighter than the kerosene lamps light, their grades improved. Additionally, since parents had electricity to help do the extra chores on the farm, children were able to stay in school and extend their education past the third grade.

Not only did the introduction of light reform education for rural kids, but the debut of the radio also helped to improve rural children’s education. “Education by radio would also be important, said the agency, and suggested that ‘the power lines along the highway should pause at these little schoolhouses to deliver the few watts which stand between the child and the great world in which some day he may be a very important part,’” (110). By providing electricity for radios, students were able to learn about the world outside their small rural communities and farms. This enabled them to be more knowledgeable about what was going on in the world.

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