De la Salle & Normal Schools

Am plowing through biographies and writings of the major players in Catholic schooling. Unfortunately, so far, have found nothing on Mother Seton’s teaching methods, which, given the timeframe of the early 19th century, would be interesting. Now looking over Jean Baptiste de la Salle, and creating a series of spreadsheets with timelines on them – since none of the stuff I’ve read so far correlates event s and lives in any sort of systematic fashion, guess I’ve got to do it.

De la Salle is credited with inventing the ‘Normal School’, viewed as the forerunner of all modern teachers colleges. The name comes from de la Salle’s observation that the impoverished boys he was trying to educate lacked even rudimentary social skills, and, further, so did the sort of men who would volunteer to teach them.

His first stab at addressing the issue was to simply invite the teachers over for dinner. In 1680, this caused great scandal among his relatives, since de la Salle was a nobleman with a mansion, and the teachers were all commoners. He found dinner wasn’t enough immersion in cultured life, so he had the commoner-teachers move in. His relatives managed, through legal wrangling, to get his house away from him, putting the kibosh on his uncouth fraternizing.

So he founded normal school, to instill in would-be teachers the norms of civilized life. The SJW have gotten to the Wikipedia page, and so we read:

In 1685, St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, founder of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, founded what is generally considered the first normal school, the École Normale, in ReimsChampagneFrance. The term “normal” herein refers to the goal of these institutions to instill and reinforce particular norms within students. “Norms” included historical behavioral norms of the time, as well as norms that reinforced targeted societal values, ideologies and dominant narratives in the form of curriculum.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normal_school

Of course, there’s an implied judgement in there. It seems the writer doesn’t approve of the ‘ideologies and dominant narratives’ the likes of de la Salle would ‘instill.’ De la Salle made a timeless observation: You’ll get farther if you know how to act like a gentleman than if you always act like a thug. It’s along the lines of catching flies with sugar rather than vinegar.

I note here a reality: schools are an artifact and a conduit of culture. Either your schools teach and reinforce the culture, or they replace it. In de la Salle’s case, he wanted what he saw as a better culture taught to his charges, both students and teachers. In a sense, he was attempting to replace the culture, such as it was, of the impoverished boys and teachers in his charge; looked at another way, he was trying to take the best from the culture he shared with the poor, and make it more available to them. He certainly thought knowing how to act like a gentleman would improve the economic and social prospects of his students and teachers.

Our school cannot but serve the same purpose. They are not about the 3 Rs, and never were. The 3 Rs are just part of the culture the schools traditionally tried to pass on. All the great teachers of history knew they weren’t getting anywhere with students who did not know, for example, how to act toward a teacher. The great schools in Athens would not admit you unless you knew Euclid and Homer, as in: could do all of Euclid’s proofs, and recite the Iliad and the Odyssey. It was not so much that this proved you were a true Greek – although it did do that – as show that you knew how to study and learn. How to behave in school.

Fichte is therefore not breaking new ground in trying to use schools to impart a culture. His innovation is to teach that compulsory state-run Rousseauian/Pestalozzian schools could create a new and Utopian society in a generation or so – if only the influence of parents, family, religion, and village could be eliminated. This remains a (usually) tacit assumption of schools ever since.

Wikipedia continues:

The first public normal school in the United States was founded in Concord, Vermont, by Samuel Read Hall in 1823 to train teachers. In 1839, the first state-supported normal school was established by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on the northeast corner of the historic Lexington Battle Green; it evolved into Framingham State University. The first modern teacher training school in China was established by educator Sheng Xuanhuai in 1895 as the normal school of the Nanyang Public School (now Shanghai Jiao Tong University) in Shanghai during the Qing dynasty.[2]

Massachusetts – it’s the Balkans of education: producing more history than it can consume locally. My curiosity was piqued by Samuel Read Hall – don’t remember him. A contemporary of Mann, but beat him to the punch in founding a Normal School. So, I clicked the link:

Hall was a preacher, or at least, a trained minister. At a young age – mid 20s – he was already running and founding schools. Wonder if he’s yet another childless man pontificating on children? The Oracle does not say.

In 1829, he helped found an educational society,  American Institute of Instruction , whose purpose was – to get Massachusetts to create the office od superintendent of schools. The succeeded. Horace Mann got the gig…

It is shocking/not shocking how often education reform seeks not so much improved education as the establishment of offices with the power, it is more or less sincerely hoped, to improve education.

Here’s Hall’s major beefs:

In his Lectures on School Keeping, he points out significant obstacles to the instruction of children in the American schools of 1829:

Lack of simple display media such as a globe of the world. (He is credited with inventing the blackboard, and the blackboard eraser)

Political factions within the school district, at war with each other at the expense of educational progress.

Wealthy citizens sending their children to private schools.

Schools exact no moral influence, in turn becoming a school for bad behavior.

Poorly qualified teachers.

Poor remuneration of qualified teachers.

Poor quality of textbooks, or lack of fitness for learning capacity of student.

It’s tempting to pick this apart. In 1829, America was less than 50 years removed from the Federalist Papers – published in the popular press, which would suggest that, in general, the newspaper-buying public could read at a very high level. And there were a lot of newspapers back then, publishing a lot of editions, so that public must have been large. Again, reading can only be an important part of schooling if the culture the school is passing along thinks it’s important. At any rate, it doesn’t look like reading was considered a problem by Hall.

“Political factions” – he doesn’t mean “people who disagree with me,” does he? Then again: rich people sending their kids to private schools as a problem suggests he does. Don’t want to read too much into this, but it is interesting that he doesn’t seem to want to reform those private schools, but rather, wants rich people’s kids in public schools like his. Again, one wonders: is ‘wealthy’ defined here as ‘willing to spend money to keep them out of my schools’?

Rabbit hole. Important note: once one recognizes schools as tools to impart culture, it becomes very, very important to consider who is in charge, what culture is being imparted. The news suggests: not the one any sane people would want imparted.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

7 thoughts on “De la Salle & Normal Schools”

  1. Good stuff. Have you done anything on St. John Bosco yet that I missed?

    Incidentally, and I don’t mean to derail too much, but after doing my own postmortem on the Corona crisis I’d be curious to see how yours shakes out (if you agree this is postmortem time). I did pretty well. The only issue is that the numbers aren’t there yet to check the efficacy of the lockdowns, but I suspect I’m right about that too.

  2. I went to college at LaSalle College in Philadelphia. In his day the rich and the poor received their education through apprenticeships: as assistants to tradesmen or as squires to nobles. LaSalle thought the children (sons) of laborers ought to receive a more systematic education, including grades of abilities and accomplishment and standard textbooks to “put everybody on the same page.”

  3. Important note: once one recognizes schools as tools to impart culture, it becomes very, very important to consider who is in charge, what culture is being imparted.

    Yep.

    My great grandmother was a teacher at an “Indian school.” Her kids all went, and so did the kids of her husband’s employees, and…well, pretty much anybody who didn’t seriously piss her off, as best I can tell.

    She taught everyone very good, formal manners, and going off of her daughters’ kids as opposed to their cousins, I suspect she did a LOT of training that really, really pissed off the folks who wanted to get rich “helping” the locals look out for their “interests.” (There’s some family rumors about Bad Things Happening every so often when the kid learns the local language, including how to read, and compares what the contracts say to what their “interpreter” said they said…..)

  4. One of the duties my grandfather had to the community he lived near (he was a circuit preacher) was to read the coffee contracts and keep the farmers being cheated when it came time to sell their crops.

  5. From infogalactic:

    A normal school is a school created to train high school graduates to be teachers. Its purpose is to establish teaching standards or norms, hence its name. Most such schools are now called teachers’ colleges.

    In 1685, Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, founder of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, founded what is generally considered the first normal school, the École Normale, in Reims. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, normal schools in the United States and Canada trained primary school teachers, while in Europe normal schools educated primary, secondary and tertiary-level teachers.

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