Bait & Switch: More Education History

In his Rise and Growth of the Normal School Idea, Gordy goes after the Lancasterian school movement hard. Lancasterian schools were, effectively, one-room schools writ large: one teacher would oversee many students of different ages, perhaps a hundred or more. He would assess what each child needed to learn, and assign students to teach each other. Progress was monitored during recitations by each child to the teacher. Upon the student successfully learning one thing, a new student-teacher might be assigned to teach that the student the next. Most kids would act as both teacher and learner many times over the course of their schooling.

The positive social aspects of Lancastrian education should be obvious: kids must get to know each other – if they don’t already – and learn to respect each other and work together. Kids get recognized as masters of certain thing, like reading or spelling or basic math, when they are called upon to teach them, while at the same time being the student in other subjects. The learning itself, rather than the mere authority of the teacher, is the overall organizing principle and goal of such a school.

Gordy hated it:

It is hardly necessary to point out that the hopes entertained of Lancasterian schools were based on two misconceptions: (1) That teaching consists in imparting knowledge; and (2) that all that is necessary to impart this knowledge is simply to know as much as is to be imparted. Dr. Bell said, ” Give me 24 pupils to-day and I will give you back 24 teachers to-morrow.”

It is a ‘misconception’ that teaching consists in imparting knowledge? This is largely a reference to the *moral* nature of schooling. How can a young child be expected to do what an experienced teacher does?

That he [the child teacher, or ‘monitor] is competent to the important task of an educator can never be supposed. In developing the faculties and forming the character of a child ; in devising the best means of counteracting evil habits already acquired, and, if possible, of eradicating them and substituting good ones in their stead ; in inventing expedients for drawing forth exertion accommodated to various dispositions and eccentricities of mind ; in furnishing illustrations of the principles to be enforced or of the knowledge to be communicated, drawn from objects level to the youthful capacity and suited to the various forms of inquiry, perplexity, and doubt; in knowing how to interest the inattentive, to arouse the sluggish, to allure the wavering, to encourage the timid, to aid the slow, to guide the impetuous, and to awe the wayward ; and, [here’s the punchline] what is of more consequence than all, in exercising that secret moral and religious influence over the gradually developing character of the pupil, which the looks, the tones of voice, the whole deportment of the teacher serve to produce quite as much as the precepts which he utters in the accomplishment of these objects, the great ones to be secured in the education of youth, how can a young monitor for a moment be put into competition with an adult and experienced teacher ?

Horace Mann - Daguerreotype by Southworth & Hawes, c1850.jpg
Haven’t thrown up a picture of Mann in a while.

The publisher of this work was the US Department of Education headed up by William Torrey Harris. In a series of lectures, reviewed here, Harris lays out a high school curriculum very much like that of the gymnasia of Saxony described in the last post: Greek, Latin, Math for the core, with literature and sciences filling it out. Gordy references Dwight’s description of the gymnasium curriculum wit approval, which should please his publisher, who has a very similar idea in mind for American high schools. Harris is remembered today chiefly for normalizing the idea of high school as an essential part of education. When he took the job of Commissioner of Education in 1889, most kids did school through the equivalent of 6th or 8th grade, and then went to work in a farm, factory, or shop. By the time Harris stepped down in 1906, the idea that every kid should finish high school had become widespread.

Here’s the bait and switch: when Dwight was writing in 1825-26, probably the majority of Americans had learned to read at home, on Grandma’s knee, as it were, from the King James Bible, the one book it was all but certain every household owned. In New England, where the meager soil and hard winters turned every farmer of necessity into a craftsman/small business owner, a kid could hardly escape the math involved in those occupations. So what we now think of as an elementary education was largely accomplished, or at least significantly kick-started, at home, by amatuer teachers, before the child ever saw the inside of a classroom.

Dwight, Gordy, and Harris could not accept the three R’s as real education, because to do so would be to obviate their entire project of compulsory state run schools with state-trained and certified teachers. If Grandma could teach reading, and dad and Uncle Bob could show a kid the math needed to keep track of sales of family’s farm and craft goods, then those professional teachers and compulsory schools had better darn well provide something more.

But did the people want something more? I think the answer is yes and no. A certain percentage of people everywhere, I suppose, are satisfied with doing the work appropriate to their position in their culture. I may be farmer or stone mason, and sleep each day satisfied that I did my job righteously and to the satisfaction of my family, fiends, and village. I may want nothing more. Others, the sort of people who write books (and blog posts!) are not satisfied that simply.

The Leipzig gymnasia Dwight admired served a small – estimates are around 6% – select portion of the population. He says not one in 100 were the sons of peasants, that all that Greek and Latin and math was for the sons of the burghers and minor aristocracy. These then made up the university students once graduated, and the military officers and managers of the state bureaucracy once done with college.

In America, according again to Dwight, 3 out of 4 college students were the sons of farmers. The job opportunities for college grads were, originally, the ministry and law (although, like Lincoln, you hardly needed a degree to be a lawyer). Only later did enough government bureaucracy jobs open up to make that a widely viable job market for the college grad – and, generally, a degree was not a requirement until historically recent times. In the 1950s, the President didn’t have a college degree. Our obsession with college is that new.

It was pretty clear, back at the turn of the 19th century, that a high degree of literacy, enough to read the Federalist Papers, the King James Bible, and the newspapers and novels published then, could be obtained without the aid of highly trained schoolteachers. Therefore, one would need to promote the idea that something like the elite education of the Leipzig gymnasia was what was needed for American children.

In his attack on Lancastrian schooling, Gordy takes exactly that tack. He writes that immediately following the Revolution, the Founders, grounded in history as they generally were, distrusted democracy and yearned for some sort of republican aristocracy.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the party which had charge of the Government for the first 12 years of our national existence did not believe in a democratic form of government. Hamilton wanted an aristocratic republic, and, failing in that, he endeavored by his financial policy to bring the wealth of the country to the support of the Government. He did not believe in the capacity of the people for self-government. ” The people,” he is reported to have said at a dinner, “the people is a great beast.” The whole strength of his wonderful genius was exerted in devising ways and means for making a stronger government than the framers of the Constitution intended to make, in order that it might be strong enough to hold the people in check.

As was Alexander Hamilton, so was the Federalist party. Accepting a republican form of government rather as a necessity than as a thing in itself desirable, the able men of the party had little interest in plans for educating the masses of the people, because they felt them to be inherently impracticable, and necessarily visionary.

But, according to Gordy, that all changed:

But with the close of the war of 1812 a new era dawned. Then the belief in the capacity of the people for self-government first became the creed of the nation and not of a few advanced thinkers only like Jefferson. The Democratic party — the only party practically for 18 years after the war of 1812 — through the influence largely of such men as Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun* had become a national party. With no questions of importance as to foreign policy to distract their attention, patriotic and philanthropic men were left free to give their thoughts to questions for elevating the masses of the people, and fitting them for the responsible task of self-government. A genuine national patriotism had been born, and with the love of the whole country came the desire for the perpetuity of the Union. This naturally led to reflections upon the means of making it perpetual. The result was what has well been called the ” revival of education.”

The people who had fought and won the Revolution, descendents of people who risked everything to come to an often hostile land, were not fit to govern themselves – BUT the aristocracy of “patriotic and philanthropic men” could consider what steps to take might result in “elevating the masses of the people, and fitting them for the responsible task of self-government.”

I’m not entirely ignorant of history, and the behavior of many people right this moment doesn’t exactly inspire trust in the demos’ facility for self government, so I share the those early aristocrats’ concern. That said, this idea of “elevating the masses” might easily, in the hands of men who have an unshakeable confidence that they, unlike those masses, are perfectly fitted for self government, lead inexorably to a desire to impose control, and call it elevation.

The inescapable conclusion here is that these men believed, in Gordy’s view at least, that whatever education Americans in general were getting in 1800 was not adequate to a self-governing people. Insead, they needed, not just more education, but education as described above, where the state trained and certified teacher could exercise “that secret moral and religious influence over the gradually developing character of the pupil, which the looks, the tones of voice, the whole deportment of the teacher serve to produce quite as much as the precepts which he utters in the accomplishment of these objects, the great ones to be secured in the education of youth.”

Again, a recurring theme here is the failure to acknowledge that anything could go wrong. Gordy, along with Harris, Mann, and all the way back to Fichte, seems to assume that the problem is getting a bit into the horse’s mouth, with the assumption that of course only good people with the best educated intention will ever be in the saddle. Since “the masses” were very reluctant to tax themselves to pay for, and submit themselves to the management of, schools after the fashion envisioned by Fichte, etc., the history of education in America is a history of subterfuge and misdirection. Recall how Common Core was developed and implemented: nobody had even heard of it, let alone gotten a chance to review and critique it, until after it had been imposed. This is not an exception but rather business as usual for compulsory state education advocates.

So, the bait: education needs to be reformed so that the people are better able to govern themselves. This reform entails rejected any form of education – Lancasterian and the related models such as one-room schoolhouses, parish schools, homeschooling – in favor of the one, best solution of state funded and managed compulsory graded classroom schooling by state trained and certified teachers – excuse me, ‘educators’ – because everybody needs all those hard subjects dad and grandma can’t teach. Like the Latin and Greek and calculus taught in those wonderful Prussian gymnasia.

The switch: what we have today, which pales (and horrifies!) in comparison to what the homeschooled and one room schooled kids got a couple centuries ago.

At a time when the California teachers union is calling for defunding the police and abolishing charter schools as conditions for returning to work – no, really – it is opportune to think about how we got the professionalized teachers we have today.

Author: Joseph Moore

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

7 thoughts on “Bait & Switch: More Education History”

  1. Very much enjoy this series; it’s illuminating to say the least.

    I like how Gordy etc. seem to assume that of course it is the *teacher’s* job to instill the correct moral instruction in pupils, so much so that the impartation of knowledge doesn’t count; no mention of parents or church or just any other adults that may possibly exist in their lives. The desire to replace all normal relations with state-based ones rears its head again.

    1. Or even a lot of not-very-good Lancastrian schools. How much worse could they be?

      Before 1950, we had an Ivy League college president serve as president of the United States. He kicked all the blacks out of federal service, and pushed the country into one side of a pointless war so that the hated Catholics wouldn’t get credit for ending it. So yeah, let’s make sure the over-educated are picked to run the country.

  2. We’ve been picking the so-called Over-Educated (by our current problematic education model) for several years now: couldn’t get much worse for a change in paradigms.

  3. In the interests of seeking a more effective and more legitimate paradigm of elementary education, I did a bit of quick search for Lancaster Schools, and taking both Original Sin (in the faults of Mr. Lancaster and the accusations or assertions in Wikipedia, and so on…) and topical obscurity into account, I’ve unearthed the following:

    I think for all their faults and errors, there might be a place for Monitorial Schools to come back in some real form. Another point that just occurred to me: Bell’s school was named for the city he developed his method in: Madras is an Indian city that is now called Chennai, as of 1996, and the origins of Madras are uncertain. Wikipedia even speculates that “it may have originated from the Portuguese phrase Mãe de Deus or Madre de Dios, which means “mother of God”, due to Portuguese influence on the port city, specifically referring to a Church of St. Mary.”
    To me it seems equally plausible, or more, that it’s derived at distance from the Arabic madrassa (مدرسة‎), which means, of all things, school!

    There are no accidents, or very few.

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