Education History Book Review: More Rise & Growth of the Normal School Idea in the United States by J. P. Gordy (1891)

Getting back to Gordy’s epic circular, before moving on to a few books he references that sound interesting.

First, some long quotations, recounting the state of teacher training in the 1830s in New York. At the time, three ‘academies’ had taken it upon themselves to set up teacher training programs, and their graduates were filling the common school teacher positions in the area around those academies. Gordy, who when he wrote this book taught at the original state teachers college in Ohio, is not entirely down with the idea that private schools, responding to economic opportunity, started training teachers on their own without oversight by the state. Therefore, he spends a chapter talking about how the State of New York, when reviewing the need for trained teachers, understandably but mistakenly thought the situation was in hand. Private schools were meeting local demand without any mandates or funding by the state. But that’s not the way the Idea of the Normal School was supposed to be Progressing!

The state legislature took a look at teacher training, and decided they had some funds lying around that they could use to support those three academies and incent other schools to set up education departments.

This work was undertaken by these academies without aid from the State, simply in response to a demand created by public opinion for better prepared teachers. The first law passed in New York, and indeed in this country, making provision for the education of teachers for the common schools was passed May 2, 1834. The act is as follows :

Section 1. The revenue of the literature fund now in the treasury, and the excess of the annual revenue of said fund hereafter to be paid into the treasury, or portions thereof, may be distributed by the regents of the university, if they shall deem it expedient, to the academies subject to their visitation, or a part of them, to be expended as hereinafter mentioned.

Sec. 2. The trustees of academies to which any distribution of money shall be made by virtue of this act shall cause the same to be expended in educating teachers of common schools in such manner and under such regulations as said regents shall prescribe.

At some point, New York State set up a “literary fund.” It seems, from context, that ‘literature’ at the time meant all serious writing and, by extension, all serious academic pursuits. Dwight uses it that way for sure, and it seems that’s what is meant here. So there is already some money. What to do with it?

A special meeting of the board of regents was held May 22, 1834, and a committee of three was appointed ” to prepare and report to the regents at some future meeting a plan for carrying into practical operation the provisions” of the law.

The committee consisted of Messrs. Dix, Buel, and Graham, and at the annual meeting of the board, held January 8, 1835, it reported through its chairman, Regent John A. Dix, [who went on to become a famous Civil War Union general for whom Ft. Dix is named] ” a plan for the better education of teachers of common schools.”

This elaborate report — it covers 26 pages of an octavo volume — is well worthy of a careful perusal, not only because of its historical interest as outlining the first plan for the training of teachers ever presented in this country, but because of the ability and thoroughness with which the subject is discussed.

After an emphatic statement of the importance of the subject, the report proceeds to discuss the provisions for the training of teachers made by France and Prussia. [you know, places where the state would throw you in jail for expressing unapproved political opinions – ed.] That the necessity of providing for the training of teachers was not felt when the common-school system was established is explained by the fact that there were at that time a large number of experienced teachers who had been teaching private schools ready to be enlisted into the service of the public schools.

Reference is made to the fact that the St. Lawrence, Oxford, and Canandaigua Academies have established a course of lectures and exercises for the preparation of teachers, and since this has been done with very little aid from the State it is inferred that more generous assistance is all that is necessary to enable them to reach the desired end. The success of the St. Lawrence Academy is particularly dwelt on. The schools in its neighborhood are almost entirely supplied with teachers by its students, and they receive on the average $40 a year more than before a department was established for training them.

The question of creating separate institutions for the training of teachers [the direction in which History is Unfolding, natch] has repeatedly been before the legislature, but it was deemed more advantageous to establish teachers departments in the academies, and this may now be considered the special policy of the State.

The revenue of the literature fund then in the treasury, which, according to the law of May 2, 1834, was to be devoted to making provision for the training of teachers, is stated to be $10,040.76, and the annual excess of that revenue which could be applied to this purpose would amount to about $3,500. The former sum could at once be devoted to making provision for the education of common-school teachers in existing academies, but it was too small to be divided among all the academies of the State. The limited sum at their disposal made it necessary to select a small number of academies, [IOW, the state chooses economic winners & losers – ed.] but these, for the sake of public convenience, must be in different parts of the State, within reach of every county. The committee recommended that one academy be selected in each senatorial district, as there were eight of such districts, and as a smaller number than eight could not be selected with due regard to public convenience.

The committee further recommended that each of the eight academies should be supplied with the same apparatus and with equal facilities for undertaking the proposed course of instruction. They thought that $500 for each academy would be sufficient for the purchase of apparatus, library, etc., and that in addition they should receive $400 annually for the support of a competent instructor.

Then the Committee describes what constitutes an acceptable teacher candidate:

The committee thought it evident that the course of study should include all those subjects which were regarded as indispensable to a first-rate teacher of the common schools. They recommended that no student should be admitted to the teachers’ department who had not passed such an examination as the regents required to entitle him to be regarded as a scholar in the higher branches of an English education. The subjects which he should pursue should be —

(1) The English language.
(2) Writing and drawing.
(3) Arithmetic, mental and written, and bookkeeping.
(4) Geography and general history, continued.
(5) The history of the United States.
(6) Geometry, trigonometry, mensuration, and surveying.
(7) Natural philosophy and the elements of astronomy.
(8) Chemistry and mineralogy.
(9) The Constitution of the United States and the constitution of the State of New York.
(10) Select parts of the Revised Statutes and the duties of public officers.
(11) Moral and intellectual philosophy.
(12) The principles of teaching*.

No other subject should be required to enable the pupil to obtain a diploma, but other subjects should not be excluded if any academy desired to introduce them.

In addition to what a modern person might expect a well educated teacher to know in 1834, we have drawing, bookkeeping (to teach or to do as part of school keeping?), mensuration, surveying, the Constitution of the United States and the constitution of the State of New York, and select parts of the Revised Statutes and the duties of public officers. Nothing objectionable and much to be commended in that list. Then we add: moral and intellectual philosophy. and the principles of teaching. I’ve read ahead, so I know that the ineffable Pestalozzi figures large in the principles of teaching, and that there will be no place for Catholic moral and intellectual philosophy in the common schools – this will not be stated as such, just assumed, after the manner of the sentiments expressed by Dwight quoted a couple posts ago. Gordy reiterates at intervals throughout the text the greater importance of moral training in the common schools, and that the state trained and certified teacher – not dad, mom, the family, and church, who are each subject in their unique ways to unacceptable levels of laxity – is the correct channel through which such moral training is to be delivered.

What’s missing from this list is the Latin, Greek, and more advanced math used to justify having highly trained and certified teachers. Harris and Gordy follow the Prussian gymnasia in their dream curriculum, training up polyglot and mathematically accomplished kids ready for Harvard at 15. But that ideal – if it is an ideal – is not shared by the New York regents. Most of the listed required subjects could easily be taught by any competent adult, and those that need more specialized training are pretty much less important in proportion to how unusual the skills to teach them are. And this list won’t get you into 19th century Yale or Brown.

The level of education expressed in the New York regent’s list above is what William Torrey Harris calls ‘substantial education’:

There are two kinds of education. The first may be called substantial education, the education by means of the memory; the education which gives to the individual, methods and habits and the fundamentals of knowledge. It is this education which the child begins to receive from its birth. This sort of education is education by authority that is, the individual accepts the authority of the teacher for the truth of what he is told, and does not question it or seek to obtain insight into the reason for its being so.

William Torrey Harris – The Philosophy of Education, Lecure II

Substantial education, delivered ‘scientifically’, produces automata:

Ninety-nine out of a hundred people in every civilized nation are automata, careful to walk in the prescribed paths, careful to follow prescribed custom. This is the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual under his species.

William Torrey Harris – The Philosophy of Education, Lecure I

I discuss this quotation here and elsewhere on this blog. What’s fascinating is that the education reformers in New York are claiming to aim for having common schools produce good citizens capable of taking their role in the government of our Republic. Harris, the Hegelian phrenologist, thinks on the other hand that this sort of education suits one only to following orders. In this sense, Harris is the true heir of Fichte, who believed the destruction of free will in children is the sole goal of compulsory state schooling. A properly schooled kid under Fichte would simply be incapable of willing anything his teacher didn’t want him to will. Free will is replaced by an automatic love of, and obedience to, the German nation. This is all done for the good of the nation and the kid (there is no possible conflict, as Fichte understands the good).

Harris’s and Gordy’s understanding of the purpose of schooling would have been a very hard sell to Americans in the early 19th century. As it is, what changed between then and when Harris and Gordy were writing was not so much the attitudes of Americans as the approach of the champions of public education: they learned to talk about this sort of thing only to each other and in obscure journals, and talk the 3 Rs to us peons. The real work is done out of sight as much as possible. Thus, state education departments, standards, and curricula are created in the darkness, and presented as fait accompli. Common Core is just the latest example of what’s been going on for a century and a half.

Harris does have an original thought of a sort: he thinks that kids taught to be mindless conformists can be made into real thinkers – by, of course, achieving Hegelian enlightenment:

It is this education by authority, the education of the past, that the modern or second kind of education seeks to supersede. This second kind may be called individual or scientific education; it is the education of insight as opposed to that of authority.

I know Harris means Hegelian enlightenment here, because he doesn’t think there is any other kind.

Back to the book.

The committee then proceeded to make detailed suggestions in regard to the above-mentioned subjects of study. The teacher should be familiarized with the best methods of teaching the alphabet. Blackboards and slates should be used in teaching spelling, so that the eye might assist the ear in detecting mistakes. In teaching arithmetic much use should be made of visible illustrations, and the subject should be made as practical as possible by selecting as examples such operations as the pupil must be familiar with in after life, though it should be so taught, at the same time, that the pupil might receive the maximum amount of mental discipline. Instruction in principles of teaching should be thorough and extended, not confined” to the art of teaching or the best modes of communicating knowledge, but including also such moral instruction as might aid the teacher in governing his own conduct, and molding the character of his pupils. The text-book recommended was Hall’s ”Lectures on School Keeping;” and as reading books “Abbott’s Teacher,” ” Taylor’s District School,” and the “Annals of Education” were recommended.

I’ve tracked down a couple of these books. I’ll do “Lectures on School-keeping” next – it’s fascinating.

Getting an early start on state-level micromanagement, the Committee next recommends specific classroom hardware:

The committee thought that each academy should be furnished with a library well supplied with the best authors on the subjects in the prescribed course, but were of the opinion that the selection of the books ought, for a time at least, to be left to the academies. The committee, however, made out a list of apparatus, with prices, which they thought necessary for each of the eight academies. It is as follows, with the prices annexed so far as they can be ascertained :


Orrery $20. 00
Nuniera 1 frame and geometrical solids 2. 50
Globes 12. 00
Movable planisphere 1 . 50
Tide dial 3.50
Optical apparatus $10. 00
Mechanical powers 12. 00
Hydrostatic apparatus 10. 00
Pneumatic apparatus 35. 00
Chemical apparatus 25. 00
One hundred specimens of mineralogy 10. 00
Electrical machine 12. 00
Instruments to teach surveying 80. 00
Map of the United States 8. 00
Map of the State of New York 8. 00
Atlas 5. 00
Telescope 40. 00
Quadrant 15. 00

Inflation calculators don’t go back to 1834. Prices have gone up by 26 times since 1913, meaning that, even if there were no inflation between 1834 and 1913, that orrery cost the equivalent of $520.

Like that Dwight book, can’t seem to let this one go, even as I accumulate a (by now vast) set of additional period books to read. Onward!

Author: Joseph Moore

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

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