Education History Book Review: Lectures on School-keeping, Samuel R. Hall (1829)

Finished up Dwight’s letters – really, this time – and am on to another work mentioned by Gordy in his Normal School Idea book. Samuel Read Hall’s Lectures on School-keeping gets recommended by name in some teacher training legislation passed in New York in the 1830s. So let’s see what they’re on about.

Hall compiled a series of lectures on how to manage a school into this book in 1829, and it became popular, at least among education reformers. The need for a text on common school management was keenly felt by the reformers; they – that particular they with which Gordy is concerned, at least – wished that thorough training was required of any who would teach in the common schools, and that training include practical management. This book therefore, is a stop-gap. Hall says as much in the introduction:

However important such institutions are to the success of common schools, as yet, very few of them exist. This has led to the inquiry whether a publication of very practical character, containing such directions to instructors, as might be easily understood and applied, would not be of essential service. This inquiry has led to the publication of the following volume.


The thrust of the first 3 lectures is to convince the prospective teacher that parents are the enemy.

The instructer is engaged with a reference to his cheapness, or he is selected on account of relationship, or something equally unconnected with his character for morality, literature or ability to teach. The school commences, and parents seem to feel quite satisfied without further effort, or even inquiry, unless it be to know whether their children are severely punished. The business of the shop or the farm, claims as usual, the chief attention ; and the question, whether their children are making all the progress they ought, is very seldom asked. Little is known of the character of the school, beyond the report of the children themselves, or perhaps the remarks of the visiting committee.

Lecture I

Notice here how, on the one hand, the whole reason for common schools is the claim that parents are incompetent to teach their own children, and on the other, those same parents are chided for not overseeing that education for which they are assumed inadequate.

But this passage is the opening salvo of the message repeated in the first three lectures: the problem common schools and their state trained and certified educators are trying to solve is: the parents. And not just a few parents:

When the greater part of parents are indifferent to the character of the school, this feeling is very naturally extended to those who at first might have felt some solicitude on the subject. Thus habits of indifference have extended from family to family, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood and from district to district. The effect becomes permanent, and year after year continues or increases it.

Lecture I

The parents don’t take school seriously. They think the farm and shop, and all the relationships running a farm and shop entail, are somehow more important than – what, exactly? Their kids almost assuredly could read, write, and cipher well enough to calculate how many pecks of peppers at 5 pennies a peck they need to sell to get new shoes for the plow horse. Schools would have to offer more to get the attention of such people. Mere promises that whatever the schools taught would be important and worthwhile were hardly enough to get folks to open their wallets.

Note also that this is the era during which Lincoln taught himself by candlelight enough to become a famous lawyer and eventually President, Edison was pronounced a dunce, only to go on to become the greatest inventor in history, Brownson became a great scholar attending no school but borrowing every book he could find, (1) and a steady stream of farm boys got into elite universities after, somehow, learning Greek and Latin more or less on their own. On the surface, at least, reality seems to contradict the concerns of the education reform crowd.

The moral pretentions of the early educators surely would have rankled then as much then as they would now: the schools are telling you, mom and dad, that you are not moral enough to raise your own kids.


If “to send an uneducated child into the world is like turning a mad dog into the street,” all are under obligations to regard with high interest, those institutions which furnish the means of mental culture to the great mass of people. That parent, who is indifferent to the intellectual food of his children is certainly as guilty as he, who, through indifference, permits his offspring to feed on poisonous food, or should disregard the calls of nature, and make no provision for them in meat and drink. He disregards his own happiness as well as that of his children. What comfort can he expect to take in them in. age, if he neglect to lay the foundation of their usefulness while they are under his control? Parents can rationally expect but little from children of riper years, if they have neglected to furnish them when young, with such knowledge as would direct them in the path of virtue and filial duty. I see no object more revolting to me, than an undutiful and unkind son. I see no distress more acute, than that of a parent, whose child is brought into shame and disgrace. Parents who are indifferent to the character of the schools which their children attend, do not reflect how severe the consequences may be to their own happiness. How pungent have been the feelings of a father or mother, when attending the trial of a son indicted for some high crime committed against the laws of the land, when, after conviction the wretched criminal has upbraided them as the cause of his ruin, by having been negligent of his education !

Lecture I

And on and on. Hall seems to think that, were it not for the ministrations of the schools, we’d be up to our necks in criminals – and it is the fault of all those terrible parents! Yet American history is pretty much a collection of stories about how self-educated men came together and founded a nation.

This parent-bashing goes on for 3 full lectures. Parents are greedy, exploitive, lazy, ignorant, dense. The first lesson, therefore, in school-keeping is: the parents are the enemy. Educators, in contrast, are upright fonts of sweetness and light. To oppose or refuse to fund the designs of Hall & co. is therefore the depths of degradation and dereliction of duty. All other efforts of the enlightened educator are built upon this foundation.

Is it any wonder these folks worked to pass compulsory school laws, which gave truancy officers the power to simply remove children from their families if they found out of school? That’s the state reached in Massachusetts under Mann.

Also, if you’re wondering where that whoe ‘you’re an evil person if you don’t send your kids to public school’ accusation comes from:

” Well; if we cannot have a good school at home, we can send to the Academy.” Such institutions are now so numerous, that there is little difficulty in carrying into execution this resolve. In this respect, it is undoubtedly true, that Academies and Grammar schools are exerting an unfavourable effect on the common schools of our country.* In many other respects their influence is favourable. It is certainly a subject of great importance to the success of elementary institutions, that the wealthy should strive to increase their usefulness, and elevate their character. The influence of the example of this class does a great deal to injure these institutions, for many are governed very much in their estimate of things, by the opinion and conduct of the rich. By withdrawing their influence and assistance, the work is left to those who have not the means, and often to those who have not sufficient weight of character to afford the requisite support. Hence the public sustain much injury, and, though it is not the design of the rich to do wrong in this way, yet a very little reflection must show, that an evil to the community, of considerable magnitude, is unquestionably the result Every thing is a public evil that serves to depreciate the value of those institutions, in which the stamp of character is fixed on the great majority of people.

Lecture II

At least Hall is generous enough to allow that rich people – anyone who can afford a private school being by his definition rich, evidently – aren’t evil on purpose. But failing to support the public institutions as envisioned and managed by the likes of the parent-despising Hall is a “public evil”.

We hear this same condemnation today from our self-appointed betters in the public education industry, although, in keeping with Critical Theory, there is no mercy or forgiveness possible for those in the wrong. We who have any reservations about the public school project are irredeemable evil, and, it is necessarily implied, need to die.

There’s more, but this is long enough for now. I will need to do a further review of the following chapters.

  1. See this passage from the Brownson Society biography:

But it seems clear that his unusual childhood was not an unmitigated misfortune, for it turned him in his earliest years to reading as a substitute for other pursuits, and developed in him an insatiable appetite for books. In the home in which he lived there was the King James Bible, Watt’s Psalms and Divine Songs, The Franklin Primer, Edward’s History of the Redemption, and a few other volumes. Having begun on these – there was no public library in the vicinity – he scoured the neighborhood for what he could find. In the home of one gentleman he found the English classics of Queen Anne’s reign, in another home fifty volumes of the English poets, in still another a work on universal history. Further inquires turned up Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding, Pope’s Homer, various monographs of American history, books on the planting of the colonies, on wars with the Indians, Robinson Crusoe, Philip Quarles and the Arabian Nights. Although he did not understand all that he read, he devoured them all the same; reading was his supreme delight. Whenever he had a moment of leisure, he always had a book in his hand. In later life he was to say, “I have had my joys and sorrows, but I have never known or imagined on earth greater enjoyment than I had as a boy lying on the hearth in a miserable shanty reading by the light of burning pineknots some book I had just borrowed. I felt neither hunger or thirst, and no want of sleep; my book was my meat and drink, home and raiment, friend and guardian, father and mother.” (18) Here surely we have kinship with Abe Lincoln.

Author: Joseph Moore

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

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