American Writers on Education Before 1865: Education History Book Review

This short book is exactly what the title suggests: a summary of what American writers before 1865 had to say about education. Abraham Blinderman’s American Writers on Education Before 1865 summarizes, with light quotations, the views on education of many leaders and writers in the early years of our nation, interspersed with Blinderman’s often anachronistic commentary. The views of these writers are progressive and enlightened to the exact degree to which they conform to Blinderman’s opinions. The reader often learns as much about Blinderman’s attitudes toward education as he does about Franklin’s or Henry James’.

I read this and similar books for two reasons: to get pointed toward the players and writing to be further investigated, and to gain an understanding about how people writing these books think about education at the time they are written. Blinderman gives me as much insight into educational thinking circa 1975 as he does into the minds of early American writers. The list of further reading grows. Added a few names I didn’t previously consider researching, ‘researching’ here meaning, generally, surfing a bit to see if the source is worth more effort.

The list of writers in impressive, including the Founding Fathers and any number of prominent American writerss. The dominant views among the bulk of these writers, at least as summarized by Blinderman, were that education was really important, especially if you expected common people to participate in a republic; that schools in America were mostly terrible; that school teachers tended to be bottom of the barrel types who couldn’t get some other, better job; and that parents were the source of all these problems, being miserly and disrespectful to the teachers and loath to spend any money on school facilities and supplies.

The Brown Library at Virginia Western Community College had apparently had enough of this book.

The biggest revision to my thinking about American education history is making room for all these prominent Americans who thought their college experiences were a joke. I already knew, for example, about Harvard’s often turbulent student body, how these young men made mischief, drove out too strict presidents, and caroused. I’d always assumed the typical student still somehow made time for studying, that, despite the hi jinks, the graduates of Harvard had gotten some sort of education out of it.

Doesn’t sound like it. Mostly, the brighter the student, the more intent on getting an education, the less happy they were with their college experiences. Writing in 1820, John Trumbull, who graduated from and taught at Yale, wrote the Progress of Dulnes (sic), a satirical look at three ‘educated’ people who get nothing from years of elite schooling. Trumbull was a prodigy who probably needed little formal help to become educated; the well-off students who wasted their and his time at Yale seem to set him off.

Franklin’s Silence Dogood letters, written 50 years earlier by a similarly precocious 16 year old, lampoon college education. Franklin went on to write a short Proposal Relating to the Education of Youths in Pennsylvania, the erudite notes to which are twice as long as the short proposal – Blinderman speculates Franklin, with little formal education, is poking fun at his more learned readers by larding this short work with references and quotations such as would make any Princeton don proud. The real charm here, in character as I understand Franklin, is his confidence those readers wouldn’t get the joke.

Another surprise: a couple of these writers were not impressed by the German universities and gymnasia. Henry Adams, descendant of 2 Presidents, traveled Germany and thought their formal education rigid and rote.

Cool old book, right? May have to read it now….

The only mention of Catholic schooling comes when Blinderman reviews Orestes Brownson. Blinderman can hardly reconcile himself to Brownson’s Catholicism:

A dissenter all of his life, Brownson finally sought peace of mind in the structured conformity of Catholic doctrine. But he did not withdraw from the social battles raging outside the Church. He never forsook his new church – he died a Catholic – and involved himself fully in in the open and clandestine warfare raging between native Americans and the large number of Catholic immigrants.

p. 146

Brownson took the side of the public schools against Catholic criticism that they promoted immorality, noting that the Catholic schools in other countries certainly didn’t prevent immorality there. (Here’s one of many places where I really would have liked an exact quote. There is a reference…) I note two things: Brownson, for all his intellectual power, changed positions on many things many times, so that he at one time condemned public schools and at another defended them is hardly surprising; his Postmillennialist optimism in the perfectibility of man lead to some doozies, such as a belief that the post Civil War Federal government would of course respect state’s rights, the nation was destined to convert to Catholicism as the only creed that can support freedom under a republic, and that the rest of the Western Hemisphere would petition to be admitted to the Union under the now-clear federalist rules protecting their local rights from the meddlesome central government.

History has not been kind to these prognostications.

Brownson also reproved Catholic scholars for not forcefully taking sides in the social controversies of the day. Me, I’d be happy if Catholic scholars were more universal in taking the Church’s side in simple matters of dogma. Unlike his post war dreams of unity under the Church, he certainly got his wish here: now, you can’t shut up Catholic scholars taking sides in social issues of the day – almost invariably against the teachings of the Church.

The idea that someone of Brownson’s gifts and temperament would seek the truth relentlessly, find it in the Catholic Church, and cling to it firmly even when it wasn’t energetic enough in its support for his social concerns isn’t something Blinderman is going to easily grasp. That religious beliefs might justly and honestly have precedence over social beliefs is simply incomprehensible.

In general, Blinderman sees all lessening of religious influence on education as Progress. Virtually all the writers he reviews (Oliver Wendell Holmes would be an exception) acknowledge the need for religion to be taught, in order to promote public morality. By religion, these writers of course mean Protestant Christianity. Condemnations of Popery by these writers are sprinkled throughout the text.

Speaking of anti-Catholic sentiments, Samuel Goodrich was a new name to me. Many thousands of textbooks he wrote under the name Peter Parley were used in the common schools. Public school children would be taught stuff like this:

THE reign of Ferdinand and Isabella was disgraced by the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition. The design of this horrible institution was to prevent the people from adopting any but the Catholic religion.

Persons who were suspected of being heretics were thrown into damp and dismal dungeons. They were then brought before the inquisitors, who sat completely covered with long robes and hoods of sackcloth. Their faces were invisible; but they looked at the prisoners through two holes in their sack-cloth hoods.

If the accused persons would not plead guilty, they were tortured in various ways. Sometimes they were drawn up to the roof of the chamber by a rope, and after hanging a considerable time, the rope was loosened, so that they fell almost to the floor.

The rope was then suddenly tightened again, and the prisoner’s limbs were put out of joint by the shock. If he still refused to confess, the inquisitors rubbed his feet with lard, and roasted them before a fire. In short, their cruelties were too dreadful to be told.

When the inquisitors had satisfied themselves with torturing their prisoners, they prepared to burn them. The condemned persons walked in a procession, dressed in garments which were painted with flames. On their breasts they wore their own likenesses, in the act of being devoured by serpents and wild beasts.

Common School History, Peter Parley

And so on. A simple search of the text for words ‘Catholic,’ ‘Pope,’ and ‘Mary’ turn up many similarly fascinating and even-handed entries suitable for children of all ages. Blinderman only notes that the British were unhappy with the treatment they got in Parley’s books, and quotes a short passage illustrating his bigotry against the Chinese, but of Catholics, not a peep.

I read this book so you don’t have to. Unless you really want to, of course. Then, have at it! It is a short, easy read.

Author: Joseph Moore

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

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