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Education in the Early Republic: Accounts of Two New England Teachers
Digital History ID 242


Date:1831

Annotation:

Of all the ideas advanced by antebellum reformers, none was more original than the principle that all children should be educated to their fullest capacity at public expense. Reformers viewed education as the key to individual opportunity and the creation of an enlightened and responsible citizenry. Reformers also believed that public schools could serve as an effective weapon in the fight against juvenile crime and as an essential ingredient in the assimilation of immigrants.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the United States enjoyed the world's highest literacy rate--approximately 75 percent. Apprenticeship was a major form of education, supplemented by private academies for the affluent and charity schools for the poor. But the growth of urban slums and the breakdown of the apprenticeship system resulted in gangs of uneducated juveniles roaming city streets.

The campaign for public schools began in earnest in the 1820s, when religiously motivated reformers advocated public education as an answer to poverty, crime, and deepening social divisions. At first, many reformers championed Sunday schools as a way to "reclaim the vicious, to instruct the ignorant, and secure the observance of the Sabbath." But soon, reformers began to call for establishment of free, tax supported public school systems, improved school curricula and state-supported teacher training. Public schools were the product of widespread efforts at the local level. In this selection, two New England teachers describe the condition of education on the eve of school reform.


Document:

Ten years ago I was called to superintend a district school...in Connecticut.... The school had usually been under the care of a male instructor four or five months in the winter, and a female as many months in the summer, with a vacation in the spring, and another in the fall, of from one to two months each. The instructors had been changed often; few of them ever taught two seasons in succession. The school was large, and the pupils rather ungovernable.... No one remaining in the school more than little could be done, except assisting the pupils in recalling what they had forgotten during the previous long vacation, inculcating new laws, and perhaps introducing some new school-book....

School was commenced precisely at 9 a.m., and 1 p.m., througout the year....

The greatest number I ever had...was about sixty, and this only during a very short period of the winter; the the school averaged forty four throughout the year.... Many pupils had a mile to walk, andsome nearly two....

When I entered the school, there were fifty scholars under five years of age. The greater part were under four, and several only about three.... I stoutly maintined, that no child ought to be sent to school under five years of age. But the parents insisted on sending them, and I was obliged to submit. To meet the exigency, means were provided at the schoolhouse for allowing them to sleep occasionally during the hot weather....

[The second teacher's account]

The school house stood...at the junction of four roads, so near the usual track of carriages, that a large stone was set up at the end of the building to defend it from injury. Except in the dry season the ground is wet, permitting small colllections of water on the surface... The spot is peculiarly exposed exposed to the bleak winds of winter; nor are there at present any shade trees near, to shelter the children from the scorching rays of the summer's sun during their recreations.... Neither is there any such thing as an outhouse of any kind, not even a wood shed.

The size of the building was twenty two feet long, by twenty broad.... Around three sides of the room, were connected desks arranged so that when the pupils were sitting at them, their faces were towards the instructor and their backs towards the wall. Attached to the sides of the desks nearest the instructor, were benches for small pupils. The instructor's desk and chair occupied the centre. On this desk were stationed a rod or ferule [a cane]; sometimes both....

The windows were five in number.... They were situated so low in the walls, as to give full opportunity to the pupils to see every traveller as he passed, and to be easily broken....

The school was not unfrequently broken up for a day or two for want of wood in former years; but since they have used a smaller fire place, this occurrence has been more rare. The instructor or pupils were, however, sometimes compelled to cut or saw it, to prevent the closing of the school.... The [school]house was frequently cold and uncomfortable.... Frequently too, we were annoyed by smoke....

The ventilation of the school room, was as much neglected as its temperature; and its cleanliness, more perhaps than either.... There were...no arrangements made for cleaning feet at the door, or for washing floors, windows, &c....

Instructors have usually boarded in the families of the pupils. The compensation has varied from seven to eleven dollars a month for males; and from sixty two and a half cents to one dollar a week for females....

America Annals of Instruction, II (August and October, 1831), 380-383, 468-472.<

Source: American Annals of Instruction, Vol. II (Aug. and Oct. 1831), 380-83, 468-72.

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