Sunday, January 17, 2010

Before the arrival of Kindergarten...

The following is by H. K. Oliver who entered school in Boston in 1805, his first being taught by an old man who with his wife and widowed daughter kept school:
"By him was I taught my A, B, C, D, E, F, G, my a, b, abs, and my e, b, ebs, after the old, old way -- praised because ancestral -- the old gentleman holding an old book in his old hand, and pointing, with an old pin, to the old letters on the old page, and making each of us chicks repeat their several names, til we could tell them by sight, though we did not know what it was all for... [We spent] four or five weeks in acquiring complete knowledge of the twenty-six arbitrary marks constituting the English alphabet...

"From this school I was removed to another, Madame Tileston's, ... where I was taught elementary reading and spelling, after the same ancestral fashion; that is, I received about twenty minutes of instruction each half day, and as school was kept three hundred and sixty minutes daily, I had the privilege of forty minutes' worth of teaching and three hundred and twenty minutes' worth of sitting still (if I could) which I could not -- playing, whispering and general waste of time, though occasionally a picture book relieved the dreary monotony.

"My dislike of confinement at busy nothingness, love of mischief, [etc.]... often entitled me to Madame Tileston's customary punishment of sundry smart taps on the head with the middle finger of her right hand; -- said finger being armed with a large and rough steel thimble."
The Kindergarten presented a revolution in education, even among those who understood very little of its method or intention. There was a gentleness in it, and a respect for children and their innate qualities. And so, schools became less harsh for a time, more loving, more colorful and more accommodating of children's natural inclinations. In most classrooms as in this one from 1872, desks were screwed down eliminating any possibility that the classroom could be used for anything but desk work. This presented a challenge to teachers wanting a more responsive and active program. So, some teachers wanting to adopt more modern methods sought permission to unscrew and remove the fixed desks and replace them with more flexible furnishings.

The following is from author Booth Tarkington's novel, Penrod, 1914:
"Roused from perfect apathy, the boy cast about the schoolroom an eye wearied to nausea by the perpetual vision of the neat teacher on the platform, the backs of the heads of the pupils in front of him, and the monotonous stretches of blackboard, threateningly defaced by arithmetical formula; and other insignia of torture. Above the blackboard, the walls of the high room were of white, plaster-white with the qualified whiteness of old snow in a soft-coal town. This dismal expanse was broken by four lithographic portraits, votive offerings of a thoughtful publisher. The portraits were of good and great men, kind men, men who loved children. Their faces were noble and benevolent. But the lithographs offered the only rest for the eyes of children fatigued by the everlasting sameness of the schoolroom. Long day after long day, interminable week in and interminable week out, vast month on vast month, the pupils sat with those four portraits beaming kindness down upon them... Never, while the children of that schoolroom lived, would they be able to forget one detail of the four lithographs; the hand of Longfellow was fixed, for them, forever in his beard. And by a simple and unconscious association of ideas, Penrod Schofield was accumulating an antipathy for the gentle Longfellow and for James Russell Lowell and for Oliver Wendell Holmes and for John Greenleaf Whittier, which would never permit him to peruse a work of one of those great New Englanders without a feeling of personal resentment."
I would be interested in knowing how my readers feel about these two accounts. Can you relate to what these writers observed in their classrooms? Has American education improved as much as we would hope over these two descriptions, each one hundred years apart? From my own schooling in the 1950's, I can relate.


  1. Anonymous4:57 AM

    Having gone to schools in two different countries and three different states, I can definitely relate to that little essay. And I still managed to do well in school, which is remarkable.


  2. If you can manage to get through school with your love of reading unscathed, you will do OK. My school in Mississippi had desks like those in the photo. Other than those desks, getting punched out on the playground and lunch across the street at the hamburger/juke joint with all the 6th graders dancing, I don't remember a thing. I got my love of learning much later.

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