Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/March 1880/The Early Free Schools of America
WITH the discovery of America, the founding of colonies in the New World relieved the Old of so much surplus population as gave the people of both hemispheres many new chances in life. The advantages of education, meager as was the information given by the schools, inspired men with a desire for larger liberty than the old monarchical governments were either able or willing to give. The men that emigrated to America were of the liberty-loving type. Unfortunately, however, it was love of liberty for themselves, not for others. The Puritan fathers, far from being the lofty minded men historians have fondly painted, were bigots, without learning or desire for anything beyond worshiping their own idea of God in their own peculiar fashion. In some respects it was the misfortune of America that these men were the inaugurators of her religious and educational codes. An opportunity so splendid had never been granted to humanity. America started into life with the civilization, the culture, the experience of past ages as her teachers; she was enabled to take up at the last leaf the book of progress which had been commenced cycles before in India, Egypt, Chaldea, Greece, and Rome. The slow emergence from barbarism, the crude and cruel experiences of all other peoples, could have been remitted in her favor; like the fairy princess in the story of the "Forest of Lilacs," her teaching was proceeding while she slept. Had she been able, upon awakening, to make use of this culture—had her governors been men of liberal views and greater foresight—in America the "Utopia" of More might have become a possibility, and the "New Republic" of Plato a successful reality.
Instead of this enlarged freedom, the history of education in America is replete with theocratic superstitions. Theology interfered with the civil laws, and both Church and state hampered with their bonds the free development of education. Colleges were founded, not so much for the advancement of science as to provide learned ministers for ecclesiasticism. In the early colonial times, the Bible, Psalm-book, and Catechism comprised in great measure not only the school-books of the children but the family library. In 1720 we read that but one parish library could be chronicled in the colony of Virginia. This library consisted of three books—"The Singing Psalms," "The Whole Duty of Man," and "The Book of Homilies.
This dearth of reading matter, as might have been expected, resulted in making Biblical stories as familiar to the children of the colonists as the legendary tales of fairies and gnomes had been to the dwellers on the borders of the Rhine and Rhone. The dramatic tragedies of Daniel, Samson, Jonah, Jesus, the saints, and Christian martyrs, from being studied in school-hours and talked about at home, became things as real as the daily lives of the colonists.
The struggle for freedom, the importation of secular books, the introduction of printing-press and newspapers, diverted the minds of the people into broader and deeper channels. The men of liberal thought and culture who founded the Republic of the West, such as Jefferson and Madison, agitated the subject of the higher education of the people. It was particularly the desire of Jefferson to have crusades preached against the evils of ignorance, and to have laws established for informing and educating the common people.
"Free schools" had always been, and justly too, a favorite scheme among reformers for elevating the race. American statesmen and philanthropists put this plan in operation at an early period; it met, however, with but ill success at first, owing to the dearth of skillful teachers. One of the early writers says: "The business of instruction in preparatory schools was with few exceptions under the control of inadequate principles; in many instances the commonest business of life was abandoned on the demand for a teacher; and the responsible duties of an intellectual guide undertaken by individuals whose chief recommendation was their dexterity with the awl and hammer,"
It was not until over thirty years after the close of the war of 1776 that a regular system of schools at the public expense was established. New England boasted with pride of being the first in education, as she had been in war. Her example was closely followed by the other States. In New York, in 1805, many gentlemen of prominence associated for the purpose of establishing a free school in New York City for the education of the children of persons in indigent circumstances, and who did not belong to, or were not provided for by, any religious society.
These public-spirited gentlemen presented a memorial to the Legislature, setting forth the benefits that would result to society from educating such children, and that it would enable them more effectually to accomplish the objects of their institution if the schools were incorporated. The bill of incorporation was passed April 9, 1805.
This was the nucleus from which the present system of public schools started into existence. Later on, in the year 1808, we find from annual printed reports that two free schools were opened and were in working order.
One of these schools was situated on a large lot of ground in Chatham Street, on which was an arsenal. It was presented by the corporation to the Free School Society of New York, on condition of that organization gratuitously educating the almshouse children. In 1809 the building was ready for occupation; it was a brick edifice one hundred and twenty feet in length and forty feet in width, capable of accommodating in one room five hundred children. In the lower story was another room which would contain one hundred and fifty scholars, with other apartments for the teachers and the meetings of the trustees.
The other school was built in Henry Street, on ground donated by Colonel Henry Rutgers in 1806; this building was not completed, however, until 1811, and was then known as School No. 2. In appearance it was the same as the one in Chatham Street, but was not quite so large, having accommodations in both floors for about four hundred and fifty pupils. About four hundred children were admitted into the two schools; the annual expense of each was, as near as could be estimated, three dollars per head.
It was the intention of the founders of these schools—among whom the names of De Witt Clinton, Ferdinand de Peyster, John Murray, and Leonard Bleecker stand prominent as officers—to avoid the teachings of any religious society; but there were among the people many who thought that sufficient care was not being bestowed upon religious instruction: to please these malcontents the literary studies of the pupils were suspended one afternoon in every week, and an association of fifty ladies of "distinguished consideration in society" met on this day and examined the children in their respective catechisms. The parents and guardians designated the denomination in the tenets of which they wished their children educated.
Every authority acquainted with these schools expressed satisfaction at the literary improvement of the children. The system employed was that of Mr. Joseph Lancaster, of London, and consisted of class-teaching in reading, writing, and arithmetic. The employment of the scholars, as made up from the printed reports, may be curious reading to many in this era of multitudinous studies.
Children were first taught to form letters in sand; then advanced to monosyllabic reading on boards; from reading on boards to Murray's first book; from Murray's first book to writing on slates; from writing on slates to writing on paper—to reading in the Bible—to addition and subtraction—to multiplication and division—to the compounds of the first rules—to reduction—to the rule of three.
To read, write, and know arithmetic m its first branches correctly, was the extent of the educational advantages which the founders of the free-school system deemed necessary for the accomplishment of their purposes. When proficient in these studies the scholars were apprenticed to some useful trade or given a profession, if the inclination and genius of the graduate seemed sufficient to warrant theoutlay.
This system was better than any that had preceded it. Under its influence the blind obedience that had marked the lower orders of Egypt, the Asiatic and Roman proletariats, and the villeins of the feudal period, passed away. Education, which in the past had been solely aristocratic and theological in its character, became democratic and secular; it popularized itself in the United States so directly with the people that the various State governments, recognizing that the beneficiaries—who at first were of the class that, uneducated, would have become a charge to the nation—grew self-helpful, were imbued with the desire to extend educational advantages. Under the sway of popular enthusiasm large sums of money were appropriated; schoolhouses were erected at public expense in all large cities, and in almost every village.
The primary thought of the founders of the new schools was lost: this consisted merely of giving a groundwork of education for pupils to build upon. Grammar and normal schools, as well as universities, arose throughout the land. College text-books were multiplied seemingly without end, and from them everything within the ken of human understanding was attempted to be taught. Instead of the original plan of three or four years being the average length of school-life for non-professionals, children were entered at five years of age and left as young men and women graduates.
This system of book-cramming, which was not only without science, but was founded upon neither experience nor observation, was followed by the most unsatisfactory results. The exclusively scholastic knowledge which was imparted unfitted the common people for the exigencies of actual working-life. This guidance of theocratic, feudalistic, and merely scholastic teaching did not result in any adequate social, moral, and intellectual improvement. Is it not time, then, that Science and Art shall assume control of the free schools of America, and convert them into halls of industrial and practical education?