Published Online:

From an 'Antiquated Schoolhouse': Teaching in the 1800's

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Educators in the 19th century, like their contemporary counterparts, were concerned with such issues as quality of facilities, teacher preparation, discipline, and instructional methods.

Documents recording the perspectives of teachers, students, and other observers on classroom practice are analyzed by Barbara Finkelstein in Governing the Young: Teacher Behavior in Popular Primary Schools in Nineteenth-Century United States.

The writings collected by Ms. Finkelstein, who is director of the center for the study of education policy and human values at the University of Maryland, include excerpts from the autobiography of the educator Hiram Orcutt.

In the following passages, Orcutt recalls experiences as a student in a New Hampshire schoolhouse and as a teacher in several Massachusetts schools in the 1830's and 40's:

That antiquated schoolhouse ... was rude and simple in its construction. It had three small windows on as many sides, each of which had a heavy board shutter to keep out the light during vacations, and to conceal the bats in term-time. They served both purposes well. The bats, however, were easily captured by the roguish boys, and sometimes made trouble for the master.

The inside arrangements of this schoolhouse were unique. On one side was a large open fireplace, which with its entrance door occupied the whole space. In this great heater, in the cold winter, not less than half a cord of green wood was consumed each day, roasting half the school and leaving the other half nearly frozen during the process.

The seats and benches were made of half-planed hemlock or spruce boards, and were arranged on three sides of the house, in amphitheatre style. The back seats were designed for the older boys and girls, and the front seats for little ones sent to school to relieve the mothers of their care at home.

These seats were so wide that the child's back could not be supported, and so high that his feet could not touch the floor. A more complete rack of torture and machine for making cripples could hardly be invented. Yet these children were kept upon these hard benches all day long, relieved only by short recesses, with nothing to do but to play, if they dared. ...

The teachers employed in this district--a young man in the winter and a young woman in the summer--deserve a passing notice. They 'kept school' one term each, but were seldom re-elected.

As a matter of fact these teachers were incompetent. They had no opportunity for culture and professional training. It was not their fault. There were no training schools in those days, no examinations, no opportunities nor inducements to gain the necessary preparation for their important work.

The parents of the pupils had in4herited the idea of education for their children, but knew little or nothing of its nature or importance. Economy was the main concern with them.

Hence the scanty outfit for school purposes, and the cheap teachers. The question as to the candidate's qualifications for the teacher's office was seldom raised, but rather how small a compensation would be accepted for the service required. In fact, the school was 'struck off' to the lowest bidder. That was not economy, but a ruinous waste.

In that school, and in almost all other country schools of that day, there was no systematic instruction, no class-drill, little mental discipline, and absolutely no practical training for even the common duties of life.

Incorrect instruction led to the formation of bad habits of thought and study. ...

[T]he teaching of composition in any form was never attempted. Writing in copy-books was allowed, but not taught. In reading, the pupil acquired the habit of uttering improper sounds, mispronouncing words, and the incorrect expression of sentences.

In arithmetic, he was required only to 'do the sums,' without understanding the principles or reasons. It was never suggested that a correct knowledge of this or any other branch of study would be of any practical benefit in the business life.

The study of geography consisted of committing to memory long lists of names and figures, to be forgotten before the next recitation. Grammar was, and continued to be, one of the seven wonders of the world. As a result, the best graduates from this school could not have estimated the measure and value of a pile of wood, could not have expressed correctly a simple sentence, or written a creditable letter to their mothers.

The influence of such a school upon its pupils and upon the community, was disastrous. There was little in the school or the home calculated to encourage or inspire pupils to seek higher attainments.

The condition of families and the community could not make great advancement under such a system of education. Real estate depreciated, enterprise languished, and decay has marked the lapse of time, from generation to generation in that neighborhood. ...

[Two of the schools in which Orcutt taught] numbered nearly 100 pupils each, ranging from 6 to 25 years of age. They were of a decidedly mixed character, and all gathered in one room, to be managed and taught without an assistant!

In [one] school I had a whole ship's crew, including captain, mate, and cook. They had come home from a fishing voyage to spend the winter, and, having nothing else to do, they entered the school. It will be readily seen, as it proved in practice, that the government of such a school was no 'boy's play' for the teacher, however much the boys might play.

I propose here to explain the method adopted in the discipline of these schools, as an object lesson. It is expressed by the word management.

This method includes government based upon authority, yet it aims to avoid the necessity of exercising authority and the infliction of severe punishment. It is based upon the assumption that in the best governed school the controlling power is not visible. That is, the school is so managed that it becomes and remains self-governing. ...

In applying this method, I always insisted that there could be but one head to my school and that my authority was absolute; yet I planned and labored to secure voluntary conformity to known, necessary rules and regulations. To this end I aimed to gain the confidence of the pupils, large and small, and through them the confidence and cooperation of their parents and friends.

But I never failed promptly to check every indication of insubordination and irregularity. The pupils were treated with attention and kindness, at all times, everywhere. Out of school hours I mingled familiarly with them, joined them in their sports, and sympathized with them in all their joys and sorrows.

In their homes--where I frequently met them, by the way,--and on the playground we stood on a common level. In the schoolroom, however, I was recognized as master, and so complete was their loyalty--captain, mate, and all--that I could punish, if need be, with severity, in the presence of the school, without the least opposition on the part of the offender. ...

There were in these schools, as in most others, a few idle, lawless fellows upon whom moral influence and mild measures had no power. They had no desire for improvement, cared nothing for law and order, had no respect for superiors, and were ready to defy authority whenever it suited their convenience. How to treat this class is a question which every practical teacher has to answer.

My own views on this point were formed and expressed many years ago, and my long and varied experience in the discipline of the school has wrought no change in them.

We hear much said, in these days, upon the reform method of family and school government. It is maintained by learned theorists in positions of high authority, and it is voted by wise or unwise school boards, that no physical coertion [sic] should be allowed in our public schools. If there are children who cannot be controlled by moral suasion, they say, expel them.

I say, in answer to these theorists, if they have employed teachers who cannot govern their schools without frequent resort to corporal punishment, turn them out, but allow the skilful [sic] disciplinarian to retain the rod for use in such cases as I have described above.

It is wrong, it is cruel, to turn into the street the stubborn rebellious boy or girl who refuses to be persuaded to submit to authority, and thus give the child over to the officers of the law, soon to be enrolled with the criminal classes. The sensible and humane course is to subdue the rebel by whatever severity necessary, and save him to himself, to his family, and to society. ...

I was one day conducting a class recitation of which [a bright but unruly boy] was a member. Some question was put to him which he answered in an insulting manner.

I rose from my chair and stepped down in front of the boy, with no intention of touching him; but he at once assumed a defiant position, which I understood was intended as a challenge to lay hand on him.

I accepted it as such, and taking him by the collar I laid him upon his back on the floor. He instantly rose, in great rage, and commenced swearing at me!

I did not use the rod upon him, for I had none at hand, but I chastised him severely (taking care not to do him serious injury), and continued to do so until he stopped swearing. I then seated him by my side on the platform, and finished the recitation.

He was completely subdued, as I intended he should be, but I had not done with him yet. The most important part of the treatment was yet to come. I must see him alone, as I did, and explain to him my feelings and motives in dealing with him so roughly.

This was exactly the time when moral suasion could be brought to bear upon him to some purpose. I talked to him in the tone and spirit of a friend, and he recognized me as such, told me frankly, and told others who had come to sympathize with him and take his part against me, that I was right and he was wrong; and years afterwards, when I met him, he said that my treatment of him on that occasion was of great value to him in after life. He became a successful business man, and remained a warm personal friend to the day of his death.

From Governing the Young: Teacher Behavior in Popular Primary Schools in Nineteenth-Century United States by Barbara Finkelstein. Copyright 1989 by Barbara Finkelstein. With permission of the publisher, Falmer Press.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories