From the Archives: The Past Was Creeeeepy

Historian Rule #1: Don’t let your present hang-ups dictate how you view the past. Fine. But sometimes the past seems so gross it’s hard to ignore. Yesterday in the archives, for example, as I read through boxes of letters to and from Joseph Lancaster for my new book, I came across this 19th-century weirdness:my choice young friend

“My Choice Young Friend?” Why not just “Dear Betsy?” I’m thinking the letter-writer was perfectly sincere. She wanted her young friend to know that she was loved. Still, I can’t seem to get this salutation out of the “haunted doll” category.

creepy dolls

My other “Choice Young Friends”

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From the Archives: Look at Me When I’m Talking to You!

SAGLRROILYBYGTH know I’m spending my summer nerdily buried in the archives researching my new book. Some of the language oozing out of 1804 sounds depressingly similar to twenty-first century school talk.

In these pages, we’ve talked at length about schools and social justice. Can we yell at students to make them be better citizens? Is it unhealthy if schools for low-income students have them sit silently at lunch, march militarily down halls, and chant rote answers to repetitive test-driven curricula?

At New York’s famous Success Academies, for example, students are famously dictated to for their own good. Teachers and students follow a scripted set of behavioral norms. Students are directed to sit with their hands folded properly, their backs straight, and their eyes always on the teacher. As the New York Times exposed a few years ago, the tone could sometimes get creepy.

In this vision of good public education, students are thought to need intense behavioral control for their own good. Silent lunches, single-file marching in silence from class to class, and instant obedience are the hallmarks of the “no-excuses” approach. As Joan Goodman of the University of Pennsylvania has argued, the goal is submission. As Dr. Goodman put it,

To reach these objectives, these schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values. They want kids to submit. You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told.

In New York and other big cities these days, this approach is often touted as the latest thing, a new idea to help low-income students overcome unfair social hurdles to achieve academic success. As I’m finding in the archives, however, it’s the oldest approach in the books.

LOOK AT ME

Notes from 1804…or is it 2016?

In an 1804 note, for example, school reformer Joseph Lancaster clarified the proper way schools must exert total control over students from low-income homes. As Lancaster argued,

That whenever they are spoken to they give a respectful attention by looking at those who address them make the necessary reply without delay or hesitation but always be careful to speak consistently with their knowledge and to express themselves in as few comprehensive words as they are able.

Way back then, urban schools in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Albany, and elsewhere were already forcing low-income students to endure the rigors of a no-excuses approach. As Lancaster went on,

That they forbear talking to each other at meals—school hours or reading unless there be sufficient occasion. That they avoid running in the house but walk uprightly and take care to shut all doors after them (that they know out to be) with as little noise as possible.

Seems sad but true: When it comes to using schools to help children from low-income families, the answers have always involved creepy amounts of control and discipline. I can’t help but wonder: Do children from affluent families ever have to experience this sort of brow-beating and dictation?

The Death of College: We’ve Been Here Before

Ask anyone with a PhD in history, English, or philosophy. They’ll tell you: It’s not just a tough career path, there IS NO career path. Most universities rely on non-tenure-track teachers these days. In the new Atlantic Adam Harris reviews the bleak future of higher education. As my current research is showing me, we’ve been here before.

As Harris writes, Bryan Alexander’s predictions seem to be coming true. There just aren’t as many college students as there used to be. Enrollments are down and they will continue to slide. As Harris explains,

Why is the dip in enrollment such a big deal? Well, quite plainly, the business model for a lot of colleges is dependent on enrollment. If enrollments decline, revenues decline, and colleges have less money for facilities, faculty, and programs. That creates a sort of death spiral in which colleges are getting rid of programs, which in turn makes it harder to attract students, and so on.

No one ever asks the historians, but in this case we do have a strong precedent. Two hundred years ago, the systems we think of as K-12 education began to evolve into something close to their current form. It was a jagged and slow process, spread out over thirty or more years.

composition class John C Mee Oct 5 1835 Phila

Someone always has to read all the essays…

Our current system of mostly public education didn’t simply grow in an empty field. It pushed out several existing educational systems. The biggest losers in this evolution were the so-called “school masters” of the old system. As public schools took on their current form (more or less), the masters slowly lost their positions as the snobbish titans of education. Their experiences in the antebellum years could serve as a preview to the current state of tenure-track university faculty.

It’s not that the masters didn’t know what was happening. Their anxiety is palpable in every page of the letters and reports I’m reading these days in Joseph Lancaster’s papers.

For example, as one of Lancaster’s former pupils advised Lancaster in 1822, it would be better to get some students in the door immediately at Lancaster’s new school in Philadelphia. Enrollment was key to paying all the bills. As this pupil told Lancaster,

I think it would be well to admit a number of pupils at an easier rate than you have done, for you will be able to manage a greater number well organized in your own excellent mode, than a few on the imperfect plan hitherto pursued in the Institute. I think further, on this ground, could you fill your classes but respectably and get early and frequent exhibitions a short time would raise you in great and exalted honor high very high above your present inconvenient situation and engagement.

In the old system, school “Masters” experienced the dizzying shifts that today’s tenure-track faculty are experiencing. When their schools filled their enrollments, they were happy. When their schools faltered, masters suffered. Always, always, they lived in a state of continual uncertainty about the future. Would enough students come to full the school? Would they need to move to a different school, or maybe strike out on their own?

Sound familiar?

By the 1840s, the masters’ schools were tottering. As Bill Reese has described so compellingly, common-school reformers like Horace Mann toppled the Master system in Massachusetts with a set of new standardized tests.

What does this history tell us about today’s higher-ed situation? We don’t want to be too glib in our predictions, but the obvious guess would be this: We are facing a generation-long transition to a different sort of higher education. Instead of relying on effete experts for instructors, colleges will increasingly rely on a professionalized teaching force with little or no expectation of research and publication. Students will be expected more and more to prove their success with adequate performance on new sets of standardized tests.

The death of college is a death long foretold.

From the Archives: I Love Computers

Okay, so I’ll admit it: Reading these old letters all day in the research for my new book makes me love word processing. I know it’s more fashionable to be a little nostalgic and faintly Luddish and etc.backwards ps writing

But look at the kooky permutations people used to resort to. In this excerpt, the letter writer wanted to add in a postscript. Instead of just moving his cursor and clicking, he had to cram in the PS upside down and backwards in between the lines of his original letter!

No thank you.

What Was School Like in 1831?

For education historians, finding out what actually went on in classrooms is tricky. It’s easy enough to find old textbooks, old curricular standards, etc. But in order to find out what regular students did on any given regular school day it tough.

John F Taggart May 19 1831 SAMPLE OF STUDENT WORK in 1831

I wonder if this boring work led the students to murmur…?

I stumbled across a clue from May 19, 1831 in the archives yesterday. I’m working with the papers of Joseph Lancaster for my new book, and it turns out someone used the backsides of old school worksheets to make records of Lancaster’s correspondence.

So, by mere chance, we can know what John Taggart did for at least part of his school day, May 19, 1831. We can even see the one time he forgot a “y.”

Hello, Worcester!

Things might get a little quiet around the ILYBYGTH International offices for a few weeks. I’m off in scenic Worcester, Massachusetts, studying at the American Antiquarian Society. Thanks to the AAS, I’ve got a generous Alstott Morgan fellowship to support me here for a full month.

AAS reading room

My nerdy new home away from home…

I’m excited. The AAS has seventeen boxes of papers from Joseph Lancaster. [For more about this research, see here.] I can’t wait to dive in. Why, oh why, did Lancaster believe his “system” could solve urban poverty in one generation? And why did so many otherwise intelligent people believe him?

I’ll see if his papers hold the clue.

From the Archives IV: The Handwriting Is Off the Wall

Do you miss handwriting? I thought I did, but my research experience this week has me wondering. As I dug through the Philadelphia archives working on my new book, I’ve been confounded by the arcane art of penmanship.peanuts.1967.04.25

Most of my archive work over the past decade or so has been in twentieth-century collections. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH might recall, I’ve enjoyed leafing through old pages of type-written correspondence. I feel an acute nostalgia for the days of elaborate letterhead.

What I never had to wrestle with, though, is page after page of hand-written correspondence. Some of it is absolutely gorgeous. I have no idea how long it would take to write this way. Some of it is terrible and impossible to read—Charlie Brown level penmanship.

I’ll share a few of the most elaborate bits here for your Sunday morning delectation.

random handwritig 1random handwriting 2random handwriting 3random handwriting 4random handwriting 5

From the Archives III: Déjà Vu All Over Again

Close your eyes and it might be difficult to guess the decade, much less the century. Fears of a brash, vulgar populist President, a traumatic sense of rapid decline in our public institutions, and a desperate dream that stability might be right around the corner. Sound familiar?Inked1831 house report 1 political convulsions_LI

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m down in the Philadelphia archives these days researching my new book. I keep stumbling across head-scratchers that are too good not to share. This bit is from an 1831 report on education from the Pennsylvania house of representatives. They were worried that politics had gotten out of hand. They hoped that high-quality public schools could offer some hope for the future. As they put it,

when the age in which we live is so strongly marked by political convulsion—when all old institutions appear heaving from their base, and all new ones seem unsettled, if we would be preserved from that change for the worse that has been the fate of all who have preceded us, provision must be made for general education.

Clearly, the sorts of political upheaval we’re living through now have a long history.

Should we be reassured or depressed?

From the Archives II: A Dream Deferred

Sad but true: American public schools are segregated places. Kids’ chances of going to school with someone from a very different economic background are slim and getting slimmer. As I continue my work in the Philadelphia archives, I’ve come across another bit of evidence that this was not what Americans wanted.

mt vernon school philly

School for all (boys)…at least in theory

In 1828, the education committee of the state senate of Pennsylvania issued a report. There was no disagreement, they said, about the immense value of public education. As they put it,

The diffusion of education among the great body of the people, is an object very near the hearts of the benevolent and humane. It is conceded to be the most powerful means of furthering the cause of morality and religion; and its importance to a country possessing a republican form of government, is universally admitted.

Moreover, schools funded by the public should serve to unite the public. At Pennsylvania’s public schools, the committee promised (with emphasis added):

All the rising generation of a great community are instructed in the rudiments of learning. The doors of the common school houses are open to all without distinction, and the children of the rich and the poor meet there in the participation of a common benefit, upon terms of the most perfect equality. Such a system is above all praise, and deserves imitation every where.

At least, that was the dream. So far, it hasn’t happened. The children of the rich tend to go to schools with other children of the rich. Likewise for the children of the poor. But then again, it has only been 190 years. Maybe we’ll get there soon.

From the Archives: Bad News for Striking Teachers

History might not be destiny, but it can be depressing. As I’ve worked in the Philadelphia archives for my new book, I’ve found some reminders that teachers have always had to shell out their own money just to do their jobs.

Friend of Man 1 cover

Working without pay has always been considered part of the job…

These days, teacher protests have focused on both low pay and low school funding. As in Oklahoma, teachers have generated sympathy and political power by pointing out how shoddy their classrooms are, and how often they dip into their own wallets to pay for basic classroom materials.

oklahoma textbooks 1

Teachers shouldn’t have to pay for everything, but they’ve always had to…

As I read Joseph Lancaster’s 1821 newsletter I couldn’t help but notice a disturbing parallel. When Lancaster started his career as an educator, he wrote, he visited the nearby town of Stockport, near Manchester. The schools had been terrible until teachers stepped up. They needed better supplies. They needed an expensive new school building. As Lancaster described, the teachers

as a body, offered to work extra hours at their trades, and from their own earnings, to save and devote the sum of five hundred pounds sterling to the proposed building—within twelve months.

Joseph Lancaster told this as a happy tale, showing the possibilities of education if we all pulled together. Almost two hundred years later, though, I can’t help but be a little bummed out that teachers are still expected to donate their scanty mite in order to keep the school lights on.