Early Education

I took courses at the Graduate Degree level that compelled me to learn something about Lowell’s early education system. I recently went on John McDonough and George Anthes’ television show, “City Life,” and said that we should have a museum dedicated to education in Lowell. I do not know if they took me seriously. However, I can say that Lowell’s early education system, dating back as far as the town did, included many attempts to educate the populace, including the women who worked in the mills.

Lowell had a vocational school system which met usually at night, although that was not always the case. Sometimes they had vocational classes that met during the day, but that did not fit in with the mill girl’s schedule so the offerings were largely in the evening. The School Superintendent, whose name escapes me right now, but I believe it was Mr. White, stated that he did not relish seeing students reduced to “threshing old straw,” for a small wage.

Not all members of Lowell’s immigrant society were necessarily welcomed into the new schools. Catholics reflected their basic training by attending Catholic schools, and other smaller groups attended schools that reflected their culture.

Lowell’s early school system saw the advent of a new high school at a time when having a seventh grade education made you eligible to be a teacher. High school was “higher education.” In 1831 Lowell opened its first high school with a nineteen year old Headmaster. He stayed at the high school for many years. LHS was In a temporary building on Middlesex Street, long since torn down, where he taught according to the curricular rules in “White’s Pedagogy.” While Lowell was blessed with one central high school, it had many satellite schools. By 1932 there were LHS, and the Butler, Bartlett, and Moody schools offering courses at a high school level. In 1841, however, the high school abandoned its building on Middlesex Street and made its home on Kirk Street.

Lowell had the first 1 through 8 school in the nation. It was known as the Highlands School and was located close to the area where the Morey School is now. Supposedly, it was built in 1828, but I have to use that date from memory because I do not have access to the original article about the school that appeared in a local newspaper.

Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin influenced the start of the new school system. Both men had written treatises on vocational versus academic education, with the English-leaning mill owners and bosses sending their children to Lowell schools which promoted academic training and entry into the burgeoning college system in Massachusetts Franklin believed that children should be taught a trade, while Jefferson believed they should be taught a more liberal education.

Finally, there were many schools in Lowell. Most were one-room school-houses. At one point, school department files stated that there were forty-seven one-room schoolhouses in Lowell, with one large grammar school (which is presumably the one in the Highlands), and one high school. The Greene School, which was a wooden building near a tannery, (filling it with less than appetizing scents), was the first school built in Lowell to house students and built to stand for an extended period. The Greene School on Merrimack Street was the first school of the new generation of brick schools. It was built far away from the tannery that its forerunner had sat near.

In order to not make the mistakes of previous administrations, it is necessary to know what those mistakes were and where they had the greatest effect. It is interesting that, in a time we would probably call “provincial,” many of our current educational system-related components were in place and working. Mr. White taught his teachers his “pedagogy,” long before our great-grandparents were born. It was a required Saturday activity. Teachers still often work on Saturday. By 1862 there were continual attempts to start a grading system. Prior to 1862 students were not graded.

So Lowell is a microcosm of the new United States educational system. It had country schools, and school teachers who were reviewed for their neatness and abiity to run a one-room schoolhouse. These teachers taught up until the eighth grade. If they were married, they had to give up teachng so that their students did not have to know where babies came from. I remember some of my favorite high school teachers in Lowell were Miss, not Mrs. Old practices die hard.

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