Educational Philosophy of the 1880’s

Anyone who has been following my articles knows that I believe that nothing in education really changes. There is ample evidence of this in the philosophy of the School Committee in Lowell in 1880 and throughout the decade.

Testing, grades, curriculum (pedagogy), and items that we believe we are inventing were actually in place that decade. There was even a Committee on Hygiene, as well as, the need to keep busy on matters we personally allow students to determine for themselves today, the uses of which have exploded in the computer age. It had its origin in early School Committee Minutes.

The purpose of this exercise is to illuminate the philosophy of the day as described by the Superintendent of Schools and others in their day. They were very prolific in their opinions and recommendations. Not unlike today.

Let us just check in the words of the writers of the School Committee program of their day. “A babe, its little mind is capable of receiving impressions much earlier than you suppose.” In other words, start education at home and early.

“Teach him by example. Children are great imitators.” according to one writer. In a less academic setting, a writer argues that you should, “See that the little ones in your care are kept from falling.” (Page 12)

“Show your love for him,” admonishes one teacher.

In a line that could be cut from today’s Republican rhetoric, it is advised that good government means “not too much governed.” Pg. 14

Not everything was so black and white. In a statement that shows teachers their limits, the philosophy states that “Teachers require certain general rules for guidance.” As if they cannot make up the rules themselves. Gripes one paragraph, “Some teachers can guide one hundred scholars while some fall short in the management of 30 or 40.” When I was teaching I had about 35 and that was difficult. One hundred would have done me in.

Parents recognize, stated the Superintendent, “The importance of regularity in attendance of their children at school.” The administration agreed that that was an important piece of their learning. “There must be regular and punctual attendance at school.” stated one teacher. The Superintendent chimed in that “His habits of punctuality are just the qualities for a successful businessman.” (Pg.17) Punctuality and attendance were strengthened through exercises in the classroom. Students who did not comply were disciplined.

Lowell was a factory town and the people were pushed to be punctual and proper in their dealings with one another. A teacher was held in great esteem. An administrator and the Superintendent were even more esteemed.

In 1881, the Mayor was Frederick T. Greenhalge. The School Committee was broken into two units, and Charles C. Hutchinson was President of the Common Council. There were two standing committees, one “On Accounts,” and one on “School Houses and Hygiene.” Incredibly, there were 47 Primary Schools, numbered, not named. In addition, there was one High School and five Reform Schools. It is not indicated in the Minutes whether the Reform Schools even had a curriculum.

Charles Morrill was the Superintendent of Schools. In a Report to the School Committee, he stated from his office in a city government building that “We claim a constant advancement towards perfection.” Again, in my opinion, that is fairly consistent with what happens now.

The four castles of the school system were the Abraham Lincoln School in the Highands, the Moody School at Rogers Park, the Pawtucket Memorial School, and the Butler School. Mr. Morrill stated that “We may take today…an honest pride n our system, in our school teachers, and in our scholars.” Children were always scholars, not students.

As stated, it was the recommendation of the School Committee that scholars under the age of seven not go to formal schools.
“No parent should be so cruel as to send them out from home merely to get rid of them.” it was stated in the School Committee Report. Also, it was noted that “Children are naturally selfish; they must be taught unselfishness and generosity.” In addition, it was required that “A clear idea should be formed as to (the development) of his character.” It was very important to shun companions and courses of action that lead down to destruction.

When I moved here in 1969, at the age of sixteen, little had changed in the 1880 school philosophy versus the 1960’s model. The Lincoln, Moody, Butler, and Pawtucket Memorial schools were still being used. Some textbooks dated back decades. Teachers seemed, to me the Superintendent’s son, to be more interested in their two unions than in changing education. I remember being yanked by a teacher whose identity will remain mine to know (he is deceased), into a Men’s Teacher’s Room and having the lone lightbulb pointed out. “That is what we are fighting for, you can tell your father.” I never did tell him about that.

Through our efforts to make PTO’s stronger, the Citywide Parent Council more visible, and other parental committees more prevalent, we are breaking down those barriers. Even I would not say that our current schools are totally reflected in our historic past. Many changes have been made.

I have a television show which features the current School Superintendent. Sometimes my questions are good, and sometimes they are a bit lame, but he opens his office once a month to answer questions on where the school system is headed. That is one thing that I do not see in our school histories. Lowell now has a school system to be proud of, and a potential multi-million dollar high school in the works. I believe it should continue to stay downtown. Time will tell. In the meantime, let’s take from the past a point of personal preference. Mr. Morrill states that, “The example of a manly and dignified teacher…becomes contagious. The scholar is sure to catch the inspiration.” We can only hope that more scholars do catch the inspiration of our educational history.