Back to School

Sharon August 31st, 2009

On my lap, I’ve got a set of school books that date from the 1850s to the 1890s.  They belonged to various of my father’s family – my great-uncle, George Hume, who died long before I was born and studied Eaton’s Common School Arithmetic in Amesbury, MA in the late 19th century, not 20 miles from where I would go to school 100 years later.  The majority belonged to my great-grandfather, Edgar White, who studied latin and algebra in Jonesboro, Maine, and later went on to teach school in Cheshire, Connecticut, using the same books.  My grandfather’s books were mostly published in the 1860s, right after the civil war, and bear the names of previous owners – he got most of his books from Winnie Smith Biddeford, whoever she was.  A note from my grandmother, who passed these books to my father in the 1960s, notes that Winnie was still alive, a friend of the family, now named Winnie Lewis and living in S. Portland. 

Two of the books belong to some family connection now faded into obscurity – the Academy Songbook and Walton’s Written Arithmetic both belonged to A. B. Hollingsworth.  But who he or she may have been, and how they are tied to my family, I cannot tell you. 

I write about this for two reasons - first, I think it is worth observing that my 100-160 year old schoolbooks are still being used by my children.  The books are faded and falling apart, and I don’t allow the kids to actually touch them. But I do sometimes copy problems out of them, because I suspect their value will increase in the coming years.  

I would hate to see lost, for example, the following math problem:

“A farmer raised in one field 21 bush. 3pk. 7 qt. 1pt. of wheat; in another 48 bush. 2pk, 1pt; in another 28 bush. 6 qt.; and in another 75 bush. 1 pk., 5qt., 1 pt..”
In the margin of the book, next to the 75 bushel measure, by great-grandfather (presumably) pencilled – “not in Maine he didn’t.”  I laughed out loud, appreciating the joke even some 110 years after it was made.

But besides fondness for the old New England part of my heritage, and the stories within, I find them valuable because they demonstrate to precisely what degree our education prepares us for a particular kind of life, and to be particular kinds of people.  It is easy to observe this, of course, but a contrast between the schoolbooks of yesterday and today makes it particularly striking.

 Inside the arithmetics and grammars are a record of a way of life lost.  For example, a math problem lists the 1850 population of New York City as 515,547 and the US President’s salary at 25,000 dollars, has children estimate how many fruit trees can be grafted with how much rootstock, calculate how many men not gone to soldier will be available to bring in a harvest, and how many pieces of cloth will be needed to make a quilt of a particular size.  The emphasis is manifestly on preparing children for everyday agrarian life – how to calculate the interest a bank will pay you, how to write a letter to the editor of the local paper, teach your children, build a barn, not get cheated, make a dress, measure flour and then in the evening, stand up and recite at the public recitations that provide entertainment, or get together to discuss the issue of the day at the Grange or the Women’s Society.

Like all school books, they reveal the limitations of a society, and offer plenty that’s merely anachronistic to entertain you.  For those of us who are not Friends, for example, will probably not require a discussion of how to grammatically use the term “Thou” and “Thine,” and I think few people still use, even at their most formal, the ”th” endings that are mandated after “he” or “she” as in “She hath property.” or “He teacheth well.”  The books were all published in New York or Boston at the end of the Civil War, and all evince hostility to southerners, their grammar and history; and the usual stream of contempt for Irish, Italian and “Negro.”  Nor is it likely that any modern text would offer the model of “That the soul is immortal is believed by all nations.” as a statement of certainty, and illustration of a substantive clause.

But my own children’s schoolbooks reveal equal limitations, and assumptions that are equally problematic.  A great deal of bad stuff has been eliminated over the years – I’m grateful that my children don’t get the assumed Christianity and racism of the earlier books.  But rather inevitably, it has been replaced by some bad and some anachronistic (or rather, perfectly in tune with a rapidly departing present) that will look just as odd soon.  For example, many of my son’s math problems involve weight limits on planes, times of departure and check in times. I wonder whether my grandchildren, looking back at their father’s 3rd grade reader will be struck by the ubiquitous assumption that even small children travel on planes. 

For handling money, the calculation of interest provided by banks has been completely ignored, but shopping is very carefully explained.  While we have a curriculum that is fairly anti-consumerist, they still encourage us to cut product advertisements out of magazines and send children shopping with a limited budget to figure out how long their money will last.  The assumption is that children will have enough money to eat in restaurants and buy ice cream regularly.  The presumption of affluence runs deeply through these texts.

I’m pleased to see, in my son’s math book, that Pam and Jeanne made pies to sell at the fair and are having the problem of cutting them into the correct number of slices, and that the president loves jelly beans, so factory workers decided to send her some, divided into the correct number of boxes.   It is good to know that we have to divide up people into the right number of participants in each first aid class (told ya we got this book for a purpose ;-) ), but I’m a little mystified at how 20 peacocks ate 893 sacks of grain (were they very small sacks or peacocks the size of elephants?) and troubled by the environmental studies curriculum, which discusses the efficiency of cars, but not their relative inefficiency compared to bicycles; and while presumes that private cars are forever in a whole host of ways. 

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect my children’s academic examples to live in a perfect agrarian world – but I do think it is important to note the way that our children are subtly schooled to understand the world we live in as normal.  Even the best curricula assume a great deal – the one we use, Oak Meadow, has a slightly precious feel to it in modern day context – its conscious attempt is to bring back an old-fashioned childhood.  In some ways this suits us, but there is a measure of artificiality to it, best perceived in contrast to the actual texts that educated actual agrarian children.

With the exception, prehaps of a few romanticized junior transcendentalists, the actual 19th agrarian childhood that emerges may have had imagined fairies in it, they listened, at night, to the stories told by grandmothers at fireside, but there is no romance in the schoolbooks.  They are more practical, training young farmers for a future of hard work, careful use of money, moral behavior and practical daily life – and to live that life in close concert with extended family, friends and neighbors.  My great-grandfather’s schoolbooks, for example, have many stories of grandmothers – they inevitably live with the children in the stories, or very near.  Ben and Meg, however, the two archetypical Oak Meadow children (from a book every bit as pedantic and moralistic as any 19th century tale), drive to visit granny and to the local orchard.

For my great-grandfather, the books themselves were precious – not precious in the sense of being self-consciously nostalgic, but literally expensive.  One of them has been marked “$3 – a vast sum in a region where cash was used only to pay the taxes.  They may have been drier than modern school texts (although actually, I’m not sure that’s true), but they were carefully tended and treasured.  We have all but my grandfather’s 7th and 3rd reader, all his arithmetic books, his first and second latin (I have no idea if he went further) .  My great-grandfather was manifestly not the first owner – if Winnie was alive in 1967 when the Latin grammar was bestowed upon my father, she cannot have been much older than my grandfather.  But Winnie was not the first user either.  Kerl’s Common School Grammar has three other names in it, none of them ones I recognize.  They are pencilled through, and I can read only “Venus Castle” and “Stevie Beebhill” - by the time my grandfather was using them in the 1890s. Fom his pencil notes one can tell he then would go on to use the books to teach school in the early 1900s, until they were finally replaced – the last teaching year mentioned is 1911, but when he received them, the books were already 30 years old or more.  

Whatever old New England’s faults, the literacy and educational rates were extremely high – in north coastal Maine, there was not much money to be had for books.  Education was valued highly, enough that my great-great grandfather took out his first-ever debt ( and debt is not a word that New England farmers speak lightly)  to send my great-grandfather to what was then the State Teacher’s College at Machias.   My great-grandfather grew to manhood at the cusp of higher education requirements for teachers – it was no longer quite enough to simply have finished the last reader to teach. 

You could see how education was valued  in the care given to the books my great-grandfather stewarded – they passed through other hands, and six generations after publication, are still in use.  My father wrote his own name in them, neatly below the names tracking back for generations.  My own name is below my father’s, dated 1993.

For quite some years, I taught college composition and literature at various colleges, many of them filled with the affluent children of affluent parents, who went college mostly because college was what one did.  Some of the students truly appreciated their education, some of them didn’t – but many of them had a deeply different sense of education than past generations did. Now it was certainly true when my great-grandfather went to school, that plenty of students cared little for their schooling.  There were dropouts and cutups, lazy students and disciplined ones even then.  In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s _Farmer Boy_ for example, there are older boys who come each year only to disrupt school and assault the teacher.  It would be needlessly sentimental to imply that education was always equally valued.

But overall, the weight of the culture’s preoccupation with an education that was mostly for its own sake tells its story.  The care of the books, or the pressure one sees in later volumes to introduce advanced studies so that students leaving school after eighth grade to farm full time will have the full advantage of a good education.   For example, Greenleaf’s Geometry and Trigonometry, two subjects that in these days are generally introduced in 10th and 11th grade, notes that the book was added to the standard curriculum because modern (ie, 1870s or so) schools “have enabled pupils to complete their arithmetical studies at a comparatively young age; and in consequnece, a demand has arisen for a more advanced trigonometric course to follow the eighth grade.” 

We are also told that the quadratic equations and rationalization have been included, so that students may proceed immediately from completion of the book to college, and a guide for those studying alone, with no teacher is included, with the observation that many young scholars have mastered these skills at the end of a workday, and a rousing reference to Lincoln.  I admit, I would have had trouble mastering trigonometry at home, late at night, before the candle and after milking – but the book was written, at least, with this in mind.

In Jonesboro, Maine, where these books were used, school took place for older children only during the winters.  The rest of the time, older boys were needed on the farm – it was a cold, harsh and rocky place to practice agriculture, and that my great-great-grandfather managed to save enough to send one of his sons to college is remarkable in many ways.  The school, according to my grandmother’s notes, was some 4 miles from their farm, and my great-grandfather walked each day 8 miles round trip, often in weather well below zero F.  Studying was done after school, after the walk home, after milking the cows, after doing the chores, after supper, by kerosene lamp, before rising to milk again at 5 am.  I realize this sounds very much like “I walked to school 25 miles uphill each way in 30 feet of snow.” But I think it is worth thinking about – the deep commitment required of parents to send their children to school when they lived so economically close to the margin, on poor land, and could have used their labor.  And about the deep commitment of children to education when it demanded so much of them.  Why did they do it?  The students certainly may have been grateful to get away from the chores, but what motivated their parents?

We still live in that world of education at high cost in some ways – for all the affluent students sent to college as a placeholder, there are the students who work for it – who hold down multiple jobs and sit up late at night, who care for their children by day so that they can go to night-school and better themselves, the first-generation college students who worked their way through for a dream of a better life.

What has changed is not the kind of people we are, so much as the assumption of what an education is for.  Although my grandfather went to college and became a schoolteacher, most of his peers and siblings didn’t see their education as potentially remunerative, except in the sense of enabling them to have a better agricultural and community life.  It was necessary that they figure interest and master the selling of oats and corn, that they have enough literacy to read contracts and such.  But for farmers, education beyond that was not directly relevant, even though it was common. 

 My great-grandfather would give up the farm, but his brother stayed, and went to school just as long, working his way through Geometry, Latin poetry and grammar not to improve his economic lot, but to improve his community, and himself.  In fact, it isn’t at all clear to me that my great-grandfather or his father thought that teaching would be an improvement on farming – teachers were not well paid, and if you didn’t have to hay in 90 degree heat or milk cows at 5 below, well, you often had trouble supporting a family – my great-grandfather got into money trouble more than once along the way, I’m told.  The reason they sent him to college was simply that he loved to learn, and they wanted to give him the best chance to do what he loved.

While I’m sure this is true of some of the workers and strivers of the present, the overwhelming justification for education at every level is that you will need it to get a job – education will cost you now in loans, time spent doing activities that look good on college applications, tutors, SAT prep, etc…. but it will return to you your investment many times over.  The problem of course, is that as education’s costs have risen, this has become less and less true for most people.  I think I attended college in the 1990s at the break-even point.  Now, as students come out of their degrees with little hope of making enough money to pay their loans, that promise of education, and the merits of education, are lost.

Why did Winnie and George and Edgar and Venus and Stevie go to school?  Winnie and Venus might have taught school for a few years (although who knows), but with marriage the only widely available career for women, they certainly didn’t go to get rich.  Stevie was probably headed back to the farm.  George was going into the factories, where no education is required, and Edgar was the only one who actually needed the education he got.  And yet, if they learned what was in their books, they came out of their schools with a fine liberal education – able to recite bits of Virgil, diagram sentences, write political essays, quote Emerson, with enough algebra to build a barn and enough trigonometry to go to college.  And for the most part, it got them nothing – indeed, it cost their parents days of desperately needed labor.

Except, that it didn’t get them nothing – the benefits were not remunerative, but communal.  They were competent citizens.  Quoting Virgil may have been of no actual use to a farmwife in rural Maine except this – that she knew she could, that she could teach Latin to her children were she to go west, far from schools, that she would have in her head forever the story of the founding of Rome, alongside Emerson on “Compensation,” “Barbara Freitchie” and the history of the rulers of England.  We can quibble with what she knew – suggest that the history she learned might have better included different stories, that there are better poems.  She would live her life in a community that had, if it had nothing else, a library, able to read fluently and enjoy when she had a few minutes alone.  What we cannot argue with, I think is the value that communities found in education in these times was that education had value for its own sake, in creating educated citizens. 

Despite the fact that that education cost people something, they went on providing it, because it was right, because farmwives who read poetry and fishermen who knew algebra made farmwives who wrote letters to the editor and gathered for literary gatherings and community theatricals, and fishermen who recited poetry to themselves as they drew in their lines, recited them to their children at bedtime, and stood for town council at the end of the day.  We should not over-romanticize the role of education in ordinary, work-filled daily lives.  Nor, however, should we understate how remarkable it was.

As the cost of education continues to outstrip the economic value of education, it becomes more and more imperative that we return to valuing education in proportion to its goods – these are vast.  I, the product of a liberal education, give enormous credit to mine.  But I had the good fortune to have a college education much like the one my great-grandfather had, one not expected to get me much.  I was a scholarship student, without parental expectations, or parents investing much of their capital into educating me.  My friends were told that they could minor in theater but had to major in computer science or economics or something that would get them a good job, because after, all, the parents were not paying 20,000 dollars a year to let them major in the humanities.  Since my parents were paying very little, and I came from this inheritance of valuing education mostly for its own sake, my desire to study poetry and history was never questioned.  Since I mostly got my education from scholarships, I didn’t have to pay off vast student loans, so there was nothing stopping me from going to graduate school in English, poor as the odds were that I’d ever get a professorship (the first year I went on the academic market there were 5 candidates for every job).

Even in the early 1990s, I realized how incredibly unusual and fortunate I was to be able to learn simply for its own sake.  Now, I think at the college level, there are almost certainly as few people learning simply for their own sake, without worries about the job they will get, as when my great-grandfather was encouraged by the school superintendent in Jonesboro to apply to the teacher’s college. 

At the lower levels, the emphasis is still on the economic value of education – but we are assured at every step that free public education has no value – you *must* go on to community college, to college, to graduate school, often at stunning cost (and the not-stunning costs are rising, as states cut subsidies to education).  You must do these things because a free education cannot get you a job – simply having a high school degree is nothing.  And we are so caught up in the economic value of education – and in the necessity of training students for higher education or blue-collar slavery, that we’ve entirely forgotten the value of education outside the economy – of education as a way of making people. 

This old-fashioned value, as arcane as my great-grandfather’s school books, however, will be back.  Because if we have to live locally again, live mostly with the people around us, education for citizenship, for self-improvement, so you have some poems and stories and ideas in your head, so you can talk to others, argue, write a letter, stand for council or congress, or even simply build a barn, this is what school should teach us – and why it will persist.


19 Responses to “Back to School”

  1. deweyon 31 Aug 2009 at 10:37 am

    Beautiful essay, Sharon.

    I just recently reread Laura Ingalls Wilder’s _These Happy Golden Years_ and was a bit startled to see her schoolteaching for three 16-and 17-year-old pupils who were working on adding fractions and diagramming complex sentences – and who found these tasks tough going. Maybe some kids were learning to figure compound interest and recite Latin verse, but others finished their education possibly knowing less than your kids already do.

    You are so right about the declining return on education. My DH remarked the other day (faced with a home repair we can neither do ourselves nor afford to pay for) that he always assumed that with both of us having graduate degrees, we would enjoy financial security. Hah, fat chance. Okay, I love my job for other than financial reasons (recent “wage reduction” notwithstanding), but he would have been much better off if he’d gone to plumbing school. I would advise any young person that if you want to learn history or whatever just to be well educated, and you’re reasonably intelligent, you can learn by reading books for free. If you’re going to pay through the nose to be taught, you ought to expect that you’ll get something back – and you’d better look into the possible return for yourself, because (as Sharon knows) a lot of educational programs will do their best to gull you into thinking the jobs are available, just so they can keep their own balls in the air for a few more years.

  2. MEAon 31 Aug 2009 at 10:47 am

    My grandmother taught me poetry from a book from her mother’s childhood, written for 12 year old girls, beautfully and clearly. I was still using it in college to study Milton and T.S. Eliot. My copy of Kenny’s Latin Primer was no so old. It belonged to my uncle, and I used it one summer with I was chaning schools and had to go from Latin I to Latin III / IV.

    I love the picture in Middlemarch of Mrs. Garth teaching her sons while making apple pie (or was it dumplilngs) and telling George that if it took the peelings meant for the pigs, they would get his share of the pudding. From this, her daughter, after her marraige, was able to write a Latin primer herself.

  3. Maryon 31 Aug 2009 at 11:35 am

    When I was a girl, my family rewarded memorizing poetry. We took turns reciting to one another on trips (no car radio). I shared a bed with two of my sisters. We would all face one direction and two would give backrubs, then all turn over and rub backs again. We hadn’t a clock in the room, so equal timing was an issue for the two ends. Solution, as the person in the middle and presumably disinterested in one set of rubs being longer, I would recite a long poem as we faced each direction. My repertoire favored poems that gave goose bumps. The first time I woke up with my husband, he recited “The Chambered Nautilis” as he got up in the morning. I was charmed.

  4. Judith Tabronon 31 Aug 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Hi Sharon! I’m enjoying reading your blog these days.

    I agree with you 100% that we have lost the idea of education as critical to democracy and citizenry rather than education as critical to career success.

    But I wonder if you’re not overgeneralizing a bit, romanticizing a bit what education meant even to people in the 19th century and earlier 20th. I don’t think it was the sort of “job certification” it is now, but I do think that it was recognized as having less immediate economic benefits. (And this is often the case nowadays in rural areas around the world when education is made available: those who are far-seeing enough to realize that it may provide benefits to their child less tangible than the ability to figure crop prices often do raise children who do better economically than their parents for a host of reasons.)

    My grandmother was raised in very rural West Virginia (well, both my grandmothers were, but I’m thinking of the one who eventually inherited what had been the first frame house built in the county). She eventually worked in a factory, and put her education to good use as a union organizer. She made more money throughout her career than her husband ever made at his jobs as coal mine mechanic or janitor. And she said to me that even as a child, when the boys were being kept home to do the farm work and the girls were allowed to go to school because they weren’t as much “use”, even then she knew that she was getting the better part of the deal and that it was going to pay off in the long run. And she proved it right.

    Aside from any historical assumptions we may make, it’s fascinating to hear about the problems in the schoolbooks you’ve inherited and the type of work those students were being prepared to do. Very practical indeed. I wonder when it is that education stops being practical and starts being the impractical thing most of our undergraduates consider it to be?


  5. Karinon 31 Aug 2009 at 12:43 pm

    Just a little Maine Education trivia to share. In many parts of Northern Maine school begins in early August, and then the students are given 3 weeks off to help with the potato harvest. Still after all this time and mechanization of the farming this is still a practice.

  6. Sharonon 31 Aug 2009 at 1:16 pm

    Hi Judith – How wonderful. I agree that there were immediate returns for going to school – education got one out of an enormous amount of work. I just don’t think that at least in the largely agrarian 19th century, there was a general sense that there would be longer term economic rewards. According to my grandmother, when my great-grandfather wanted to be a teacher, his father tried to persuade him to stay in farming – because the money was better. And this was in northern Maine ;-) . It is certainly true that education became more useful as industrialization proceeded, but in rural, isolated parts of the country, I think even as late as 1900 (and my family had settled that part of Maine several hundred years ago, and kept doing mostly the same thing for mostly 200 years) there was the general expectation that for most children, education would mostly be for local purpose.

    Dewey, I think things were different in the west than in the east, or in other portions of the country. There are certainly plenty of bad things to say about New Englanders, but one of them is not their lack of attention to education – for children who were travelling west constantly, moving, as Laura Ingalls’ family did, and many of the families did, education was pretty scattered – it might be some time before an area had a school, and rather than sending children off to established schools from established farms, families were breaking sod and trying to make a living on the untilled prairie. It was easier in the east. It was also that the culture of education was different – I still find it shocking, living in New York, that I live in a town with no public library. I grew up in New England where the definition of “town” was “church and a library” – here libraries are on a county system, and not every community has one.

    It is, I think a good reminder that the culture of education isn’t inevitable.

  7. Heather Gon 31 Aug 2009 at 1:57 pm

    Good read! I’d like to add another reason for education in the 18th/19th c. — religion.

    There was a lot of mission work going on, and those wishing to become missionaries needed a good education. In Protestant, Methodist, and later on Baptist ministries, being able to read the bible oneself was desirable, and if one felt one had the calling, learning to read and write well was quite important. Many China missionaries came to believe that the most effective way for possible converts to truly become “enlightened” was for them to be able to read it for themselves. There was some work on translating the Bible, but it was easier (for the missionaries at least) to teach English instead. Many of them also taught arithmetic as well, so parents would send their kids to learn whatever would possibly help them get ahead in their world (lots of import/export business and translating opportunities). It was definitely education with a particular emphasis, although at least the mission schools overseas often included Chinese Classics as well, which I don’t believe similar schools in the U.S. did (yes, there were missions in the U.S., even on the East coast).

  8. Heather Gon 31 Aug 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Oops, I left out Catholic missions, sorry. In China, the Protestants and Methodists were generally more successful. California was more of a mixed bag, although with the Spanish there, Catholicism did dominate in many places. I don’t know the particulars for each state, but missions combined with schools were active at least from latter half of 18th c. through much of the 19th c.

  9. EJon 31 Aug 2009 at 3:16 pm

    Very interesting.

    You ask: Why did they do it?
    Apart from education:
    If the kids only went to school in the winter it wouldn’t se such a loss, workwise.
    Also perhaps because everyone was bored and it was good to get off of the farm.
    Parents might also have benefited from knowledge brought home by kids.

  10. MDon 31 Aug 2009 at 3:51 pm

    We have a few old schoolbooks left from my great-great grandfather’s third wife, a schoolteacher. We’re in TN, but the math problems were similar, and some of them were similarly advanced. One book is a history of the US, written by a Southerner in the 1870s. That book has a very different perspective from the usual Northern one, and is not as racist as you would think it would be. In the late 1800s my gg-gf was paying $4/month per child for schooling in the local one-room schoolhouse, while putting “used” horseshoes on his horses (some noted on the receipts as “found”). Basic education was necessary then to keep from being deceived, by politicians or religious leaders or anyone who assumed to “know better.” For my gg-gf, with reconstruction a recent memory, complete with the carpetbaggers and scalawags who pilfered and stole as much as they could, making sure his children were literate and numerate enough to survive was worth great financial sacrifice.

  11. Brad K.on 31 Aug 2009 at 4:02 pm

    @ dewey,

    In Junior High, in northwest Iowa, in the mid 1960’s one of my teachers made the claim that compulsory education was never intended for the benefit of the student. That no one cared, when the public school system was created, if a particular student got an “education”.

    Mr. Butt’s point was that a liberal education was essential for the informed populace that would make democracy work in America.

    If you remember the old TV show, Beverly Hillbillies, recall the running joke about Jethro having only gone to first, second, or third grade, I forget which. The rule was pass the grade or be held back – but you passed on regardless the third year in any grade – you needed the exposure to the next year’s material more than the community could afford waiting for you to master what you already missed three times. The Amish and other groups still hold to that rule – compulsory education through grade 8 – or age 16, whichever occurs first.

    I think the 16 and 17 year ages in your Ingalls story are pertinent, as they reflect the 16 year or grade eight targets of the schools, and that those students, like today, would not represent the brightest – but possibly the most diligent. Today sloth, arrogance, disrespect, and violence are big barriers to some students being able to study to their capacity. In earlier times short hours and exhaustion, exposure to lead and other heavy metals in ground, paint, and water, parasites and other illnesses and maladies also reduced a student’s ability to excel.

    @ Sharon,

    I suspect that much of New England’s fascination with a liberal education was an expression of patriotism. They close to the action of the formation of the nation. Maine, especially, was poor, poorly traveled and isolated. In Maine the awareness of nationhood and the role that thinking people play in limiting the intrusion of government through education and determination resulted in a belief and reverence for an educated mind.

    New Englanders were outside the rich streams of wealth of the South and middle Atlantic states. I imagine that the laws and actions of the new government would seem ill conceived and poorly wrought to serve them. I imagine they would want to instill the ability to oppose and withstand the ignorance and greed of the outsiders in their descendants, through education.

    Crossing the Alleghenies, in earlier times, was a monumental separation of the governed from the government. The American people grew independent, found that the government and it’s rules and laws were more oppressive than supportive, that survival and success depended more on the individual and less on a government they were relatively weak in affecting. Education became more imminent, the “practical” took on a different valuation.

    I think the only real answer to today’s big government is again an educated and informed populace. But that takes wresting control of the schools back from the hands of that same big government that seized our children’s minds so many years ago.

  12. Chuckon 31 Aug 2009 at 5:30 pm

    What’s carved in stone, literally, on the outside of the old Boston Public Library? This stern proclamation:
    “The Commonwealth requires an educated citizenry as the safeguard of order and liberty.”

    Or something like that.

    It’s a far cry from getting your economic ticket punched.

  13. Jasonon 01 Sep 2009 at 2:37 am

    From what I can recall, being schooled in London, UK in the 70s and 80s, the whole thing seemed ridiculous to us. To me, certainly. The adults so obviously detested the world that the books were schooling us to enter.

  14. [...] way of the Crunchy Con blog, I was reading Sharon Astyk’s blog entry on valuing education. She had recently come across the school books her great-grandfather used when he was a young man [...]

  15. tim-10-beron 01 Sep 2009 at 5:05 am

    Interesting column – the history of compulsory er government education was to pull people away from their religions to which people were loyal and turn them to wards (harsh term on my part) of the state er dependent on the state and good citizens. There was no focus on academics. Our education system came from the Prussian (German) system. To me…it has worked.

    Before compulsory education there was no such thing as adolescents. Young people were productive in their teens or earlier. Kids came to school knowing the basics because they were taught numbers and reading at home. They knew the importance of education. In addition literacy was much much higher than it is today.

    The books of John Taylor Gatto and Charlotte Iserbyt (lives in Maine) shed an incredible amount of light on the history of compulsory education in the US.

    Just my two cents worth…

    Sharon — I love your blog!! Keep up the great work!


  16. E.L. Beckon 01 Sep 2009 at 8:56 am

    What a thought provoking column, and I agree with the comments that link education to citizenship in a republic, an intrinsic value that, alas, we shrugged off long ago. Small-r republicanism demands civic engagement to counter corruption and keep government centered on the people, not on professionalized institutions.

  17. Crunchy Chickenon 01 Sep 2009 at 1:07 pm

    OMG, Sharon. That is so awesome. I love reading that kind of stuff. The value in those books lies in so much more than their financial worth as “antiques”.

  18. Guy McPhersonon 01 Sep 2009 at 4:51 pm

    Good stuff, Sharon, as always. You might be interested in a K-5 curriculum for the post-carbon era put together by two undergraduate students working on an independent study project, with minimal advice from me. It’s posted on my blog:

  19. lorraineon 07 Sep 2009 at 6:35 am

    Hey Sharon, what a surprise today.I was catching up on reading my “regular blogs” today and came across the mention of your great grandfather going to school in Jonesboro Maine. I live in Jonesboro, a small town of just over 500 people that just celebrated our bicentenial. This ofcourse included a look into the towns history and sharing of lots of old pictures including the old school (no longer standing) where I presume your great grandfather attended. I have been reading and enjoying your blog for about two years now,I had no idea you had ancestral roots in my town .

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