TO those at least whose memory goes back to the period of our early scholastic advantages, or rather disadvantages, a local history would seem incomplete without some account of the agencies employed in the intellectual and moral development of the people. If the progress made in the facilities for mental improvement as compared with the physical is less manifest it is not less decided and real. Physical progress is more apparent, because more spontaneous, and for the added reason that it appeals to wants which are imperious and therefore more sensibly felt. Upon the ability to supply these wants depends our existence; and they thus become the stimulus to a higher mental advancement. The formative processes of mental and moral culture are obscure and slow in their operation. They are fully manifested only in mature lives; and in these the effects are so far removed from the causes which produced them that the connection is traced only by subtile minds. Culture is necessary to a proper understanding of the needs and advantages of culture.
The conditions which environed the early settlers of this wilderness country were not favorable to a high mental culture. The settlers were uniformly poor; hence the most persistent labor and rigid economy were necessary to supply the absolute wants of their physical natures. But the uniform simplicity of their lives and few acquired wants contrasted favorably for them with the multiplied wants of the present generation, incident to a higher culture and the natural desire to gratify its dictates---a desire, however, which too often leads to an imprudent indulgence in fashionable extravagance.
While nearly all the descendants of New England ancestry who became the pioneers in this part of the State, (and their number was relatively large,) brought with them a love of learning, as they understood it, their conception of the import of that word was very different from ours. To be wholly unlettered was a disgrace; but to be able to read, write and cipher, was regarded as amply sufficient, and all beyond that, except for the learned professions, as superfluous. Of that discipline and training of the faculties by which the thorough student of to-day is prepared, solely by the unaided exercise of his own disciplined powers, to go on indefinitely in the attainment of knowledge, they knew little. Such was the popular estimate of education among the masses at the beginning of the present century; and such was the common condition of education in the central and western counties of the State, where the same general causes, the same hindrances and helps operated to produce kindred results. The dense, unbroken forest did not more fully exclude the genial sunlight from the soil, than did this dwarfed conception shut out from the children of that period the equally genial light of intelligence. The grand possibilities of a limitless culture had not yet illumined the darkened mental vision.
So severely were the energies of the first settlers taxed to provide for their physical necessities, that, even where the need of a higher mental culture was felt, little opportunity was afforded for the projection of measures to that end. Discipline of muscle, rather than of mind, was the great demand; imperious physical wants engrossed and compelled attention for many years. But few early efforts were made to establish institutions of learning of a higher grade than the common schools, and fewer still succeeded. Oxford furnishes a notable exception to this; but there are those living who witnessed its early struggles for existence.
The first generation in these counties were, nevertheless, thoroughly educated in many very important respects---in lessons not sufficiently taught in the vaunted schools of to-day. They were taught many of the nobler lessons of true manhood. Their education gave them sound bodies, sterling common sense, pure minds, and industrious and economical habits. They were thoroughly schooled in self-denials. A sense of mutual dependence cultivated in nearly all a mutual sympathy and helpfulness. To aid the needy, was a common characteristic, whether in sickness or the common affairs of life. They were, moreover, homogeneous, had similar habits, tastes and aspirations, and were, mainly, of similar nationalities.
As communities they were kind, social and orderly, quite unlike the gold-hunters and other speculating adventurers of to-day, or the more recent immigrants of diverse and often opposing nationalities and creeds, who have thronged our shores, filled our towns, and spread over our broad domain. They also differed from the Puritan settlers of Plymouth, who comprised a large proportion of thoroughly educated men, capable of organizing the church, the State and even the University. The leading minds in that community were men of marked individuality, distinguished alike for boldness of thought and independence of action. They fled from tyranny at home to seek freedom of opinion here, at the cost of privation and hardships; and New England owes to those bold, brave spirits much of the prestige which she has always maintained in politics, religion and learning. The struggles and privations of their descendants who successively tenanted new regions, while they did not lessen their enterprise and vigor, deprived them of their means of mental culture, so that, for several generations, instead of progress, there was really a retrogression of learning.
The children of the first settlers opened their eyes upon rude surroundings. Those settlers lived in log-houses and, generally, were descendants of pioneers in other places, who for a generation or more had combatted similar difficulties. Their education was limited; and though some felt the need of more thorough instruction and desired to give it to their children, the means were not available. Suitable books for the instruction of children and youth had not been introduced, and competent teachers were rare in the new settlements. Elementary schools were established, generally, soon after the settlements begun, and were maintained for longer or shorter periods each year.
A glance at the early school buildings, books and teachers, and the method of discipline and instruction pursued by the latter, will best show the early condition of our schools.
The early school buildings, like the homes of the children, were generally log structures. The windows were small and few in number, the otherwise deficient light being supplied by the capacious chimneys, and by crevices in the walls and roof. On dark days the pupils were arranged about the base of the large chimney, to utilize the light which poured down its capacious throat, and without which, study would have been impossible. The floor and ceiling, when such were provided, consisted of loose, rough boards, through the joints of which the wind had a free circulation, affording ofttimes a superabundance of fresh air. The seats were without backs, and were often formed of rived portions of forest trees, or, where saw-mills existed, of planks or slabs, supported at either end by roughly formed and acute-angled legs, which would often seek in vain for a secure rest upon the uneven floor. From such seats, sufficiently high for adults, dangled for six tedious hours daily, the uneasy limbs of children from four to six years of age, with no support for either legs, arms or backs; and there they must cling, and keep quiet, under penalty of a blow from the whip or ferrule of the teacher. When weary, and they often became so, sleep overtook not only their limbs, in which the circulation was impeded by the sharp-angled seats, but also their entire bodies, and a careless tilt of the unsteady seat precipitated the sleepers to the floor.
But the broad open fire-places of those primitive school-rooms were objects of the highest interest. It was not alone the light which they supplied, grateful and necessary as that often was; they were miniature bon-fires, on which the otherwise undelighted eyes of the pupils rested with pleasure. They gorged, at once, and without crowding, a full quarter of a cord of wood, and, when in full blast, glowed like the log heaps of the settlers' fallow ground. Around the blazing pile the pupils on entering arranged themselves, and by repeated turnings, at length so saturated with warmth their thick, home-made clothing as, for a short time, to be comfortable upon their seats, but for a short time only; for "may I go to the fire?" was, on cold days, the constant cry of the pupils. In summer these open fire-places were beautifully adorned by the skill and taste of the sylvan mistress, with various green branches from the near forest, and with such wild flowers as the season afforded.
Carving was one of the arts into which the school boys of that day were thoroughly indoctrinated, and the use of the pocket-knife was well understood by them; for
"The Yankee boy before he's sent to school|
Well knows the uses of that magic tool,
The pocket knife."
and the benches and forms of all the early school-rooms were honey-combed by his industry. Not having congenial employment for his head he found it for his hands.
Such was the general condition of the school-houses for many years after the first settlements were made. Many equally uninviting existed until a comparatively late day, and but few still painfully approximate that condition.
Then and for some years later, books of any kind, except the Bible, hymn book, and almanac, were a luxury rarely seen in the homes of the people. School books were very few, and confined to the three subjects of reading, spelling and arithmetic; the latter for the boys in all cases, but not always for the girls, who, it was thought, were sufficiently educated if they could read and write. The first school books were of English production. Dilworth's spelling book and arithmetic had been generally used in New England and many of them found their way into the early schools of these counties, having descended to the children from the parents who had used them.
Webster's spelling book, published in 1783, was the first American school book printed in this country, and it soon found its way into the schools of the country to the exclusion of nearly every other spelling book. It was the constant companion of all the pupils, from their entrance to their exit, and they were so long and so thoroughly drilled in it that some would recite half the words contained in it.
A common reading book in the earlier periods was the New Testament, into which the pupil graduated directly from the spelling book. There were then no "grades" in the schools, nor any first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth readers, as at the present day. Usually one reading book sufficed; but pupils read in whatever book the parents might send, no matter what its title or subject, nor if it was the only book of the kind in the school. Webster's Spelling book, however, soon became nearly universal. Murray's English Reader and the Columbian Orator followed, and were fixtures in the schools for a full quarter of a century.
These books comprised the finest classical productions of the men of the age, but were utterly unsuited for the children into whose hands they were placed. They mumbled and stumbled through their classic paragraphs, which were as incomprehensible to them as if they had been written in a dead language. But comprehension of a lesson was not then considered important; the object was simply to teach the art of reading. This false and pernicious error ran through every study. Lessons which developed minds only could comprehend were given to mere children.
The teachers of that day, as a class, were not competent to their work; neither was their instruction guided by any intelligent rules. They were very imperfectly educated, and could not teach others what they did not know themselves. The very perfect textbooks of to-day largely supply the deficiencies of teachers; but then both teachers and text books were deficient, and the result was what has been described. But all the schools and teachers of the first generation were not equally inefficient. There were in the hamlets and villages a few well-educated teachers, who were good instructors, and fine scholars have been graduated from even our early backwoods schools---geniuses, whom no obstacles could repress, and whose peculiar mental vigor enabled them to surmount every difficulty in their paths.
The early school discipline was but a counterpart of the prevailing errors of the time. It was mainly physical. The whip and the ferrule were as constant companions of the teacher as the book or the pen, and were equally intended for use. The pupils were urged to be orderly and diligent by pungent and often painful persuasion. A goodly store of well-seasoned switches was always ready for extra occasions, when, as often happened, wholesale floggings were to be inflicted. The whip in the hand of the teacher fell frequently upon the mischievous and idle and generally without warning or explanation. This impromptu discipline and the thorough preparation of the teachers for offense and defense, created in many schools a state of merely suspended warfare,---the relations between the teachers and pupils being essentially belligerent, and liable at any time to break out into open warfare.
In the teacher, therefore, strong physical proportions and firm courage, or remarkable mental adroitness, were indispensable to success. On the advent of a new teacher he was as carefully scanned as competitors in the prize ring; not to estimate his mental and moral qualifications, but his physical powers, and the probable chances of success if a conflict should arise.
With young people the whip and the ferrule were supplemented by many ingenious yet cruel devices, such as a gag in the mouth, a most barbarous punishment, standing on one foot, holding an object in the extended or uplifted hand, resting one hand and one foot upon the floor, and holding a heavy weight in both hands, the body inclined forward. These and many other cruel tortures which the law forbids to be inflicted on the felons in our prisons, were regularly practiced for more than a generation in the schools of Chenango and Madison counties, to incite in children the love of order, of books and of schools.
But the incentives to study, though mainly coercive, were not wholly so. Emulation and rewards were also employed; emulation being mainly confined to the spelling exercises, and rewards tot he primaries, place-taking in spelling, and simple gifts to the small children. The post of honor, the head of the spelling class, was eagerly sought for, and, in the absence of other proper incentives, doubtless benefited the brighter pupils, who usually carried off the palm---a practice which the quaint genius of a Ruskin may justify, even though the less gifted were depressed by thus constantly publishing their inferiority in the little community in which they daily moved.
Emulation was also employed, as at present, in the interesting and exciting practice termed "spelling down;" but the greatest interest centered in the spelling schools of the time, which, for the lads and lasses, had connected with them more pleasant and endearing associations than any or all of the other school exercises.
Of all the studies presented in the early schools, reading was the most imperfectly taught. The unnatural, listless, drawling monotone in prose, or the sing-song in poetry, were nearly universal. It was the result of a habit formed in childhood, continued and confirmed in youth, and immovably fixed in manhood. So general was this habit of expressionless reading that a good reader was seldom heard. The schools tended only to form and fix the habit, and books and newspapers were so rare that home reading, except of the Bible, was little practiced, and the idea that the Bible must be read in a peculiarly solemn tone did not help to form good readers. Among the masses of the people in these counties for about a quarter of a century, good reading had become nearly one of the "lost arts." It was, at least, but imperfectly preserved, amid the rigid demands and privations of forest life.
Arithmetic was better taught. Its utility was apparent to all, and every boy was initiated into its mysteries, or rather its mummeries, for its mysteries were seldom revealed. The method of instruction was largely mechanical, yet so long and continuous was the drill that most of the boys could "do the sums" as far as the "rule of three" before they left school. Each pupil was taught singly without classes or blackboards. It was a slow and laborious operation for the teacher to "work out" the sums for the pupils on their slates as models for them to imitate, for the process was chiefly one of imitation, the pupils, by long practice, learning to follow the teacher's method of solving the problems under different rules.
It would be interesting to compare the copy-books and the facilities for acquiring the art of writing existing in the schools fifty to eighty or more years ago with those of to-day. The pupils were supplied with home-made copy books of coarse, unruled paper, varying in quantity from one to a half dozen sheets, home-made inks compounded of domestic dyes, a flat lead pencil, formed of hammered lead, a goose quill and a ruler. Pens were "made" and copies "set" by the teacher. In cold weather the ink-stands were arranged around the fire to thaw their frozen contents. The teachers were generally clumsy penmen, and as they were changed frequently there were very few decent chirographers among the pupils.
This rude condition of the common schools was gradually changed. The rapid increase in population led to a corresponding improvement in the condition of the people. Hamlets and villages arose, and educated men in large numbers became residents of them. The professions and most of the employments soon had in them men of liberal attainments, whose children were to be educated. Nearly all of this class were the projectors and patrons of private schools, the common schools not being at that time, in their judgment, or in fact, worthy of intelligent patronage. Hence, though there were a few educated and competent teachers thus employed in the instruction of the children of the more intelligent, the public schools were still neglected, and very little improvement was made in them.
The schools in these counties were always partially under State patronage, the first step in a system of State education having been taken in 1784, by the creation of the Board of Regents, which was organized in nearly its present form in 1787. By an Act of the Legislature passed Feb. 28, 1789, one lot of 600 acres was set apart in each township of the Military Tract for the support of public schools. In 1795, at the suggestion of the Regents, made first in 1793 and renewed the two succeeding years, a common school system was established, and an appropriation of $50,000 annually, for five years, was made from the public revenues for the purpose of encouraging and maintaining schools in the various cities and towns. Each county was required to raise by tax an amount equal to one-half its distributive share in this sum, and the appointment of town commissioners and district trustees was authorized.
Gov. George Clinton, who, as well as every Governor and Secretary of State since his administration, advocated and recommended a liberal encouragement of the common schools, said on this subject at that time:---
"While it is evident that the general establishment and liberal endowment of academies are highly to be commended and are attended with the most beneficial results; yet it cannot be denied that they are principally confined to the children of the opulent, and that a great portion of the community are excluded from their needed advantages. The establishment of common schools throughout the State is happily calculated to remedy this inconvenience, and will, therefore, engage your early and decided consideration."
In 1801, an Act was passed authorizing the establishment of four lotteries, to raise the sum of $25,000 each, one-half of which was to be paid to the Regents, and the other half to the State Treasury, to be applied to the use of common schools. This was the foundation of the literature and common school fund. In 1805, the net proceeds of 500,000 acres of the public lands, and 3,000 shares of bank stock, were appropriated as a fund for the use of common schools, the interest of which, after it had accumulated to $50,000 per annum, was to be distributed as the Legislature should direct. But the provisions of this act measurably impaired its usefulness and efficiency, by deferring its benefits to a future day. As a consequence, the schools left to local enterprise languished, and the wealthier classes withdrew their patronage and encouraged the establishment of select schools.
In 1811, preparatory steps were taken by the Legislature to organize the common school system, which, though established in 1795, lacked efficiency from its imperfect organization. Five commissioners, viz: Jedediah Peck, Samuel Russell, John Murray, Jr., Roger Skinner and Robert Macomb, were appointed to devise a plan of organization, and June 19, 1812, an Act was passed embodying the features of their recommendations. January 14, 1813, Gideon Hawley was appointed Superintendent of Common Schools, an office which was abolished April 3, 1821, when the care of the schools devolved upon the Secretary of State. This action of the Legislature gave the State a supervisory control of the common schools, and held those immediately entrusted with their care to that degree of responsibility which gave them an importance in the public estimation, which hitherto they had not enjoyed. It stimulated local enterprise and numerous new schools were established. The law was amended in 1814, to give it greater efficiency.
From 1819 to 1827 various appropriations of lands, stocks and money were made for the increase of the school fund, and $100,000 were ordered to be annually distributed, while an equal sum was required to be raised by tax. In 1838, this fund had increased to more than three-fourths of a million of dollars.
The practical operation of the school system of the State was far from satisfactory. Attempts were regularly made to correct existing defects as they revealed themselves. In 1835, teachers' departments were first established in academies; and eight academies, one in each Senatorial District, were designated for the instruction of common school teachers. In 1838, the common schools were reorganized and assumed the form which, with few exceptions, they retained until 1849. An annual appropriation of $110,000 from the United States Deposit Fund, an amount equal to the revenue then derived from the common school fund, was provided for, and an additional $55,000 annually from the same fund was granted, to be expended in the purchase of suitable books for district libraries, the establishment of which was recommended in 1830. This $220,000 was applied to the payment of teachers' wages, and was apportioned among the several counties, towns and wards, according to their population, and paid over to the treasurer of each county for distribution. The Supervisors were required to raise annually by tax a sum equal to the amount thus received; and were empowered to raise an additional amount, not exceeding twice that sum, which the electors of a town might vote for school purposes.
In 1841, the office of Deputy Superintendent of schools, in counties, was established; and in 1843, the office of Town Inspectors and School Commissioners were abolished, and that of Town Superintendents created. R. K. Bourne, David R. Randall and Isaac B. Collins were appointed Deputy Superintendents for Chenango county, and Edward Manchester, Thos. Barlow and Marsena Temple, for Madison county. The office was abolished March 13, 1847. In the latter year also, (1843) permission was granted, under certain restrictions, to expend the appropriation for school libraries, for maps, globes and other school apparatus. This diversion and the insufficiency of local aid greatly impaired the usefulness of the district libraries, which notwithstanding their necessarily limited and imperfect character and the many abuses to which they have been subject, have been very serviceable to many whose means did not enable them to cultivate their literary tastes in a more desirable way. In 1844, a State Normal School was organized, especially intended for the instruction of common school teachers, and was opened on the 18th of December following.
During the six years' continuance of the office of Deputy Superintendent various important improvements were made in the common schools, and valuable information obtained, which ultimately led to official recognition of existing defects, and the establishment of a free school system. The investigations of these officers disclosed the fact that while many of the school buildings were so rudely built and sadly out of repair as to cause the wealthy classes to shun them, they were also neglected by the poorer classes, who were unable to pay their children's tuition and unwilling to bear the reproach of being exempted therefrom by the trustees. These officers became among the people educational missionaries, carrying into all the schools the usages and practices of the best educators, and acting as instructors of both teachers and patrons. The people were frequently convened in district meetings, and the needs of the schools and the means of supplying them carefully pointed out. The teachers themselves were separately convened in county meetings and practical teaching discussed. Regular teachers' associations arose from these meetings and have been continued to the present time, forming important links in the chain of school reform. But the county Supervisors were, in some instances, injudicious, and the office was brought into disrepute and abolished, against the earnest protest of the best friends of education in the State. It was, however, practically restored by 1856, by the creation of the office of School Commissioner, which is still continued.
In 1845, co-incident with or very soon after the formation of teachers' associations and institutes in the counties, the State teachers' association was formed and has since been maintained. In 1847, co-incident with the abolishment of the office of County Superintendent, Teachers' Institutes, which had previously existed as voluntary associations, the first having been held at Ithaca in 1843, were legalized. These institutes, which have been organized in most of the counties throughout the State, have enlisted the public favor and been maintained regularly for the last thirty-five years, and have been in part sustained by the State. In 1877, they were held in fifty-five counties in this State, and were attended by 11,892 teachers.
The agitation in favor of free schools which enlisted the talents and energies of prominent educators during the decade from 1840 to 1850, culminated in their establishment March 26, 1849. This action was submitted to a popular vote and sustained by a large majority; but its unequal operation excited discontent, and a vote taken in 1850, showed a largely reduced majority in its favor. The act was repealed in 1851, and the rate bill again introduced. Provision was made to raise $800,000 annually by State tax, but was afterwards changed to a three-fourths mill tax, by which the county schools were mainly relieved from rate bills. The establishment of free union, or high schools, was permitted by law in 1853. April 16, 1867, the free school act was again passed. In 1874, the Legislature passed "an Act to secure to children the benefits of elementary education," or what is popularly known as the "compulsory education act," which is practically a dead letter, not from a disposition to ignore the provisions of the law, but from a well considered conviction of the impracticability of executing them.
There has, therefore, been no lack of interest in education on the part of the State, which has from first to last, liberally contributed to its support and advancement. The great difficulty has been with the people themselves, as to the right use and application of the means provided, and a lack of intelligent comprehension of the best methods of giving to their schools the greatest efficiency.
Between 1830 and 1850 is the period during which thorough improvements in our schools had their origin; and the first important impulse was given by the introduction of improved school books, prepared by intelligent educators. In that period also the range of studies was greatly enlarged. Grammar, geography, natural philosophy and algebra found their way into the common schools, and chemistry, botany, astronomy, geology and mental and moral philosophy, into our public high schools.
Much of the credit of this reform must be conceded to that now troublesome and importunate class, the authors and publishers of school books. There was a great need of better books, and authors and publishers came in swarms to supply it. Each author, or publisher, acted as critic and pointed out the defects of rival books; he also became an instructor in the method of teaching the subjects embraced in his own. This gradually led to a more careful consideration of the whole subject and was the first great step in educational reform.
There was a co-incident and great change in the educational literature for children and youth of which the "Peter Parley" and the Abbott books were examples, and of which millions of copies were sold. Their influence upon the young was most wholesome. S. G. Goodrich, the author of the "Peter Parley" books, who wrote more books for youth than any other American, and who has been called the "Napoleon of the Pen," gave in four lines the "golden rules" which should be the guide of the educator, whether parent or professional teacher:---
"Begin with simple lessons---things|
On which the children love to look;
Flowers, insects, pebbles, birds on wings,
These are God's spelling book."
This was the period also during which education and the best means for its improvement formed the great subject for discussion, in which were engaged the ripest scholars and soundest educators of the age; Emerson, Mann, Woodbridge, Alonzo Potter, David P. Paige, and scores of others. They prepared masterly papers or books, in which their ideas were widely disseminated over the country, enlightening the public and leading to the institution of the county supervision of our schools in 1841, the establishment of teachers' institutes of 1843, of the State Normal School for the special training of teachers in 1844, followed by seven other similar institutions in different parts of the State, and of provisions for the free education of all the youth of the State in 1849. The results of all these agencies have been a marvelous change in many of the common and high schools of the State, and Chenango and Madison counties have not fallen behind in this educational progress. Their public schools, especially in the principal villages, compare favorably with any of the rural counties of the State; and from being, less than half a century ago, a byword and reproach, shunned by the wealthy and intelligent and neglected by the poor, are now the recipients of the patronage of all classes, and are doing efficient work in educating and preparing youth for the responsible duties of life. Much, however, yet remains to be done to give them the greatest efficiency to which they are susceptible and which the highest interests of the rising generation demand; and the schools in the interior and less populous towns should be the especial objects of the provident care of the friends of education.
The few private educational institutions which have survived the improvements inaugurated in the common schools, as well as others which have been merged in or succumbed to the latter, are noticed in connection with the towns in which they are located. The decadence of academies, supported by private enterprise, and whose curriculum embraces no higher studies than should be taught in a good common school, is one of the best indexes of the excellence of the public schools, as they flourished most when the latter were most inferior and least worthy of intelligent patronage. Chenango county retains only two of the many which once existed within her borders.
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