Glenn Uminowicz - August 2007
for Life’s Work and Life’s Joys
Executive Director, Historical Society of Talbot County
The little red one-room school sits near a country lane in Longwoods. Surrounded by farm fields, the building conjures up an image of what historian Carl F. Kaestle labels the “school of romance.” In this scenario, he writes, “The school building has a cupola with a bell inside. The children walk or ride horses for miles, face a grueling day of ‘book learning,’ and go home to chores.”
For most Americans in the generation after the Civil War, formal education did begin and end in schools established and sustained by local communities. The strength of localism should inform our understanding of the origins and development of American education. William A. Link insists that historians need to look beyond often-discussed topics such as the building of state educational systems. Especially in rural areas, we must understand the “local world of public education” and discover how the great majority of Americans organized their schools and experienced learning.
Unfortunately for educators, their local world often proved less than inviting. Teaching was the least distinguished of all professions. Villagers and farmers thought of education in terms of the three “R’s” and sound moral principles, neither of which they felt required specially trained instructors. If someone wanted to teach, they probably could.
Between 1865 and 1910, Talbot County Superintendents of Schools continually bemoaned the quality of their teaching staffs. In 1866, for example, the superintendent boasted that he had “purged the helpless, the hopeless, and the lazy, leaving an excellent residuum.”
Between 1868 and 1883, equal numbers of men and woman taught in Talbot County. By 1905, however, ninety percent of the teaching staff was female. Because of low prestige and miserly salaries, both men and women regarded teaching as a steppingstone. Young men looked to earn some money and then read law or enter business. Young women generally married after a few years.
In the 19th century, teaching also failed to attract the best candidates simply because it was such hard work. At 7:00 am, a teacher drew water from the well and lit the classroom stove. At 8:00 am, the bell rang. The day began with a reading that was almost always of a religious character.
As the day progressed, each class was called to the “recitation” bench. The teacher worked with this class while other students studied or completed assignments. There was morning and afternoon recess and a half-hour break for lunch. If she was lucky, the teacher went home at the same time as her students. Often, however, she stayed to perform janitorial duties such as sweeping the floor, straightening the room, and getting fuel for the next day’s fire.
In the classroom, teachers struggled to gain control and authority. Inquisitive and sometimes hostile parents carefully monitored classroom performance. In maintaining discipline, parents demanded a combination of order and leniency that proved difficult for a teacher to achieve. Finally, the scrutiny of a teacher did not stop at the schoolhouse door. Some school boards even specified the family where a female teacher could board.
In short, in her own life, the local community expected a teacher to conform to its mores and customs. Her school was closely integrated with its cultural environment. Country people liked this arrangement. They appreciated rural schools that accomplished their modest goal of educating farm and village children close to home in a curriculum suited to their lifestyle.
The world, however, was changing and a loose coalition of reformers thought that rural schools needed to change with it. Beginning in the 1890s, urban educators, businessmen and civic groups championed expanded curriculums, improved teacher training, state intervention and the consolidation of small school districts. Instead of buttressing traditionalism and rural conservatism, schools should be future-oriented, becoming “nucleating centers for social progress.” They should expand a student’s cultural horizon and provide skills needed in an industrializing economy.
On the Eastern Shore, the reformers found an ally. In 1899, Talbot County School Superintendent Alexander W. Chaplain wrote, “The social estimate of education is based upon the contribution which it makes to the social efficiency of the individual, the additional value which it gives him as a member and servant of the social body.” In short, Chaplain wanted to “substitute society for the individual as an educational unit.” His schools would benefit the community by becoming nucleating centers for change. In turn, his students would be blessed with broadened horizons. Chaplain wrote, “Pupils are entitled to musical, artistic and manual and industrial education. They are entitled to be trained from the very beginning for life’s work and life’s joys.”
Chaplain had been a Talbot County educator for more than forty years. By 1871, he had risen to the post of superintendent and immediately became a voice for reform. He complained about teachers’ lack of qualifications and railed against the rote learning imposed on students. He insisted that education should go beyond the mere memorization of verses and multiplication tables.
During the summer months, Chaplain held Teachers Institutes, a common practice at the time. Chaplain turned his institutes into a platform for change. After the conclusion of the White Teachers Institute in 1889, he insisted that every attendee had become a convert to the “new education” and would “throw in with reformers vs conservatives.”
Chaplain also used the institutes to expand the curriculum and change how educators taught. He acknowledged that there were subjects like mathematics requiring memorization. But in addition to these subjects of “practical value,” there were others of “cultural value,” like geography and history. These were not best learned through memorization, but with a view toward the “enlargement of the intellectual horizon, the development of the sensibility, and the guidance and control of the will.”
Chaplain’s approach to education endured among superintendents that succeeded him. In 1906, Superintendent M. Bates Stevens noted that locals had successfully fought plans for consolidation for a decade. He observed, “There is an attachment to the school property as a part of the community, and the idea of consolidation will annihilate this factor. The people must be brought to that point from which they will regard the schoolhouse in its proper light, and attach to it its true value: viz., a means for the proper education of children.”
Across the nation, rural people demonstrated a remarkable ability to fend off the efforts of school reformers. They did consider their local school to be part of the community and fully recognized that professional educators wished to “annihilate this factor.” In 1916, Maryland legislators handed a victory to the educators by approving a sweeping revision of state school laws. One year later, Talbot County students could read about the measures in their copies of Leading Events of Maryland History (1917).
They learned that the governor appointed members of the State Board of Education, who in turn appointed the State Superintendent of Schools. The governor also appointed members to the county boards, who appointed the county superintendents. Going forward, all educators had to be “specially trained for their work, just as one must be properly educated before he can practice law or medicine.” A special Supervisor of Rural Schools was appointed. Finally, the State Board of Education was granted extensive powers, “So they may enforce the provisions of the school law in all counties and may give valuable assistance throughout the state.”
The era of state intervention in local schools had arrived. At their moment of triumph, two perplexing issues marred the educators’ victory. For all their talk about schools as engines of social change, Maryland reformers sidestepped the issue of racism. The statewide segregated school system endured. To his credit, Chaplain conducted Institutes for Colored Teachers. He wrote, “A great deal needs to be done for our colored teachers to improve their scholarship and teaching power. As faithful school officers and contentious fiduciary agents, however, we cannot neglect this part of our work.” In short, the need for improved colored schools was recognized, but insufficient resources would be provided to meet it. In 1916, a state survey listed one Easton colored school building to be among the poorest in the state.
The reformers claimed that progressive schools would train a generation of students committed to social progress. Historian John A. Jakle saw the outcome differently. Industry, frugality, neighborliness, and loyalty were conspicuous components of small town ideology in the 19th century. New philosophies came to dominate in the next century. Jakle observed “The philosophy of ‘looking out for yourself,’ a calculating shrewdness, the ability to drive a hard bargain were emphasized, instead of cooperation and mutual helpfulness.” In this view, progressive education produced an earlier version of the ME generation.
The Historical Society of Talbot County will explore the history of education on the Eastern Shore in an exhibit on rural schools opening on August 5th. The Society is located at 25 South Washington Street in Easton. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Admission is free. For information, call 410- 822-0773 or visit www.hstc.org.
The Historical Society is also developing a living-history program for the Longwoods School in conjunction with the Talbot County Public School System. Much of the material for this article was based on research done for this program.