Back to School

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,  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 South 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.  I do, however, 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.  Northern Maine was not known for its high grain yields.

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.”  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 an illustration of a substantive clause.

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 intentionally chosen 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 first grade 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  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 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 Waldorf 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's purpose 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 0r that it was equally valued in all places and cultures - rural northern New England was not everywhere.

But overall, the weight of this culture’s preoccupation with an education that was mostly for its own sake tells its story.  The care of the books, and 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, even if no high school is available.   It includes 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 and the economy has been less stable, 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 to them in many ways - so what IS an education for, if it doesn't make you richer?

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.  And 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 return of that education for many of us, 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 except as a step on a path– 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.



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As an elder primary (elementary) teacher feeling education and the curriculum increasingly under seige from the economic demands of today's society it was refreshing, invigorating & uplifting to read your thoughts here. I'll be printing this post & leaving it on my staff room tables, hopefully giving a new perspective to our younger teachers and letting your thoughts ripple outwards further! Thanks for your wonderful blog!

By Louise Ney (not verified) on 14 Aug 2012 #permalink


Well put.

I do look at what happened in the past a bit differently, apparently. I think the value of the works of Vergil and Emerson was actually pretty mundane. They contained elements of culture beyond the interpretation of local lives and local governments and common values assumed in various neighborhoods.

The common values taught helped each community interact with other communities, to understand local and national, and international, events in a broader context. And, as I was taught, compulsory education, at least initially, was intended to educate early Americans into the informed voters required for a democracy to persist.

I graduated high school in 1970, and did a bit of substitute teaching some seven years ago. I think, among the agendas of various special interests, public education still lays much of the foundation of that goal.

Among the realities of today's college education, don't forget the barrier college attendance erects to getting employed in many blue collar entry level jobs. There are many employers, or divisions within companies, that will not consider an applicant that has been to college. This can be a burden, if your own field is closed.

my parents were both born in the "teens" and were teenagers by the time of the great depression (what are we going to call this one?)
in the case of my mother, when she completed high school, she attended "normal" school each summer which allowed her to teach grade school in rural kansas. by 1940 she was earning the grand sum or $42 per month. she paid $7 of that to a young man to drive her to and from the school she taught at every day. the school board provided the room and the coal for the stove. she paid for chalk, art supplies, and if her students lacked supplies, such as pencils and papers, she provided that as well. she taught grades 1 thru 4. the schools senior teacher taught grades 5 thru 8.
my father had attended a similar school. as eighth grade drew to a close, his family decided they could not spare him from the farm to go to high school. the two hour bus ride would have the effect of preventing him from doing the milking before school. anxious to continue his education, he convinced both the school and his parents that he could still learn more in the eighth grade classroom, and was allowed to repeat the grade for extra learning, and was able to keep up with his chores as well.
fiew of us today are so enamored with learning that we would take that tack.

I love this post, and I whole-heartedly agree with everything in it.

It does also make me a little angry though, because I still feel very caught in the cycle of "go to school to make money/get a better job" but still worried about whether taking out the loans to get there will be worth it in the end--especially as an aspiring farmer, who would like to be able to stay at home with kids.

Is it better to have higher education to fall back on?

Thanks so much for such a wonderful post!

Very interesting post! I have undergraduate and master's degrees in computer science, and 6 years out of school I would say that the degrees have paid for themselves, and are currently paying for my house / garden / lifestyle.

I would also say that not everyone should go to college, and one of the best things I did was sit down and think about what I enjoyed doing, what sort of life I wanted to have, and what I needed to do to make that happen. In my case, it meant that I went for computer science / engineering instead of art or fashion design. I enjoy both areas, but one of them is much better for a stable income and owning a house with some land.

The school system today is extremely focused on preparing students for more education. High school students are pushed to take college preparation classes, instead of learning skills which might be useful in their day-to-day life.

Colleges aren't any better. In undergraduate, I had to explain to 3 professors why I was "only" going on to a masters program instead of going for a PhD. In the masters program, I had to explain to another 3 professors why I wasn't going for a PhD. While I *could* probably get a PhD, having a PhD in computer science actually hurts your job prospects for anything other than academic jobs.

So I'm a big advocate for having plans for your life, and then making choices which get you there. In some cases, further education can be part of those plans (or even one of your goals). But don't just go for it because everyone is doing it these days!