It’s always surprised me a little that school reform was even an issue in the 1800’s. Just thinking about all those little schoolhouses with one room and 15 students writing on bark and learning the 3 R’s…how bad could that be? But I suppose it was also the time of dunce caps, knuckle raps with rulers, and a rather narrow view of learning (mainly, just the 3 R’s).
A group of thinkers in New England, called the Transcendentalists, were all into school reform. Most of them started and ran their own schools at one time or another…and most of them failed due to lack of public support. They were ahead of their time even in 2009 standards. Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott, ran one school until he “alienated many parents by admitting an African American child to the class, whom he then refused to expel in the face of protests.” The parents withdrew their children and the school closed down.
I love Emerson’s imagining of a good classroom, which allows for a certain perspective of what is truly important besides a strict following of rules and procedures. (Hear that, No Child Left Behind?!)I find it charming and an inspiration for the kind of environment I try to keep in my home.
I confess myself utterly at a loss in suggesting particular reforms in our ways of teaching. No discretion that can be lodged with a school-committee, with the overseers or visitors of an academy, of a college, can at all avail to reach these difficulties and perplexities, but they solve themselves when we leave institutions and address individuals.
I advise teachers to cherish mother-wit. I assume that you will keep the grammar, reading, writing and arithmetic in order; ’tis easy and of course you will. But smuggle in a Iittle contraband wit, fancy, imagination, thought. If you have a taste which you have suppressed because it is not shared by those about you, tell them that. Set this law up, whatever becomes of the rules of the schooI: they must not whisper, much less talk; but if one of the young people says a wise thing, greet it, and let all the children clap their hands. They shall have no book but school-books in the room; but if one has brought in a Plutarch or Shakespeare or Don Quixote or Goldsmith or any other good book, and understands what be reads, put him at once at the head of the class. Nobody shall be disorderly, or leave his desk without permission, but if a boy runs from his bench, or a girl, because the fire falls, or to check some injury that a little dastard is indicting behind his desk on some helpless sufferer, take away the medal from the head of the class and give it on the instant to the brave rescuer. If a child happens to show that he knows any fact about astronomy, or plants, or birds, or rocks, or history, that interests him and you, hush all the classes and encourage him to ten it so that all may hear. Then you have made your school-room like the world. Of course you will insist on modesty in the children, and respect to their teachers, but if the boy stops you in your speech, cries out that you are wrong and sets you right, hug him!
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