A fascinating look at the conditions in Bedford’s schools in 1847, and how a few sensible town fathers made a pointed plea for change.
Report of the School Committee of Bedford, Mass for the Year Ending April, 1847
Unfortunately, for your Committee, it becomes our duty to invite the attention of the town to a dry, uninteresting and unimportant subject – the education of the youth of Bedford. Had we been appointed a Committee to prosecute every person who should take a load of gravel from the highway or make any encroachments thereon, our report would have been listened to with the deepest interest by every voter of the town. The reason is obvious – you value a load of gravel more than the education of your children – the improvement of the public roads more than the improvement of your public schools.
It is a matter of astonishment to your Committee, that you should so mistake your true interests. You forget that your sons are soon to take charge of this ballot-box, soon to occupy this desk and soon to manage the affairs of your town. How unwelcome soever may be our remarks, we have a duty to perform, a report to lay before you, whether you hear or forbear. Agreeably to the law of Massachusetts, we have visited our public schools monthly, and examined them at the opening and closing of each term. It affords us great pleasure in being able to speak highly of most of them – but duty forbids that we should present only the pleasing and bright side of the picture. While we have witnessed much to approve, we have also seen somewhat to condemn. Of their condition and progress we shall speak in another part of our report.
Your Committee feel that the great end of the institution of our public schools is not gained, at least, in Bedford, We find several serious barriers to their success. 1st. The cold icy apathy of parents in regards to them, as our closing examinations too sadly declare. You can visit your barns 6 or 8 times a day, to see how your calves grow, to see if they are properly attended to – but how seldom to you make a cheerful visit to the school-room, containing your children. Very little value must you place upon the cause of education, while you feel less interest in the intellectual advancement of your sons and daughters, than in the growth of a seven-and-six-penny calf. You should show your children that you are in earnest about their education, by frequently visiting them at school. How animating and encouraging it would be to them to see their fathers and mothers all present at our final examinations. It is an important day with the scholars, an important day with the teacher, and important day with this Board, but not so with you.
2nd barrier. The difficulty of classifying or systematizing our schools, an explanation of which would require more time than you can profitably spend away from your barns and your workshops. 3d. The too frequent change in teachers. In all schools of high order, (academies and colleges,) it is a universal practice to employ permanent teachers. We believe the services on an instructor increase in value from month to month – from year to year.
We would recommend the employment of efficient teachers belonging in town, in preference to strangers, as they will be more ambitious among their acquaintance, as was evinced in our schools the past year. We are happy to see that several young misses and masters in the Centre, West and South Districts, are making laudable exertions to qualify themselves to instruct. This speaks well for Bedford. Having an exalted opinion of the State Normal Institution, we cheerfully recommend it to the favorable consideration of all who aspire to the high and responsible office of a teacher. 4th. Private Schools, which your Committee view as a great evil to the community a cancer, eating out the very vitals of our public schools. Had not your Town-Committee, for the last four or five years, been themselves private school teachers , or interested in sustaining them, they would have been the loudest in their denunciation against them, that for their supporters virtually say that the common schools are not respectable enough for their sons and daughters.
If the money expended in Bedford for the support of a private schools, (both during the vacations and term-time of the common schools,) could be added to the town appropriations, we could secure to the public schools, the services of these very private teachers, and thus bring the advantages of high schools and academies within the reach of the poorest child in the town.
5th barrier. Incompetent Teachers. The most important part of our services consisted in the examination and approbation of teachers. Our consciences almost reprove us for our leniency in this matter. We would say to our successors, as you will occupy the most responsible office in the gift of the town, be faithful to your trust, especially in the examination of candidates for the school desk. We would say, adopt a high standard, and fear not of wounding the candidates feelings, even if you have to reject him – for you had better offend on, than injure the interests of forty or fifty.
Be not satisfied with certificates of qualifications, for a teacher may be qualified for latitude and longitude of Downingville, and yet be wholly incompetent to teacher the most backward school in Bedford. Be not satisfied with every John Smith who happens to come along.
In the opinion of your Committee, the choice of an individual to take charge of the education of your children is a matter of the highest importance. He should be a moral man, not negatively, but positively – that the education of the conscience as well as of the mind should be attended to. While we would away with all creeds, dogmas and sectarian influences, we would have instilled into the tender bosoms of the young the principles of sound morality. Like teachers, like scholar, like produces like – a principle founded in truth, in the educational, as well as in the homeopathic system. As the instructor sets copies in writing, to be followed by his scholars, so is he himself a copy, imitated, more or less, by the whole school. We further recommend to those who shall succeed us, to approbate only such men and women as have the power of self-government – for they who cannot govern themselves are unfit to govern others. We would have hung, in large letters, over every school desk in Bedford, this motto, TEACHER, GOVERN THYSELF, ALL SUCCESS CENTERS THERE.
6th barrier. Superficiality of instruction. We want to see more thoroughness of teaching – more frequency of reviews– that what is taught, shall be understandably taught – not storing the memory with words, but the mind with ideas. We would substitute for showy surface-learning, substantial and practical education. In some of the schools, both teacher and scholars confined themselves too much to the questions (injudiciously placed by the authors) at the end of each lesson, as was clearly provided at the examinations, by occasional questions put by the committee. For instance, where a scholar had been through the cube and square roots, he could scarcely make the black-board tell the contents of a load of wood, of given dimensions – or what number of yards of carpeting would be required to cover the floor of the school-room, the size being given.
In one or two schools, we were sorry to witness, at the closing examinations, an auctioneer-like attempt on the part of the teacher, to show off his goods and wares for more than their real worth – thus virtually learning the scholars to practice deception. We regret we did not take the examination more into our own hands.
7th. The next barrier to the success of our public schools, is your parsimonious appropriations for their support. Although Bedford, in this matter, stands above the average of the 310 towns in the State, it is a humiliating fact, that she does not raise money enough to purchase, for each child from 4 to 16 years of age, a decent go-to-meeting hat or bonnet, viz. $3. It appears to your committee that you adopt a mistaken economy. You forget, that every dollar you expend for the education of your children, is so much money put at interest – a safe and profitable investment – a kind of stock, in the value of which there is no fluctuation, as in bank and railroad stocks; for it always commands par, and oftentimes a considerable advance. You forget that knowledge is wealth, as well as power. If you properly APPRECIATED the importance of sustaining our free schools, or consulted self-interest, you would manifest a deeper concern for their prosperity.The eloquence displayed in this hall, at our last March meeting upon the merits of the Mexican war, and the value of the gravel in our highways, would have been brought to bear upon this momentous subject.
8th. Your school-houses constitute the last barrier we have to mention, and we must say, this town is a quarter of a century behind the age. To repair your barns and sheds for the comfort of your cattle, and keep your children shut up all winter in cold, ill-contrived , and uncomfortable school-houses, is a strange sort of humanity and economy. The east, south and west, will tell their own stories, if parents will only visit them at the examinations, and hear their sad tale. The prudential committee of these districts ought to be authorized to purchase a machine for stretching the arms and legs of the small children, to adapt them to the height of the seats and benches. These school-houses have one perfection, however, which we ought to mention, vis: perfect ventilation – so perfect that coughs, colds, croups, and fevers, walk in without knocking. At the closing examination of the North and East schools, we were so uncomfortably cold, that we were obliged to wood-up, or rather slab-up; for the fuel consisted of green slabs, fresh from 👉 Wilson’s mill, and too heavy for the shivering children to handle.
Your committee would now invite your attention to the condition and progress of several schools.
All of the summer and one of the winter schools, were taught by females – they were well-governed and well taught, with one exception. Fidelity to the trust reposed in us by the town, compels us to say, and plainly too, that this exception refers to the West school, while under the care of Miss Foster. The instructress, employed at the commencement, (Miss Colburn,) gave perfect satisfaction, till ill-health compelled her to resign. We think the district was unfortunate in the choice of her successor – whose chief fault was inexperience. She seldom dared venture beyond the language of the textbooks, and consequently her instructions were narrow and unprofitable. There was too much shallowness – too much word-learning, without ideas. She would help along her scholars with their reading and answering questions, without allowing them sufficient time to do the work themselves – why, she might as well eat and drink for them, as to recite their lessons.
Of the winter schools, we can say, that with much pleasure and satisfaction, we have noticed great progress in three of them. Centre No. 1, South and West. The teachers were men of experience and ability, received the warm approbation of your committee, and deserve the thanks of their respective districts. They were well qualified for their work, having a perfect knowledge of the branches taught, and a happy talent to communicate that the knowledge to their scholars. Much attention in these schools was given to spelling and defining – two important branches very much neglected in our schools – and the operations upon the slates and black-board, were readily and correctly performed. The government was a government of kindness and not of fear – only one law, and that the law of love – for those teachers know that an impression made upon the body is not so profitable as upon the mind and the affection.
We would here remark, that we have advised the substitution of kindness for the rod, in all of our schools. We would not be wiser than Solomon, who said, “he that spareth the rod, spoileth the child” – but, had he lived at this day, probably he would have said, “he that useth the rod, spoileth the child.” It is possible that, in Solomon’s time, they had two masters in each school – one to flog and one to teach. Fortunately for us, we can dispense with the former. Let not your committee be misunderstood in this matter; for, while we prefer expulsion to corporeal punishment, we would not wholly disarm the teacher – by no means – when occasion calls, let the offender meet the warm hug of the birch.
The Centre (No.1) school was taught by Mr. Willard, a gentleman educated at the Normal institution, and we cannot but express our highest approbation of the practical method of his instructions. Several compositions,some of which were beautiful in thought and style,) were read at the final examination, and listened to with deep interest by the parents, spectators and the committee. We were pleased, also, to witness some specimens of map-drawing, which, with the exercise of writing composition, we would earnestly recommend to all the other schools.
We could wish to see more attention paid to the study of book-keeping, out of regard to your entry, closet and shop doors, which have been both day-book and ledger for many generations.
In the West School, under the care of Mr. Davis, both the discipline and proficiency were remarkably good. The instruction was not, as in some of the other schools, superficial; for principles, and not mere words, were regarded by the teacher.
Of the East school, although taught by a gentleman highly educated, Mr. Bartlett, we should not feel justified in speaking in the highest terms. When a teacher makes it his employment a stepping-place to some other station, he is apt to lack the interest in his school; for he cannot have his eye upon the pulpit and at the same time upon his scholars – he cannot serve God and mammon.
In the North school, taught by Mr. Neal, nothing wonderful occurred, except one expulsion. The teacher’s energy was not equal to his literary qualifications, and therefore the progress was not great. A case of insubordination happened in a large boy, who was so insolent to his instructor, that it became our unpleasant duty to order his expulsion from the school.
The South school was under the charge of that experienced and faithful teacher, Mr. Sterns. While we bear out united testimony to his ability and eminent qualifications, we feel bound to say, that in the case of the Lilliputian rebellion in his school both teacher and scholar deserved a gentle reproof.
Your committee are not a little surprised, that the study of Human Physiology has never been introduced into the schools of Bedford. It is of the highest importance that the body be educated, as well as the mind and conscience. The science of physiology treats of the human frame, life, health, exercise, air, food, sleep, and clothing. A knowledge of this study would prevent many spinal complaints, deformities, consumptions and a numerous train of incurable diseases.
We have listed, with peculiar pleasure, to the vocal music now practiced in our public schools – and would recommend this healthful and delightful exercise at the opening and close of the schools, and at no other time.
We take the liberty to advise monthly, or semi-monthly meetings of teachers – for cultivating each other’s acquaintance, for the purpose of mutual improvement, and for the benefit of their pupils.
Your committee think the introduction of the Register into our schools the past year, by Hon. Mr. Mann, has resulted in much good – as it stimulates the scholars for a favorable notice in its records.
In bringing our remarks to a close, let us say to parents, that duty and policy prompt you to be liberal in your appropriations for the cause of education – and to our fellow-townsmen, of whatever religious or political party, we again say, if you would have your public schools answer the great end of their institution, let your votes speak in their behalf this afternoon.
All of which is respectfully submitted.
John P. Reed School Committee
The following Recommendations are presented for the consideration of the town:–
1st. That a small Terrestrial Globe be purchased for each of the quarter districts; and that the pair of globes now owned by the town be for the exclusive use of the Centre district.
2nd. That the Black-boards in all the schools be increased in size. Instead of 2 ft. by 4 (which is the size of part of them) they should be 4 ft. by 10, that they may accommodate a whole class at once.
3d. That the Constitution of the United States and of Massachusetts, (3 copies of each) be furnished to each of our public schools, to be read occasionally, or daily, by the higher classes. And that these recommendations be carried into effect by the school committee for the ensuing year.