How the Civil War changed education in Lowell

Jim Peters continues his series on the early system of public education in Lowell:

    While local newspapers carried the news of the war, the School Committee, in its efforts to allow the war to have little effect on the learning and new lessons, implemented educational changes that altered forever the goals of the local school population.  One of the most important changes was the building of a new Greene School, necessitated by overcrowding and the fumes of a local tannery nearby.
    While admitting that the lack of educational progress was offset by education and its processes, the Superintendent noted that, in spite of or perhaps because of the Civil War, “…the cherished and noble plan (of educational excellence) was passing through fierce trials.” (Superintendent’s Report, 1862)  “The plan,” he explained, “was to provide a decent education to all who wanted it.  In spite of the conflict, idle hands will not remain (cause to be) idle heads.” (ibid.)
    In order to do that, or guarantee that, the school system, continued to offer both evening and morning classes, with vocational curriculum being the mainstay of the evening classes (an academic offering still existed), academic pursuits continued as the core of the daytime program.
    It is my belief that the educational system in Lowell follows a pattern.  In an earlier article, I quoted Vesna Nuon, who forcefully shared his plan for the Lowell School Department and said that it was best to be interested in what type of teacher existed in the classroom.  Classrooms, he felt, should be forcefully filled with learning.
     I personally believe that in Lowell, there are patterns to our education of students.  Whether they are in high  school or working on their GED, there are peaks and valleys.  The peaks are somewhat manic, while the valleys are somewhat depressed.  It is up to the current Superintendent to make learning engaging and important.  In the 1990’s, with the rebuilding of new schools, we were at a peak.  With the introduction of new learning tools, such as the Core Curriculum, we still need to learn whether or not we are in a valley.  Lawrence outscored Lowell last year by seventeen cities.  Seventeen cities outscored Lowell from Lawrence.  That cannot happen again.
     We weather the valleys and we move on.  The question remains, “How do we press on,” and how did we do it in earlier times.   The School Committee Minutes state that we did so through sheer tenacity.  We were in a fratricidal war, but we maintained our school system.  In fact, it grew.  We maintained academic prowess while hundreds of Lowellians went to war, leaving wives, children, and friends to continue the process of living.  Questions abound.  What was it like at the time?  How did we continue our core curriculum?  What did the school department offer its students?  How did we progress?
     We kept largely to the script of academic excellence, as opposed to vocational excellence.  Academic pursuits entailed learning more than the “three R’s.”  Lowell High School offered different programs to its academic group.  Today we have the “Latin Lyceum.”  Then we taught philosophy and the classics.  When Lowell is attacked in its curriculum, it often moves in the direction of academics.  Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare all play a role.  The history of our country is often emphasized.  In the middle of the sixties and early seventies, while Lowell often missed its mark academically, Final Exams were begun.  English History was taught by Wyman Trull, a truly great academic.  Typing and Spelling were taught but not emphasized by the Guidance Department.  In my experience, academic classes were the track that most took while trying to get into college.
    That is my blog for today.  We will jump into the 1870’s next to determine what the average student saw in his or her curriculum.