Education in 1860s & 1870s by Jim Peters

Jim Peters shares another essay in his series on the history of education in Lowell:

   By the late 1860’s, Lowell had a large part of its population in school.  People signed up for night courses in the hundreds and for day courses in the thousands.  This was a marvelous testimony to the school system, the School Committee, and the Administration.  Night school was a relatively new phenomenon, and Lowell embraced the new method of study tenaciously.  The Superintendent of the time was heard to say at a School Committee meeting that he would not have young boys quit school to scoop up the horse droppings left on the street every day.
     In other cities, Lowell watched as some depressing news filtered in from school departments elsewhere in the nation.  In Cincinatti, Ohio, a deranged woman was caught by the police hiding many butcher knives in her cloak.  Her intent, she said, was to go to her daughter’s     school and kill the pretty girls so the homely ones would have a chance in their romantic quests.  She was put in an asylum.  In Lowell, the Superintendent noted that the “…wear…of nervous energies were greatly reduced in 1868.  Grading students was a new idea, and it was very rewarding.  “This…(grading) of students has already justified itself and proved its own wisdom.  The actual advantages gained by thus grading our schools have far otrun all (of) our theories and exceeded our highest anticipations.”  (School Committee Minutes)
     In a classroom where the pupil to teacher ratio was two hundred to one, this innovation greatly increased the time that  the teacher could keep the student on task.  Early Lowell school  administrations used their influence over the citizenry to dictate new educational progresses.    In one case, the decrease in enrollment at a school caused the School Committee to decrease the teaching staff by one person, who they then hired back as a teacher’s assistant.
     One of my favorite sayings is in the Mayor’s Report to the Board of Aldermen, when the Superintendent said that “Idle hands shall not make idle heads.”  That was, of course, during the Civil War when cotton was more difficult to get.  Children working in the mills were expected to go to school.  Each school offered extensive academic preparation.  Over one thousand adults left work after a full day to go to school.  Most wanted to go through at least seventh or eighth grade in order to fulfill the requirements to become a grammar school teacher in Lowell, or elsewhere in Massachusetts.  All that was required was a seventh grade education.  However, the eighth grade test was very hard.   I once gave it to some teachers at LHS (Lowell High School), and most could not finish it.  It was compounded by its difficulty which was caused by honing into the early history of the United States.  It was very difficult.
     In Lowell, at this time, a highly centralized educational system attempted to handle any problems that came through their pervue.   Few of the major arguments over centralized control of the educational process, and the curriculum required to meet those goals  were evident at anytime in the highly taxed 1800’s.
The school system was under strict control.  The City Council still controlled the books, and school spending and were slow to react to school situations.  This caused the School Committee to ask for control of its buildings, something that has not yet happened.  The schools are administered by the School Committee, but ownership belongs to the city.
     “In the faithfulness of the teachers and the conduct of the scholars there is always little to criticised (1800’s spelling) and much to commend.” the Superintendent wrote in his yearly report.
     “Adjustable desks,” were a problem.  The School Committee stated that each classroom put their desks, screwed into the floor, in the greatest light because they did not have lights.  Every summer, teachers unscrewed some of the desks and placed them in such a way that the students who were the most troublesome would be separated from the well-behaved scholars.  It vexed the school administration, the Principals and Vice-Principals in the school, to no end.
     Desks were often out-of-place.  The direction of light as it should fall on desks was an issue – as was the obviously strong teacher role.  The Superintendent, in speaking of this issue, claimed that the “…evil of near-sightedness among children is increasing.”  No reason is given in the School Committee Minutes for that conclusion.  He stated that light should come from behind the student and to his left side.  This is the reason the Moody School is in such a curious angle.  It was built with huge windows to allow as much light as they could get in to enter the building.  That is why the Moody School has such large windows, which have been modernized to reflect current lighting practices.
     The desks, they said, were to be “…arranged entirely with reference to regularity and similiarity of appearance.”  Teachers were vexatious to administration as far back as the 1860’s to the 1890’s.  “In one instance, in this city,” it was written, “the desks, which had been properly arranged with reference with the eyes of the pupils, were changed so as to be more agreeable to the eyes of the teacher.”  There was a solution, they said, “The teacher can move about the room and adapt herself.”
     Thus, the teacher exerted her control over the room long before the 1900’s.  This resulted in a bond between the teacher and students, and left the administration rattling its cage.  There is no piece of history of the school department that says that this tension was ever worked out to the administration’s relief.  The teachers seemed to have won this one.  The administration was right in wanting the sun to light up the desk surfaces, but try to convince a teacher.
Not much seems to have been changed in the past one  hundred fifty years.
 Teacher control over their classrooms remains an issue.