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Old schoolhouses still teaching us

October 4, 2011 Leave a comment

“The Good Education of Youth”: Worlds of Learning in the Age of Franklin by John Pollack is a collection of essays that details Benjamin Franklin’s projects for education as well as educational plans by and for Quakers, African Americans, women, and other populations of Pennsylvania from the colonial era to the early national period.

In June, Mr. Pollack gave a presentation to the Country School Association of America during their annual convention. His speech focused on the region’s old schoolhouses, explaining why they were built, who constructed them, and what can be learned from these historic buildings. He was willing to share some of his very interesting speech with us, below.

Newspaper advertisement

What’s remarkable about the diverse, rapidly growing region of the Mid-Atlantic colonies during the mid-eighteenth century is its culture of what we might call educational entrepreneurship. Eager teachers could place advertisements in the newspapers, like this one from the Pennsylvania Gazette, and simply set up shop (we don’t always know for how long or how successfully).

A more famous entrepreneur of this sort was Benjamin Franklin, who in 1749, after taking early retirement from the printing business and enjoying some impressive new wealth, set out to organize fellow citizens in a campaign to start a more elite school, an Academy that opened in 1751 and by 1755 became a college that we know today as the University of Pennsylvania.

Germantown Academy

The Academy’s eighteenth-century buildings are known now only through sketches, but one much like it was built just a few years later in Germantown and still stands: the Germantown “Union School,” later Germantown Academy. There is a community-centered and cooperative aspect to this school project that I would like to emphasize: residents of Germantown, both English and German, got together to raise the funds for this impressive building. Next to the central building are little houses for the English and German schoolmasters.

Mount Holly

Much like this, although on a smaller scale, is the remarkable Mount Holly Old School House, in Mount Holly, New Jersey. The school dates to 1759, and it too was not affiliated with any one religious or ethnic group: Quakers as well as non-Quakers contributed to the building fund. Its interior includes a large and somewhat puzzling hearth (how big a fireplace do you actually need?). The building was donated to The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in 1951, and in the possession of the Society are two copybooks made by a student named Job Jones dating from 1764 and 1771, which may have been connected to the school.

All of these educational energies were only fanned by the American Revolution, which in its wake unleashed a torrent of reform ideas and avid reformers. One famous example in this region is Benjamin Rush, a doctor and scientist—but also an educational thinker. Rush wrote an ambitious program for a statewide “public school” system, from beginners to college, never adopted, and he was also was one sponsor of a progressive Young Ladies Academy, which operated during the 1780s and 1790s in Philadelphia. Big new schools like the Protestant Episcopal Academy sat in impressive buildings right down the street from the Congressional and state buildings that are now Independence Hall.

Quaker reformers continued their projects and started new ones, like the Aimwell School—a wonderfully evocative name—for poor female students, sponsored and run by three Quaker women. Other Quakers focused more attention on a “guarded education” at schools like the Westtown School, a Quaker boarding school still in operation on its original site in Chester County, where students studied botany on the grounds and where young women produced some stunning needlework, including “globe samplers.”

Wrightstown School

A whole new generation of community schools was also built. The “Federal School” in Haverford dates from 1797; it is today a well-preserved and active part of the Haverford Historical Society that welcomes every third grader in the school district for daylong programs. The region also saw an explosive new architectural form in the early nineteenth century: the octagonal school building. The oldest surviving example is Wrightstown School, in Bucks County, from 1802. Reformers welcomed these buildings as spaces that could hold more children, let more light enter, and be more efficiently heated thanks to their central chimneys.

My tour could go on into the nineteenth century, to touch on surviving academy buildings, Sunday schools, and so on. But I would like to conclude by posing a question: just what are we preserving when we preserve these places?

I was looking the other day at an old classic on old schoolhouses, Eric Sloane’s The Little Red Schoolhouse, first published in 1972. I regularly have consulted his wonderful sketches but haven’t spent too much time with the text. For Sloane these schoolhouses are spaces of nostalgia that allow him to meditate on a supposedly more tranquil, peaceful era of the past. I don’t share that idealized view of American history—our educational past, I think, was as conflicted and challenging in the colonial and early national years as it has been in the twentieth century and as it is today.

I think it is actually those challenges and conflicts that we can bring out when we educate people about these sites. We are, as I am sure you know, living through a time when the schooling systems have become a center of heated political battles. Perhaps it is the memories of community work, of citizens finding ways to cooperate in the construction of buildings, in the education of children despite obstacles, in the managing of pedagogical programs and experiments both simple and ambitious, that our sites can help to recall. And perhaps these little lessons can have some value in our own times, even amidst never-ending school reform projects and the din of competing arguments for and against them.

Thank you for sharing, John. Click here for more information on “The Good Education of Youth”: Worlds of Learning in the Age of Franklin.

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