Follow by Email

Monday, October 24, 2016

Our Downhill Slide


Image result for school books from the 1800s


I wrote a column recently about being given a packet of letters written by two boys fighting in the Civil War back to their family here in Indiana. Remembering those letters made me recall how impressed I was with the education those boys seemed to have received despite having attended small rural schools in Indiana. And that made me think of a book I bought once at an auction for $1. I went looking for it and found it. This book, an Indiana State Series, Fourth Grade Reader, was owned by a little girl named Minnie Gaskill who went to elementary school in Markle sometime around the turn of the century...the last century.

It is approximately 125 years since the Indiana School Book Company published Minnie’s little book and we, as a country, are currently engaged in great controversy and debate about our how school system should be administered. No Child Left Behind....Charter schools....funding....for-profit schools...extreme testing. Here in Indiana, the governor and the Republican-dominated legislature are at odds with most educators and many parents.

In light of all this, it is curious to look back to see what was expected of a typical fourth grader in the late 1800’s. I don’t remember what my books were like then but I know Minnie’s lessons strike me as a lot farther advanced than what I was taught at that age. Her first reading lesson consisted of a four-page, illustrated story on the life of Benjamin Franklin. Afterwards, her teacher questioned students on the leading facts of the piece. For their “written expression” they were expected to compose from memory a selected portion of the story.

Throughout the book are poems which pupils were required to memorize and recite in class. The first poem is the 23-line, Love of Country, by Walter Scott. Even in my childhood, memorizing verse was in vogue. I still remember a large part of this very poem. (Breathes there a man with soul so dead, that never to himself has said: “This is my own, my native land”?)

As the lessons progress, Minnie was required to memorize much longer poems. She was given vocal training as well. Her book admonished her: “”Learn the vowel sounds and diacritical marks. A knowledge of these sounds and their notations will enable you to find out by yourself the correct pronunciation of the worlds from the dictionary.”

Minnie’s reader was stuffed with history, health, science and geography. Before the year was over, she learned about Andrew Jackson, George Washington, the Romans, the Battle of Bunker Hill, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the most useful metals, the Sahara Desert and much more.

The book was not backward about using readings as a springboard for debating moral conclusions. In illustrating right from wrong, it drew from poems, stories, the Bible, “Poor Richard’s Sayings” and “Aesop’s Fables”.

At the end of each lesson, the students were expected to learn word definitions. Many of them would be difficult for adults in 2013. Here are a selection at the end of one story: patriarchal, adjoining, primeval, solitary, armorial, sonorous, wan, wane, zenith. From the same lesson, the spelling list included: reigns, balmy, twofold, icicles, heirloom, anise-seed, initials and zenith.

After reading a story about Daniel Webster, Markle’s fourth graders were given instructions to: write from memory a short sketch of Webster, dividing their subject into 1) his date and state of birth and residence as a man, 2) his characteristics as a boy, 3) his chief distinctions as a man and 4) any anecdote you have heard of him.


I have not had a child in the public school system for decades but studying the reader leads to the conclusion that over the last century, we have required less of each succeeding generation of American students. Am I wrong?