Erica Carle is a Wisconsin housewife and freelance writer.
Though many have pointed to shortcomings in our system of compulsory education in the United States, most persons believe that tax-financing is essential if education is to be made available to all children. But suppose that one teacher could assure the elementary education of from 500 to 1,000 children at a time! And if this could be done in one large classroom, thus eliminating expensive school construction, the taxpayer might be relieved of a considerable burden.
Unbelievable as it may seem today, there was a teacher who not only managed the education of up to 1,000 children at once, by his own efforts, but who also taught hundreds of other teachers from all over the world to do the same.
In 1798, at the age of twenty, this educational genius opened his first school in London. At a time when education for the poor was almost unheard of, Joseph Lancaster invited factory workers, miners, peasants, even paupers to send their children. And the little ones came, often barefooted, ragged, and hungry—some eager, many skeptical at first. With remarkable speed, the youngsters began to read, spell, write, and figure. Those thought to be the least promising children of London blossomed into scholars. Well-disciplined and responsible, they applied themselves with enthusiasm and orderliness, outdistancing students in the very best schools of that day.
Lancaster‘s school outgrew one accommodation after another, and by the time he was 21, he had designed and erected his own building. The sign outside the new establishment read: "All that will may send their children and have them educated freely; and those who do not wish to have education for nothing, may pay for it, if they please."
Word spread throughout England, Europe, even North and South America, that on Borough Road in London, one Quaker schoolmaster was teaching a thousand pupils of all ages to read, write, and figure.
A Sight To Behold
How could it be done? Visitors crossed mountains, oceans, and continents to learn the secrets. Those who came described what they had seen, "An orderly and beautiful spectacle…. The children were full of joyful animation in performing duties agreeably varied from hour to hour…. The master had complete control. In an instant the whole hubbub could be stopped by the word, "Halt!"
Lancaster began by teaching fundamentals to a few of the most promising older boys. As soon as a lad achieved the required degree of proficiency, he became a monitor with the responsibility of devoting part of his time to teaching a class of ten younger children. There were monitors for reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling. In addition monitors took attendance, ruled paper, gave exams, and promoted pupils. Assistant monitors stood by to take over teaching chores when the senior monitor received his own instruction.
Pupils were promoted immediately and individually upon achievement of the required work. They advanced, subject by subject, so that a bright speller moved forward as fast as he learned his words; in arithmetic one advanced as quickly as his skill and enthusiasm impelled him. Small classes provided a constant challenge, for, if a student missed a question, another who discovered the error assumed the former’s place at the head of the class.
Lancaster developed an alphabet wheel, pioneered the use of individual slates, used reading sheets as a substitute for then-scarce books. Lesson books in arithmetic were his own creation. There were sand tables on which tiny fingers traced the letters of the alphabet.
All the senses were stimulated at once. The children saw words written by the monitor, and read them aloud as they, themselves, wrote; then all held up individual slates for correction.
About the room were posted brief mottoes and slogans to inspire the pupils. Lancaster originated a few of his own: "Let every child at every moment have something to do, and a motive for doing it." "A place for everything, and everything in its place."
On holidays the schoolmaster took his children on long hikes through the woods, teaching about, and enjoying, the wonders of nature. On Sunday evenings he frequently invited large groups of students to tea for informal discussion and brief lessons from the Bible. To Joseph Lancaster, living meant to teach, and he rejoiced in his achievements. Nothing pleased him more than the thrill of awakening a young receptive mind to a love of learning.
The System Spreads
It wasn’t long before others patterned schools after his, and former pupils became masters of their own monitorial schools. Lancaster was much in demand for lectures, discussions, and consultation on his system.
Donations increased, and among the growing number of supporters were many famous and influential Britons: the Duke of Bedford, the Duke of Kent, Lord Somerville, Robert Owen. In 1805, an audience with George III resulted in yearly contributions from members of the royal family.
The system was also being exported with remarkable success. New York City was the center of greatest activity in the United States. In 1805 a private group, called the New York Free School Society, was formed under the leadership of DeWitt Clinton, later Governor of New York. Clinton‘s remarks in an address some years later add credence to stories of the effectiveness of Lancaster‘s system:
"When I perceive that many boys in our school have been taught to read and write in two months who did not before know the alphabet, and that even one has accomplished it in three weeks—when I view all the bearings and tendencies of the system—when I contemplate the habits of order which it forms, the spirit of emulation which it excites—the rapid movement which it produces —the purity of morals which it inculcates—when I behold the extraordinary union of celerity in instruction, and economy of expense—and when I perceive one great assembly of a thousand children under the eye of a single teacher, marching with unexampled rapidity, and with perfect discipline to the goal of knowledge, I confess that I recognize in Lancaster, the benefactor of the human race."1
It is difficult to understand how a system of education which was once so popular and successful could be almost completely forgotten. If, as history seems to indicate, Lancaster‘s system was effective, why isn’t it used today?
With Occasional Setbacks
The answer lies partly in factors beyond his control, partly in success that was too great, and partly in his own personality: for, while Lancaster was a genius at educational organization, he was a great deal less gifted in his talent for balancing financial accounts. He tried to do too much! When he saw that some of his boys were coming to school hungry, he raised subscriptions to enable him to give them a hearty meal every day. Many of the monitors were from other areas and lived with Lancaster as part of his "family" until they were ready to leave and establish their own schools. Bright scholars were rewarded with handsome gifts: books, medals, and toys. Much of the equipment used, such as slates and slatepens, had to be made in small factories he was compelled to establish.
He opened a printing office for textbooks and pamphlets. The expected profit from his many enterprises did not materialize. The financial picture was so bad in 1808 that Lancaster went to debtor’s prison.
Friends later obtained his release, and soon thereafter the schoolmaster, with some misgivings, allowed his friends to take over the financial arrangements for his enterprise.
At first, little real change took place. Between 1807 and 1810 Lancaster traveled over 7,000 miles, spoke 140 times and established nearly 100 new schools for 25,500 pupils.2
Financial difficulties continued, however. In addition, new complications arose. Despite the fact that all his reading lessons were taken from the Bible, Lancaster steadfastly refused to allow his schools to be used for the promotion of any particular religious denomination. For this stand, he aroused the fury of a vocal faction of the Church of England.
Particularly incensed after Lancaster received the King’s patronage, Mrs. Trimmer—an educationist and writer—attacked the schoolmaster with venomous intensity. He was damned and degraded in print, on the platform, and from the pulpit. He was called a destroyer of religion, a goliath of schismatics, an infidel and atheist. Fear was expressed that education would slip from the hands of the Church into those of this Quaker imposter.
Mrs. Trimmer consulted Dr. Andrew Bell, a former missionary, who had used a similar system with remarkable success in India.
The missionary schoolteacher had no quarrel with Lancaster, who had freely acknowledged his debt to Bell for some features of his own system. Mrs. Trimmer, however, stirred sufficient fear and jealousy that in 1811 a rival education group called "The National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church" was formed under the direction of Dr. Bell.
With the turmoil, Lancaster‘s schools lost some supporters, but many Church of England members remained loyal to his cause. Lancaster and Bell themselves remained aloof from the controversy, but bitter public arguments charged with emotion developed between the advocates of the rival systems.
For Lancaster, personally, the unexpected animosity was upsetting. Yet, the long-range result of the heated, bitter competition was a race to create more schools and better schools and to serve greater areas.
Andrew Bell’s original philosophy had been that the poor should not be over-educated, since it would tend to make them unhappy with their station in life. Yet, there was the competition of the Lancasterian system feeding little ones knowledge just as fast as they could digest it.
Sometimes, the very rate of learning in Lancaster‘s system caused alarm. In one case an anxious father consulted the clergyman of his parish with the complaint that his children were learning so much, so fast, only witchcraft could produce such results’
Taken Over by Friends
In 1810, Lancaster spent six months in Ireland and returned jubilant with the success of his trip. In his absence, however, and without his knowledge or permission, the committee which managed his financial affairs had been greatly enlarged. The work was no longer his own venture. His status had been reduced to that of paid employee. Many difficulties and disputes followed, until in 1814 Joseph Lancaster and the friends who had "helped" him went their separate ways.4
By this time Lancaster had awakened many to the fact that it was possible to do a creditable job of education at very little expense; and education was becoming a lively political issue. The government began to conduct surveys, promote its own ideas, and even tried to appoint school inspectors. The first reaction to interference was so violent that inspections were seldom made. Later, however, Parliament voted financial aid to the British and Foreign Society, as it was now called, and the competing National Society. The contributions were eagerly accepted. Thereafter, schools were compelled to comply with the inspection edict. Next to go was the monitorial system; the end of Lancaster‘s idea in England came in 1847 when the Society accepted government assistance for the training of teachers.5
In New York
Meanwhile, New York City‘s educational history had followed a similar pattern. As the Free School Society’s first school began to grow out of its original quarters, a new location was needed. The City of New York donated a larger building on the condition that children at the almshouse be educated.°
On February 27, 1807, New York State joined hands in the educational effort. A law was passed appropriating $4,000 to the society’s building fund, plus $1,000 per year for general expenses.’
In 1812, as education was moving along nicely, the legislature appointed a representative to look after the state’s money. In January 1813 Gideon Hawley took office as the nation’s first State Superintendent of Schools. In the same legislative year, the principles were established of permissive taxation by local communities for school buildings, and that a teacher must have certain moral and scholastic qualifications to be determined by local authority.8
In 1818 Joseph Lancaster determined to begin life anew by viewing the development of his system in the New World. He received a hero’s welcome, spent many happy days viewing the schools and expressing approval or disapproval. He was elated by the warm enthusiastic reception from the students themselves.
Lancaster spent much time in New York, as well as Philadelphia, Boston, Montreal, even Caracas, Venezuela, at the invitation of Simon Bolivar. He made as many enemies as he did friends. Among Lancaster‘s most outspoken foes were many teachers. While some viewed the system as a personal challenge, an exciting adventure in education, others believed they were suffering a humiliating indignity in being reduced to the supervision of "transient, ignorant, and unskilled monitors."9 Despite such opposition, Lancaster retained his enthusiasm and confidence in his system and was planning a return to England to revitalize it there, when a wagon struck and killed him in New York City in 1838.
Four years later the Board of Education of the City of New York was created, established its own schools, and took over responsibility for education. Fearing the effect of total political domination of education, the Free School Society, which had earlier been renamed Public School Society, continued to operate. But laws permitting taxation for schools had already given the city a seemingly unlimited source of revenue. Economy no longer seemed necessary, or even desirable. In 1846 the Education Department banned the monitorial system in favor of pupil-teachers, and in 1853 the Public School Society merged with the city system.
Today, many view the political system of education in the United States with dissatisfied, but resigned, acceptance. It is inadequate and expensive and hasn’t lived up to its most modest promises. There is no evidence that we are better citizens, that we are troubled by fewer criminals, or even that we have a more peaceful world through knowledge. In many cases the very basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic have been imparted with a good deal less than phenomenal success.
While the politician may have been a well-meaning, though crafty, suitor in the cause of universal education, premarital promises have been forgotten or overlooked.
That no one would have educated the poor if "society" had not assumed the responsibility, has been accepted as a proven truth. In the United States we have been told for more than 100 years that tax-supported, political, compulsory,secular education is one of the great social reforms. Yet, had universal education not been pushed into a hasty marriage with the politician, methods developed by Joseph Lancaster might have survived. His system succeeded once in turning out eager, well-disciplined, helpful, moral, and brilliant scholars. Perhaps one day it will be needed and allowed again.
This and subsequent references are listed at the end of the article.
1 The Life and Writings of DeWitt Clinton (Baker & Scribner, 1849), p. 318.
2 Henry Bryan Binns, A Century of Education, 1808-1908 (London: J. M. Dent & Co., 1908), p. 45.
3 Ibid., p. 19.
4 Ibid., p. 65.
5 Ibid., p. 162.
6 Albert Ulmann, A Landmark History of New York (N. Y.: D. Appleton Century Co., 1939), p. 184.
7 The Life and Writings of DeWitt Clinton, p. 320.
8 Edgar W. Knight, Education in the United States (Ginn & Co.), p. 287.
9 Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (Macmillan & Co., 1933).
Curtis, S. J. History of Education in Great Britain. London: University Tutorial Press, Ltd., 1948.
Encyclopedia Americana, 1953.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition.
Higham, C. S. S. Pioneers of Progress. Longman’s Green & Co., 1929.
Leitch, James. Practical Educationists and Their Systems of Teaching. Glasgow: James Maclehose, 1876.
Lincoln Library of Essential Information, 1944.
MacMillan’s Dictionary of National Biography, 1892.
MacMillan’s Everyman’s Encyclopedia. National Encyclopedia of American Biography.
Slosson, Edwin E. The American Spirit in Education. Yale University Press, 1921.