All Commentary
Thursday, March 1, 1962

Education Without Taxation

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.

Controversy Arises


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.

Foot Notes

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).

Other References

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.