20 January 2009

Professions: School Days

Carol A. Spradling

Not so long ago, wealthy households hired private tutors to teach their sons a variety of disciplines. This luxury was intentionally not afforded to their daughters. After all, a highly educated woman was thought an oddity. As unfair as this may sound, girls were not completely overlooked. To help females establish marriage-material status, governesses tutored females in reading and writing as well as various household duties. These were the only skills deemed necessary to allow a woman to maintain her husband’s household. Anything past this basic education was considered of no use.

Business enterprises were an important means to advance a family's social standings in the community. This training began at an early age and in order to advance the family, a young man with means was expected to expand more than his mind and succeed beyond rudimentary occupations. To help in this endeavor, the names of private schoolmasters seeking employment could be found in local papers. Their services offered everything from math, to navigation, to foreign languages. In exchange for these services, parents would provide for the teacher’s material needs. A competent instructor could provide a nice living for his own family.

Middle class families could not afford to educate their daughters in even rudimentary knowledge, and lower classes gave no distinction between educating either sex. Instead of formal education, lessons began with their mother and ended with their father in the fields or barn. These methods were effective enough for what they offered, but generally meant the student had limited resource and little to no interaction with other children outside of siblings.

Socialized education, a predecessor to modern daycare, was dame schools. These schools offered basic education to both boys and girls. Numbers, writing, and basic reading skills were taught by a local woman while she went about her daily routine. Enough comprehension was offered to enable a boy to enter a town school with ease. Since girls were generally barred from town schools, they continued their education with needed skills such as social etiquette, music, needlework, cooking, and nursing.

Although lacking a family, orphans were not overlooked. Apprenticeships not only taught a trade but also included reading and writing as part of the training. Trade-skills in exchange for room and board were deemed a fair exchange.

Since dame schools, tutors, and apprenticeships were limited in the number of students who could benefit from instruction, public schools became a necessity. This usually occurred when a township reached a population of fifty families. Secondary schools were mandated when populations grew to one hundred or more. These community services were not to be provided by the educator for gratis. Funds for a school and teacher were to be guaranteed through private or public monies.

Providing for a teacher was not seen as burdensome since teachers held status among the community. Teachers and clergy were generally more educated than the rest of society and were expected to adhere to a high moral character. Local townsfolk kept careful watch that they did just that. The town got a bargain when hiring a teacher. In addition to scholarly duties, teachers cleaned the school and conducted church responsibilities, even substituting for the minister when necessary.

Whether knowledge was learned from a paid tutor, behind a plow, or in a one-room classroom, teachers provided needed tools to shape families and communities. In return, the next generation was able to continue traditions and change the future.