Thursday, August 14, 2014

Dennis & Geoffrey Wright on Joseph Smith Jr's education

Recognizing that the lack of formal education of Joseph Smith Jr is a common topos in Mormon discourse, the Wrights set out to show what formal education Joseph Smith Jr actually had and to contextualize it into the then-existing school system, practices and requirements (p.237).
In 1810 the family of the Prophet Joseph Smith lived in Royalton, Vermont. Here, in a school required by state law, Deacon Jonathan Rinney instructed the boy Joseph Smith Jr in his first lessons in reading and writing. (p.237)
In 1811 the Smiths moved to Lebanon, New Hampshire (p.237).
... Joseph's mother remembered that the children who were old enough attended a neighborhood school on Poverty Lane while their older brother Hyrum attended Moor's Charity School located on the Dartmouth College in nearby Hannover. (p.238)
After the Typhoid epidemic and its consequences, which kept Joseph from school with his sickness, he would have been able to attend school again until after his family had moved to Norwich, Vermont, in 1814 (p.238).
When considering this period in Joseph's life, it seems consistent to assume that his mother would have again encouraged him and his siblings to attend public school. (p.238) 
It was not until 1816 when the family moved to New York, so conceivably he could have attended for up to two years (p.238).

Education in New England

The public motivation for education, especially learning how to read and write, was religious. The 2nd Massachusetts Education Law of 1647 begins with the observation:
It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures. (p.240)
In this law, any township of 50 people or more had to hire a teacher to teach the children to read and write [[which was not strictly necessary for reading the scriptures, RCK]] (p.240). Once the population had crossed 100, a grammar school was required (p.240). With the rise of the towns and the concomitant focus on secularization, the intent became to facilitate "participation in the growing economy" (p.240). After the Revolutionary War, the intention of creating "an educated citizenry capable of self-government" became a new guiding principle (p.240). Unfortunately, during the post-War period, the public coffers were empty and little funding for public education was available. Thomas Jefferson (p.241) proposed a tax-based education system, and Noah Webster issued schoolbooks and dictionaries to assist in the effort of "forming a national character" (p.241).

By the beginning of the 19th century, seven states provided support for public education, including Massachusetts and New Hampshire (p.241). In 1795 Connecticut started to sell public lands to feed a school fund from which regulated schools and teachers could be provisioned (p.241), and example that inspired other states to look for similar funding models (p.241).

During this formative period, alternate school concepts were explored. One was the "moving school" (p.241). The Wrights explain:
The "moving school" system involved hiring an itinerant teacher who traveled throughout the district surrounding the town to provide instruction wherever children could gather together. Taxes || to fund this type of school were imposed on residents of the town as well as on those living in the outlying areas. As time passed, the moving schools of New England evolved into today's school district system. (pp.241-242)
The Wrights give the example of Hanover, New Hampshire.
Hanover, New Hampshire, organized its public education in typical New England fashion. Beginning in 1790 school districts were organized and funded by a public tax. Leaders were appointed to manage the districts and collect the relevant taxes. By 1805 a district system was widespread, and each town received the authority to purchase school buildings and conduct its own educational affairs. In 1808 each local school district selected an administrative committee of three individuals who were to inspect the schools in the district and ensure that they met expected standards. (p.242)
This situation was similar in Vermont, where Joseph Smith Jr spent more time to be educated than in New Hampshire (p.242). By 1764, the colony of Vermont had decided to re-dedicate the "lands originally granted for ``propagation of the gospel in foreign parts`` ... for the support of public schools" (p.242). In 1797, Vermont passed legislature requiring that each town have at least one school to teach reading, writing and arithmetic (p.243), with the hope that all children between the ages of 4 and 18 would be able to attend school (p.243).

Windsor County [[where Joseph Smith Jr was born, RCK]] was educationally well on its way; it had organized the first school district and the first grammar school in 1785, and had thirteen districts by 1798. In 1807, a grammar school in Norwich, close to where the Smiths would live 1814-1816, was legislated, as well as the first public academy in Royalton (p.243).
At the time the Smith family lived in Norwich, the neighborhood common schools, the Norwich grammar school, and the academy at Royalton would have all been in operation. (p.243)
The Wrights then attempt to compile some information of what the typical New England school and learning experience might have been like (p.244). School buildings were spartan buildings, constructed on agriculturally worthless land, but close to the geographical center of the neighborhood (p.244). Small at twenty square feet with a low ceiling, and small windows if any. Instead of tables, planks had been fixed to the walls, and the children would sit on back-less benches before them. The teacher had a table at one end of the room (p.244). The children sat segregated by gender (p.245). The floors were bare earth or puncheon, and the roofs of bark and the windows of paper (p.245). The cloak room did double duty as a time-out room for misbehaving students (p.246). The community chipped in with wood for the stove, making desks and benches, and taking care of the stables where the horses stood the children had taken to school (p.245).

School attendance fluctuated with the farm work, bringing more attendance in the winter and less in the summer. Children as young as three could be sent along with their siblings. As the Wrights put it,
Such diversity in age and attendance required teachers to be patient and flexible and to possess innovative time management skills. (p.246)
School lasted from the early morning to the early afternoon.
The daily routine began with a reading of the New Testament followed by writing and arithmetic. While the older students read and studied from the Bible, the younger children would repeat and recite sentences from their primers or spelling books. (p.246)
The children had a short recess, the end of which was indicated by a handbell. Upon return to class was the opportunity to drink some water (p.246).
The afternoon began with reading and a "general spell" period. During this time the teacher read aloud words from the spelling book and the students spelled them vocally. The teacher also corrected and instructed students on improved use of grammar, spelling, articulation and pronunciation during this exercise. The school day ended with instruction in topics such as abbreviations, currencies, weights, || and measurements. (pp.246-247)
Before dismissing school, the teacher called role and reminded the boy whose turn it was to make the fire the following morning to do so. (p.247)
Teaching practices were focused on obedience.
Teachers demanded strict obedience and often resorted to corporal punishment to enforce order. Often schoolmasters spent a good deal of their time disciplining students. Whipping, striking the students' palms with a rule, and forcing them to hold books at arm's length for long periods of time were methods used to punish those who misbehaved. (p.247)
The teachers were instructed to "govern from a sense of right and justice when you can, and from a feeling of fear when you must" (p.247).
Instructors believed themselves to be proficient if their students were quiet and disciplined. (p.247)
The Wrights then enumerate the key reading methods of the nineteenth century:

  1. alphabet memorization
  2. letter recognition within words
  3. recognition and sue of two-letter syllables
  4. word memorization and spelling
  5. reading from a primer
  6. reading from the Bible
  7. elocution and articulation in oral reading (p.247)
Primers and sybillaria supported these techniques (p.248). 

Separately the acquisition of penmanship was considered very important in the 1800s. After basic lines and copying "hooks and trammels" provided by the teacher, which also imparted basic quill handling techniques, the students progressed to full word and page reproduction (p.249). The pages contained morally uplifting messages, such as "Contentment is a virtue" or "Procrastination is a thief of time" (p.250), but the strong focus on the aesthetically pleasing composition meant that the children focused on the writing rather than the contents (p.250). 

The families had to provide the basic school supplies, including penknife, quills, paper, ink, a Bible and a ruler. Papers was unruled rough foolscap, and if that was too pricey, then birch bark was used (p.250). Often parents had to make the ink themselves, either with ink powder, or by boiling the bark of swamp-maple in a copper kettle, and adding copperas, which produced a weak and pallid ink. (p.259 Fn 62)

The text books were influenced in their contents by Puritan and Calvinist doctrine, discussing Christian ideals, the omniscience of God, the relation between God and man, the Golden Rule, and similar (p.250). The first book for many children was the so-called hornbook, a paddle-like wooden frame with a piece of parchment in it, on which were the alphabet, simple words and a few Bible verses were written (p.250). A cover of cow's horn protected the parchment, and a small handle simplified holding (p.250). Children tied the book to their belts (p.251). The New England Primer written by Benjamin Harris (p.251) had 104 pages and was bound in oak and leather, encompassing mostly biblical or morally uplifting passages. 

Its first lesson comprised the alphabet, vowels, consonants, double letters, italics and capitals, followed by a syllabarium of two-syllable to six-syllable words. (p.251)
The text included alphabet verses, couplets, moral lessons from the Bible, the Lord's Prayer and the Creed as well as the Ten Commandments (p.251).

The English Reader was written by Lindley Murray was a book published in 1799 that became popular in America as well (p.251). As many other books, Murray's book promoted a definite moral perspective (p.251).
The reader included a variety of literary passages as well as numerous prose passages designed to teach moral principles, such as "Virtuous youth gradually bring forward accomplished and || flourishing manhood." (p.252)
Noah Websters' American Spelling Book was the most popular among the spelling books of the time, including Caleb Bingham's Columbian Orator and Lyman Cobb's North American Reader (p.252). A wooden cover and a leather spine bound 158 pages into what was often called the "blue-black" speller (p.252).
The first portion of the book was dedicated to rules and instruction, and these were followed by the alphabet, syllables, and lists of words ordered according to their number of syllables. 74 of the book's 158 pages contained lists of original words and syllables. The latter part of the book contained moralistic advice, historical and geographical information, rules for correct spelling and reading, realistic stories, fables, poetry, and patriotic dialogues. (p.252)
Webster's speller was so successful that his family could live off the proceeds while he compiled his first dictionary (p.252).

In 1990, members of the Wilford C. Wood family donated three school books that might have belonged to Joseph Smith Jr to the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City (p.252). The three books consisted of the English Reader, the First Lines of Arithmetic, and an unknown volume published in Edinburgh, Scotland (p.252) containing sonnets and literature (p.253). The arithmetic book has "Joseph Smith's book January 31, 1818" written on it. The Church History Museum has not yet confirmed that these books belonged to the Prophet (p.253)

Bibliographical Record

Dennis A. and Geoffrey A. Wright, The New England Common School Experience of Joseph Smith Jr, 1810-16, in: Donald Q. Cannon, Arnold K. Garr, Bruce A Van Orden (ed), Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History: The New England States, Provo UT (BYU) 2004, pp.237-261.

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