Monday, July 11, 2011

No Begins at the Schoolhouse Door

I have not made it a practice of using my blog to respond to news or controversy. The Hermit tends to think long and slow thoughts, and will continue to do so—though he is now pledging himself to blog once a week as a remedy for acedia. I was engaged in writing the piece below when I happened on this piece of news:

For what it is worth, let this little history lesson be my reflection on the Almighty State of California’s Totalitarian Plan.

A Tale of Two One-Room Schools

In November of 1858, my great-great grandfather met with a few parents in the small village of Poplar Flat near the slightly larger village of Woodlawn, near Bardstown, county seat of Nelson County, Kentucky, for a momentous event in the history of civilization. The purpose of the meeting was to sign an agreement that would launch a new school. No lawyers, educationists, psychologists, or bureaucrats were present.

His name was Nathaniel Hamlet Marks, a fitting name for a member of the schoolteacher tribe, those of us who doubt ourselves on the world stage of action and turn to teaching. I know nothing about him but I have a photocopy of a tattered document sent me by a now-deceased cousin. It is one of my few connections with a family past, and since photocopies fade and die, I have copied it here.

It is a “common English school” contract, dated November 1858, between Nathaniel Hamilton Marks (1828-1864) and several parents. The term “common English school” was an ordinary one in America from Revolutionary times and did not have a fixed curriculum. We may assume that it included reading, writing, and arithmetic, but probably also history and geography. The paper is written and signed by Mr. Marks in a beautiful hand, and by the “subscribers,” seven parents with what appear to be seven or eight “scholars.” There are holes in the document, and some scrawled notes attesting to some of the “autographs” of the parents.

The undersigned proposes to [illegible] a common English School at Poplar Flat in Dist. No. 10 Nelson County Ky. for the term of three [illegible, possibly “spring”] Months, wherein will be taught various branches of an English education as usually taught in our common schools. =and make up any lost time should any occur.
November 1858 X Nath. H. Marks
For which services to be rendered we the undersigned subscribers bind ourselves to furnish the house prepared and fuel for the accommodation of said school and pay the said Marks at the expiration of said term the sum of three dollars for each scholar {not clear, could be schoolchild] annexed to our several names.

He was twenty-nine, and had seen the birth of two of his three children: William Kenton Marks, my great grandfather, who was just barely three years old, and Nancy Mabel Marks, who was eight months old. George Reuben would not be born until 1864, the year of his father’s death.

In those days, the winds of change blew hard. A fierce struggle was under way between President Buchanan and Congress on the constitution of the new state of Kansas. The Utah War was underway, as Federal troops sought to put down the Mormon rebellion led by Brigham Young. The fifth Lincoln-Douglas debate was underway in Illinois. Arguments about slavery filled the pages of the New York Times. The country was in a deep depression sparked by the bank panic of 1857. More than half the citizens of Louisville owned slaves, but anti-slavery newspapers were published in the city, and debates raged. There were nearly five thousand black slaves in Nelson County, some owned by some of the seventy-nine free blacks in the county, but slaves were escaping daily into the North. Doubtless the citizens of Poplar Flat read about these things in newspapers, but more than likely harvests and preparations for winter were their main concerns that October day.

I mention these things to suggest that the times were inauspicious for beginning new things—but perhaps they always are. Much of C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings were written as Nazi bombs fell on London. George Orwell was then gestating 1984 on his hospital bed in Jura. Serious people are serious in the teeth of history, not because of it.

So this event in October of 1858 may seem tiny. But another tiny event was occurring in that October, apparitions of the Virgin Mary to the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous in rural France. [A year later, October 1859, Our Lady appeared to a woman in what was to become Champion, MN--note added on July 13, 2012]. The smallness of events—like a birth in Nazareth or a skirmish at a bridge in Concord—is not a measure of their reality. It can be said that the founding of a one-room schoolhouse is as serious as any other in the scale of things, perhaps more so. For the education of children in any time lies at the very foundation of society. And we are often given to deceiving ourselves that we must wait for the times to change before we can launch important enterprises—to marry, or have children, or build a house, or found a state. Waiting until the times are ripe could be one of the deadliest poisons we drink.

I picture my great-great-grandfather, who would not live for more than five years after starting this school, and his wife, Eliza Davis Mock, a strong lady who would not die until 1899, gathered with the other parents. Where exactly, I don’t know. The contract below mentions “the house prepared” for the school premises, but we don’t know where or by whom or if it had already been used as a school. Schools of the time throughout America, and their teachers, could come and go. This ad was placed in a McKeesport, Pennsylvania, newspaper in 1827:

A Teacher Wanted – A person capable of Teaching a common English School, will meet with a situation by applying to either of the subscribers, residing in Nippenose Twp., Lower Bottom. James GIBSON, William BRADY, David HERRINGTON, Trustees.

It is certain that such teachers did not have extensive training themselves, and especially they did not have extensive training in ideologies or the manipulation of student minds as became the norm following the monstrous innovations of John Dewey and the consequent development of the federal system of, not education, but control and indoctrination. For more on this, see my essay: “Welcome to the Relativism Factory,”

Approximately one year later, in the autumn of 1859, Leo Tolstoy opened his one-room school in his own manor house at Yasnaya Polyana on the steppes of Russia. To this school he invited the children of peasants. Within a year he had fifty students and, Tolstoy-like, was already developing grand dreams of a public education system for Russia. Soon he was touring Europe, visiting schools of all kinds, and talking with educational “experts” of the time. Within a year, he opened a three-room schoolhouse and attracted other teachers.

Tolstoy concluded many things from both his own experience as a teacher and from his studies abroad. Firmly resistant to the ideological currents of his time, he rejected the notion that civilization was either evolving of advancing. Like his hero Pierre in War and Peace, he was deeply skeptical of such meta-views, and as far as schooling was concerned, he decided that life was the best teacher, and that education should be free and voluntary. Over his schoolhouse door, he posted the slogan, “Enter and Leave Freely.” Through his somewhat anarchical approach to education, Tolstoy became the enemy of Germanic pedagogy and all its offshoots and copies, which would include the cancer nurtured by John Dewey and the U.S. Department of Education.

From intense experience in working with peasant children over a few years, and from his collision with all the experts, Tolstoy reached an extremely important conclusion: the State—any State—should never be given power to dictate what children should think. Teaching reading, writing, arithmetic, or other skills—that was as far as any government-supported education should be allowed to go. The rest should come from the home. Teachers were meant to be, as he was, awakeners who challenged children to cultivate their own natural curiosity and creative powers. In other words, Tolstoy soon realized that the power a good teacher can exercise over a child’s mind was fraught with danger, and must be guarded against. For him, “compulsory education” was a contradiction in terms.

Obviously, I have no idea whether the school started by Nathaniel Hamlet Marks in any way resembled the school at Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy quickly came to understand that elementary schools were only as good as their teachers, and that only through natural relations between enthusiastic teachers and curious students could anything good happen in schools. I don’t know how long my great-great grandfather’s school lasted or if it achieved its goals. Just down the road, in Springfield, Jefferson Davis attended the short-lived College of St. Thomas Aquinas under the Dominicans before moving on to other matters. There, we can be sure, the federal government of the Northern States was not permitted to interfere with the development of his mind.

The impression of a school teacher, whether Nathaniel Hamlet Marks or Leo
Nikolayevich Tolstoy or a Dominican priest is a great and powerful thing on the mind of a child. In the 19th century and even in the 20th, there were many who were wary of the powerful impression of the State on the least of these, our children. Those of the 21st century who have their parental wits about them will keep the No we must give to tyranny at the schoolhouse door.