How Can We Elevate Our Public Schools

Maria Sanford gave this lecture in 1869, when she was teaching in the Pennsylvania schools.1 Transcripts were printed in both a local Chester County newspaper and in the Pennsylvania School Journal.2

Sanford lists the ways that public schools can be improved. First, schools must encourage higher student attendance, hire better-trained teachers, and provide clean, beautiful school houses . Second, schools must educate students in ways that develop their character, stressing respect for authority, thoroughness, and proper manners. She speaks at length about why it is important for schools to educate students about the dignity of labor.


How Can We Elevate Our Public Schools

Every true American loves the public school. It is with us an object of personal, national and historic pride. It nourished the infancy of our free institutions, and by it must the strength of their manhood be sustained. There rests, therefore, upon each and all, the rich and the poor, the obscure and the influential, a binding obligation to widen, strengthen, and elevate its influence. It is a trust committed to us for the generations to come; we cannot evade or resign it, and if we neglect it, we imperil all that we hold most sacred. We are in a measure mindful of the charge; we honor the statesman who lifts up his voice for popular education, and we spurn with indignation any attempt to hamper or restrict it. What we lack is a consciousness of individual responsibility. We complain of and mourn over the general indifference, forgetting that faithfulness is contagious, and that had we performed our whole duty, our friends and neighbors would have been roused to earnestness and activity.

What then can we do? We can work, seeking each in our own sphere and in our own way, to gather about our school-rooms those influences which develop noble manhood. Difficulties and excuses can be found if we seek them,—there is always a lion in the way of the slothful,—but seeming impossibilities yield to the power of energy, judgment and faith.

Our first duty is to gather the children into the school. We need not wait, nor even ask for legislation to accomplish this. Systematic co-operative effort, making judicious use of the means at our command, will secure everywhere regular attendance, and without this there can be no complete success.

We should seek for high scholarship in our teachers. It is well that they understand the branches required by law, but we should seek for far more. What would we not give to have spent the eight or ten years of our school life under the care of a teacher whose mind had been enlarged, elevated, purified by wide and thorough culture. Place the child in charge of a teacher who is an ardent lover of natural science, who knows the voice, the name, the habits of bird and insect, who has read the record of the rocks, the flowers, the stars, and with wonder and delight he opens his eyes upon a new world; he studies no longer dry forms but the living handiwork of God. To his awakened, eager curiosity his daily task is water to the thirsty soul. Give to the class an instructor whose mind is rich with historic lore, with the teachings of the past and the lessons of to-day; to whom Thucydides and the “old man eloquent”3John Quincy Adams, who had taught rhetoric at Harvard, was known as the “old man eloquent.” are not dead names, but living, breathing fellow-beings; let him have traversed the desert with Livingstone, and climbed the mountains with Humboldt, felt the Arctic frosts with Kane, and walked through Europe with Taylor, and, as with breathless interest they listen to his words, the gray old world becomes to them a marvellous romance, from whose delightful pages they will never turn to the vapid trash which now belittles the mind and corrupts the morals of such multitudes of our youth. Let the grammar of our noble English be illustrated by a mind not only stored with the beauties of our own grand classics, but familiar with the silent tongues from which ours has sprung, and the living languages which have given it richness and flexibility, and the “valley of dry bones” is breathed upon by the breath of life, and from the graves of dead names spring the hosts of living thought.4Sanford alludes to Ezekiel 37:1-14, where God takes the prophet to a valley of dry bones and asks whether they can live. He commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, and the bones came together, breath entered into them, and they lived. Let the refining influence, the indescribable charm of high culture be enforced and sanctified by an abiding love of purity and truth, and in the heart of the child, narrow self-conceit will give place to the humility of wisdom; whatever is coarse and rude will hide itself for very shame, and all that is lovely be developed to adorn and bless his future. life Inspired by such an example, he will pursue his studies with tireless ardor, not with the narrow conception that they are the sum of all wisdom, but because they will unlock the countless treasures beyond.

Is it asked almost in derision, if we can have such teachers in our common schools? Such, I answer, we may have in one and all. Not this year, nor this decade; the time is not yet. “The seeds of human progress are slow in ripening, and the generation that plants is not the generation which gathers in the harvest.”5This is a shortened paraphrase from John Lathrop Motley’s United Netherlands. Motley, a popular historian, wrote about “intellectual advancement,” not “human progress,” in explaining how the Dutch rebels were slow to fully recognize what the rights that they fought for implied. It is for us to prepare the way; we must show the necessity, prove the possibility, awaken the hope, and create the demand for this great good, and then by slow and constant progress it may be attained. Fond parental care counts no cost when the suffering body pleads for relief, but the hungry soul makes no moan, and we see not, dream not of, the heaven-born faculties dwarfed, palsied and dying by our neglect. It is for us to give voice to this silent suffering, to show how infinitely superior is the spiritual to the physical nature, and how much more imperative its wants, and then we may ask nor ask in vain for their relief.

Far more than we imagine does the school-house form the character of the child. Not merely by the palpable effects of warmth and light and pure air, which are often sadly neglected, but by a subtle influence almost universally ignored. How legitimate seem the unkind, fretful tones and coarse, careless habits which are found in the barren abode of disorder and squalor; while from a home made beautiful by taste and elegance, goes forth a magic kindness which cheers even the transient visitor. And so in the school-room, neatness and beauty will do more than the rod towards securing good order, and infinitely more toward the symmetrical development of the mind of the child. Orderly, careful habits may be first enforced, and then encouraged until they become the property of the child, who thus learns one of life’s most useful lessons.

We should teach entire and willing obedience to authority, not because it is shrewd and will outwit, or severe and can crush, but because it is just and right, and self-respect forbids its violation. More and more should the child be taught to be a law unto himself, for only as he learns this self-control and obedience to right, is he competent to discharge his duties as a man and a citizen.

The prevailing lack of thoroughness should be corrected in the school. The necessities of a new country can be no longer pleaded as an excuse for this national fault, and it is the duty of all to strive to correct it. We should insist upon thoroughness in all things; there is nothing too trivial to be done well. The preparation of an exercise, the performing of an example, crossing the floor or passing a book, should all be done with that grace which marks the character of a gentleman. The pupil should prepare his lessons, not with headlong haste to get through the book, but with the precision and care which will make him master of its contents. The habit of completing what we commence, of mastering what we undertake, of knowing for certain what we profess to know, and never grudging the patient necessary to secure this perfect result, is as valuable as it is rare.

All clownishness and roughness should banished from the school-room. Nothing would be condemned in the drawing-room of a cultivated family should be permitted here. The manners, far more than the scholastic attainments of the child, will decide his position in society and his usefulness in the world, and hould [sic] therefore receive the teachers [sic] especial care.

The children should be taught the dignity of labor. It is God’s price-mark of excellence from which there is no abatement. Without it existence is worthless; and he only who has learned to labor has learned to live. We need not look to nations across the sea, or search the annals of the past for the contrast between a birthright of honest toil, and a heritage of ignoble ease. Our land has furnished the parallel, and its terrible significance this generation can never forget, for the woeful picture is painted with our life-blood and engraven on our souls.6Sanford alludes to the recent Civil War, characterizing it as a conflict between a north that valued free, honest labor and a south that featured an idle class of planters profiting from slave labor. Shall we of the free North boast of this inheritance of labor, and let pride defraud us of its blessings? It has already laid its mortgage upon them, and unless we rouse ourselves to manly exertion, and by precept and example teach the children to reverence honest toil, upon us also will come poverty and blight.

Shall we profess to honor labor and seek by every means to avoid and conceal its performance? Shall we not impress it upon the child, that the man who upon the farm or in the shop is earning his bread by the sweat of his brow, however rough his hands or coarse his clothes, is immeasurably superior to him who is hanging on in idleness to a crowded profession, or mingling with the miserable swarm of official parasites.7Sanford’s views on labor are shaped by early-19th century producerist ideals. That the woman who, when circumstances make it necessary, can, without disguise or shame, perform the menial services of her household, while thus adding to the nobility of her womanhood by proving herself a true and faithful helpmeet to her husband, detracts nothing from the delicacy of her refinement or the dignity of her self-respect. Teach him to seek that employment for which nature has fitted him, but by all means to seek labor, not pay alone, remembering the injunction, “Get work, get work, it is better than what you work to get,”8Paraphrase from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh” and having found it to make no mask of its performance. Show him that the hand which holds the plow or grasps the hammer may be as tender and true as the one which only wields the pen, That those delicate thoughtful attentions to sister, wife and mother, which are the heart’s definition of home, beautify alike the costly mansion and the humble cottage. That we should not seek education merely because of its market value, for its noblest object is not to fill the purse, but to enrich the life. That labor should never be made the excuse for ignorance and clownishness, but should gather about its home every charm of refinement, every endearment of affection. Then will the effort to surpass others which now curses American life, become a strife to excel in generous kindness, in real worth, in stern virtue, in manly self-respect. Then shall we learn to measure a man not by the breadth of his acres or the height of his station, but by the sweep of his intellect and the largeness of his soul. We have still sadder evidence of our need to dignify labor. The most pernicious outgrowth of the eagerness to purchase ease at whatever price, is the corruption which obtrudes its loathsome face into the high places of our land, bringing blight upon individual character and reproach upon our national fame. As Americans we may not hold our peace and see law and judgment made the price of place and gold. But while we do right to visit upon the culprit the weight of our righteous indignation, we know that the dastard who can sell his soul knows no honor and feels no shame, and not to him but to those who come after him must we look to wipe out this disgrace. Are we not conjured by national honor and by Christian duty, by the dignity of justice and the sacredness of law, to use every energy of our souls to train up a generation that will hound and hate the demon greed, that would prefer a crust in a hovel with untarnished honor, to the costliest elegance with the canker of bribery upon the soul.

The work of education must be co-operative or it will rarely be crowned with success. All those having interest or authority should labor hand-in-hand, consulting and correcting each other’s plans with the utmost freedom. The pupils should also be admitted to the circle. The day has gone by when direct antatgonism between teacher and pupil is considered natural order of events. Still this work is from complete, and it should be our aim to carry it on to perfection. The teacher and pupils may be led to act in entire sympathy and harmony, each seeking constantly to promote the other’s interest and happiness.

This and much more we may do.

Does the work of reform seem hopeless because of its magnitude? There is no good that Americans may not hope for. And more, “it is part of the celestial machinery of God, and who puts that in gear for mankind, shall have the Almighty to turn his wheel.”9Paraphrase from Theodore Parker’s sermon, “Truth and the Intellect,” describing truth as part of the celestial machinery. Had we the spirit of our forefathers, who left their unfinished huts to build the school house beside the church, and were we willing to give of our abundance, as they gave of their poverty, our record like theirs might be written in characters of living light; and as the blessed reward of labors, where enlightened Christian freedom was born, there it would lovingly and securely dwell while the everlasting hills endure.

Sources used:

Whitney, H. A. (1922). Maria Sanford. University of Minnesota Press.
Sanford, M. (1869, July). How Can We Elevate Our Public Schools. Pennsylvania School Journal, 18(1), 22–25.
Sanford, M. (1869, April 20). How Can We Elevate Our Public Schools. American Republican and Chester County Advertiser. Minnesota Historical Society.