Schoolbooks of the 1800s a window into bygone era

The Education Beat

Instruction: Formal phonics and rhetoric are included, and the faces are all pale. One author predicted that women would make a major impact on education.

April 16, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

NOW WE CAN read 19th-century schoolbooks on the Internet on the eve of the 21st century.

The University of Pittsburgh academic library slowly is putting its 16,000-volume Nietz Old Textbook Collection online. The books are for the use of scholars, but anyone can click onto Pitt's Web site and get a glimpse of life and learning in a century without CD-ROMs, the Internet or MTV.

In a few hours' perusal of the 30 books so far digitized, I found formal phonics lessons and a good deal of instruction in grammar and rhetoric, both lost arts as we enter the 21st century.

Much of the phonics instruction was heavily scripted, in the manner of today's Direct Instruction. For example, Lesson 1 of Alonzo Reed's 1889 "English Language Grammar" began with the teacher announcing, "I will pronounce these three sounds very slowly and distinctly, thus: `b-u-d.' Notice, it is the power, or sound, of the letter, and not its name, that I give. What did you hear?"

But there were years in the mid-19th century when what is known today as "whole-word" instruction was in vogue. Kids memorized a few new words each lesson and read them in simple stories, such as this one from "Sanders' New Series" in 1858: "O, come and see Jane feed her pet lamb! Its fine, soft wool is as white as snow. "

There's some humor in the books, but 19th-century textbook writers were, on the whole, a serious lot. "The teacher should guide the thought of his class," Reed advised in the introduction to his reader, "but, if he attempts to do all the talking, he will find, when he concludes, that he has been left to do all the thinking."

Reading books these days are colorfully illustrated, and even those for beginning readers have intriguing plots. Not so Nelson M. Holbrook's "Progressive Pictorial Primer" in 1857: "We go. Do we go? We do go. We do so. See us go. We go so. Go as we go."

Oh, get out of here.

But it's what these books tell us about their times that most intrigues. "I can look into the world of the children in these books and see them looking out," says Beatrice E. Sarlos, an education professor at Loyola College who has her own collection of some 2,500 old textbooks.

Sarlos has historical readers, scientific readers, geographical readers and silent readers, published in the 1850s and 1860s when oral reading was out and silent reading in. Most of the readers were elaborately illustrated in black and white. "We are a very visual culture, and the textbooks reflect that," says Sarlos.

One popular text from the 1830s was the "National Reader," described on its cover as a "selection of exercises in reading and speaking designed to fill the same place in the schools of the United States that is held in those of Great Britain." A "Middle Class Reader -- designed for American families and schools" in 1853 was not for the middle economic class, but for the middle grades.

The multicultural textbook, of course, is an artifact of the 20th century. There were no African-Americans or American Indians in the textbooks of the 1800s. "There was a shared foundation of values and religion," says Sarlos, but that foundation belonged exclusively to Americans of pale skin.

Girls were segregated, and some had their own readers. R. G. Parker's "Exercises in Rhetorical Reading" discovered girls at some point between its first edition in 1849 and its eighth edition in 1853, when it added a page of females in proper and improper reading postures -- standing and sitting.

In the introduction to his midcentury "Reader for Female Schools," T. S. Pinneo anticipated the 20th-century role of women in education.

"The interests of education will hereafter be committed chiefly to the hands of woman," he wrote. "In her maternal character, this has always been more or less true. But the field of her influence has not yet been fully disclosed. The eye has not reached its boundaries. It will still be widening, until the mother's teachings, and woman's affectionate, persevering, well-directed efforts, shall become, in the hands of God, a mighty agent in the complete conversion of the world."

Pinneo, a man of strong opinions, complained that schools weren't teaching enough reading. He wrote: "It ought to be a leading object, in these schools, to teach the art of reading. It ought to occupy three-fold more time than it does."

And since females were to lead the conversion of the world, Pinneo believed they, too, should learn to read: "We would rather have a child, even of the other sex, return to us from school a first-rate reader, than a first-rate performer on the piano-forte."

There's Pinneo and much more at http: //digital.library.pitt. edu/nietz/.

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