Schooling Readers: Reading Common Schools in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction

Schooling Readers: Reading Common Schools in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction

by Allison Speicher

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Schooling Readers: Reading Common Schools in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction by Allison Speicher

Schooling Readers investigates the fascinating intersection of two American passions: education and literature. Allison Speicher introduces readers to the common school narrative, an immensely popular genre of fiction—though now often forgotten—set in the rural one-room school in the nineteenth century.
Despite hailing from different regions with diverse histories and cultures, authors in all parts of the US produced remarkably similar school fictions. These stories, rather than offering idealized depictions of earnest schoolchildren in humble, rough-hewn schoolhouses, expose common schools as sites of both community bonding and social strife. These stories, Speicher shows, reflect surprisingly contemporary problems like school violence and apprehensions about assessments.
In four insightful sections, Speicher illuminates the plotlines that define the common school narrative: school exhibitions, in which common schools were opened to the public for a day of student performances; romances between teachers and students; violence against teachers; and teachers adopting their students. She offers rich examples from one hundred and thirty school stories by well-known authors such as Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and Edward Eggleston, as well as by educational reform pioneers such as C. W. Bardeen and long-forgotten contributors to nineteenth-century magazines.
By reading these fictions alongside the discourse of reformers like Horace Mann, Speicher illustrates the utility of fiction for uncovering the diverse reactions nineteenth-century Americans had to the expansion of public education as well as the role fiction played in shaping these responses. Throughout she maintains a dual focus, drawing on both literary and educational history, thereby offering much of value to those interested in either field.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817389918
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 07/15/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Allison Speicher is an assistant professor of English, teaching nineteenth-century American literature and children's literature at Eastern Connecticut State University.

Read an Excerpt

Schooling Readers

Reading Common Schools in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction

By Allison Speicher

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2016 Allison Speicher
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8991-8


Pedagogues and Performers

Before summer vacation begins in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Tom and his classmates endure a ritual that would have been familiar to nineteenth-century readers: Examination Day. To motivate his students to prepare, Mr. Dobbins relies on corporal punishment, earning him the hatred of students and critics alike. Despite his efforts to motivate his students, however, when Examination Day arrives, the schoolroom is ready, "brilliantly lighted, and adorned with wreaths and festoons of foliage and flowers," but the scholars are not. They stumble through recitations of poems and speeches, even Tom, whose customarily extraordinary memory fails him when he attempts to recite Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" speech. Instead, our habitually theatrical hero is seized with an uncharacteristic case of stage-fright. After Tom retires in defeat, he disappears for several pages, as Twain recites a familiar litany of examination activities: declamations, geography exercises, a spelling bee, Latin recitations, and the reading of original compositions.

It is ultimately to these compositions that Tom cedes the field, not to return until the next chapter, and Twain details them at length, lampooning their young female authors for their "nursed and petted melancholy," "wasteful and opulent gush of 'fine language,'" and inability to conclude without offering an "inveterate and intolerable sermon." Though the girls believe their work to be original, their "themes were the same that had been illuminated upon similar occasions by their mothers before them, their grandmothers, and doubtless all their ancestors in the female line clear back to the Crusades." Relishing the ridiculousness of these compositions, Twain offers their insipid and melodramatic texts at length, inviting the reader to laugh at them even while pointing out how enthusiastically they are received by the citizens of St. Petersburg. When the compositions have all been delivered, the characters in the novel finally get a laugh too, at the schoolboys' revenge on their master, and Examination Day ends.

The way this chapter unfolds, detailing the preparation of the schoolroom and the students, the number of people in attendance, and the sequence of activities, shows that Tom isn't the only one who likes to play by the book. Twain's description of Examination Day replicates a familiar formula, present in common school narratives from as early as the 1820s. Twain manages to capture the look and feel of Examination Day in only a few short pages in part because the scene would have been so recognizable to his original readers, down to the very poems and speeches recited. Amusingly, then, it would seem that Twain critiques formulaic writing, in the form of the compositions, while wittingly or unwittingly following a formula himself.

The scene captured the American imagination for quite some time — school exhibitions were present in fiction as early as the 1820s and as late as the 1890s, in texts by unknown writers and by canonical favorites like Twain. Across their long history in the school story, these scenes fit a familiar pattern, and collectively they illuminate two intertwined concerns about common schooling: concerns about curriculum and concerns about class. Such scenes raise questions about what students are learning in school and how this learning will prepare them for their later lives, either applauding students' attainments or mocking the students, the community, and the teacher. While some authors privilege show and spectacle, many more deride the exhibition's theatricality to highlight problems with curriculum and instruction. By doing so, these authors position themselves as better teachers than those in their stories, uniquely capable of distinguishing between the showy and the substantial for the benefit of readers.

This concern about curriculum dovetails with the exhibition scene's other major concern: issues of class. Here too Tom Sawyer is exemplary. Twain invites readers to laugh at the schoolgirls' compositions, assuming that we, unlike the audience at the exhibition, can appreciate their unintended comedy. The people of St. Petersburg are blissfully unaware that the compositions are poorly written and they remain so: the narrator doesn't school them. Readers thus maintain their superiority over the provincial characters within the narrative. Unlike Mr. Dobbins, Twain succeeds in imposing his pedagogical authority, reinforcing his readers' presumed distaste for saccharine writing. This distance between knowing readers and ignorant characters is replicated in many exhibition narratives, and it is one of the ways the stories think through the class implications of popular education. Presenting the patrons of the common school as provincial and tasteless works to assuage anxieties that increased access to schooling would upend social hierarchies.

The anxiety these narratives address reflects a tension at the heart of the school reform program: as Horace Mann put it, without seeing the inherent contradiction, common schooling was to be both the "great equalizer of the conditions of men" and the "balance-wheel of the social machinery." Historians debate whether class mobility, social stability, or some combination of the two was the goal of advocates of common schooling, whether schooling was to allow anyone with talent and dedication to succeed or to ensure that those in positions of privilege would maintain their privilege in the face of social change. Exhibition stories enter this debate, usually in conservative ways, highlighting the role of schooling in reinforcing students' positions in rural communities. Many stories, like Tom Sawyer, mock the knowledge and values of rural communities, and the exhibition serves as proof that ignorant provincials will remain where they are. In others, however, the rural community and its values are privileged above those of outsiders, and stasis is presented positively, as rural Americans maintain their way of life in the face of challenges. Whether common school narratives celebrate or condemn exhibitions and the rural communities that enjoy them, collectively they demonstrate that schooling will preserve the status quo. A form of assessment intended to measure progress becomes instead a ritual of continuity.


Though school exhibitions were emphatically local events, in schools across the United States — and in school fictions across the century — they assumed a familiar form. Typically, they blended oratory and theater with a series of questions posed to the students by the teacher or other examiners, often members of the school committee. Students frequently memorized and recited poems and orations, participated in spelling bees, solved math problems, and chanted geography. Exhibitions gave parents evidence of their children's progress, and teachers were judged on the quality of their exhibitions. But assessment was scarcely the event's only purpose: it also served as an advertisement for common schooling, increasing parental interest and bringing the community together to rally behind its school. School exhibitions solidified shared understandings of what skills and knowledge were valuable and necessary and provided public venues for the display of cultural capital. In particular, the importance placed on public speaking, seen as preparatory for political participation, demonstrates the role of schooling in shaping collective values. In story after story, students recite the same pieces, which formed a repository of common knowledge. Readers are assumed to need only a few lines of "You'd scarce expect one of my age," "Casabianca," or William Pitt's speech against the Stamp Act to recall the entire piece. The repeated return to the same texts is likely in part a result of common textbooks, but it also highlights the fact that school exhibitions were a tradition, both in fiction and in reality.

The popularity of school exhibitions explains their endurance throughout the century: exhibitions were public social events and elaborate affairs, sometimes lasting two or three days and attracting spectators from near and far. In addition to the interest of the program itself, school exhibitions offered an opportunity for social interaction and celebration. In fact, exhibitions were so popular that schools were often too small to hold the large crowds they attracted, and churches, town halls, and taverns provided alternate venues. Exhibitions were routinely advertised in newspapers, which also frequently reprinted accounts of the day's events, accounts that corroborate the image of the school exhibition fiction offers.

Despite widespread public enjoyment of school exhibitions, however, the event was not without its detractors. Unsurprisingly, the fiercest critics of school exhibitions were common school reformers, at least in part because these community events interfered with their standardizing and centralizing impulses. By midcentury, exhibitions were cause of no little debate. As one contributor to the Connecticut Common School Journal put it, "There are scarcely any subjects, of interest to our schools, on which there prevails so great a diversity of opinion and action, as on examinations and exhibitions." Most agreed that some form of summative assessment was necessary. A contributor to the District School Journal of the State of New York put it most eloquently:

If every merchant and trader, at the return of short and stated periods, takes an inventory of his stock, and balances his sheet of profit and loss, to learn the actual condition of his affairs; if every frugal and prudent husbandman, at the close of each season, looks through his granaries, his barns, his cellars, to learn the degree of success which has rewarded his labors; surely at the happening of each epoch in the mental history of the children, their legal guardians and supervisors should set themselves carefully and earnestly to the work of ascertaining their condition and estimating their advancement. The close of every school is such an epoch. A season has passed; has any harvest been gathered? Although the author of this article employs farming metaphors, his understanding of the purposes of schooling is very different from that of the rural crowds who flocked to school exhibitions. Instead of proud parents and teachers, the schoolchildren have "legal guardians and supervisors." Instead of an institution for building community, the school is an economic investment, and the author advises people to be sure that they are getting proper returns. Student learning is to be estimated and recorded on a balance sheet. The students are statistics, not individuals, waiting to be measured, not applauded.

And if the students are statistics, then the theatricality of the school exhibition must give way to the accountability of the school examination. Reformers urged the public to distinguish between exhibitions, a form of entertainment, and examinations, legitimate summative assessments. Some open-minded reformers were willing to concede that school exhibitions could have value — "It is delightful at times to hear beautiful reading, fine memoriter recitations, and thrilling declamations" — but urged communities to have both exhibitions and examinations. Unlike an exhibition, an examination should "ascertain the nature and extent of mental discipline that pupils have acquired" and "test, in every suitable manner, their understanding of the various principles, facts and thought that should have been developed by the branches to which attention has been given." Reformers sought to replace recitation of textbooks with tests of students' understanding of the material they learned. By their logic, teachers would be encouraged to teach their students a more meaningful and difficult curriculum if it was knowledge, not showmanship, that was assessed at the end of the school term.

Reformers worried that exhibitions interfered not only with the intellectual mission of schooling, but also with its moral aims, teaching children to lie, to pursue goals for vanity's sake rather than for their intrinsic good, and to strive to surpass others in an unchristian manner. This last issue provoked heated debate between the 1820s and the 1850s. For example, in his highly influential Theory and Practice of Teaching (1847), David P. Page argues that encouraging competition, or emulation, as it was then called, teaches children to "undervalue the higher reward of a good conscience, and a love of learning for its own sake." While emulation had its supporters, school reformers believed it was seriously injurious to children's characters. Underlying this concern about students' virtue is a desire to check students' competitive impulses, a sign of the uneasiness of reformers with students using the common school as a means to rise above their current circumstances.

In lieu of public shows, reformers recommended two alternatives: visits to schools by examiners on ordinary school days, when the school was "performing its daily work in its every day dress," and written examinations, the "most satisfactory method of all." Advocates of written testing acknowledged that such an examination "presents no attraction whatever to beholders," as "[s]tillness reigns, broken only by the scratching of pens upon the paper, or by the clicking of pencils upon the slates, and until the papers are completed nothing can be more dull for the visitor than watching the pupils as they proceed with their work, and counting the minutes and the hours as they slowly roll away." Perhaps this is why written examinations almost never appear in fiction: written tests lack the theatrical, social, and narrative appeal of oral examinations. Standardized testing is, quite simply, not the stuff of which good fiction is made. However, in the eyes of reformers, the loss of amusement was to be compensated for by the ability to "ascertain the true position of every scholar in every branch of study," thus ensuring that students are mastering a rigorous curriculum. Furthermore, preparation for written tests, reformers argued, did not eat up valuable class time to the neglect of continuous study, nor did written tests mistake showiness for true knowledge.


Reformers succeeded in promoting written tests in cities. But in rural communities, the exhibition continued to be valued as a public show despite their protests, as school fictions make clear. While reformers squabbled about ways of encouraging and measuring student learning, confident that more accurate modes of assessment would encourage higher student achievement, their literary counterparts examined the school exhibition from a different angle. The question school fiction raises is not how learning can be measured, but rather which learning might be valuable to and attainable by rural Americans. Rather than weighing students' understandings in school fiction, exhibitions become a chance to weigh the merits and the limitations of popular schooling in rural communities. These stories ask: How does the school curriculum suit local needs, preferences, and values? Should schooling prepare children for life within their communities or for futures outside of them?

Like reformers, literary authors distinguish between show and substance, but not for the purpose of enforcing a particular and narrow vision of the proper learning to take place in the school. Instead, those authors who present the school exhibition critically or satirically do so to paint an unflattering picture of life in rural communities. Rather than claiming that exhibitions fail to assess student learning adequately, these stories show that the exhibition reflects the community's knowledge and values far too well — the citizens are as laughable as the shows they put on. These stories assuage anxieties about the changes mass education promised: the school curriculum and students' mastery of it are mediocre, but this is a source of comfort, not concern, as it means that schools will do little to threaten the status quo by helping students achieve class mobility. Those authors who celebrate the exhibition, conversely, approach the issue from the opposite perspective, displaying pride in rural communities. Rather than helping students gain new knowledge that might allow them to change their social positions, the school serves as a means of inculcating knowledge and values already shared by the adults of their community. Schools in these stories do not need more rigorous curricula and more accurate assessments, because book learning is only a small part of the school's agenda.

Literary depictions of the school exhibition, then, assess not student progress, but rather rural communities and their way of life. Collectively, these stories reopen a question reformers assumed they had already answered: what uses can the school, and the knowledge it disseminates, serve in a rural community? By doing so, they challenge reformers' ability to set the terms of the conversation surrounding the school exhibition. School fictions also challenge our historical understanding of the event and its meaning, revealing how significantly our understanding has been shaped by that of reformers. In Testing Wars in the Public Schools, for example, historian William Reese proclaims that the "nineteenth century was the age of examinations," that "our national obsession with testing" began in the antebellum period. By the 1870s and 1880s, he explains, high-stakes written testing was so widespread it generated a backlash, and by 1900 the influence of written tests "seemed unassailable." Reese seeks to demonstrate the ways in which Horace Mann and his ilk set us on the path to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the contemporary standards movement, but in doing so he reduces the exhibition to just another form of test — and fiction reveals that exhibitions were much, much more. By seeing the exhibition solely as an assessment, we lose our sense of the importance of the event as a means of dramatizing and solidifying a community's way of life. The exhibition is a display of students' mastery of the curriculum, but of the social curriculum of the school, not merely the academic one. The longevity of the school exhibition in fiction suggests that questions about the purpose and promise of schooling remained open throughout the century.


Excerpted from Schooling Readers by Allison Speicher. Copyright © 2016 Allison Speicher. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments Introduction 1. Pedagogues and Performers 2. Combatants and Collaborators 3. Teachers and Temptresses 4. Parents and Patrons Conclusion Appendix: Archive of Common School Narratives Notes Bibliography Index

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