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To School or Not to School

I am waiting for the day I get a review that disputes the education level of both David and Annie in my book Keeping Secrets, as well as the historical context of the school they attend. The fact of the matter is, members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) placed a higher value on education in the 18th century than the average colonial citizen. They had more schools, with more teachers, than the average colonial community. What is even more remarkable is that they educated their girls, at least in the early years, with as much vigor as they educated their boys. Still, while education was important, it was not what defined a person. It was merely a means to an end.

It amazes me how much stock people put in education these days, and how the government, especially, thinks that education will solve the nation’s problems. The fact is that America was founded during a time when education took a back seat to putting food on the table, putting clothes on children’s backs, and forming children to be honest, hardworking, self-reliant citizens. And it must not be lost that these were the people who started and finished a war against the most powerful nation in the world.

The fact is, that most adults in the pre-Revolutionary war period were barely literate themselves. They had to send their children to school to learn to read, write, and cipher. As for the Chesapeake planters, before the middle of the 18th century there were very few free schools in Virginia. Private schoolmasters were paid by the parents who pooled their money together to pay his salary. Even then, teachers were in short supply. For example, in 1724, there was only one schoolteacher for every 100 white families covering an eight parish area. In two Piedmont parishes, there were only four teachers responsible for 400 families. That means very few children in 18th century Virginia were formally schooled for even a short length of time.

Americans today spend loads of money building new schools, training teachers in new programs (which are really old programs repackaged), and upgrading the technology to give children the best advantage. In colonial America, funds were scarce and luxuries few. A few lucky communities allowed their churches to double as their schools, but this was not usually the case, especially in Virginia. In the early part of the colonial period, they were oftentimes situated on ground that was not good for anything else. Thus, there was usually no shade in the summer and no tree break in the winter, so summers were hot and winters cold and drafty. As in Keeping Secrets, families were expected to donate a load of firewood to keep the school warm in the winter. Those that did not were expelled or sent to the coldest part of the room.

Schoolmaster Cayle stepped into the aisle, not stopping until he was towering over David. “Since you are so concerned about Sister Annie, you can sit back there with her. And for your disobedience and disrespect, your father will be fined an extra load of wood for the winter. I want it by next first day.”

David jerked his slate and reader off the desk and grabbed his heavy winter coat from the back of the chair. He was only halfway across the room when a wall of cold air smacked him. He pushed through it, went towards the window, and dropped his books to the table. He slung the coat over Annie’s shoulders, then nudged her arm while motioning to the other girls to scoot down. At least that way he could act as a shield against the cold wind oozing through the window, albeit a poor one.

He flung himself onto the bench causing it to rock violently. The other girls glanced at him, but didn’t say a word.

Not only were construction materials scarce, and the facilities crude, but the furnishings were sparse as well. Desks didn’t exist at this early period. Children sat at crude tables usually arranged around the outside walls of the classroom. Schools where parents valued education may have had books, but most had only hornbooks, maybe a few Bibles, and a primer (reader). The children learned things by chanting and committing them to memory. What educators today (gasp!) call rote learning and decry as useless.

The quality of education, of course, differed between the various social classes. Planters oftentimes hired private tutors in their homes for the children, then sent the boys, at the age of 13 or 14, to college, or even back to England to boarding school. Girls, in these well-to-do families, had the same education as their brothers until they reached the age of 11 or 12. At that time, as the boys learned Greek, History and Geography, girls were taught sewing, household management, and perhaps given piano or music lessons.

Children of middling planters, like the Cayle and the McKechnies, oftentimes only attended school for small periods of time during the year. The Friends, however, valued education more highly than the average colonial. They believed girls needed to study the same thing as boys, and they believed all the children needed to read, write, and cipher. It was part of their deep religious convictions. While colonial schools were far and few between, finding a Quaker community without a school would have been difficult.

But neither the Quakers, nor anyone else at the time, believed educating society would solve its ills. It was a firm belief that citizens needed to embrace hard work, self-reliance, and stable families in order to survive. That was not something that could be learned through reading, writing, and ciphering, but was done by hard work and example. Citizens who did not pursue these morals and instead chose drunkenness, lewd behaviors, and theft were punished accordingly by having their ears cut off, being placed in the stocks, or even hung for serious offenses.

As parents it is sometimes easy to simply focus on grades and test scores, and to push that all proverbial phrase but you are going to college. However, our sights for our children should be on something larger, and if we are Christians they should be aimed towards the eternal. To hear most people talk, education will get children good jobs, give them money to purchase the things they want, and make them productive citizens. And yet, everyone of us can name children who have college degrees but can’t keep a job, have money but can’t seem to stay out of debt, and are anything but productive citizens.

We would do well to look to the past and try to remember that we are ultimately responsible for educating our children, and that it is more than book learning, test scores, and college scholarships. Only then we will have an America turned back on its time with productive citizens and a society where the poor are few and common sense reigns.

Now that I have reminded myself, I think it is time to put some boys to work – and not the reading, writing, and ciphering kind.

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