Noah Webster, shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War, publishes an essay in his American Magazine outlining his reasons and methods for revising the educational system in the new republic.
On the EDUCATION of YOUTH in AMERICA.
NEW YORK, 1788.
PERHAPS it may also be numbered among the errors in our systems of Education, that, in all our universities and colleges, the students are all restricted to the same course of study, and by being classed, limited to the same progress. Classing is necessary, but whether students should not be removeable from the lower to the higher classes, as a reward for their superior industry and improvements, is submitted to those who know the effect of emulation upon the human mind.
But young gentlemen are not all designed for the same line of business, and why should they pursue the same studies? Why should a merchant trouble himself with the rules of Greek and Roman syntax, or a planter puzzle his head with conic sections? Life is too short to acquire, and the mind of man too feeble to contain, the whole circle of sciences. The greatest genius on earth, not even a Bacon, can be a perfect master of every branch; but any moderate genius may, by suitable application, be perfect in any one branch. By attempting therefore to teach young gentlemen every thing, we make the most of them mere smatterers in science. In order to qualify persons to figure in any profession, it is necessary that they should attend closely to those branches of learning which lead to it.
There are some arts and sciences which are necessary for every man. Every man should be able to speak and write his native tongue with correctness; and have some knowlege of mathematics. The rules of arithmetic are indispensably requisite. But besides the learning which is of common utility, lads should be directed to pursue those branches which are connected more immediately with the business for which they are destined.
It would be very useful for the farming part of the community, to furnish country schools with some easy system of practical husbandry. By repeatedly reading some book of this kind, the mind would be stored with ideas, which might not indeed be understood in youth, but which would be called into practice in some subsequent period of life. This would lead the mind to the subject of agriculture, and pave the way for improvements.
Young gentlemen, designed for the mercantile line, after having learned to write and speak English correctly, might attend to French, Italian, or such other living language, as they will probably want in the course of business. These languages should be learned early in youth, while the organs are yet pliable; otherwise the pronunciation will probably be imperfect. These studies might be succeeded by some attention to chronology, and a regular application to geography, mathematics, history, the general regulations of commercial nations, principles of advance in trade, of insurance, and to the general principles of government.
It appears to me that such a course of Education, which might be completed by the age of fifteen or sixteen, would have a tendency to make better merchants than the usual practice which confines boys to Lucian, Ovid and Tully, till they are fourteen, and then turns them into a store, without an idea of their business, or one article of Education necessary for them, except perhaps a knowlege of writing and figures.
Such a system of English Education is also much preferable to a university Education, even with the usual honors; for it might be finished so early as to leave young persons time to serve a regular apprenticeship, without which no person should enter upon business. But by the time a university Education is completed, young men commonly commence gentlemen; their age and their pride will not suffer them to go thro the drudgery of a compting house, and they enter upon business without the requisite accomplishments. Indeed it appears to me that what is now called a liberal Education, disqualifies a man for business. Habits are formed in youth and by practice; and as business is, in some measure, mechanical, every person should be exercised in his employment, in an early period of life, that his habits may be formed by the time his apprenticeship expires. An Education in a university interferes with the forming of these habits; and perhaps forms opposite habits; the mind may contract a fondness for ease, for pleasure or for books, which no efforts can overcome. An academic Education, which should furnish the youth with some ideas of men and things, and leave time for an apprenticeship, before the age of twenty one years, would in my opinion, be the most eligible for young men who are designed for activ employments.
The method pursued in our colleges is better calculated to fit youth for the learned professions than for business. But perhaps the period of study, required as the condition of receiving the usual degrees, is too short. Four years, with the most assiduous application, are a short time to furnish the mind with the necessary knowlege of the languages and of the several sciences. It might perhaps have been a period sufficiently long for an infant settlement, as America was, at the time when most of our colleges were founded. But as the country becomes populous, wealthy and respectable, it may be worthy of consideration, whether the period of academic life should not be extended to six or seven years.