Posted by: Democratic Thinker | June 13, 2010

Webster’s American Education—§ 9

American Thought

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.


NEW YORK, 1788.


§ 9.  Of good Instructors.

BUT the principal defect in our plan of Education in America, is, the want of good teachers in the academies and common schools. By good teachers I mean, men of unblemished reputation, and possessed of abilities, competent to their stations. That a man should be master of what he undertakes to teach, is a point that will not be disputed; and yet it is certain that abilities are often dispensed with, either thro inattention or fear of expense.

To those who employ ignorant men to instruct their children, permit me to suggest one important idea: That it is better for youth to have no Education, than to have a bad one; for it is more difficult to eradicate habits, than to impress new ideas. The tender shrub is easily bent to any figure; but the tree, which has acquired its full growth, resists all impressions.

Yet abilities are not the sole requisites. The instructors of youth ought, of all men, to be the most prudent, accomplished, agreeable and respectable. What avail a man’s parts, if, while he is the “wisest and brightest” he is the “meanest of mankind?” The pernicious effects of bad example on the minds of youth Will probably be acknowleged; but with a view to improvement, it is indispensably necessary that the teachers should possess good breeding and agreeable manners. In order to give full effect to instructions, it is requisite that they should proceed from a man who is loved and respected. But a low bred clown, or morose tyrant, can command neither love nor respect; and that pupil who has no motive for application to books, but the fear of a rod, will not make a scholar.

The rod is often necessary in school; especially after the children have been accustomed to disobedience and a licentious behavior at home. All government originates in families, and if neglected there, it will hardly exist in society; but the want of it must be supplied by the rod in school, the penal laws of the state, and the terrors of divine wrath from the pulpit. The government both of families and schools should be absolute. There should, in families, be no appeal from one parent to another, with the prospect of pardon for offences. The one should always vindicate, at least apparently, the conduct of the other. In schools the master should be absolute in command; for it is utterly impossible for any man to support order and discipline among children, who are indulged with an appeal to their parents. A proper subordination in families would generally supersede the necessity of severity in schools; and a strict discipline in both is the best foundation of good order in political society.

If parents should say, “we cannot give the instructors of our children unlimited authority over them, for it may be abused and our children injured;” I would answer, they must not place them under the direction of any man, in whose temper, judgement and abilities, they do not repose perfect confidence. The teacher should be, if such can be found, as judicious and reasonable a man as the parent.

There can be little improvement in schools, without strict subordination; there can be no subordination, without principles of esteem and respect in the pupils; and the pupils cannot esteem and respect a man who is not in himself respectable, and who is not treated with respect by their parents. It may be laid down as an invariable maxim, that a person is not fit to superintend the Education of children, who has not the qualifications which will command the esteem and respect of his pupils. This maxim is founded on a truth which every person may have observed; that children always love an amiable man, and always esteem a respectable one. Men and women have their passions, which often rule their judgement and their conduct. They have their caprices, their interests and their prejudices, which at times incline them to treat the most meritorious characters with disrespect. But children, artless and unsuspecting, resign their hearts to any person whose manners are agreeable, and whose conduct is respectable. Whenever, therefore, pupils cease to respect their teacher, he should be instantly dismissed.

Respect for an instructor will often supply the place of a rod of correction. The pupil’s attachment will lead him to close attention to his studies; he fears not the rod so much as the displeasure of his teacher; he waits for a smile, or dreads a frown; he receives his instructions and copies his manners. This generous principle, the fear of offending, will prompt youth to exertions; and instead of severity on the one hand, and of slavish fear, with reluctant obedience on the other, mutual esteem, respect and confidence strew flowers in the road to knowlege.

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