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Chapter 34: America at school.

some measures have been taken to check an evil which is threatening to reduce White settlers to the level of Creeks and Cherokees, and to convert the Potomac and Savannah into American Nigers and Senegals. These measures are partly general, partly local; partly inquisitorial, partly remedial; but in every case they have improvement as their aim and end.

Four years ago, Americans were living in a dream. They knew that here and there a blotch defiled the fair face of their country, but they fancied that on the whole their “model republic” was a shining light in popular education. Seven or eight years ago, some earnest watchers over American progress hinted that through the ravages of war, and through the poverty brought on several of the States, America had not only ceased [348] to make way, but was actually falling back in the race. Enquiry was provoked. The facts produced led to fresh enquiry. Every one was struck, and not a few were stunned.

That a republic pre-supposes an instructed people is not only a truism in politics, but is understood to be so by every writer and speaker in the United States.

“Republics can only stand on the education and enlightenment of the people,” says President Grant.

“The stability and welfare of our institutions must necessarily depend for their perpetuity on education,” says Columbus Delano, Secretary of the Interior.

“The existence of a republic, unless all its citizens are educated, is an admitted impossibility,” says General Eaton, Commissioner of Education.

Congress passed a bill, establishing a Bureau of Education at Washington, for the purpose of collecting facts and letting the people know the truth. General Eaton was placed at the head of this Bureau, and for four years he had made an annual report; each year with safer data, each year also with a sharper note of warning. For the moment, he can do no more than publish facts. America is [349] not yet prepared for a great and general act; and General Eaton has to leave his theory and his facts to speak.

His theory is — that a republic cannot live unless the whole of her citizens are instructed men.

His fact is — that in the United States, five million six hundred thousand persons are unable to read and write.

More has been done by states and counties to arrest the downward motion. But the case was always bad, and the war made it everywhere worse. In some States, the school system became a wreck; in every State it suffered from the strife. This wreck is being repaired, but many years will pass away before the country can recover from the ravages of her civil war.

In the States lying north of the Potomac, the wreck was less than in those lying south of that river. New York and the six New England States are doing better than the rest; doing as well as England and Belgium, if not so well as Switzerland and Germany. Pennsylvania lags behind her northern rival, though she shows a good record in comparison with her Southern neighbours, Maryland [350] and Delaware. Maryland has never been in love with public schools, and she is taking to them now under a sense of shame. Her coloured schools are few in number and poor in quality. Delaware refuses, as a State, to recognise the duty of public instruction. She has neither State provision, nor County provision, for coloured schools. Such teaching as she gets, is gotten from her priests. Knowing these facts, need any one marvel that Delaware is one of the darkest corners of the United States?

In the Lake regions, the young States of Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, have a more uniform system, which is every year in course of improvement. These States have elementary schools in every township, with a secondary school in almost every county, crowned by a State university, with classical and scientific chairs. Ohio and Illinois have a system of their own.

On the Pacific slope, with the exception of California, public training is much neglected. Oregon, Dacota, and Nevada scarcely enter into the civilised system; Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico stand beyond it. In the River States, Nebraska, [351] Kansas, and Missouri, there are common schools, leading up through secondary schools to State universities, as in Iowa and Michigan. In all these sections, there is close and constant effort on the part of some, weakened by indifference on the part of many, to give the people that aliment, without which, according to President Grant and Secretary Delano, the republic cannot live.

Yet, after all, the main interest in this intellectual struggle lies in the South, so long neglected by the ruling race; and in the Southern States, the chief scene of conflict is Virginia.

The new race of Virginians are facing the demon of Illiteracy with the same high spirit as they showed in fronting the great material power of their enemies in the war.

Ten years ago there were no such public schools in Richmond as there were in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. A lady of the First Families could not send her boys and girls to an institution where they might have to mingle with “white trash.” It is the sentiment of a ruling class, common to all countries, not more obvious in Richmond and Raleigh than in Geneva and Lausanne, in Brighton and [352] Harrogate. A society of gentry tends by habit to become a caste. No teachers of the higher grades found welcome in Virginia, and the science of pedagogy was abandoned to the Thwackums and Squeers. A private school, the lowest type of boarding-school, was the only school thought good enough for the girls and boys of White citizens in Richmond. But for the higher culture found in the domestic circle, where the men were mostly gentlemen, the women mostly ladies, the state of learning in Virginia would have fallen to the level of Italy and Spain.

Four years ago the Massachusetts plan was introduced. Two able officers, Virginia-born, Colonel Binford and the Hon. W. W. Ruffner, are placed in charge of this new system. Many schools have been erected, and many teachers found. A free system, seeking to impart a sound, uniform, and general education to all classes, the Massachusetts plan has become so popular and acceptable that the private schools are everywhere dying out. The teachers in the public schools are good, not only better, as a class, than any we can get in London, but better than I find in Vermont and New Hampshire. [353] For these teachers in Virginia are nearly all ladies, not in sex only, but in birth and training; with the grace and accent, manner and appearance, of women whose mothers were ladies. Poverty at first, patriotism afterwards, disposed these women to adopt the art of teaching as a profession. They are fairly paid, and, once the false shame of taking honest money for honest work is overcome, everything goes well with them at school and home.

The system works by an internal force. A real lady, daughter of a gentleman, ranking with the First Families, accepts a teacher's desk, and asks her friends to send their girls to school. No one now objects. Where Minnie teaches, Minnie's younger sisters, cousins, and acquaintance can attend the class. A better sentiment comes in; class sentiment, it may be; but the social forces here begin to act for good instead of evil. Free schools have become a fashion,and some of the best culture in Virginia is being devoted to the task of teaching in these Richmond schools.

The schools are mixed, not as to colour, but as to sex. Boys and girls learn together, with a young lady for instructress. In one excellent school we find Grace Alston, a delicate girl, beautiful as a [354] seraph,with a pure English accent and a sweet English manner, teaching a class of boys and girls, the boys as tall and some of them nearly as old as herself.

“Do you like the method of mixed classes-having boys and girls in the same room, competing in the same lessons?”

“Yes,” replies the young lady, “ I find the mixed system better for both sexes than the separate system. The boys strengthen the girls, and the girls soften the boys.” .

“Have you no trouble with these big fellows?”

“No; the bigger boys are easier to control than the lesser ones; they have more sense at fifteen than at ten, and feel more shame in doing wrong; especially in the presence of a lady. The sense of chivalry comes in.”

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