Monday, November 23, 2009

"The boa constrictor, in its filthy slime...": G.F. Thayer's Lecture on Classroom Courtesy

From time to time, in my rummagings through the historical detritus of 19th century education, I come across something interesting. A few months ago, while sorting through some material on school hygiene, I found an extraordinary lecture entitled "On Courtesy."

"On Courtesy" is an address was given by G.F. Thayer in August of 1840, at the annual meeting of the American Institute of Instruction. In the lecture, Thayer bemoaned the lack of courtesy that plagued the schools of the day, and offered a list of requisitions and prohibitions that would help to remedy the problem. Some of Thayer's "requisitions" were quite bracing--consider the following comment on order in the classroom:
The first of the four [requisitions] relates to the scholars' taking their
places, on entering the school-room. This is a right step,
and the only safe one. If they wander about, they will
probably fall into temptation, and be led to do something
they ought not to do.
I have seen children, on a person's going into a schoolroom,
quit their seats, gather about the visitor, and stand,
with mouth ajar, drinking in, with the most intense interest,
every word said to or by the stranger, as if the communications
related to the falling of the sky, or some other
equally wonderful phenomenon. What in deportment
can strike a delicate mind with more surprise and disgust
than this ? In some schools, Lancaster's tablets, containing
the suggestion, "A PLACE FOR EVERY THING,
occupy a conspicuous situation. It should not be disregarded.
There are a number of other interesting requisitions (keeping the children mud-free, bowing) that Thayer discussed at great length. However, for Thayer, the requisitions are a mere opening act; the real rhetorical flights are saved for the prohibitions. Consider, for example, Thayer's energetic remarks on the problem of graffiti:
Next, marking, cutting, scratching, chalking, on the
school- house, fence, walls, &ic., are forbidden, as connected
with much that is low, corrupting, and injurious to the
property and rights of others. They are the beginnings
in that course of debasing follies and vices, for which the
idle, the ignorant, and profane, are most remarkable ; the
first steps in that course of degradation and impurity, by
which the community is disgraced, and the streams of
social intercourse polluted. You mark the track of its
subjects as you would the trail of a savage marauding
party, by its foul deeds and revolting exploits ; as you
would the path of the boa constrictor, in its filthy slime,
which tells that man's deadly enemy is abroad. And we
are called on, by every consideration of duty, to ourselves,
to our offspring, and to our race, to arm against this tremendous
evil, this spiritual bohon upas, which threatens
so wide-spread a moral death.
Other prohibitions not to be missed include spitting on the floor, the extremely dangerous game of paw-paw, and whittling.

Given the vigor of the pronouncements about the boa constrictor, one might be tempted to conclude that Thayer was an isolated crank. In fact, the opposite is true. Thayer was a popular schoolmaster who founded Chauncy Hall, a Boston private school that is still in existence. He was also, along with Horace Mann, a Vice-President of the American Institute of Instruction. As it happened, Mann, who was present for Thayer's inaugural reading of "On Courtesy", enjoyed the lecture so much that he reprinted it in his journal and had a copy sent to every school in Massachusetts.

In past posts, I've described some of the stark differences between current thinking about education and the ideas that prevailed in the 19th century. Thayer's lecture certainly bears this conclusion out. However, not everyone accepts that these differences exist. Recently, Robert Slavin, while making an argument about education's lack of progress in Educational Researcher, offered up the following assessment: “…if Rip Van Winkle had been a physician, a farmer, or an engineer, he would be unemployable if he awoke today. If he had been a good elementary school teacher in the 19th century, he would probably be a good elementary school teacher today.” Clearly, however, if Mr. Van Winkle had been teaching in Mr. Thayer's school, he might have had some difficulties adjusting to contemporary classroom life.

I highly recommend that you download the full version of "On Courtesy" and read it. Otherwise, you will never find out about Thayer's fascinating comments on bowing, the importance of respecting one's elders, and the dreadful dangers attendant upon "meddling with one's desk."

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