Sunday, July 6, 2008

Inside Abe Lincoln's Log School

Abe Lincoln's log school house, as shown in Edward Eggleston's A First Book in American History, published in 1889. Amenities? No. Playgrounds? No. Education? Yes.

This year’s presidential candidates—under the media’s gun to limit their statements to byte size—would do well to study the Gettysburg Address as a model of efficient prose. In a mere 287 words, President Abraham Lincoln gave Americans the most profound expression of the meaning of our republic.

What produced Lincoln’s awesome command of the English language? While Lincoln said his time in a classroom totaled no more than one year, a peek inside that log-cabin schoolroom gives some idea of the culture that produced the sixteenth President. In 1815, at the age of six, Lincoln first went to school in Knob Creek, Kentucky. The schoolmaster was Zachariah Riney, a native of Maryland, who came to Kentucky to teach students spanning many ages in a one-room school with a dirt floor and without windows.

The primary text in Mr. Riney’s classroom was Dilworth’s Speller: A New Guide to the English Tongue, produced in 1740 by Thomas Dilworth, an English schoolmaster. The rudiments of reading were taught with the alphabet and words such as rat, rate; rid, ride; rot; rote; van, vane. But the content of the reading focused on morals and maxims with short sentences such as: “Amend your way of life,” “I love the humane,” “Uplift the lowly,” “Brevity is the soul of wit.” As one educator has noted: “Except for mathematics, the child who mastered old Dilworth, dog-eared, worn, and re-covered with oilcloth or gingham though it might be, learned more of writing and speaking than is often taught in the first ten years of public education today.”

Morals made up the writing exercises, along with sentences written for each item on lists of synonyms, homonyms, and antonyms.

The first paragraph of the Gettysburg Address as drafted by Lincoln.

With the older students, Mr. Riney conducted a writing exercise that may well have helped form the Gettysburg Address. He would present his thoughts on a topic of some moral significance, such as good neighborliness. He would read from the Bible on the subject, perhaps read a poem, tell stories to illustrate it, and also ask the children to contribute their thoughts on the matter. Then Mr. Riney would pick one scholar to go up to the slateboard and write “the heart of the matter.” The student would write a sentence or so. Once the content of the “heart of the matter” had been settled, Mr. Riney went carefully through the sentences, excising any unnecessary words. He called this “making a short phrase carry a long thought.” He used frontier metaphors to explain his meaning: “Applesauce is good, but apple butter is better. We want to learn to boil down a bushel basket of words until they fit into a gallon crock with the lid on tight.”

It is easy to see some sharp contrasts between Mr. Riney’s methods and today’s norms. First, no time was wasted in the classroom on trivia. Second, education was suffused with the teachings of morality rooted in religion. Thirdly, textbooks introduced children to the best of English literature from the get-go.

Was the education offered in 1815 frontier America better than what we have today?

See Donna's Comment to this post for information on the headmaster of the colonial Skippack School.


wendybirde said...

This was a great post Linda : )

I really love the "heart of the matter" approach rather than the flood of info approach we have now instead. Not only in education but in life.

And it affects our politics too, its sadly games and details now rather than getting to the heart of the matter there...praying that may change somehow...

Peaceful Week to you : ) Wendy

Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed your blog so much that I read back to the beginning and found the mention of the Skippack School, and then I re-read the slim book on Christopher Dock today. He considered his teaching a divine calling and his love for children as a gift from God. Dock's methods were not perfect but his love for the Lord and for children did show through.

It was good timing to re-read it, as I recently read an article about a study claiming couples who never have children are happier than those who do. I think one reason may be because of the struggle of trying to raise loving, virtuous children in a society that is a moral cesspool. Another reason may be because of the self-centeredness of adults. (I am not meaning those who want children but are unable to.)

Christopher Dock said: "First I owe God particular thanks, because besides calling me to this profession He has given me an extreme love of children. For if it were not for love it would be an unbearable burden to live among children. But love bears and never tires. If a natural mother did not love her children all the little incidents in the education of a child would be unbearably wearisome, but her love makes this burden light...I have told the friend in answer to his question regarding my treatment of the children with love, that I can take no credit for it. Love is a gift of God. According as one guards and uses it, so it can be increased or diminished."

The article on childless couples being happier and Dock's views bring to mind a verse concerning the time before the Lord's return, that because inquity shall abound, the love of many will grow cold (Matthew 24:12). That seems to include a loss of love for children.


Linda said...

Thank you so much for these comments. Alot of the material for this posting came from a children's book reporting on Abe Lincoln's young life.
Donna, I put a link to the post that your comment on Skippack School was posted to, so that others can see these links also.
I read an article on this survey showing that people without children are happier than those without. Unfortunately, the article did not indicate the questions. For example, Do you have the amount of leisure that you need if you have children? No. Are you well rested? No. Are you pursuing your own interests? No. Are you relaxed or frazzled? Frazzled. Do children drain your financial resources? Yes. Do children circumscribe your options? Yes. But does the survey ask: Is it all worth it? Oh, yes, many, many, many times over.
Of course, that people with children may appear to be less happy--in the course of their day--than those without children also can be attributed to the necessity or apparent necessity for the lady of the house to work outside the home, a condition that greatly reduces her ability to relax enough to enjoy her children.
So I am skeptical about this survey, because I have never known anyone who had children and regretted it. I know only of childless adults who wished they had been blessed with them.

Anonymous said...

"Alot of the material for this posting came from a children's book reporting on Abe Lincoln's young life."

Linda, what book was that? It sounds interesting.

Somewhere, I think it was in a children's book on Abraham Lincoln, I read of "Blab Schools," where children would learn their lessons at their desks by reciting them out loud. Here is something I just found on search, that uses that term (link at the end):

"A typical schoolroom would be a fairly small, one-room log structure. Towns generally did have a school, and in some rural areas, there might be a small country school serving children of a broad range of ages and learning levels. A subscription school was one where parents paid the teacher to enroll their child.

"Children were especially needed at home during planting and harvest time, so many attended school during the winter. The majority of children had a limited formal education if any. Few attended school for more than a few years.

"The frontier education was a rudimentary one. Most of children's time was spent learning and practicing the practical home and farm skills. The formal school curriculum was based on spelling, reading, writing and ciphering(arithmetic), which was considered a subject for boys. Penmanship was greatly emphasized. Subjects such as geography, science, history or literature were little known due to a lack of textbooks and the limited education of the teachers themselves. Because there were few supplies and resources, teachers taught by rote memorization. The term 'blab school' referred to the method of a teacher dictating the lesson and having students repeat it back. The Bible was the book most often used to teach reading and might be the only book that a family possessed. Spelling books or primers would be passed down in the family and these usually contained short basic grammar sections and quotations on morality and religious or historical topics."

You might like to read "Susannah Johnson's recollections of her frontier schooling" at the bottom of the above link.

Thank you.

Alexandra said...

Interesting post! We try to keep things simple and old fashioned with our homeschooling. Focusing on the three R's in the early years is so important. It sets the stage for later learning.

I'll have to order that Christopher Dock book; we use Christian Light resources, but I missed that one.

mostly.martha said...

Jeremiah Riney was my ancestor (ggg grandfather), so I am fascinated by this account. What is your source for this inside look at Mr. Riney's teaching methods?

Carol said...

I am also a descendant of Zacharia Riney. I have church records from Kentucky compiled by my great aunts. The Rineys were Catholics.