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.