You Had To Do It Yourself
CUT TO Abe Lincoln, by the fireplace in a log house. "An American," Francis Grund
remarked in 1837, "is almost from his cradle brought up to reflect on his condition, and
from the time he is able to act, employed with the means of improving it."
Lincoln, hardly a slouch as writer, speaker, or thinker, packed fifty weeks of formal
schooling into his entire life over the twelve-year period between 1814 and 1826. Even
that little seemed a waste of time to his relatives. Unless you want to argue that those few
weeks made a decisive difference to Abe, we need to look elsewhere for his education.
Clifton Johnson thinks it happened this way:
He acquired much of his early education at home. In the evening he would pile sticks of
dry wood into the brick fireplace. These would blaze up brightly and shed a strong light
over the room, and the boy would lie down flat on the floor before the hearth with his
book in front of him. He used to write his arithmetic sums on a large wooden shovel with
a piece of charcoal. After covering it all over with examples, he would take his jack-knife
and whittle and scrape the surface clean, ready for more ciphering. Paper was expensive
and he could not afford a slate. Sometimes when the shovel was not at hand he did his
figuring on the logs of the house walls and on the doorposts, and other woodwork that
afforded a surface he could mark on with his charcoal.
In Lincoln's Illinois and Kentucky, only reading, writing, and ciphering "to the Rule of
Three" were required of teachers, but in New England the business often attracted
ambitious young men like Noah Webster, confident and energetic, merely pausing on
their way to greater things. Adam Gurowski, mid-nineteenth-century traveler in our land,
took special notice of the superiority of American teachers. Their European brethren
were, he said, "withered drifters" or "narrowed martinets."
Young people in America were expected to make something of themselves, not to
prepare themselves to fit into a pre-established hierarchy. Every foreign commentator
notes the early training in independence, the remarkable precocity of American youth,
their assumption of adult responsibility. In his memoir, Tom Nichols, a New Hampshire
schoolboy in the 1820s, recalls the electrifying air of expectation in early American
Our teachers constantly stimulated us by the glittering prizes of wealth, honors, offices,
and distinctions, which were certainly within our reach — there were a hundred avenues to
wealth and fame opening fair before us if we only chose to learn our lessons.
Overproduction, overcapacity, would have been an alien concept to that America,
something redolent of British mercantilism. Our virgin soil and forests undermined the
stern doctrine of Calvinism by paying dividends to anyone willing to work. As Calvinism
waned, contrarian attitudes emerged which represented a new American religion. First,
the conviction that opportunity was available to all; second, that failure was the result of
deficient character, not predestination or bad placement on a biological bell curve.
Character flaws could be remedied, but only from the inside. You had to do it yourself
through courage, determination, honesty, and hard work. Don't discount this as hot air; it
marks a critical difference between Americans and everyone else. Teachers had a place in
this process of self-creation, but it was an ambiguous one: anyone could teach, it was
thought, just as anyone could self-teach. Secular schools, always a peripheral institution,
were viewed with ambivalence, although teachers were granted some value — if only
gratitude for giving mother a break. In the southern and middle colonies, teachers were
often convicts serving out their sentences, their place in the social order caught in this
advertisement of Washington's day:
RAN AWAY. A servant man who followed the occupation of Schoolmaster. Much given
to drinking and gambling.
Washington's own schoolmaster, "Hobby," was just such a bondsman. Traditional lore
has it that he laid the foundation for national greatness by whipping the devil out of
Washington. Whipping and humiliation seem to have always been an eternal staple of
schooling. Evidence survives from ancient Rome, Montaigne's France, Washington's
Virginia — or my own high school in western Pennsylvania in the 1950s, where the
teacher's personalized paddle hung prominently at the entrance to many a classroom, not
for decoration but for use. The football coach and, if I recall correctly, the algebra teacher
customized their paddles, using a dry cell battery to fashion devices similar to electrified
Something in the structure of schooling calls forth violence. While latter-day schools
don't allow energetic physical discipline, certainly they are state-of-the-art laboratories in
humiliation, as your own experience should remind you. In my first years of teaching I
was told over and over that humiliation was my best friend, more effective than
whipping. I witnessed this theory in practice through my time as a teacher. If you were to
ask me now whether physical or psychological violence does more damage, I would reply
that slurs, aspersion, formal ranking, insult, and inference are far and away the more
deadly. Nor does law protect the tongue-lashed.
Early schools in America were quick with cuff or cane, but local standards demanded
fairness. Despotic teachers were often quarry themselves, as Washington Irving's
"Legend of Sleepy Hollow" warns us. Listen to the fate of schoolmaster Thomas
Beveridge at the hands of the upper-class Latin School in Philadelphia, eleven years
before the Revolution:
He arrives, enters the school, and is permitted to proceed until he is supposed to have
nearly reached his chair at the upper end of the room, when instantly the door, and every
window shutter is closed. Now shrouded in utter darkness the most hideous yells that can
be conceived are sent forth from three score of throats; and Ovids and Virgils and
Horaces, together with the more heavy metal of dictionaries, are hurled without remorse
at the astonished preceptor, who, groping and crawling under cover of the forms, makes
the best of his way to the door. When attained, a light is restored and a death-like silence
Every boy is at his lesson: No one has had a hand or a voice in the recent atrocity.
In the humbler setting of rural Indiana recreated by Eggleston for Hoosier Schoolmaster
(1871), we can easily see that passage of more than a century (and the replacement of
rich kids by farmer's sons and daughters) hasn't altered classroom dynamics:
When Ralph looked round on the faces of the scholars — the little faces full of mischief
and curiosity, the big faces full of an expression which was not further removed than
second-cousin from contempt — when young Hartsook looked into these faces, his heart
palpitated with stage fright. There is no audience so hard to face as one of schoolchildren,
as many a man has found to his cost.
While Ralph was applying to a trustee of the school committee for this job, a large ugly
bulldog sniffed at his heels, causing a young girl to "nearly giggle her head off at the
delightful prospect of seeing a new schoolteacher eaten up by the ferocious brute."
Weary, discouraged, "shivering with fear," he is lectured:
You see, we a'n't none of your soft sort in these diggin's. It takes a man to boss this
deestrick...if you git licked, don't come to us. Flat Crick don't pay no 'nsurance, you bet!
...it takes grit to apply for this school. The last master had a black eye for a month.
No Limit To Pain For Those Who Allow It