No Limit To Pain For Those Who Allow It
One of the most telling accounts of schooling ever penned comes directly from the lips of a legendary power broker, Colonel Edward Mandel House, one of these grand shadowy figures in American history. House had a great deal to do with America's entry into WWI as a deliberate project to seize German markets inchemicals, armor plate and shipping, an aspect of our bellicosity rarely mentioned in scholastic histories. When peace came, House's behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the League of Nations contributed to repudiation of the organization. His management of President Wilson led to persistent stories that Wilson was little more than a puppet of the Colonel.
In his memoirs, The Intimate Papers of Colonel House, we get a glimpse of elite American schooling in the 1870s. House's early years were school-free. He grew up after the Civil War, near Houston, Texas:
My brother James, six years older than I, was the leader.. ..We all had guns and pistols... there were no childish games excepting those connected with war. [House was nine at the time.] In the evening around the fireside there were told tales of daring deeds that we strove to emulate.... I cannot remember the time when I began to ride and to shoot.... I had many narrow escapes. Twice I came near killing one of my playmates in the reckless use of firearms. They were our toys and death our playmate.
At the age of fourteen House was sent to school in Virginia. The cruelty of the other boys made an indelible impression on his character, as you can sift from this account:
I made up my mind at the second attempt to haze me that I would not permit it. I not only had a pistol but a large knife, and with these I held the larger, rougher boys at bay. There was no limit to the lengths they would go in hazing those who would allow it. One form I recall was that of going through the pretense of hanging. They would tie a boy's hands behind him and string him up by the neck over a limb until he grew purple in the face. None of it, however, fell to me. What was done to those who permitted it is almost beyond belief. At the Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven at the age of seventeen,
during the Hayes-Tilden campaign of 1876, House began to "hang around" political offices instead of "attending to studies." He came to be recognized and was given small privileges. When the election had to be ultimately settled by an Electoral Commission he was allowed to "slip in and out of hearings at will." House again:
All this was educational in its way, though not the education I was placed in Hopkins Grammar School to get, and it is no wonder that I lagged at the end of my class. I had no interest in desk tasks, but I read much and was learning in a larger and more interesting school.
House's story was written over and over in the short, glorious history of American education before schooling took over. Young Americans were allowed close to the mechanism of things. This rough and tumble practice kept social class elastic and American achievement in every practical field superb.