The disciplined mind: how mid-19th century North American teachers described students' mind, mental ability, and learning.

Author:Stone, Jake


The discipline of educational psychology emerged in the last two decades of the 19th century with an ever more intense attempt to collect measures of human conduct. As researchers in this nascent discipline determined which measures were to be collected and how implications might be construed from such measures, they were, at the same time, articulating interpretations about what they held the mind to be. Such interpretations often involved the application of presuppositions, philosophical premises, and folk understandings (Danziger, 1990; Rose, 1996) that pre-existed the measures under examination. For example, G. Stanley Hall (1893) argued that a child's ability to recognize objects and the child's connection of ideas with these objects were predictors of that child's mental ability. Hall's belief that mental ability involved making connections among objects and ideas was not a novel psychological hypothesis. Rather, Hall was investigating a notion of mental ability and a popular theory of its constitution that, as we will discuss, had been commonly held by educators in the United States for at least half a century.

Although early studies were often influenced by commonly held beliefs such as those surrounding mental ability, educational psychologists also asserted the value of their work by contrasting with, and refuting, popular beliefs about mind, learning, and mental ability. Thorndike's (1903) refutation of "faculty psychology," for example, was a refutation of beliefs about the generality of relationships among reasoned principles, ideas, and mental ability that had been popularly held for half a century and had sources in the philosophical discourse of the European Enlightenment. In short, educational psychology did not start with a blank slate. In terms of both the conceptions that shaped interpretations of quantitative data and the conceptions that were challenged by this new discipline, researchers were influenced by presuppositions, philosophical premises, educational theories, and folk understandings that had sources in the ideas and practices of earlier generations.

In order to understand the foundations upon which key psychological concepts and educational theories have been developed, then, it is helpful to understand how mind, mental ability, and learning were understood prior to the emergence of psychology as a formal discipline. In this article, I examine the discourse of four American educators from 1859. By this time schools were widespread across the United States and there was a burgeoning of journals and books concerned with education. By 1859, a corpus of professional educators had emerged, centered in the towns and cities of New England. These educators were concerned with many of the questions that later became central to the discipline of educational psychology: questions of mental ability, how people learn, and how the mind connects and relates with the world. The four educators examined herein published treatises on education in 1859 that involved discussion on how children should be taught. Through these discussions, it is possible to construe how each of these educators articulated an understanding of mind, mental ability, and learning.

The article is divided into four sections. The first section provides a brief introduction to the historical context within which these texts were written. The second section introduces each educator and, with as low level of inference as possible, provides a description of how each educator referred to mind, mental ability, and learning. The third section considers some possible influences--social, intellectual, and theological--that may have influenced each educator's perspective. The fourth section provides an interpretation of the philosophical and moral sources implicit in the descriptions of mind, mental ability, and learning provided by each educator.

1859 Context

In the first half of the 19th Century there was a steadily growing social movement towards the establishment of common, state run schools (Beck, 1965; Cremin, 1976; Cubberley, 1948; Gutek, 1984). In addition to a sizable array of private schools for the affluent, common schools were founded that were open to children from all social backgrounds and religious denominations--notwithstanding that religious and moral education were typically conducted within a Protestant framework (Bidwell, 1966; Drake, 1963). By 1860, many states in the United States had appointed a state supervisor of common schools, although compulsory attendance legislation had been enacted only in Massachusetts (Katz, 1976). Civic leaders such as Henry Barnard and Horace Mann sought political support and state funding for common schools. These leaders also sought to professionalize teaching, which, according to anecdotes of the time (e.g., The Two Candidates, 1860), was being undermined by teachers of dubious moral character and low scholarly ability. Professionalizing teaching involved providing qualified and competent teachers to the common schools. A number of normal schools were established that functioned as training centers for common school teachers. Also, by 1859 several professional education journals were established. These journals provided information on curriculum content, hints on how to design schools and hire reliable teachers, discussions on instruction strategy, and often triumphant articles about the establishment of schools in new communities.

In 1859, the goal of providing universal education was incomplete. Compulsory education was not enforced in all states until 1918 (Katz, 1976). The reformers and educators of the 1850s were nonetheless on a mission to achieve universal education. They fervently advocated for schools in every settlement and promoted the values of education throughout their communities. To this end, books by educators were not unusual in the late 1850s and, as some went through more than one edition (e.g., Orcutt, 1858, 1859), one might assume they were fairly well read at the time.

Four Educators

In this section, I will introduce four educators: Northend, Orcutt, Thayer, and Russell. Each of these educators published an educational treatise in 1859. Some background information about each educator will be provided along with a description of how each educator's treatise described mind, mental ability, and learning.

Charles Northend

Charles Northend was born in 1814 and educated in the private Dummer Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts (Spalding, 1891). At the age of 16 he entered Amherst College but left the college before graduating to take a position as assistant in his former school, Dummer Academy. Northend went on to teach in the common schools of Massachusetts for more than twenty years before being appointed in 1852 as superintendent of public schools in Danvers, Massachusetts (Superintendent of Schools in Danvers, 1852). In 1855, Northend was hired as assistant to the superintendent for state schools in Connecticut, where he was responsible for Connecticut's normal schools. As was typical of teachers and administrators in the common schools, Northend was a Congregationalist. His brief biography (Spalding, 1891) noted that he was a member of the First Congregationalist Church in New Britain, although the degree of his involvement in church activities is unclear.

Northend had been actively involved in the professionalization of teaching since the 1840s. He was a founding member of the Massachusetts State Teachers' Association in 1845 (Massachusetts, 1845), and he started writing about education when still teaching in the common schools. By 1859, Northend had been an active member of a number of teacher associations and an editor of the Connecticut Common School Journal. He had also written a number of books that provided curriculum content for use in common schools (e.g., Northend, 1848, 1851), a book on bookkeeping for common schools (Northend, 1845), and three books on pedagogy (Northend, 1844, 1853, 1859). The latest of the three, entitled The Teacher's Assistant, was published in 1859. The book was organized as a series of 22 letters of advice for a novice school teacher. Topics of the letters ranged across a broad array of issues such as parental cooperation, moral instruction, teaching strategies for particular curriculum areas, and the moral character of the teacher. The following is an outline of Northend's descriptions of mind, mental ability, and learning as construed from The Teacher's Assistant:

Incitement to effort. Northend (1859) saw learning as effortful and held that students could be "incited to effort" (p. 203) by the teacher. He mentioned a number of methods to incite effort or diligence in students. These methods included grading students' work, offering verbal encouragement, reading exemplary work to parents, and the teacher providing a caring friendship to his or her students.

Attention. Northend (1859) saw effort as manifest in the students' attention to a task. Students needed to observe and "fix their attention" (p. 135) on salient details of the lesson being presented. Attention to the lesson had to be maintained if students were to learn. Northend recommended that the students would carefully attend if each anticipated that he or she could be called on to answer the next question from the teacher. Once a student was attending, learning could occur.

Ideas and principles. Northend (1859) did not seek to explain the processes involved in learning. He seemed to assume the processes of learning were already well accepted and understood by teachers. Rather, his focus tended towards expounding on the practices and curriculum content best suited to inciting effort and facilitating learning. Nonetheless, while discussing teaching practice, Northend clearly described and often repeated his understanding of the learning process. When students attended carefully to the salient features of an object or a written lesson...

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