Were all instructors like him, the world would soon be wise.Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his biography of his parents
I suppose it is a strange fascination, but I have long been interested in what sort of education the great minds in western civilization received growing up. One thing folks with genius intellects seem to have in common is they are autodidacts. And because they are autodidacts, most of them loathed compulsory schooling environments. They were bored to tears attending school, performing rote memorization exercises, being forced to study material they found inconsequential, and tolerating adults who behaved like petty tyrants. My husband and I are both of the autodidact persuasion, so we can sympathize with these concerns. Why do we homeschool our daughter? Frankly, because school sucked, and we want her to have something much better.
I’ve written in the past about Thomas Edison’s mother, Nancy Edison, who became an adamant homeschooler after her son’s teacher told her the child was a distraction to good students and would never amount to anything. (See my earlier post, Nancy Edison as a model homeschooling mom and proponent of intellectual play. As we live down the street from Thomas Edison and Henry Ford’s summer estates and Edison’s laboratory, I feel a kind of affinity for him.) But Edison was hardly the only one in this boat. Ben Franklin, the son of a man who made candles and soap, ended his formal education at age 10. Albert Einstein hated school and received much of his learning through books passed on to him by a relative.
I could go on and on. But the gist of it is great minds are hardly ever teacher’s pets and valedictorians. They care far more about their intellectual passions than jumping through hoops. You can’t even bully and shame them into caring about jumping through hoops. It makes you wonder how many special individuals have had their potential ruined by a childhood of sit down, shut up, stand in line, make a case for why you should be allowed to use the restroom outside of the passing period, put away that novel and write a five-paragraph essay bullshit.
At any rate, I have spent a chunk of this weekend reading about Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was not only the beneficiary of homeschooling, but was zealous about homeschooling his own children. In fact, he made important life decisions based on what kind of education he could provide for his children. Most people know Hawthorne for his dark, romantic novels, but Hawthorne was also a respected producer of educational curriculum in his time. He was really worked up about making education captivating and entertaining for children, because he hated his own experiences in traditional schools so much.
The best thing that happened to Hawthorne as a child was, in 1813, a serious leg injury prevented him from making it to school every day. For the several years that followed, Hawthorne holed himself up in his intellectual family’s well-stocked library, with the occasional lesson from a family friend that served as his private tutor. The experience lit a spark in the kid.
Hawthorne was a spectacularly literate child from a very early age. He had finished Pilgrim’s Progress at six years old – when most children in the contemporary United States are still learning to spell basic words. The first book he bought with his own money was Faerie Queen. His family’s library had volumes from many great authors and philosophers, and he systematically made his way through them all. After that, he finished all of the books in Salem’s lending libraries. Hawthorne grew up discussing and debating the treasures of western civilization with his family members and neighbors.
When Hawthorne’s family moved to Maine, Hawthorne contrived new excuses for why he needed to continue learning at home instead of going to school. The family eventually hired a friend who worked as an attorney to tutor him so he could get into Bowdoin College. Even at Bowdoin College, Hawthorne was put out by having to be in a classroom. Despite being a poor student (from a disciplinary perspective), he still placed at the top of his class in Latin and composition.
Hawthorne’s home education stood in sharp contrast from the sort of education provided in New England at the time. Massachusetts, where Hawthorne grew up, had certainly been the epicenter for learning in the young country. For children, however, the main purpose of attending school was to be able to read the Bible, as religion dominated Puritan society. Over time, their primitive education system would experience some mission creep to become what we call classical schools now (meaning they introduced Latin and Greek literature). But for the most part, attending school entailed reciting the same passages over and over, and getting beaten if you did not participate.
There was incredible social inequality when it came to education in the early 1800s. That’s not to say fairness in education has improved much since then – rich, poor, and middle class in the United States still remain stratified with respect to the kinds of institutions available to them. (This is what education vouchers aim to change.)
Most children started their education in what was called a “dame school,” which basically meant hanging out at a female neighbor’s house to do grammar exercises. For girls, that’s where their education ended. (Schools for girls and co-ed institutions did not come about until the mid-19th century, and even then, it was primarily wealthy girls who benefitted. Even among wealthy girls, most were expected to attend “finishing schools,” which were more about husband-hunting and building a social network than education per se.) The educational fate of boys was likewise determined by what their families could afford: (1) rich boys went to private schools (called seminaries), as their parents could pay the tuition, (2) middle class boys attended common grammar schools, and (3) poor boys stayed on the farms to help their families earn a living. After that, the wealthier boys went on to college. The ultimate financial flex was to be sent abroad for college, not only to make the Grand Tour of Europe, but because Harvard et. al. were not as highly regarded as European institutions at the time. (Going to Harvard back then was sort of like saying you graduated from high school now.)
Schools were not legally compulsory during Hawthorne’s time, but they were certainly culturally compulsory. A man was not going to become a pillar of New England society sans education. And even though wealth and breeding were the main drivers of education, there was still something of a meritocracy in New England. A single tutor seeing promise in a child could help him test into an elite institution.
Hawthorne’s family was quite intertwined with the Mann family. Horace Mann, regarded as the “father of the public school system” in the US and Massachusetts’ first secretary of the Board of Education, was Hawthorne’s brother-in-law. Mann pushed for a lot of dramatic changes in the educational landscape before he died in 1859, including the rapid construction of grammar schools to improve access to families without financial means.
Then, same as now, however, the folks most fervently advocating for investment in public schools chose to educate their own children privately. Hawthorne produced textbooks for the public school system, but when it came to educating his own children, he put a schoolroom in their house and the children had their own private library. (This pretty much sums up the homeschooling arrangement in my house now, lol.) He and his wife shared the responsibility of educating the children, when Hawthorne was not seeking out the best tutors.
The Hawthorne children also benefitted from their parents’ high-end intellectual social circle. Hawthorne attended college at Bowdoin alongside Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and (soon to be President of the United States) Franklin Pierce. Their neighbors included the Alcott Family (radical educator Bronson Alcott, and his daughter Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, which includes a lot of commentary about what constitutes a good education), Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau and Hawthorne were peas in a pod when it came to how education should be fun, thrilling, and child-driven. Julian Hawthorne would eventually be sent to Frank B. Sanborn’s experimental school, which followed the pedagogical methods of Alcott and Thoreau.
Hawthorne eventually accepted President Franklin Pierce’s appointment to a diplomatic position in England because it meant his children could roam all over Europe for several years. That seems to be all he cared about.
We tend to think we are in some unique battle over education in this country right now, but the truth is this is what education has always been. You have the people who treat kids like they are workers in a factory, demanding the children mindlessly absorb whatever ideological fad the adults think is important that day, and you have the individuals and niche communities that rebel against it. I’m happy to be on the latter team.