The Fifth Class-A Glimpse of Late 19th Century Education

For the past few weeks, I’ve been listening to Anne of Green Gables on audiobook as I do my weekly errands in the van.  I’ve read the book a few times, but if I had to list my Anne books in order of preference the first one would probably be near the bottom.  So, I probably haven’t read the actual book in ages.  I was listening to Chapter 17, and I was struck by something that probably wouldn’t have meant much to me before.

The Avonlea school was a traditional one-room schoolhouse with kids ranging from about age six to sixteen with one teacher teaching them all.  When Anne first starts at school her formal education has been sparse, even though she is an avid reader.  Therefore, while all of the other eleven-year-old kids are in the fifth class, Anne is put in the fourth class.  She was basically being held back a school year from her peers.  When Gilbert Blythe returns to Avonlea, he is also a year behind his peers due to when his family moved away for a year and a half to an area without a school.  A competition develops between Anne and Gilbert for the top marks in the fourth class.

Mr. Phillips might not be a very good teacher; but a pupil so inflexibly determined on learning as Anne was could hardly escape making progress under any kind of teacher. By the end of the term Anne and Gilbert were both promoted into the fifth class and allowed to begin studying the elements of “the branches”–by which Latin, geometry, French, and algebra were meant.

First of all, note that at the end of the term not the end of the year Anne and Gilbert both did so well as to move up a grade level.  This indicates that movement between levels was based completely on mastery of the material.  If one or the other had not done well on their end-of-term test he or shee would have had to retake the material until he/she did.  This also assumes that if a student really worked hard then they could accel past the level of their same age peers and graduate early.  No one would worry about their maturity to fit in socially with older kids, because they were already mixed in with older kids.

Secondly, once students reached fifth year they began studying Latin, geometry, French, and algebra.  Let’s start with the foreign languages.  French would have been a logical foreign language for them to study living in Canada.  And even, though, Anne lived in an area that predominantly spoke English there were many French-speaking people who worked as servants and farmhands.

But in addition to French, they were required to learn Latin.  The area was predominantly Protestant, so they wouldn’t exactly have been using Latin regularly in a church setting.  Yet it was deemed important that all of the kids have a basic grounding in Latin, and I believe it was also part of the high school entrance exam.  As many proponents of Latin point out, it is deemed a useful, if dead, language to know because its organization is good for learning the elements of grammar and logic.  In addition, many English words are rooted in Latin, and many scientific and legal terms are still in Latin. Yet, Latin is largely not taught in most schools, even Catholic ones, anymore.

And then there is the math.  At first I thought that when it came to geometry and algebra it was just things like calculating areas or finding the missing number, just very basic introduction.  But Anne goes on to complain about her teacher switching out the letters to make it more confusing.  This indicates that they were doing more complex equations and theorems.  Today, that level of math isn’t normally introduced to kids until 7th or 8th grade or later.

I’ve often thought that the best thing that could happen to most schools, public or private, is if they went back to the one-room-schoolhouse model.  First of all you had multiple age groups learning with and from each other.  (My mother-in-law actually attended a one-room-schoolhouse, and she remembers a lesson on centrifugal force that was taught to the entire class at one time.)  Each child moved at his own pace depending on his ability and level of motivation.  And you didn’t have tons of administration making inane policies that they expected teachers to enforce.  Of course, there is no turning back for mainstream schooling.  It would be too radical for most parents to accept, and it would be seen as a regress when there should only be “progress”.  But this is exactly what a lot of alternative schools and homeschooling attempts to recreate.

One other noteworthy thing in the book regarding education is that in a previous chapter, a bad interaction with the teacher leads Anne to drop out of school for awhile.  Her guardian, Marilla, reluctantly agrees with this fearing that things would only get worse if Anne were to be forced to return against her will.  However, Anne continues to study her schoolbooks on her own and does not seem to be any worse off when she does decide to return to the school.  The book was originally published in 1908 before school attendance became compulsory.  These days Anne would probably be reported as a truant and Marilla would be harassed by the government for letting her stay home for six weeks.  And then Anne would automatically be failed for missing too many days from school.

 

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One Comment on “The Fifth Class-A Glimpse of Late 19th Century Education”


  1. […] are probably the ones that I have reread the least, so a lot of it was new again.  And there were certain insights about the story that have come with age. GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); […]


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