Education as it was, 1890

Sharing this because I like this stuff, and also, lest we fall prey to the ‘it was better in the old days’ trope.  Sometimes it was, sometimes it was not.  From an 1890 periodical called ‘Journal of Education:

“To the Editor of the Journal of Education.

Dear Sir,- Last month you found space for a contribution of mine exemplifying bad teaching in physiography. Can you bring the following facts before my fellow teachers? I quote from a letter: —

“The girls here are all old, stupid, and excessively lazy; there are thirty-seven nearly all between the ages of fourteen and twenty. They seem to have but one idea, to do as little work as possible. In the literature class there are thirty-three books for me to correct.  Some of the girls do not in the least know what they are writing about. I am not allowed to be in the room during the class This week one of the girls says, ‘Cowper wrote a work called Marks and Eras,’ meaning that his works ‘mark an era.’ Another writes about the ‘EA movement in the Church,’ further on I find the ‘Eva Angelical movement,’ while a third says that ‘in the time of Cowper, Evil Jellica rose and made changes in the Church.’

What a comment such things are on the assertion of that wise little girl who said, “People often waste the children’s time at school, which is wrong, for time is valuable.”

Faithfully yours,


In some schools a well known lecturer or teacher would be on the prospectus (promotional material for parents and guardians). He would deliver his lecture perhaps once a week and the students would write it up in notebooks which were turned in to some poor underpaid teacher- as we see in the above excerpt, she wasn’t even allowed to be in the room while the visiting lion performed, so she had to guess about what he had said.  It was their regular teacher who would labor over their notebooks, correcting errors, rewriting parts, and then returning the rewritten papers.   Next, the rewritten papers became part of a portfolio presented to parents as the girls’ own work.

I say girls, because the articles I saw referencing this practice all referred to girls’ schools.  Whether this is because it only happened in girls’ schools I do not know.






“Though denounced again and again, the fetich of notebooks still prevails in girls’ schools. A correspondent this month gives one gross instance of the superstition, and we could add many more which have come under our own observation. A governess informs us that in her last school, a middle-class boarding-school in the provinces, she had twice or thrice a week to sit up till midnight correcting note-books, which had then to be copied out by the girls in order that they might show their parents the fair copies. In another fashionable school all the history and literature teaching of the higher forms is given by professors whose names are displayed in bold type on the school prospectus. These gentlemen give one lecture a week in their respective subjects to a class of fifty, and all the teaching the girls get is the correction of their note-books by the mistresses who act as répétiteurs. ”

He is being hard on Répétiteurs- who, according to Wikipedia, are very skilled at what the do.  What they do is help pianists or dancers rehearse, often playing the same piece over and over again, but they must be very skilled at it, and sometimes go on to be conductors or choreographers themselves.  However, it’s clear what the editor means is the teachers are not really allowed to teach in this system, they only serve to correct, one by tedious one in written form, the written work of the pupils who are writing about the lectures they get from somebody else.

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