01 September 2009

Culture Spot : School Days in America’s Past – Schooling, Southern Style

In 1752 planter Theophilos Field placed a notice in the Virginia Gazette, soliciting the services of a qualified tutor. His needs were simple: “Any single man, capable of teaching Greek, Latin, and Mathematicks* . . .”

Field’s was one of many similar advertisements that appeared in southern newspapers throughout the 18th century, for the gentry considered ignorance a disgrace. An uneducated member of the family was scorned as “Scandalous, . . .and a shame to his relations.”

But if education was important, it was also a problem. There were some “old-field schools” – community schools built on worn-out land – but they were relatively rare, and difficult for most children to get to. Since plantations were vast, families were isolated, and the burden of schooling fell directly on the parents.

Those who could afford it sent their sons to England for a proper education. Others found tutors who would live on the plantation and teach all of the children. The assignment could be challenging. When Philip Fithian accepted a position at Nomini Hall, a 70,000-acre Virginia estate, in 1773, he had only eight pupils. The children, however, ranged in age from 7 to 18 or older, and in experience from those just learning their letters to some who could read Latin.

Fithian was a graduate of Princeton, but American tutors were the exception. More often they were Scots or Englishmen who came to this country as indentured servants, pledging four years of service in exchange for ocean passage and the chance for a new life. Whether or not they were actually trained as teachers, those who had at least a smattering of Latin, literature, and the “the Mathematicks” made use of those skills when they got here.

While many indentured servants were treated as social inferiors, some, like John Harrower, who arrived in Virginia in 1774, were welcomed as gentlemen and had their own school buildings to work in. Horrower’s was “a neate* little House 20 foot Long and 12 foot wide” that doubled as his home. “I sleep in it by myself,” he wrote his wife back in Scotland, and “have a verry* fine feather bed under me.”

Despite his indenture, Horrower, like many other tutors in the South, was allowed to accept children from neighboring plantations as pupils. It was his one means of earning a bit of extra money to send home and help hasten the day when he and his family would be reunited.

*archaic spelling

Taken from Reader’s Digest Discovering America’s Past – Customs, Legends, History and Lore of Our Great Nation

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