September 1993

Home Index Museums Blog Authors Site Map About


Rural Press

on Education and Learning


Robert Koch

Daniel D. T. Moore published Moore's Rural New Yorker, A Quarto Weekly Agricultural, Literary & Family Journal in Rochester from about 1842, and it lived up to its sub-title. Although the paper later moved to New York, Moore remained here and served as Mayor of Rochester in 1865. Moore's worried about how we grow people almost as much as it worried about growing plants and animals, and it was not alone across still largely rural pre-Civil War America. One issue in November, 1855, had a densely packed column and a half on the "Labor of Original Thinking," on "Hours of Study," and on "Dull Scholars," as well as an ingenious "grammatical play on the word 'that'."

A British writer on education is quoted as authority "that a man may be engaged in professional matters for twelve or fourteen hours daily, and suffer no very great inconvenience beyond that which may be traced to bodily fatigue. .. He uses not only his previous knowledge of facts, or his simple experience, but his previous thoughts, and the conclusions at which he had arrived formerly; and it is only at intervals that he is called upon to make any considerable mental exertion." He adds, "Mere attention is an act of volition. [Original] Thinking implies more than this, and a still greater and more constant exertion.. .It is with the mind as it is with the body. When volition is exercised, there is fatigue; there is none otherwise; and in proportion as the will is more exercised, so is the fatigue greater. The muscle of the heart acts sixty or seventy times in a minute, and the muscles of respiration act eighteen or twenty times in a minute, for seventy or eighty, or in some rare instances even for a hundred successive years; but there is no feeling of fatigue. The same amount of muscular exertion under the influence of volition induces fatigue in a few hours."

Moore's journal then moves smoothly to "Hours of Study," using a British pamphlet on the subject. "Struck by the frightful disproportion between the powers of childish attention and the length of school hours, [its author] directed questions to many distinguished teachers." He cites the "head-master of the training college in Glasgow" as concluding "that the limits of voluntary and intelligent attention are, with children from five to seven years of age, about fifteen minutes; from seven to ten years of age, about twenty minutes; from ten to twelve years of age, about fifty-five minutes; from twelve to sixteen or eighteen years of age, about eighty minutes..." The British schoolmaster adds that he had at times pushed a bit beyond those limits, "...but observed it was at the expense of the succeeding lesson."

Another master added: "I will undertake to teach one hundred children, in three hours a day, as much as they can by any possibility receive; and I hold it to be an axiom in education, that no lesson has been given till it has been received; as soon therefore, as the receiving power of the children is exhausted, anything given is useless, nay injurious...This ought to be the first principle of education. I think it is seldom acted on."

Finally, the readers of this educational trilogy in Moore's Rural New Yorker were given insight to "Dull Scholars" offered by a teacher from Maine. Readers were warned that, "Much injury is often done to children of sluggish minds by... injudicious... teachers. Many children are reputed dull, when it is nothing more or less than this—their mental processes are slow, though correct...There is a wide difference between a dull scholar and a dunce...The latter can never be made to learn very much from books...Teachers [of dull children] should be careful not to press too much upon the minds of such children at once...First secure his confidence by asking him such questions as you are pretty sure he can answer. By this means you secure his confidence. Be not over-scrupulous at first.. .Let the first lesson be very short. Let your own mind be slow for the time being, as well as that of your pupil. Remember...that...frequent reviewing is necessary. It may all seem very simple to you, but to the child it is everything. If possible, find some active employment for his mind. Many a rogue has been cured in this way. Be sure to call up something that you have previously taught him...He will be pleased to recall it, and feel encouraged when he can answer your questions...Never intimate to him that he is dull—if you do, you will soon make him act like a dunce. I know it is very pleasant to teach bright, active children, but we have duties as well as pleasures to look after, and he is the truly successful teacher who can interest all classes of children. It is by no means certain that the pert young scholar, who answers so glibly, will in the end of the race come off conqueror. The boy who started slowly at first, will in due time accelerate his speed, and outstrip all his early competitors.

"Be patient, then, fellow-teachers, with your dull pupils, and they will one day bless you."

The conclusions, vocabulary and tone may not be contemporary, but the issues being addressed for readers of MOORE'S RURAL NEW YORKER in 1855 are still timely.

© 1993, Robert G. Koch
Index to articles by Robert G. Koch
CLR Blog | Site Map | Contact CLR