D.I.Y. Education

My guest blogger today is saying pretty much what I’ve been saying, probably in too many of my blog posts, that all learning worthy of the name is self learning. The author, Jon Grinspan, calls it Do It Yourself or D.I.Y. Education. We’re starting to call it Home Schooling.

D.I.Y. Education Before YouTube

By JON GRINSPAN,     the New York Times, JULY 11, 2015

Mark Jay Goebel Collection/Getty Images
Mark Jay Goebel Collection/Getty Images

Three girls reading in the mid-1880s.

EACH summer, when school ends, education mostly stops short, too. But it hasn’t always been that way. For the striving youths of 19th-century America, learning was often a self-driven, year-round process. Devouring books by candlelight and debating issues by bonfire, the young men and women of the so-called “go-ahead generation” worked to educate themselves into a better life.

Is this old-fashioned culture of self-improvement making a comeback? The mainstream school system — with its barrage of tests, Common Core and “excellent sheep” — encourages learning as a passive, standardized process. But here and there, with the help of YouTube and thousands of podcasts, a growing group of students and adults are beginning to supplement their education.

School isn’t going away. But more and more people are realizing what their 19th-century predecessors knew: that the best learning is often self-taught.

Back then, it was a matter of necessity. There were plenty of schoolhouses in 19th-century America, but few young people could attend them regularly. They had to work. Most pieced together a semester of classes here, three months there.

In 1870, students averaged under 80 days in school each year. Even though America had incredibly high literacy rates, and admirable schools for those with free time, most young Americans supplemented formal schooling with their own makeshift curriculums.

This was especially true of many working-class kids, who could never find enough time. Michael Campbell, an 18-year-old Irish immigrant who spent his days laboring in a New Haven factory, making $6 a week, wrote in a diary about his experiences. After work, he attended lectures, joined libraries and read obsessively, studying bookkeeping, phrenology, child raising and “scientifics.” It was all part of his mission — which he wrote about in the third person — “to work hard six (6) days a week and study and read all he can.”

Michael was a recognizable type: the self-improving young American, convinced that he could study his way into the middle class. This up-by-your-bootstraps mentality can seem naïve today, but to an 18-year-old with no clear path to adulthood, it sounded like his best hope.

Kids like these read voraciously, with each book offering a glimpse of the thrilling world outside their isolated lives. They devoured histories, the Bible and Shakespeare, but also as many trashy novels as they could find. Many struggled to decide whether to study the fall of the Roman Empire or amuse themselves with what one called “obscene, libidinous, loathsome, and lascivious” newspapers.

These books shimmer in their diaries. Edgar Allan Poe’s stories mesmerized one awkward boy in Maine. John Roy Lynch, a young ex-slave in Reconstruction Mississippi, pored over the proceedings of Congress, unaware that one day he would become a representative himself.

A Boston girl loved the stories in The New York Ledger, a weekly “story newspaper,” though her disapproving mother burned her copies. Before her mother found them, however, the crafty 14-year-old always “Devoured my Ledger.”

Self-education went beyond solitary reading. For many, literary societies — called “the literary” — marked the highlight of intellectual and social life, as young men and women gathered at night to debate, mingle and flirt. One young woman surveyed her entertainment options in rural Kansas and concluded: “We just have the jolliest, best times at the Literary.”

The literary taught countless young people the skills of public speaking, playing upon the view of America as “a nation of speechifiers.” Orating became a sign of citizenship: During the Reconstruction young black men eagerly launched a “speechmaking mania” across the South.

And despite the bookish title, literary societies appealed to rowdy young people. One young debater in Iowa winced, recalling the “pretty rough company” at the literary, who could make things “decidedly uncomfortable for me.”

Argument drove these clubs. Young people would kick around a controversial issue of the day. One common prompt (in the North) was, “Who has more cause for complaint, Negroes or Indians?” Others debated women’s rights, alcohol or the value of travel.

Often, the issue was immaterial. What mattered was the sensation of gathering with a dozen like-minded 16-year-olds, as someone hollered, and lamplight flickered, and everyone present felt that they were, somehow, preparing to go ahead in life.

After 1900, public schools proliferated and child labor dwindled, pushing up graduation rates and making schools truly systematic. This more structured style reduced individual drive, but offered an accessible, mass system that impressively bridged class divisions.

Most of all, it provided a clear route from ages 5 to 18. Well over a century later, we have no sense of how truly pathless life felt before our educational system — and how that uncertainty often inspired young people to set off on their own.

So how do we reintroduce some of that lost verve today? The short, not particularly helpful answer is that we don’t: Independent learning must be arrived at independently. The best we can do is offer young people the tools, the time and the knowledge that education can take place outside of the system. There are, of course, hundreds of schools and thousands of teachers working toward this goal. Past generations of 16-year-olds would approve.

Technology certainly helps. Just as the Internet has opened doors for a generation of young learners, cheap printing presses allowed 19th-century young people to start their own newspapers, packed with essays, jokes and articles assessing the state of “the ’dom” (a common 19th-century slang term for their world of “amateurdom”).

More than any specific device, what shapes young people’s involvement — for the boyish newsmen of the 1870s or the armies of young bloggers in 2015 — is the sense that one’s opinion carries as much weight as a teacher’s or an author’s.

Perhaps the literary offers the best lesson for modern self-educators. For all its shortcomings, 19th-century self-education taught young Americans to openly engage with the conflicts of life, to debate and argue, not to rely on adults to shape their futures. Every step of the modern school system discourages this contrarian individualism.

Hopefully, we can learn to combine the 19th century’s opinionated go-aheadism with the 20th century’s structure, to offer young people an independent but stable path in the 21st century. Maybe it starts during this long, lazy summer vacation.

(Jon Grinspan is a curator and fellow at the National Museum of American History and the author of a forthcoming book on young people’s contributions to 19th-century American democracy.)

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