HENRY BARNARD—THE AMERICAN EDUCATOR
BY THE LATE HON. JOHN D. PHILBRICK
The career of Henry Barnard as a promoter of the cause of education has no precedent and is without a parallel. We think of Page as a great practical teacher; of Gallaudet as the founder of a new institution; of Pestalozzi as the originator of a new method of instruction; of Spurzheim as the expounder of the philosophy of education, and of Horace Mann as its most eloquent advocate; but Mr. Barnard stands before the world as the national educator. We know, indeed, that he has held office, and achieved great success in the administration and improvement of systems of public instruction in particular States. But these labors, however important, constitute only a segment, so to speak, in the larger sphere of his efforts. Declining numerous calls to high and lucrative posts of local importance and influence, he has accepted the whole country as the theatre of his operations, without regard to State lines, and by the extent, variety, and comprehensiveness of his efforts has earned the title of the American Educator. It is in this view that his course has been patterned after no example, and admits of no comparison. But if in his plan, equally beneficent and original, he had no example to copy, he has furnished one worthy alike of admiration and imitation.
Mr. Barnard was a native of Hartford, Conn., where his family had lived from the first settlement of the colony. He was born on the 24th of January, 1811, in the fine mansion where he now resides. The son of a wealthy farmer, and living within half a mile of the centre of a considerable town and the State capital, he was placed in the most favorable circumstances for early physical and mental development.
His elementary instruction was received at the district school, which, with all its imperfections, “as it was,” he remembers with gratitude, not indeed on account of the amount of learning acquired in it, but because it was a common school, “a school of equal rights, where merit, and not social position, was the acknowledged basis of distinction, and therefore the fittest seminary to give the schooling essential to the American citizen.”
While pursuing the studies preparatory for college at Monson Mass., and at the Hopkins Grammar School in Hartford, his proficiency was brilliant; and such was his eagerness for knowledge that, in addition to the prescribed course, he extended his reading among the works of the best English authors.
Having entered Yale College in 1826, he graduated with honor in 1830.
The five subsequent years were mainly devoted to a thorough professional training for the practice of the law, the severer study of the legal text-books being relieved by the daily reading of a portion of the ancient and modern classics. This course of study was fortunately interrupted for a few months to take charge of an academy, where he improved the opportunity to acquire some knowledge of the theory and practice of teaching. This experience had considerable influence in determining some of the most important subsequent events of his life.
Before entering on the practice of his profession he spent some time in Europe, for the twofold purpose of study and travel. Already well fitted by study and natural taste to profit by the opportunities of foreign travel, he made further and special preparation by a tour through the Southern and Western States, and a visit to all the most interesting localities in New England. “Leaving home like a philosopher, to mend himself and others,” he returned with his mind enriched by observation not only of nature and art but especially of the social condition and institutions of the people.
In the first public address which he had occasion to make after his return he said, “Every man must at once make himself as good and as useful as he can, and help at the same time to make everybody about him, and all whom he can reach, better and happier.” This was the sentiment which controlled the motives of his conduct. Fidelity to this truly grand and worthy aim induced him, not long afterwards, to abandon the flattering prospects of professional eminence which were opening upon his vision, to retire from all active participation in political affairs, after a brief but brilliant career in the Legislature of his native State, and to devote himself to the great work of educational reform and improvement. To him the credit is due of originating and securing the passage, by the Legislative Assembly, while a member, in 1837, of the resolution requiring the Comptroller to obtain from School Visitors official returns respecting public schools in the several School Societies, and in 1838, of an “Act to provide for the better supervision of Common Schools.”
This was the first decisive step towards the revival of education in Connecticut. The Board of Commissioners of Common Schools established by this act, was immediately organized, and Mr. Barnard accepted the office of secretary, Mr. Gallaudet, who was first elected on his motion, having declined. He devoted his energies to the arduous duties of this office till 1842, when the Board was abolished. These duties as prescribed by the Board were:—
1st. To ascertain, by personal inspection of the schools, and by written communications from school officers and others, the actual condition of the schools.
2d. To prepare an abstract of such information for the use of the Board and the Legislature, with plans and suggestions for the better organization and administration of the school system.
3d. To attend and address at least one meeting of such parents, teachers, and school officers as were disposed to come together on public notice, in each county, and as many local meetings as other duties would allow.
4th. To edit and superintend the publication of a journal devoted exclusively to the promotion of common-school education. And,
5th. To increase in any practicable way the interest and intelligence of the community in relation to the whole subject of popular education.
Possessing fine powers of oratory, wielding a ready and able pen, animated by a generous and indomitable spirit, willing to spend and be spent in the cause of benevolence and humanity, he had every qualification for the task but experience. Speaking of his fitness for carrying out the measures of educational reform and improvement in Connecticut, and of the results of his efforts, Horace Mann said, in the “Massachusetts Common School Journal,” “It is not extravagant to say that, if a better man be required, we must wait, at least, until the next generation, for a better one is not to be found in the present. This agent entered upon his duties with unbounded zeal. He devoted to their discharge his time, talents, and means.
“The cold torpidity of the State soon felt the sensations of returning vitality. Its half-suspended animation began to quicken with a warmer life. Much and most valuable information was diffused. Many parents began to appreciate more adequately what it was to be a parent; teachers were awakened; associations for mutual improvement were formed; system began to supersede confusion; some salutary laws were enacted; all things gave favorable augury of a prosperous career, and it may be further affirmed that the cause was so administered as to give occasion of offence to no one. The whole movement was kept aloof from political strife. All religious men had reason to rejoice that a higher tone of moral and religious feeling was making its way into schools, without giving occasion of jealousy to the one-sided views of any denomination. But all these auguries were delusive. In an evil hour the whole fabric was overthrown.”
The four volumes of the “Common School Journal,” issued during this period, and the four reports presented by him to the Legislature, with other contemporary documents, justify the remarks quoted from Mr. Mann. The reports have been eagerly read and highly prized by the soundest educators. Chancellor Kent, in his “Commentaries on American Law” (edition of 1844), after devoting nearly two pages to an analysis of his first report, characterizes it as “a bold and startling document, founded on the most painstaking and critical inquiry, and containing a minute, accurate, comprehensive, and instructive exhibition of the practical condition and operation of the common-school system of education.” In referring to his subsequent reports, the same distinguished jurist speaks of him as “the most able, efficient, and best-informed officer that could, perhaps, be engaged in the service;” and of his publications as containing “a digest of the fullest and most valuable information that is to be obtained on the subject of common schools, both in Europe and the United States.”
It should be stated in this connection, as evidence of the disinterestedness of his motives, that these labors were performed without any pecuniary compensation; for although the amount allowed him out of the treasury of the State, for the service of nearly four years, was $3,747, this sum he expended back again in promoting the prosperity and usefulness of the schools.
The year following the abolition of the Board of Commissioners of Common Schools in Connecticut he spent in visiting every section of the country, to collect the material for a “History of Public Schools and the Means of Popular Education in the United States.” Just as he was about to commence this history of education he was invited to go to Rhode Island, and there achieve a work which is destined to form one of the most interesting and instructive chapters in the history of education in America, when it shall be written. Reluctant to accept the invitation, as it would make it necessary to postpone the work in contemplation, Gov. Fenner met his objection with the reply, “Better make history than write it.” He accepted the task, and soon organized a system of agencies which, in four years, brought about an entire revolution in the condition of the schools in the State. It is not easy to fully appreciate the difficulties and magnitude of the work undertaken in Rhode Island. From the foundation of the colony the common school had been excluded from the care and patronage of the government, and for more than a century and a half there is not the slightest trace of any legislation whatever for this great interest.
To compel a citizen to support a school or educate his children was regarded as a violation of the rights of conscience. Twenty years ago an old Rhode Islander, well to do in the world, assigned as a reason for refusing to aid in supporting a district school, “It is a Connecticut custom, and I don’t like it.”
The plan of operations adopted was substantially the same as that pursued in Connecticut. The first great work was to enlighten the popular mind on the subject of common schools, and create a public opinion in favor of right action. The next step was to frame and secure the enactment of an efficient school code, adapted to the wants of the State, which was accomplished in 1845. Then came the difficult task of organizing the new system and of carrying out its provisions; in a word, of bringing into existence in every school district the conditions of a good school. This process was progressing with a rapidity scarcely ever realized elsewhere, in the erection of better school-houses, in the employment of better teachers, in the establishment of school libraries, and in the increase of the means provided by law for the support of schools. But before accomplishing all his plans for the improvement of public education in Rhode Island the state of Mr. Barnard’s health rendered it imperatively necessary for him to resign his office. On his retirement the Legislature, by a unanimous vote, adopted a resolution, giving him their thanks for the “able, faithful, and judicious manner” in which he had for five years fulfilled the duties of his office. The teachers of the State, through a committee appointed at the several institutes, presented him a handsome testimonial of their “respect and friendship, and of their appreciation of his services in the cause of education, and the interest which he had ever taken in their professional improvement and individual welfare.”
Mr. Barnard returned to his old home in Connecticut. He was soon invited to professorships in two colleges, and to the superintendence of public schools in three different cities. But a more congenial work in his own State awaited his restored health. In 1849 an act was passed to establish a State Normal School, the principal of which should be the superintendent of common schools. Mr. Barnard was elected to this office, and accepted on condition that an assistant should be appointed to take the immediate charge of the Normal School. He soon had the satisfaction of seeing long-cherished hopes fulfilled. After many struggles and efforts he saw his own State taking her appropriate place among the foremost of the educating and educated States.
Our limited space will not allow even a glance at the particulars of his doings while in office from 1850 till he resigned, at the close of the year 1854, to give himself exclusively to labors of a more general and national character. He had already accomplished as much perhaps as any other individual for the promotion of education in every part of the country. By repeated visits to the chief points of influence, by extensive correspondence and numerous personal conferences with the leading persons connected with the management of systems and institutions of education, by addresses before popular assemblies, literary associations, teachers, and legislative bodies throughout the country, he had done more than any other man to shape the educational policy of the nation. His publications had been numerous, important, and widely disseminated. Besides the “Common School Journal” and reports above alluded to, his work on “School Architecture” had been circulated by tens of thousands, not only throughout America but in Europe, creating a general revolution in public opinion on the subject. His work on “Normal Schools” had been published several years, from which the substance of nearly all documents on the subject since published have been drawn. The volume entitled “National Education in Europe,” begun in 1840, and containing about nine hundred closely printed pages, had been published in 1854, a work well described as an “Encyclopædia of Educational Systems and Methods,” and of which the “Westminster Review” speaks as “containing more valuable information and statistics than can be found in any one volume in the English language.” But his contributions to educational literature did not stop here.
Scarcely did he find himself relieved from the routine of official life when he projected and immediately entered upon the publication of a still more valuable and important work, viz., the “American Journal of Education.” Four large octavo volumes of this Journal are now before the public, and we may safely affirm of it that it is the most valuable and comprehensive educational publication ever printed in the English language, and it will be a lasting disgrace to the teachers and educators of America if it has to be prematurely suspended for want of sufficient patronage. Besides conducting this Journal, he has found time for other labors of a general nature. As president of the American Association for the Advancement of Education, his influence has been widely and beneficially exerted. That his services to the cause of good letters and education have been appreciated in high places may be inferred from the fact that in 1851 he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Law, from the corporation of Yale College, and in the same year from Union College, and in the year following from Harvard University.
Mr. Barnard’s subsequent labors and successes, including his services in connection with the United States Bureau of Education, will be the subject of another article, which will be accompanied by a portrait from a photograph recently taken