Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Rise and Fall of Geology in Nineteenth Century American Secondary Schools: History and Textbook Reviews

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Rise and Fall of Geology in Nineteenth Century American Secondary Schools: History and Textbook Reviews

Article excerpt


Geology was widely taught in American secondary schools during much of the nineteenth century. As geology evolved so did textbooks. As schools and teaching changed so did textbooks. This study examines nineteenth century secondary school geology texts and a crucial government report. It fits these nineteen publications into a general cultural context, tracing the gradual expansion and abrupt decline of geological education in American's nineteenth century secondary schools.


As the nineteenth century opened, Americans were widely dispersed and primarily rural. The national population was just over rive million (Anonymous, 1975, p.8), less that that of many modern cities. Good data on schools and students begin with 1870 when the average pre-collegiate pupil attended for 78.4 days per year (Anonymous, 1975, p. 376). For much of the century, fourteen was a common age for college freshmen but most were older (Mohsemn, 1983). Secondary school students were normally younger than college students. In a one-room school most secondary level pupils might be ten to eighteen with an occasional young adult. The nation's first public high school opened in Massachusetts in 1821 (Vinovskis, 1988; Krug, 1966). Like many demanding secondary institutions, it served pupils twelve and older, initially offering three years of study. A fourth year was added in 1852. Geology then entered the curriculum (Stout, 1921, p. 3).

In Massachusetts and elsewhere, secondary schools usually bore names such as seminary, academy, or institute (Sizer, 1964). Three and four year programs were common. Some required one year or five. Some lacked a required curriculum or strict attendance policies. Stout (1921, p. 3-6) discussed several Massachusetts schools in detail and then published page after page, cataloging courses offered by schools from other New England states through Iowa. While he essentially omitted southern schools, Georgia schools are reasonably well known (Boogher, 1933; Cramer 1985). Across the nation secondary curricula seemed to vary more from school to school than from region to region. Geology was widely taught, generally in the senior year.

A distinction between public and private schools works well in the twenty-first century but not in the nineteenth. Then, colleges with strong sectarian ties received government money and were open only to Protestants (Tewksbury, 1932, p. 58-67; Herbst, 1975; Whitehead and Herbst, 1986). Early pre-collegiate schools are less known but many secondary school textbooks had strong ties with religion, as discussed later in this narrative.

In the 1820s normal schools began to evolve. Perhaps the first opened in Concord Corners, Vermont in 1823 (Cubberly, 1934, p. 317-323). Church based and community supported, it serving both men and women. It trained local people with little formal education to teach in the first tier of regional schools. Later in the 1820s Protestant evangelism produced specialized seminaries with a national focus. They trained young women, with proper religious backgrounds, as teachers (Cremin, 1980, p. 144). Graduates of these schools brought church-approved curricula to public schools, especially in the West. In the 1830s, public funds began to create less sectarian teacher training schools (Cubberly, 1934, p. 324-338). They continued to offer instruction at the secondary level. It was in the 1940s before virtually all teacher training schools required a secondary school background for admission (Clifford, 1986).

Most early secondary schools were influenced by groups such as The American Society for the Education of Pious Youth for the Gospel Ministry. Primarily a Presbyterian-Congregationalist venture, it began in 1815. By the 1830s it supported about 10% of American college students and many students at the secondary level (Cremin, 1980; Naylor, 1984). The American Protestant Society, founded in 1838 (Lannie and Diethora, 1968), and The Society for the Promotion of Collegiate and Theological Education at the West, founded in 1843 (Findlay, 1977), were both successful in guiding schools toward their preferred curricula. …

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