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The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62
Chapter II: From Revolt to Cityhood: The Late 1700's

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[This information is from pp. 15-27 of The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62 by Jeanette G. Neisuler (Schenectady: Board of Education, City School District, 1964), and is reproduced here with the permission of the author. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 370.9747 N41, and copies are also available for borrowing.]

The Revolutionary War Period

In the realm of pedagogy, the teacher of old was strictly on his own. He was offered little hindrance, but he was given no help. Textbooks were practically nonexistent. Each day, the teacher "set copies" of the lesson for the pupil to copy into his notebook, which consisted of several sheets of not-too-good paper sewed together. By the end of the term, the pupil, having copied all the problems and all the answers, had compiled his own textbook. Unfortunately, by this means, proceeding in reverse, the deed was accomplished after the need was gone. Throughout the 18th and much of the 19th centuries, learning was individual, imitative, and ungraded. The teacher assigned each pupil his lesson, which he took to his seat and memorized. Then, one by one, each pupil came up front to the teacher's desk and recited.

Education was still primarily concerned with preparation for Judgment Day. Nevertheless, another "R", — "'riting" — had been added to the two standard "R's" of the early colonial curriculum, and these were soon supplemented by two "M's" — manners and morals. Writing was taught by dictation. Because it was so elaborate and so difficult, because the cost of paper was so high, and because it was, after all, of so little practical value, the subject was not much sought after. Arithmetic, or cyphering, on the other hand, was considered a positive torture to be most zealously shunned by all parties. It was considered by teachers as too complicated to explain, and by pupils as too complicated to understand. In one little book appears the opinion:

Multiplication is vexation
Subtraction is as bad.
The rule of three it puzzles me,
And fractions drive me mad. (1)

Much of the public reinforced this stand of teachers and pupils, labeling arithmetic a frill which took too much time away from fundamental subjects.

Occasionally, the Master would "sing geography"; that is, to the tune of Yankee Doodle or some such ditty, the class would repeat after him, the names of countries, principal cities, rivers, and capes. (2) Other subjects, such as American history, grammar, spelling, and declamation, flowed in and out of the curriculum with the tide of public opinion. Music was rare, and science, drawing,and physical education were virtually unknown.

In this respect Schenectady was somewhat advanced. In 1771, William Andrews, a catechist among the Mohawks, missionary, and first rector of St. George's Church, opened a Grammar School. In a letter to Sir William Johnson he wrote:

I have determined on forming it into an academy, and propose giving instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history, to those who may be designed to fill the stations of actual life, exclusive of those who may be taught learned languages, bookkeeping and merchants accounts, to fit them for business or the mechanics arts. At present I have thirteen scholars, and as the prices are moderate for teaching and receiving boarders, I have a good prospect of getting more daily… (3)

The Grammar School, sometimes called Reading and Writing School, was a sort of prevocational school in contrast to the Latin School which was for the children of the well-to-do, and which stressed preparation for the ministry. The idea of the Latin School was brought over from Europe. In this country they were most prevalent in New England. They accepted boys from the ages of seven to fifteen, and they taught reading (religious matter only), writing, some Latin (still the sacred language of religion and learning), a little Greek, and, inevitably, quill-pen making. Mathematics was rarely included in the curriculum, and most boys from Latin schools could read and write Latin better than they could English.

New York City in 1732, established a school which was named English Grammar School to differentiate it from the Latin School. This school attracted people who were less interested in classics and more interested in commerce. The Reverend Mr. Andrews' Grammar School, and others that followed it in Schenectady, were an answer to the more secularized outlook in general, and to the changing educational needs growing out of this city's commercial expansion.

The year after the close of the Revolutionary War, New York State cut another notch in the educational wilderness. It founded the University of the State of New York (which was not really a university but an administrative system), and set up a Board of Regents. In both of these actions New York State was the first in the country. The purpose of the Board was to keep an eye on secondary or higher education, but it accomplished vastly more: it focused the public conscience upon the needs of education.

Academy Established

Even before the close of the Revolution, Schenectady had on two occasions petitioned the Legislature for permission to start a college here, once in 1779, and again in 1782. Both pleas had been denied. Then, in 1781, the same year that the Board of Regents had been founded, the Reverend Dirck Romeyn had accepted a call to become the pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church in this city. With his coming, education in Schenectady acquired its first really powerful ally. During the war, the Reverend had earned for himself the title, "the Rebel Parson," as well as a price on his head. These distinctions were given him by the British because of his connections with the highest American officers. He was a learned man, forty years old when he came to this city, heavy-set, warm-hearted, dynamic, and persuasive. He was also astute enough to recognize the strength in strategic compromise.

Within three months after he came, he had convinced the Consistory that the backdoor approach held the greatest promise of acquiring a college for the city. First let them locate an Academy here, he said. Then, perhaps, who could tell… A meeting was held on April 7, 1785, in Reuben Simond's tavern on Church Street. The Consistory of the Church and twenty-seven prominent Schenectadians signed the articles of agreement for the management and support of an academy. Those present organized themselves into a committee called the Academy and Library Committee with the Church agreeing to take the responsibility for the erection of a building, and the citizens agreeing to support the school and furnish it with a library. The Reverend Romeyn headed both groups. He was also president of the first Board of Trustees. Other members were: Dirk Van Ingen, secretary, Abraham Oothout, treasurer, John Glen, Daniel Campbell, Henry Glen, A. Frey, Claes Van der Volgen, John Sanders, Peter Vrooman, and B. Dietz. (4)

While still deeply religious in spirit, the academy of the day was not restricted by any narrow denominationalism. It continued to offer the classical subjects for those who wanted to go to college, but the rebellion against the domination of the Latin schools and their limited set of studies was growing. What if a person didn't choose to go to college? Did that mean he wasn't entitled to an education anyway? The academy held the answer. It became the school for the masses — the bridge over which, in time, education was able to cross from the ecclesiasticism of the Latin school to the secularized high school of the present day. In keeping with its more realistic purpose and less snobbish atmosphere, the academy shifted its educational goal from the ideal to the particular, from the study of words about things to the study of the things themselves. Science and modern languages appeared, and courses in merchant's accounts, surveying, higher mathematics, law, and navigation found their way into the curriculum. A few textbooks even crept into use.

The two-story brick Academy building erected in 1785 for $3000 (5) on the northwest corner of Union and Ferry streets marked the first organized school system in Schenectady. (6) Tuition was handled in a traditionally Dutch manner. In Holland, the children of the indigent received their education free, and the early Dutch immigrants had brought this ideal with them to America. Schenectadians saw no reason to change. Each child whose parents could afford it was expected to pay four shillings a year. With this tuition, the Church set up a scholarship fund out of which the children of Schenectady's indigent could be educated. (7)

Union College Chartered

Within a decade, Reverend Romeyn's strategy concerning the most likely way to acquire a college had produced results. By 1792, the Sohenectady Academy already boasted a student body of one hundred, and educational results of remarkably high caliber. Armed with these persuasive facts, and an irresistible personal charm, the Reverend was able to gain the interest and help of such influential men as General Philip Schuyler and Governer DeWitt Clinton. In 1795, the Academy was chartered as a college. The old building was sold and the money applied toward an impressive new structure to be raised on the northeast corner of Union and College streets. It was designed by the renowned architect, Philip Hooker, and was named in his honor, but due to a scarcity of funds, it was not completed until 1804.

Schenectady — Gateway to the West

The scarcity of funds for the college building is slightly inconsistent with the expansive mood that pervaded the town at about that time. By the late 1700's, population, had swelled to almost three thousand. Business was brisk, especially along the water front which was the liveliest section of town. The recent peace with England and with the Indians had thrown open to settlement and speculation the incredibly rich farmlands of central New York and beyond. Everyone was in a frenzy to get out to the West and make his pitch, and the only way to go was through Schenectady.

The built-up part of the city covered about four blocks, but some buildings straggled up the hill from there toward Albany. Both the city streets and the river alongside the city were jammed with carts and crafts of all sorts maneuvering in and out of land and water traffic snarls. Massive docks jutted out into the water, huge, intimidating warehouses dominated the shore line, and a rope scow (ferry) tied the mainland to Van Slyck's Island. Most boats plying the Mohawk were Schenectady-made. General stores, stocking every conceivable item from dry goods to liquor and from lottery tickets to Bibles, stood shoulder to shoulder with residential buildings in unembarrassed compatibility. By 1795 a local newspaper establishment was located in the Wyckoff building on the north corner of State and Washington streets. Every Tuesday it published speeches which had been made (weeks before) in the English Parliament, local editorials, stories, poetry, summaries of stale foreign affairs, legal notices, advertisements — everything fit to print but news. Blacksmith shops, stagecoach houses, and taverns were all easily accessible. Some of the streets still bore their picturesque names — Cucumber Alley, Frog Alley, Maiden Lane, Mill Lane, Cow Street, Elbow Street — but more and more businesses bore English names, and English was being spoken almost everywhere.

City Formed

The town was by this time only half Dutch, anyway. The so-called common lands had been given in 1684 by the Dongan Patent to Ryer Schermerhorn and four other trustees, and ever since then, the fight over who really owned those lands had alternately flared and smoldered. The heirs of the old-time owners (called the Descendants) were stubborn, and the late-comers, mostly Yankees (called the Inhabitants) were persistent. Both had good reason: none but free-holders (landowners) could vote. A compromise bill, passed by the Legislature in 1798, settled the matter and Schenectady emerged from the dispute as a city. It was divided into four wards. Of the two "inner" wards, the First Ward ran from Union Street north to the Mohawk, and the Second Ward included everything south of Union Street. Rotterdam was designated the Third Ward of the city, and Glenville was the fourth.

State Aid to Education Begins — Lapses

At about this same time, Schenectady's educational campaign moved forward on another front. The United States Constitution had made no mention of education. Therefore, by virtue of the Tenth Amendment which had been passed in 1791, whatever was not nailed down as a national power was interpreted as being a prerogative of the states. Taking advantage of this situation, New York in 1795 appropriated a direct grant of public money (about $100,000) to be disbursed for the encouragement of common schools. New York was the first state of the Union to make such a move. (8) Unfortunately, spending public money for education so depressed the people of the state that after only five years the plan was allowed to lapse. There was as yet no provision in the state for the training of teachers, and licensing remained a purely local affair. But in 1796, the Legislature did pass a law providing that each town should elect three or more commissioners to supervise district schools, and Schenectady immediately elected seven.

Entrusting the welfare of Schenectady's education to these Commissioners of Education was somewhat like asking directions of a stranger in town. A report from School District 2 in the First Ward of the city stated:

This is to Certify that Thare has Bin a School taught in said District for Six Months Past And the number of Schollars Witch have Bin taught for the Last Six Months Being Forty three in Number which has bin Left in the District Clearks office of the said District by Robart Snell teacher. (9)

Even the possibility that this particular report may have been written by the "District Cleark" rather than by the Commissioner himself is of small comfort since a report from the Second Ward made at the same time is signed by the Commissioner's "X". (10) In addition, there is substantial evidence that teaching certificates were all too often awarded for reasons of charity, for political expediency, and as favors for important people. If a prospective teacher had trouble with questions testing his ability, as likely as not, the examining Commissioner would wave it aside with the early American equivalent of "Skip it," and then say, "You passed. Just be sure to tell all your friends to vote for me."

In spite of everything, however, two reassuring facts persist: as early as 1796 some attempt was being made at supervision, and, as early as 1796, local Commissioners were elected officials. (11)

Notes for Chapter II

  1. The little verse is to be found in File Box No. 1 at the Schenectady County Historical Society. And in Album of American History, ed. James Truslow Adams (Chicago: Consolidated Book Publishers, 1943), p. 285, it says: "Young apprentices were needed for all the trades. Boys entering trade were expected to know the mathematical 'Rule of Three', a short-cut to calculation." Then it quotes an old book: '…the Simple, is what is usually called the Single Rule of Three; and related to such Cases, where there are only Three Terms, or Numbers proposed, to find a Fourth. Thus, were it required to know the Interest of 500 l. for a Year, at 6 per Cent. There are Three Terms proposed; Viz 100 l. 6 l. and 500 l. in order to find the Fourth, which is the Interest required: But if it had been required to know how much the Interest of 500 l. would amount to, in 9 Months, when Money was let at 6 per Cent per Annum, there would have been Five Terms, viz 100 l. 6 l. 12 m. 500 l. 9 m. in order to find a Sixth; and this is what is called Compound Proportion; or more usually, the Double Rule of Three.
  2. The subject of geography was not, however, given much school time. In Child Life in Colonial Days by Alice Morse Earle (hew York and London: MacMillan Co., 1922), p. 147, the author claims, in fact, that geography was not taught in elementary schools until the 20th century, that it was considered a pastime and that many objected that the scholar's attention, was distracted away from "cyphering".
  3. E. R. Whitney, History of the Schenectady Public Schools, (manuscript, Schenectady City School District, Schenectady, N. Y., 1819), p. 2.
  4. G. S. Roberts, Old Schenectady (Schenectady, N. Y.: Robson and Adee, 1904), p. 251.
  5. It was unusual until after the Common School law was passed in 1812, dividing all townships of the state into separate school districts, that a building should be erected expressly for educational purposes.
  6. Some confusion exists as to the names applied to early schools. During the colonial period, schools which were supported by the town might be called town schools rather than public schools. Then again, private schools were sometimes called public schools, meaning, simply, that they were open to any one who was willing to pay the required tuition. This was the character of the Academy.
  7. G. S. Roberts, Old Schenectady (Schenectady, N. Y.: Robson and Adee, 1904), p. 251.
  8. Education in New York State, comp. and ed. Harlan Hoyt Homer, (Albany, N. Y.: State Education Department, 1954), p. 12.
  9. W. B. Efner, Book 118 (unpublished material, City History Center, Schenectady, N. Y.).
  10. Ibid.
  11. News item in the Mohawk Mercury (Schenectady, N. Y.), April 12, 1796.

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