Bad Education: Schools of the Past

(Image credit: Luc Melanson)

Modern detention is nothing compared to kneeling on peas.

You don't have to tell me that modern schools can be difficult. Just the other day, my kids had to endure the pain of snacking on sandwiches made with sunflower seed butter instead of peanut butter because of the school’s strict allergy policy. I know! The humanity.

But as I like to remind my kids, the life of a student in centuries past was just a wee bit tougher.

First of all, going to school wasn’t unlike entering Christian Grey’s dungeon. The teachers were excessively fond of inflicting corporal punishment. According to a scholarly 1899 education journal, one headmaster at the prestigious British boarding school Eton flogged an impressive 80 boys in a single night.

The LeBron James of assaulting students, however, was a terrifying German headmaster who, over the course of his career, the journal reports, delivered a whopping “911,527 blows with a rod; 124,010 blows with a cane; 20,989 raps with a ruler; 136,715 blows with the hand; 10,235 blows over the mouth; 7,905 boxes on the ear; and 1,118,800 raps on the head. 777 times he made boys kneel on peas, and 613 times on a three-cornered piece of wood. [He also] made 3,001 wear the dunce cap, and 1,707 to hold up the rod.” You have to admire his statistic keeping, if not his sociopathic personality.

Getting sent to the principal’s office can be unpleasant. But perhaps you’d prefer the clink? Naughty 19th-century European university students would be locked up in the “karzer,” a one-room pupil prison. In Latvia, students who failed to return their library books on time were detained for several days.

The upside? The karzer gave some misbehaving youngsters the old-timey version of street cred. Tough-guy German politician Otto von Bismarck’s graffiti can be seen on the door of one karzer.

Not all school sadism came from teachers. Fellow students were often just as villainous. In British boarding schools, there was a long tradition of forcing younger kids to act as servants to the older kids. Some of the milder, G-rated tasks included shining boots and buckles, cleaning rooms, and cooking food on smoky portable stoves in the bathroom.

Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, wrote about his job: He had to sit on the cold outdoor toilet seats in the mornings to warm them up for the older boys. According to his 1984 memoir, Boy: Tales of Childhood, Dahl read much of Charles Dickens’s oeuvre while warming up the throne for his elders’ butts. Turns out he was good at it: He was complimented on his particularly “hot bottom.”

Speaking of reading, even the books that students were assigned had a vicious streak. Consider The New England Primer, the most popular school textbook from 18th-century America. It was more Dr. Kevorkian than Dr. Seuss. For instance, for the letter t, it notes, “Time cuts down all / Both great and small.” This cheery saying is accompanied by a woodcut of the Grim Reaper. For the letter f, it reads, appropriately, “The idle Fool / Is whipped at school.” The creepy letters are complemented by anti-Catholic propaganda, including an unflattering woodcut of the pope labeled, “The Pope, or man of sins.”

Of course, those kids were lucky to have reading and writing materials at all. In rural America, many students —including Abraham Lincoln, briefly— attended “blab schools.” In these one-room schools, the teacher would read a lesson, which the bookless students would have to shout back word for word. The teacher sometimes stalked the room with a stick made of hickory and whacked kids who weren’t loud enough.

Oh, and to have the pleasure of attending these educational hellscapes, students were required to walk several miles— sometimes carrying lumber to heat the school stove.

Mind you, it wasn’t all bad. Maybe you were lucky enough to have Bronson Alcott as your teacher. Alcott —the father of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott— was an eccentric educational reformer with an intriguing idea. He believed that kids who misbehaved should be forced to smack the teachers instead of the other way round. The idea, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, was that “the sense of shame instilled in the mind of the errant child” would deter him from further shenanigans. Well, at least Alcott never had to eat sunflower seed butter.


The article above, by A.J. Jacobs, appeared in the the September 2015 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

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