'American ABC:' Back to School in the 19th Century As summer dwindles away and back-to-school time approaches, an exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum looks at life around the schoolhouse in the 19th century.
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'American ABC:' Back to School in the 19th Century

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'American ABC:' Back to School in the 19th Century

'American ABC:' Back to School in the 19th Century

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Children are in countdown mode, summer dwindles away and it's back to school time. Some kids in the Washington, D.C. area found a cool place to spend a warm end-of-summer day - at an exhibit on 19th century children at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg went to see American ABC.

(Soundbite of recording of children singing)

Unidentified Children: London bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down…


They've reproduced a one-room schoolhouse with slates, chalk, a teacher, and games to play at recess. Visiting children don't seem to mind going back to this school, and some don't mind going back to their real schools either.

Ms. LING ZANG(ph): I feel great, because I love my school.

STAMBERG: What do you like about school?

Ms. ZANG: Playing on the computers.

STAMBERG: Ling Zang, age eight, going into third grade soon. So is Tatiana Ashley Christmas(ph) - yes, that's her name. But she's a bit less sanguine.

Ms. TATIANA CHRISTMAS: It's going to be a lot more hard work.

STAMBERG: You don't look too happy about that.


STAMBERG: Well, what was the best thing about school last year?

Ms. CHRISTMAS: Recess and lunch.

STAMBERG: You think those will be the best thing this year too?


STAMBERG: Recess, lunch, nerves, other pieces of back-to-school business are part of the exhibition at the American Art Museum, as real for 19th century children as they are for our own. In 1845, Francis William Edmonds painted The New Scholar. You can see it at npr.org. The picture shows a scared little boy being pushed toward the schoolmaster by his mother and pulled toward the teacher by his brown and white dog.

Ms. BETSY BROUN (Director, American Art Museum): The schoolmaster himself is made to be an object of ridicule.

STAMBERG: Betsy Broun is director of the American Art Museum.

Ms. BROUN: Everything's in the wrong place. His glasses are on his forehead, his quill pen is in his mouth, but if you look at what he's holding behind his back, it's a hickory switch. So the little boy is smart to be afraid; he knows he's being sent in for subjugation as well as education.

STAMBERG: This painting is part of an ongoing debate in 19th century America, the whole idea of going to school, of universal free education, was an invention of the 1820s and ‘30s. Before then children were taught at home or in church. Why the change? Betsy Broun says citizens began seeing young people as the future of America.

Ms. BROUN: It was a time that was very fraught in America. All the founders had died off and suddenly it dawned on people that, gosh, if we're going to continue a democracy, we're going to have to have an educated population. And it dawns on them that in a monarchy you just have to have a tiny little layer of elite people educated, but in a democracy everybody needs to be smart.

STAMBERG: Everybody needs to know what voting is all about, how to make informed choices. This art show, curated by Claire Perry of Stanford University, reflects the discussion and concerns about universal education. Some 19th century Americans worried that the frontier spirit would be taken from their children, that they'd be made to conform. And some children weren't crazy about being cooped up in classrooms, like the boy in a painting from the 1860s.

Ms. BROUN: It's a picture of a little kid who's skipping school.

STAMBERG: Betsy Broun is looking at The Truant by Thomas LeClear.

Ms. BROUN: This little kid has his lunch pail and he has his books, but he's hiding behind a big rock so the teacher in the schoolhouse behind him can't see him.

STAMBERG: And his face - the painter kindly put his face in shadow so he won't be spotted that quickly because he's such a bad boy.

Ms. BROUN: That's right. But there was a kind of celebration of the truant. There were lots of little truant kids showing up in paintings and sculptures at this age.

STAMBERG: But truants got in trouble for not showing up. Others got in trouble in class for, as they said in the 19th century, improper comportment. In his canvas Kept In, Edward L. Henry paints a girl in worn clothes sitting on a scruffy school bench looking ruefully out the window. She is all alone in the classroom. The girl is African-American. The picture made in 1889. After the civil war, there was much discussion about educating former slaves and their children. Education was seen then, as now, as a path to success.

Ms. BROUN: The message here I think is focus on what you need to do, persevere so you can make it too. So she's kept in so she can keep at it.

STAMBERG: The young girl is watching her classmates play outside during recess. Perhaps the ultimate recess picture was painted by Winslow Homer in 1872. Snap the Whip - again, you can see it as npr.org - is one of those icons of American art, the absolute embodiment of the euphoric freedom of childhood, until you look more closely.

Ms. BROUN: You see this beautiful group of boys, and they're the very symbol of freedom, the frontier spirit, independence, joyfulness. They're out in a field of flowers; they seem part of nature and innocence. But immediately behind them is the red schoolhouse, very plain, very geometric. It's in every way a contrast to the way the boys are sort of scattering across the field like wildflowers.

STAMBERG: These boys are playing out in the sun. Soon they're going to be harnessed into that building...

Ms. BROUN: That's right.

STAMBERG: ...and made to learn. But they need to, because look at what they're doing with this game. They're hurting one another. They're taking advantage of the littlest members to toss them up so that they'll fall to the ground and lose the game.

Ms. BROUN: They're exhibiting teamwork, because, of course, the team has to hold together in order to spin off the ones at the end. But you're right; the ones at the end are taking a tumble. And it is a little bit of, you know, how we're going to have strong people and weak people. There is a competitive edge to this, and it's that sense of competition that we know by the 1870s was part of the entrepreneurial spirit. And that's America too.

STAMBERG: That's America too. Winslow Homer is doing several things in this painting. Betsy Broun says Snap the Whip, made a decade after the civil war, also reminds America of its innocence after years of slaughter and divisions. The canvas brings a message of hope to a bruised nation.

Years ago, a professor of mine said that every work of art is a crystallized value judgment. In this back-to-school season, the paintings and artifacts of American ABC - at the Smithsonian Art Museum until September 17 - remind us of what education and childhood meant two centuries ago.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington.

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