Suzanne Fields

The 13-year-olds were required to explain the Electoral College and give the number of electoral votes accorded to each state, to identify five county officers and explain the duties of each, and to cite three rights given in the Constitution to Congress and two rights denied to Congress. While they were at it, they were required to say who discovered Florida, the Pacific Ocean, the Mississippi River and the St. Lawrence River.

Since reading was important, they were required to name the properties of a noun, define a personal noun, give the properties of verbs and degrees of comparison of adjectives, and diagram the sentence, "The Lord loveth a cheerful giver."

Many educationists scoff at such exercises as relics of a primitive time in America, but other teachers say those "primitives" could teach us a thing or two. (How many Harvard graduates would pass such a test?) Such an eighth-grade education was all that George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Benjamin Franklin ever got.

Education in early America "began in the home at the mother's knee and often ended in the cornfield or barn by the father's side," writes Robert A. Peterson, headmaster of the Pilgrim Academy in Egg Harbor City, N.J., in the online newsletter Freeman. Teaching reading was a mother's portion, and without pencil or paper she often traced the letters of the alphabet in the ashes on the hearth.

The Bible was by far the most important cultural influence in the lives of the early Americans; letters home from Civil War soldiers, Union and Confederate alike, were written well, rich with metaphor, allusion and vivid imagery. John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress," John Milton's "Paradise Lost," the New England Primer and Isaac Watts' "Divine Songs" were familiar at many hearths.

Few of us would give up the resources of the present day -- the books, magazines, television, tablets, and the wealth of electronic wizardry that makes learning a snap, if only we knew how to harness the power of the wizardry. We shouldn't dismiss the lessons those early Americans could teach us. Maybe they knew something we have yet to learn.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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