1902 Encyclopedia > Joseph Lancaster

Joseph Lancaster
English Quaker and public education innovator

LANCASTER, JOSEPH (1778-1838), was born in Southwark in 1778, and was the son of a Chelsea pensioner. He had few opportunities of regular instruction, but he very early showed unusual seriousness and desire for learning. At sixteen he looked forward to the dissenting ministry ; but soon after his religious views altered, and he attached himself to the Society of Friends, with twenty he began to gather a few poor children under his father's roof and to give them the rudiments of instruction, without a fee, except in cases in which the parent was willing to pay a trifle. Soon a thousand children were assembled in the Borough Road ; and, the attention of the duke of Bedford, Mr Whitbread, and others having been directed to his efforts, he was provided with means for building a schoolroom, and supplying needful mate. rials. The main features of his plan were the employment of older scholars as monitors, and an elaborate system of mechanical drill, by means of which these young teachers were made to impart the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic to large numbers at the same time. The material appliances for teaching were very scanty - a few leaves torn out of spelling-books and pasted on boards, some slates, and a desk spread with sand, on which the children wrote with their fingers. The order and cheerfulness of the school and the military precision of the children's movements were very striking, and began to attract much public observation at a time when the education of the poor was almost entirely neglected. Lancaster had the skill which gains the loyalty of subordinates, and he succeeded in inspiring his young monitors with fondness for their work and with pride in the institution of which they formed a part. As these youths became more trustworthy, he found himself at leisure to accept some of the numerous invitations which crowded upon him, and to expound what he called " his system " by lectures in various towns. In this way many new schools were established, and placed under the care of young men whom he had trained. In a memorable interview with George III., Lancaster was encouraged by the expression of the king's wish that every poor child in his dominions should be taught to read the Bible. Royal patronage brought in its train resources, fame, and public responsibility, which proved to be beyond Lancaster's own powers to sustain or control. He was vain, reckless, and improvident. In 1808 a few noblemen and gentlemen came to his rescue, paid his debts, became his trustees, and founded the society which was at first called the Royal Lancasterian Institution, but was afterwards more widely known as the British and Foreign School Society. With the strongest wish to retain his services and to treat him with liberality, they soon found that he was impatient of control, and that his wild impulses and heedless extravagance made it impossible to work with him. He quarrelled with the committee, set up a private school at Tooting, became bankrupt, and in 1818 emigrated to America. There he met at first with a warm reception, gave several courses of lectures which were well attended, and wrote to friends at home letters full of enthusiasm and of high hopes for future usefulness, not unmingled with bitter denunciations of what he called the ingratitude and treachery of those who bad been associated with him in England. But his fame was short-lived. The miseries of debt and disappointment were aggravated by sickness, and he settled for a time in the warmer climate of Caracas. He afterwards visited St Thomas and Santa Cruz, and at length returned to New York, the corporation of which city made him a public grant of 500 dollars in pity for the misfortunes which had by this time reduced him to lamentable poverty. He afterwards visited Canada, where for a time his prospects brightened. He gave lectures at Montreal, and was encouraged to open a school which enjoyed an ephemeral success, but was soon abandoned. A small annuity provided by his friends in England was his only means of support. He formed a plan, however, for returning home and giving a new impetus to his " system," by which he declared it would be possible " to teach ten thousand children in different schools, not knowing their letters, all to read fluently in three weeks to three months." But these visions were never realized. He was run over by a carriage in the streets of New York in October 1838, and was so much injured that he died in a few hours.

As one of the two rival inventors of what was called the "monitorial " or " mutual " method of instruction, his name was prominent for many years in educational controversy. Dr ANDREW BELL (q.v.) had in 1797 published an account of his experiments in teaching ; and Lancaster in his first pamphlet, published in 1803, frankly acknowledges his debt to Bell for some useful hints. The two worked independently, but Lancaster was the first to apply the system of monitorial teaching on a large scale. As an economical experiment his school at the Borough Road was a signal success. He had one thousand scholars under discipline, and taught them to read, write, and work simple sums at a yearly cost of less than Os. a head. Ilis tract Improvements in. Education described the gradation of ranks, the system of signals and orders, the functions of the monitors, the method of counting and of spelling, and the curious devices he adopted for punishing offenders. Bell's educational aims were humbler, as he feared to "elevate above their station those who were doomed to the drudgery of daily labour," and therefore did not desire to teach even writing and ciphering to the lower classes. The main difference between them was that the system of the one was adopted by ecclesiastics and Conservatives, - the "National Society for the Education of the Poor in the principles of the Established Church" having been founded in 1811 for its propagation ; while Lancaster's method was patronized by the Edinburgh, Review, by Whig statesmen, by a few liberal Churchmen, and by Nonconformists generally. It was the design of Lancaster and his friends to snake national education Christian, but not sectarian, - to cause the Scriptures to be read, explained, and reverenced in the schools, without seeking by catechisms or otherwise to attract the children to any particular church or sect. This principle, since almost universally adopted by the school boards of England, was at first vehemently denounced as deistic and mischievous, and as especially hostile to the Established Church. To do them justice, it must be owned that the rival claims and merits of Bell and Lancaster were urged with more passion and nn-fairness by their friends than by themselves. Yet neither is entitled to bold a very high place among the world's teachers. Bell was cold, shrewd, and self-seeking. Lancaster had more enthusiasm, a genuine and abounding love for children, and some ingenuity in devising plans both for teaching and governing. But he was shiftless, wayward, and unmethodical, and incapable of sustained and high-principled personal effort. His writings were not numerous. They consist mainly of short pamphlets descriptive of the successes he attained at the Borough Road. His last publication, An Epitome of the Chief Events and Transactions of iris Own Life, appeared in America in 1833, and is characterized, even more strongly than his former writings, by looseness and incoherency of style, by egotism, and by a curious incapacity for judging fairly the motives either of his friends or his foes.

Subsequent experience has not justified the sanguine estimate of the Edinburgh Reviewer, who so early as 1810 described Lancaster's method as "a beautiful and inestimable discovery, a plan now brought very near to perfection, by which education could be placed within the reach of all classes." We have since come to believe that intelligent teaching requires skill and previous training, and that even the humblest rudiments are not to be well taught by those who have only just acquired them for themselves, or to be attained by mere mechanical drill. But in the early stages of national education the monitorial method served a valuable purpose. It brought large numbers of hitherto neglected children under discipline, and gave them elementary instruction at a very cheap rate. Moreover, the educational results attained were in no sense contemptible. The little monitors were often found to make up in brightness, tractability, and energy for their lack of experience, and to teach the arts of reading, writing, and computing with surprising success. And one cardinal principle of Bell and Lancaster is of prime importance. They regarded a school, not merely as a place to which individual pupils should come for guidance from teachers, but as an organized community whose members have much to learn from each other. They sought to place their scholars from the first in helpful mutual relations, and to make them feel the need of common efforts towards the attainment of common ends. (J. G. F.)

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