Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Early schools across America as well as those in Iowa emphasized memorization. Children were expected to memorize history, geography, and biology as well as arithmetic, English and reading assignments. They had to recite when called upon.

Appleton’s Readers were once used almost everywhere. From Appleton’s Fourth Reader of the 1880s, elocution lessons were included so that students could recite in the style of the author, a distinguished Yale professor. His principles of logical analysis included lessons on falling and rising slides of language, smooth and abrupt stress and emphatic compounds that included the uses of satire and irony. Selections were divided into prose and poetry from prominent writers such as Benjamin Franklin, Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, Swift, Longfellow, De Foe and Thomas Moore.

Children were expected to memorize the bones and muscles, and the circulatory and digestive systems of the human body. History lessons emphasized the memorization of names and dates. English and spelling rules were memorized, and arithmetic required constant memorization beginning with the “times tables.”

Memorization is still necessary in today’s schools but emphasis is more on learning concepts and gaining understanding of principles. A primary emphasis in early schools was on reading aloud. If a student could read aloud or recite his lesson, the teacher concluded that he understood the material and subject matter. The Yale professor who introduced his style of elocution assumed that if the student learned to recite the language properly, the meaning of the material would become quite clear.

In many cases there were not enough books available for all students. Books were shared, or the material was written on the blackboard for each student to copy and memorize. Children with poor eyesight or hearing were often considered to be slow learners because they did not quickly grasp their assignments. Students had massive homework assignments, and often parents did not have enough education to help their children. At home, most children spent several hours in the evening helping with chores before tackling their assignments. Many dropped out of school quickly because of the rigorous demands. 

From Elson’s Grammar School Reader, Book 4, dated 1909, under “Selections From Shakespeare,” pp. 106-108, is Othello, Act II, Scene III. The notes in the study guide following the lesson are interesting. In the 3rd line when Iago exclaimed “Marry, heaven forbid!” this was an exclamation meaning “indeed!” Words and phrases for discussion from the selection included “immoral part of myself,” “repute yourself,” “as many mouths as Hydra,” “crack of your love,” “false imposition,” “speak parrot,” “denotement,” and “must to the watch.” It was also noted that the expression “fustian” meant empty phrasing, “pleasance” meant merriment, and “moraler” referred to a moralizer. We probably wouldn’t tackle these ideas today until college level.

Movies had not been invented and there were no videos, internet, or any other visual aids to broaden the scope of learning. Teachers had not gone very far in school themselves and thus were unprepared to help children as much as today’s teachers. However, brilliant scientists, educators and great thinkers came from these humble beginnings. True learning comes from a decision made by each individual. We must take advantage of any opportunities that are afforded, then challenge ourselves to find additional sources and information. 

I have heard many older people say, “I am glad that I was required to memorize my lessons.” Years later the memory is jogged by something that happens or something experienced, and the meaning of what was learned years before becomes clear. In spite of all the modern aids that help children to understand principles and learn, it is still a wise idea to require a certain amount of memorization. This exercises the mind.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick