How Can We Elevate Our Public Schools

Maria Sanford gave this lecture in 1869, when she was teaching in the Pennsylvania schools.1 Transcripts were printed in both a local Chester County newspaper and in the Pennsylvania School Journal.2

Sanford lists the ways that public schools can be improved. First, schools must encourage higher student attendance, hire better-trained teachers, and provide clean, beautiful school houses . Second, schools must educate students in ways that develop their character, stressing respect for authority, thoroughness, and proper manners. She speaks at length about why it is important for schools to educate students about the dignity of labor.

How Can We Elevate Our Public Schools

Every true American loves the public school. It is with us an object of personal, national and historic pride. It nourished the infancy of our free institutions, and by it must the strength of their manhood be sustained. There rests, therefore, upon each and all, the rich and the poor, the obscure and the influential, a binding obligation to widen, strengthen, and elevate its influence. It is a trust committed to us for the generations to come; we cannot evade or resign it, and if we neglect it, we imperil all that we hold most sacred. We are in a measure mindful of the charge; we honor the statesman who lifts up his voice for popular education, and we spurn with indignation any attempt to hamper or restrict it. What we lack is a consciousness of individual responsibility. We complain of and mourn over the general indifference, forgetting that faithfulness is contagious, and that had we performed our whole duty, our friends and neighbors would have been roused to earnestness and activity.

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The Greatness of Our Work

Maria Sanford, who was teaching in Parkersville at the time, gave this address at the August 4, 1868, meeting of the Pennsylvania Teachers’ Association.1 She got the opportunity to give this, her first major public address, when asked to substitute for another teacher.2

Sanford’s main argument is that the human desire for greatness is a God-given incentive to continue to work. The nature of much work is that its significance isn’t immediately apparent, either because a person cannot see how their small part contributes to a greater effort, or because the effect accumulates incrementally over time. This is true of teaching, but it is important to persevere because education is crucial to the maintenance of republican government.

The Greatness of Our Work

The desire to do or be something great is as universal in the human mind as fear or love or hatred.

“The dreams we’ve had of deathless name”3From Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “Meeting of the Alumni of Harvard College” may be locked in memory’s most secret cloister, and, like the graves of loved ones, visited only with regretful tears, but they are sacred treasures never lost, save in the shipwreck of all faith and honor, and powerful unto death to fire the soul to high resolves, and nerve the arm to manly effort. These hopes and aspirations are not vain fancies of egotism and folly, but given by the kind Father as incentives to earnestness and enthusiasm in our daily toil; are not false guides but waymarks of a real glory, which even in this world awaits those who neither faint nor falter at the difficulties of the path.

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The angel went down to Georgia

The first chapter in Whitney’s biography is an “unfinished autobiography,” consisting of a series of Sanford’s sepia-toned reminiscences about her youth. Following a brief account of her illustrious ancestors, she describes her parents and their happy, loving marriage. Shortly before Sanford was born, an incident occurred that would shape Sanford’s childhood and form the basis for her opinions about debt and honor:

Some time in the first seven years of his married life1Maria Sanford was born roughly seven years after her oldest sister, and this might account for why her father’s time in Georgia is remembered as beginning within the first seven years of his marriage., my father went to Georgia and set up a shoe store, and he was successful. But the years of 1836 and 1837 were not only years of financial panic, but also of anti-slavery agitation and of great prejudice in the South against Northern people. Somebody sent my father anti-slavery newspapers. He never saw them. They were taken out of his office and distributed among his customers.2If this memory is credible, there would have to have been someone other than Sanford with access to the shop, and it is possible that he was absent for part of the year. All at once his business fell flat. He could sell nothing, he could collect nothing, for even in the best days Southerners, at that time, paid their bills only once a year. He came home to do the best he could by his business creditors. He sold the place he and my mother loved so well,3It’s notable that Sanford did not sell his Connecticut house before opening his Georgia shop. Did he keep only a shop in Georgia and not establish a residence there? moved his family into part of his father’s house, and when he had thus raised all that he could, there still remained a debt of a thousand dollars, for which he gave his note; and of which, I rejoice to say, he paid every cent. It was a heavy burden for a man with only his hands and courage, and with a delicate wife and little children to care for, but he bore it with unwavering cheerfulness. He might have taken advantage of the bankrupt law, but he said proudly: ‘No man shall ever look me in the face and say I wronged him out of a penny.’4

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