Webster’s American Education—§ 5 — Democratic Thinker

American Thought

Noah Webster, shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War, publishes an essay in his American Magazine outlining his reasons and methods for revising the educational system in the new republic.


NEW YORK, 1788.


§ 5.  Study of Mathematics.

THESE remarks suggest another error which is often committed in our inferior schools: I mean that of putting boys into difficult sciences, while they are too young to exercise their reason upon abstract subjects. For example; boys are often put to the study of mathematics, at the age of eight or ten years; and before they can either read or write. In order to show the impropriety of such a practice, it is necessary to repeat what was just now observed, that our senses are the avenues of knowlege. This fact proves that the most natural course of Education is that which employs, first the senses or powers of the body, or those faculties of the mind which first acquire strength; and then proceeds to those studies which depend on the power of comparing and combining ideas. The art of writing is mechanical and imitative; this may therefore employ boys, as soon as their fingers have strength sufficient to command a pen. A knowledge of letters requires the exercise of a mental power, memory; but this is coeval almost with the first operations of the human mind; and with respect to objects of sense, is almost perfect even in childhood. Children may therefore be taught reading, as soon as their organs of speech have acquired strength sufficient to articulate the sounds of words.*

* Great caution should be observed in teaching children to pronounce the letters of the alphabet. The labials are easily pronounced; thus the first words a child can speak are papa and mama. But there are some letters, particularly l and r, which are of difficult pronunciation, and children should not be pressed to speak words in which they occur. The difficulty may produce a habit of stammering.

But those sciences, a knowlege of which is acquired principally by the reasoning faculties, should be postponed to a more advanced period of life. In the course of an English Education, mathematics should be perhaps the last study of youth in schools. Years of valuable time are sometimes thrown away, in a fruitless application to sciences, the principles of which are above the comprehension of the students.

There is no particular age, at which every boy is qualified to enter upon mathematics to advantage. The proper time can be best determined by the instructors, who are acquainted with the different capacities of their pupils.

Used with the permission of Democratic Thinker.

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