Sheldon, Edward Austin (1823-1897)

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Edward Austin Sheldon (1823-1897)


Normal-school educator

Youth. Born in Perry centre, New York, on 4 October 1823, Edward Sheldon worked on his fathers farm as a young boy. He attended the private Perry Center Academy and enrolled in 1844 at Hamilton College. When he was overcome with an attack of pleurisy, Sheldon was forced to withdraw from college in 1847 without having received his degree. He worked several months with the noted horticulturists Charles and Andrew Jackson Downing at Newburgh, New York. Sheldon then tried his hand briefly at the nursery business, but after disappointment with that venture and with his attempt to find employment in New York City, Sheldon returned to the upstate in 1848. His concern for the plight of the poor led him to establish in November of that year the Orphan and Free School Association in Oswego. He attempted, unsuccessfully, to convince local leaders of the importance of making the citys schools free to the public, but his frustrations in this effort, and with growing public apathy over the Ragged School, as the school under his direction was known, led him to resign in 1849 and open a private coeducational school. After a short tenure Sheldon won an appointment as superintendent of the Syracuse public schools. As superintendent he established school libraries and implemented advanced approaches to classification and gradation. His proposal for free common schools finally won the approval of Oswego city officials in 1853. For almost thirty years afterward, Sheldon was a central figure in education at local and state levels and became widely known as the leading national advocate of Pestalozzian methods in the classroom.

Pestalozzian Schooling. One of the important influences on Sheldon and his generation of American educators was the new education movement inspired by Swiss reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. The methods pioneered by Pestalozzi provided a sharp challenge to the rote learning and formalism that had characterized American schooling throughout the colonial period and into the early nineteenth century. At his European schools Pestalozzi advanced the theory that observation and impression, rather than memorization, should serve as the basis for instruction. Pestalozzi, in turn, influenced another educational reformer, Friedrich Froebel, who codified his ideas into a kindergarten curriculum based on object teaching. After viewing a display of teaching materials during a visit to Toronto, Sheldon, too, became an ardent advocate of Pestalozzian methods, seeking to extend them to more-mature students and attempting to disseminate their importance to a generation of common-school teachers.

The Oswego Normal School. The crowning achievement of Sheldons life was his establishment of the Oswego Primary Teachers Training School in 1861. His work at Syracuse had won him a position as president of the state teachers association in 1860, and in the same year he became editor of the New York Teacher, the counterpart to Henry Barnards Connecticut and Rhode Island teachers journals and Calvin Wileys in North Carolina. Sheldon was appointed principal at Oswego after its first year of operation and held that position until his death in August 1897. The school won financial support from the state of New York in 1863, and its name was changed in 1866 to the Oswego State Normal and Training School. Under Sheldons leadership the school became the most important center of Pestalozzianism in objective instruction in the United States, the Mecca of American education, according to one account. The school played such a prominent role in disseminating Pestalozzis ideas throughout the United States, in fact, that the development became known as the Oswego movement. The school not only provided principles of teaching, but a methodology that could be taught to prospective teachers, who, by their diligent application, could become skillful in selecting lesson materials and arranging them. Eleven books and other learning materials based on Pestalozzis concepts were published at Oswego. Students flocked to Oswego from every region of the United States, and its graduates supplied the backbone of the common-schools crusade. By 1865 hardly a corner of the country could be found, including the defeated South, where Oswego graduates had not left their mark.


Ellwood P. Cubberley, Public Education in the United States (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1962);

Newton Edwards and Herman G. Richey, The School in the American Social Order: The Dynamics of American Education (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947).

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Edward Austin Sheldon

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