Barnard, Henry (1811-1900)

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Henry Barnard (1811-1900)


Common-schools pioneer

Background. With the possible exception of Horace Mann, no nineteenth-century figure had such a profound and lasting impact on American education as Henry Barnard. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, on 24 January 1811, Barnard graduated from Yale College in 1835 and spent two years touring Europe, surveying the latest developments in education and studying firsthand the Pestalozzian methods then winning adherents among leading educational reformers. (Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi was an early-nineteenth-century educator who emphasized observation, experimentation, and reasoning.) Forsaking a promising career in law, Barnard committed himself, over the next forty years, to maintaining the common-schools ideal in American national life. Barnard brought energy, commitment, and creativity to his role in establishing public education systems in Connecticut and Rhode Island before midcentury, providing educators outside the Northeast with models that would be widely emulated. His unwavering commitment to teacher training did much to make the normal school a permanent feature of the educational landscape, and in his one-man crusade to perfect the art of teaching Barnard played an important role in disseminating the most advanced ideas in educational theory among teachers throughout the United States. The professionalization of teaching and even the evolution of a system of common schools, which constituted the most important developments in education during this period, were largely the work of Barnard.

Public Schools. Upon his return to the United States in 1837, Barnard was elected to the Connecticut legislature. There he sponsored legislation, modeled on a measure recently adopted in Massachusetts, creating a State Board of Commissioners for Common Schools. Barnard served as its first secretary, charged with the difficult task of reinvigorating a state school system that had declined from probably the best schools of any State at the end of the colonial period to a very inferior position by the late 1830s. Less than half of Connecticuts children were attending school, and even among those, many were opting for private schools over the second-rate schools maintained by the state. Undaunted, Barnard embarked on an energetic campaign aimed at winning public support for an overhaul of the schools, visiting and inspecting classrooms and addressing audiences of parents and educators throughout the state. Prefiguring the importance he attached to professionalization throughout his career, Barnard told the state legislature in 1838 that the day of school-keeping had passed; it was idle to expect good schools until we have good teachers, and he urged appropriate training in classes and seminaries established for that specific purpose. That same year Barnard founded the Connecticut Common School Journal and organized the nations first teacher-training institute, a six-week seminar designed to standardize teaching methods across the state. He emphasized the need for well-maintained school libraries and attempted to upgrade the physical condition of the schools through his writings on schoolhouse construction. Despite his rendering a service to Connecticut scarcely less important than that of Horace Mann in Massachusetts, Barnard found himself temporarily out of a job when elections in 1842 returned a governor hostile to the common schools and the Board of Commissioners was abolished.

Rhode Island. By this time, however, Barnard had acquired a reputation as one of the foremost educators in the nation, and during a cross-country tour following his dismissal he solidified that image, addressing the legislatures in ten states, visiting school districts, and collecting materials for a projected history of American education. When he arrived back in Connecticut in June 1843, an invitation from Rhode Island governor James Fenner to test the practicability of his own plans of educational reform awaited Barnard. As with Connecticut, schools in Rhode Island were at the time in a pitiful condition: outside of Providence, schools were in session only three months of the year, and Dorrs Rebellion a year earlier had given a new potency to wrangles over public education. Employed initially to examine and report on the state of the schools, in 1845 Barnard was appointed state commissioner of public schools and charged with revolutioniz[ing] the public sentiment of the State. Over the next five years he hosted some eleven hundred public hearings on education throughout the state and distributed some sixteen thousand educational pamphlets. In 1845 he founded the Rhode Island Institute of Instruction for teacher training. One of his most interesting innovations in Rhode Island was the traveling model school, which came to be known as Bakers Circus. Aboard a covered wagon filled with boxes of minerals, insects, and flowers, eccentric schoolteacher W. S. Baker and a dozen of his star pupils traversed the state. Wherever an audience could be assembled, Barnards biographer recalled, Baker brought out his bell, set up his blackboard, and held a school session. Despite his unorthodox methods, Barnard established a normal school at Providence, Rhode Island, and state legislators credited him with having installed a viable public-school system.

Connecticut. Barnard returned to oversee Connecticut schools in 1851. After an important four-year stint shoring up the foundations of public education in the state, he launched his first volume of the American Journal of Education in 1855 and for the rest of his life would be identified with popularizing educational theory through print. His contemporary cothinker William T. Harris described the thirty-one volumes of the American Journal of Education as an educational course of reading of 24,000 pages and 12 million words, which gave to American educators, who had so long been isolated and who had been slowly evolving a thoroughly native school system out of the English inheritance, a needed conception of historical development in other countries. Building on his success with statewide journals in Connecticut and Rhode Island, Barnards American Journal of Education quickly established itself as the standard handbook for American educators, mixing biographies of leading educators with reports from training institutes around the country and providing a forum for discussion of the latest thinking on classroom pedagogy. In addition, Barnard was the author of at least seventy-five separate titles covering a range of education-related subjects, from schoolhouse architecture to public education in Europe and teacher training in the United States.

University Administrator. Barnards national stature had attracted the attention of college administrators, and in 1858 he accepted an offer from the University of Wisconsin to serve as its chancellor. His association with the state of Wisconsin dated from 1846, when he had addressed the state legislature on the subject of public education. Five years later he had organized teachers institutes in twenty counties throughout the state. After an illness lasting almost a year, he was inaugurated chancellor on 27 July 1859. He served the university for two years, training some fifteen hundred teachers and pleading the cause of educational reform before some twelve thousand citizens in public lectures before resigning to devote himself full-time to editing the American Journal of Education. For the next six years he held no public office but decided again, in 1866, to try his hand as a college administrator. He was inaugurated president of St. Johns College, in Annapolis, Maryland, in January 1866 but resigned just over a year later to become the United States first commissioner of education.

A Dismal Experience. Barnards entire career in public life had been devoted to educational reform, and his assignment as education commissioner seemed a natural outgrowth of his lifelong interests. Barnard was assigned to collect statistics and facts showing the condition and progress of education in the several states and territories, and to diffuse such information respecting the organization and management of schools and methods of teaching, as shall aid the people of the United States in the establishment and maintenance of efficient school systems and otherwise promote the cause of education throughout the country. He went about his task with characteristic enthusiasm, producing an 881-page annual report for 1868 which Harris hailed as the chief monument of Dr. Barnards career. Despite his diligence, however, Barnards career once again fell victim to political maneuvering. The party factionalism of the post-Civil War period took its toll on educational reform: Barnards clerk at the Education Department was a Democratic Party informer, who testified that his boss spent too much time away from the office on frivolous matters, and on 20 June 1868 the entire department was abolished. Barnard stayed on for almost two years at a reduced salary, but finally resigned on 15 March 1870, declaring All my experiences with wild beasts and stolid asses in an experience of 30 years did not lead me to expect what I am now receiving. The sole entry in his diary from his years at the capital read: Washingtona dismal experience. Although he would remain involved in educational reform, particularly through the Journal of Education, Barnard would never again return to the public spotlight. He died on 5 July 1900 in the same house he was born in at Hartford, Connecticut.


Merle E. Curti, The Social Ideas of American Educators (Paterson, N.J.: Littlefield, Adams, 1965);

Robert B. Downs, Henry Barnard (Boston: Twayne, 1977);

Edith N. MacMullen, In the Cause of True Education: Henry Barnard and Nineteenth-Century School Reform (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991).

Henry Barnard

views updated Jun 11 2018

Henry Barnard

American educator Henry Barnard (1811-1900) was influential in improving public schools and in promoting an educational literature in the United States.

Henry Barnard was born in Hartford, Conn., on Jan. 24, 1811. He graduated from Yale in 1830, taught briefly in Pennsylvania, and returned to Yale to study law. He was admitted to the bar in 1833-1834. Barnard's tours of the South and West and, in 1835, of Europe nourished growing interests in education and in politics that were finally combined when he was elected to the Connecticut Legislature in 1837. He secured passage of a bill creating a board of commissioners to supervise the state's faltering common schools, was appointed to the board, and in 1838 became its executive secretary.

Barnard, who found the schools poorly maintained and attended, wanted public education "good enough for the best and cheap enough for the poorest." He believed that thorough moral training in the common schools was the surest safeguard of the community's happiness. An intensive campaign featuring public meetings and teachers' institutes, the creation of the Connecticut Common School Journal, which he edited, and a series of annual reports describing school conditions and suggesting remedies yielded legislation reorganizing the schools. But in 1842 a hostile assembly disbanded the board as "a useless expense."

Barnard accepted a similar position in Rhode Island, where, employing techniques developed in Connecticut, he energetically canvassed the state to express his belief that social unity and stability could be achieved through education. The result, in 1845, was an act creating the state's first school system.

In poor health, Barnard resigned in 1849 to return to Connecticut as head of the state normal school, a post which also included superintendency of the state's common schools. He tirelessly sought to keep educational issues before the people. His annual reports covered a vast array of educational topics and exerted a wide influence. Barnard's report for 1853 was later published as a history of Connecticut education; in 1854 he wrote an authoritative book on school architecture. Trips to Europe in 1852 and 1854 disclosed that his fame had become international. But, again in uncertain health, he resigned in 1855 to develop a new project, the American Journal of Education.

For 25 years the Journal provided a unique professional literature, disseminating all types of educational information at precisely the time that the nation was striving to establish public schooling on a secure footing. Carefully edited and frequently published by Barnard at his own expense, the Journal came to overshadow his other achievements. From 1858 to 1860 he served as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin and in 1866-1867 as president of St. John's College in Maryland. As the nation's outstanding educator, he was appointed the first U.S. commissioner of education in 1867, resigning three years later. He continued to edit the Journal, eventually producing thirty-two 800-page volumes, until his retirement in 1880. He died in Hartford on July 5, 1900.

Further Reading

John S. Brubacher, ed., Henry Barnard on Education (1931), contains selections from Barnard's Journal. Bernard C. Steiner, Life of Henry Barnard (1919), although old, is complete and thoroughly documented. Richard Emmons Thursfield, Henry Barnard's American Journal of Education (1945), analyzes the content and impact of the Journal.

Additional Sources

Downs, Robert Bingham, Henry Barnard, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.

MacMullen, Edith Nye, In the cause of true education: Henry Barnard & nineteenth-century school reform, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991. □

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