When I first saw a TV news item about Newt Gingrich’s advocating that children do some menial labor in school to teach them the merits of work and responsibility, my reaction was one of approval. I myself held part time jobs during high school (and full-time during summers), and it sounds OK. However, I completely missed the context in that he meant it only for poor students. I count it a measure of his disconnect with cultural sensibilities in America that he failed to realize how this might come across to parents. Frankly I think it is redolent of elitism and class snobbery, although when Mr. Gingrich reiterated the notion before a Republican debate audience, he received applause. Surely, in today’s society, the culture of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone where all the children are above average, it is the rich kids who are spoiled and pampered, and who are more likely to lack for experience with work.
At the news conference in New York on Monday, Mr. Gingrich introduced the topic before taking questions. He explained that he was thinking of children in housing projects who had few working adults as role models. He hoped to introduce them to the habit of earning a paycheck in exchange for being responsible.
“How many of you earned some money doing something by the time you were 10 years old?” he asked a crowded room of journalists at the Union League Club, where he had just met privately with affluent donors.
“Baby-sitting. Cutting grass. Raise your hand.”
A few tentative hands went up.
Mr. Gingrich said his proposal, which he had presented as a taste of his “extraordinarily radical” antipoverty ideas, had been distorted by critics.
“I do not suggest children up to 14, 15 years of age do heavy janitorial work,” he said. They could work in clerical roles or do light maintenance, for instance.
Mr. Gingrich, who met earlier in the day with Donald J. Trump, announced that Mr. Trump had agreed to create a program of 10 part-time paid “apprenticeships” for children in one of New York’s poorest schools. “He understood exactly what I was getting at,” Mr. Gingrich said. “It fit his own past, his own childhood, his own experience.”
Mr. Trump, of course, did not grow up poor; his father was a wealthy landlord. He once told Forbes magazine that his first income came from collecting soda bottles for the deposit money. He later went around with his father’s rent collectors.
Well, this is an interesting amalgamation: child labor and education. I am reminded of
education in my mother’s time, the early 20th century. She was a school marm in a one-room school house and I recall her mentioning how that worked. The older students helped the younger ones with their lessons and they all had some physical tasks to perform as well, from erasing blackboards to sweeping the floor to, for the eldest, bringing in firewood for the wood-burning stove. Turns out, her methods were not uncommon for her time. A little online research revealed this additional information:
In the one-room schoolhouse, which was the system of teaching established during most of the 19th century, students were not grouped into classes by age. Aside from there not being enough students of each age to do that, it was considered more effective to teach by giving each student study assignments appropriate to his or her level of development, and engaging more advanced students in each subject to teach less advanced ones. Thus, every student was not only expected to perform well on exams, but to perform well as teachers of other students, which resulted in a level of mastery that studying for exams seldom achieves. The method used was known as the Lancasterian System.
And here is footnote :
 The method used was developed in the early 19th century by Joseph Lancaster, born in slums of London, who while still in his teens, was able to teach 1,000 children in an abandoned warehouse — by himself — because he had discovered a radically efficient, cost-cutting idea: “The Monitorial System”, which has also been called the Lancasterian or Lancastrian System.
Lancaster let the children teach, and each child teacher became a monitor, with the better ones teaching the slower ones. As the slower students gained speed however, they too became monitors. There was one monitor for every 10 students. Through this small group peer interaction, no one had a chance to get bored. Merit badges were awarded for excellence. Like today’s Green stamps, they could be converted into merchandise prizes like pens, wallets, purses and books. Anyone who could pay four shillings a year was welcome, including girls. No other system had accepted them on an equal curriculum basis with boys. And the subjects were not just the basics, but included algebra, trigonometry and foreign languages.
Not only could the system be run profitably on such small tuition payments but four shillings per student was a fraction of what it cost to operate. Lancaster did it with brilliant economics. The students wrote on slate instead of paper. Paper was expensive, slate indestructible. One book per subject per class was used. Each page was separated and placed on a board suspended overhead. Each group of 10 studied a page as a lesson. Then the groups rotated.
In New York, the story was the same during the first half of the 19th century. Indeed, Government officials were amazed that masses of poor children could be taught so well for so little. These bureaucrats believed they could do the same job for the same price. They were wrong. In 1806, DeWitt Clinton, New York’s Mayor, moved in by subsidizing the Lancaster system with a minuscule real estate tax. Using this subsidy as a toehold, the city gradually managed, then controlled and then set up a rival system. By 1852, New York City had absorbed the Lancaster schools via the now-famous Board of Education. Taxes rose dramatically and the quality declined as the Government monopolized schooling.
In Lancaster’s native England, the story was just as sad. The Church of England saw Lancaster as a dangerous radical since he was giving the “unwashed masses” the skills to move upward. It counterattacked with a monitorial system of its own, conceived by Rev. Andrew Bell. But his way did not teach self-reliance. Nor was it designed to educate or even teach writing or ciphering. It only taught Bible studies. Backed by massive funding from Parliament, the Church of England destroyed Lancaster by opening schools directly across from his and pirating his students.
I submit that today’s educational system could learn much from the Lancastrian System. What I take from it is that the quality of education need not be proportional to the quality of the facilities, but rather that teaching is an art, an art that is as varied as the human personality, and that the answer to the nation’s education woes is not to be found in government uniformity, nor in the number of education courses completed by teachers, but in less political control and the cultivation of pure teaching talent.
This kind of thinking is not altogether moribund, by the way. Something similar known as the Waldorf System is thriving, and in places like Sillicone Valley no less. Significantly, to me at least, many Waldorf Schools have vegetable gardens which benefit the students in a rich synergism of learning, work and health.