A Solution To The Urchin Problem?

English: Newt Gingrich at a political conferen...

Newt Gingrich, via Wikipedia

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.

He tried to clarify last week in a NY Times article like this:

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

WPV One room schoolhouse

Image via Wikipedia

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.[1]

And here is footnote [1]:

[1] 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.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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17 Responses to A Solution To The Urchin Problem?

  1. hlgaskins says:

    “I do not suggest children up to 14, 15 years of age do heavy janitorial work,”

    Now Jim, you know darned well that he just trying to find a way to prepare them for their station in life, and if the side-benefit is to save schools in poor neighborhoods a few dollars, then it’s a “win win” for all.

    “I submit that today’s educational system could learn much from the Lancastrian System.”
    And you would be right because studies indicate that children learn more effectively from each other in “student centered” classes.


  2. PiedType says:

    I, too, agreed with Gingrich, not realizing he meant the program only for poor children. Short-sighted and elitist, as you said. Any kid, from any background, can benefit from learning responsibility and the satisfaction of a job well done, in addition to the pride of earning one’s own spending money. The program ought to be considered for all schools.

    In my family, we five kids didn’t have to work, but we did. My brothers threw papers. I used to take my wagon around the neighborhood collecting pop bottles to return for the deposit, wire coat hangers to sell back to the cleaners, and newspapers to sell to the scrap paper company. I did some babysitting and had at least one lemonade or Kool-Aid stand. I had summer jobs as soon as I was old enough to get hired. In many instances those jobs probably cost my parents more in supplies and transportation than I earned, but they realized that wasn’t the point.


  3. John Erickson says:

    Hey, I see no reason why kid can’t teach younger kids – or kids their own age. I got to teach two classes in high school – the computer programming class that was part of Math (yeah, big surprise there, right?) and the World War 2 section of our Social Studies class (REAL big surprise there, no?) – both because the teachers admitted I knew as much as they did on the topic. The math teacher didn’t surprise me admitting that – the Social Studies teacher DID!
    But no, I never had a paying job growing up. I spent weekends “helping” my dad do work around the house. Little things like re-roofing the house (I was shingles hauler), expanding the septic system (I got to dig the trench), re-pouring the garage floor (I got to mix the concrete and haul supplies), and so forth.
    Nope, I was a redolent upper class snob, sitting on my butt while other kids had jobs. (That was assuming the task I was assigned required a sitting position – a rarity indeed!) 😀


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I have a feeling, John, that your Dad was likely a tougher taskmaster than most employers. From what I read here, you’ve got nothing to apologize for.


      • John Erickson says:

        I’ll admit, it was trying at times. The upside is, even if I can’t physically do the work anymore, I know what’s involved so I don’t get screwed over! 😀


  4. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    Of course I understand that the blog is anti-Gingrich. Fine, I have concerns along those lines as well.

    But let’s just talk about work ethic, which I think was the basis for the Gingrich proposal. Any kid needs to learn, from somewhere, good work ethic, do they not? Anthing wrong with learning how to “work” as part of one’s education?

    I see little difference in terms of work ethic deficiencies between “urchins” (please define if you will) and “spoiled and pampered pets of……” Actually, traditional “urchins” of the Dicksonian age worked hard to have food to eat, I suppose, while the spoiled and pampered ones gorged at Mom and Dad’s table.

    My very limited experience in moderan public education shows me definitive evidence that the work ethic of MANY students simply stinks, today.

    Now do you want to just argue against Gingrich, or instead debate how to enstill a good work ethic in our KIDS, all of them, today? I will join the fray in the latter case with “vigor”. But defend Gingrich, not for now, for this conservative. I will simply wait to see what develops.



  5. hlgaskins says:

    “Of course I understand that the blog is anti-Gingrich. Fine, I have concerns along those lines as well.”

    I neither like nor trust Gingrich, but I’m hoping that he becomes the republican presidential candidate.

    “But let’s just talk about work ethic, which I think was the basis for the Gingrich proposal.”

    The only work ethic that Gingrich has is “wife or god jumping,” “political stumping, food chomping, and PAC romping. May the best ham win!


  6. sekanblogger says:

    I’ve had jobs since age 10.
    During the school year, from Jr. High on, I was an after-school janitor.
    I was looked down upon because I did jobs like pick up the trash in the parking lot and clean toilets.
    The wealthy kids were too busy being quarterbacks and cheerleaders. Later on, some of them naturally became my boss at some jobs. Never mind the fact that academically I outperformed them every year.
    Being a good looking kid from a wealthy family meant you had a future. Blacks and poor whites went to work. I’d like to think things have changed, but it’s probably worse now.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I can sympathize. When I was in high school my part-time job (and full-time in summer) was as the stock boy with our J. C. Penney store. I unpacked and priced new stock, cleaned the toilet, swept the floors, and on Saturday’s clerked. I made $1 an hour. (My final semester they laid me off because of slow business.)

      My impression Terry is that out-of-control hazing is a national problem that has only gotten worse and is likely symptomatic of what you are talking about. And then there’s the Penn State mess and others like it. We all like to think that America is a classless society where everyone has an equal chance, but the truth is that the factors you cite do set most people on predictable socioeconomic paths. Nevertheless, I do not call for excessive government intervention, merely a reasonably level playing field for all. I don’t doubt that despite all our problems, we are better than most other countries. Unless, that is, Mr. Gingrich manages to turn us into England, socially speaking.


  7. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    “We all like to think that America is a classless society……” Does anyone believe that or think it is the correct goal for any society?

    The last two that tried such were the Soviet Union and Mao’s China and look what they created!!!!

    Instead what America has tried and continues to try to create is a society in which everyone has a RIGHT to the “….pursuit of happiness…..”. Equality, other than “under the law” has little to do with it, in my view.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      You are changing the context of my remark, Anson. I said, ” . . . a classless society where everyone has an equal chance, . . . “, with the operative thought being an equal chance, as contrasted with, say, England, where people are given titles and benefits by virtue of birth. I admit that “classless society” was a poor choice of words.


  8. Jennifer Lockett says:

    An interesting post Jim. I have to say that I took great offense to Newt’s comment and I that I found it racist and woefully ignorant of the plight of the American family – especially of poor (I mean that economically) children. He was making the assumption that seems common amongst those born into privilege – that wealth is associated with ‘working hard’ and the poverty is associated with ‘laziness.’ He ignored a very large group – every growing in our current society – of the ‘working poor.’ I know that he later went on to clarify this and limited his programs to ‘severe ghettos’ and not the working poor (again, Newt, lots of working poor live in ‘ghettos’). Perhaps he believes that two jobs cancel each other out?
    Before the age of 10 did I ever work for money? No, I never did. I also didn’t have an allowance. I had parents who put a roof over my head and food on the table. I was also very fortunate. I know people who did not have that luxury – I went to school with a lot of them. They went home to empty apartments and cupboards. Some made it out just fine and are now successful, others weren’t so lucky. That’s what happens when you leave children to raise themselves.
    My focus as a child was on schooling. As a teenager, I worked in the summer and periodically babysat, but nothing above a couple of hours a week. Having 10 year olds clean toilets (which is exactly what he suggested) not only does not do what he suggests (teaches them good work habits), but rather stigmatizes them in an environment in which they are likely already stigmatized – and places them into a ‘service class’ at a young age. It doesn’t teach them to aspire to be doctors, lawyers, business(wo)men, or even teachers. In fact, one could argue it even belittles the need for an education. You can teach a child work ethic with schooling alone. I would also argue that a 10 year old who goes home to a house where his/her parents are working until 10 pm and has to feed, care-for, and put to bed their siblings has a far stronger ‘work ethic’ than the Paris Hilton’s of the world.
    Do children/teenagers lack a ‘work ethic?’ Of course they do. They’re children! That’s the nature of children. It’s part of a developmental process. When people swear up and down that ‘kids this days don’t… or do…” is full of nostalgic, selective-amnesia. Why did they beat children who were chimney sweeps? Because they would slack off, dodge their job, and not do good work – not solely because they were cruel and Dickensian. As a student of history, I can tell you that it is replete with comments of “Kids these days…” comments. I remember a friend translating one from Egypt in 1500 BCE. While I like to tell my students that I was always respectful to my teachers, never waited ’til the last minute to complete an assignment, and certainly never ditched my work to hang out with friends or *gasp* a boy, I know that wasn’t true. In some cases, I feel there’s some karmic justice that has come my way 😉
    In terms of the Lancastrian method, keep in mind that this was a practice never used in highly dense populations (like Boston or New York City) and was arguably not very effective. Most students did not go beyond learning basics of reading and arithmetic and we had virtually no established and effective advanced learning institutions in this country (especially for women). In fact, until the early 20th century if you wanted a solid higher education you went to France. Even thought places like Harvard, William & Mary, and such were around, they were not well-developed and had highly limited curricula (you could learn theology, Latin & Greek but not medicine or serious scientific investigation, well let’s just say you wouldn’t want to use the Harvard educated Doctor). I wouldn’t model any modern program off of our practices at that time. Just my opinion of course. There is a *similar* (albeit not identical) system around today called Montessori – which I know can be an excellent model (my perfect SAT and GRE valedictorian of his posh private school husband had one). However, very little student as teachers in that arena.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      You make a lot of sense to me in your detailed comments, Jennifer, and I must give your background and present job a lot of weight here. I’m sure you are right that the class size does make a difference in urban areas, not to mention having way more distractions and temptations, but still, Lancaster did pretty well in exactly that arena according to the narrative I found.

      What you said about pre-20th century education, that quality was found mainly in France, jibes exactly with McCullough’s “The Greater Journey”.

      Excellent points all. Thanks.


  9. ansonburlingame says:

    Well Jennifer,

    I am showing my own intoerance here. I only got as far as your referal to Gingrich’s views as “racist and woefully ignorant”. I “dropped synch” at that point and read no farther.

    By any measure that I can see Gingrich is the “smartest” candidate to be found. So calling him ignorant is just partisan hype in my view.

    But you go even further in refering to his views as “racist”. I am getting SICK of that word and people that sling it around with abandon. Your next step in such claims might be that he is from Georgia and therefore he must be………

    THERE IS NO ONE in the field for the next presidential election, GOP or Dem that is a RACIST by ANY stretch of the imagaination. You should rethink the arrows used to denigrate those men and women, in my view. And for Jim to say “good points” when you START with a racist accusation, well, that shows extraordinary partisanship on his part as well.

    Try this one on for size Jennifer. When you call someone a racist, is that in itself a racist comment??? I bet you ONLY use that term when referring to white men.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      @ Anson,

      I will only address your criticism of me here, as I’m sure Jennifer can well defend herself if she deems it necessary. You took issue with Jennifer raising “racism” when she opened her comment with:

      I have to say that I took great offense to Newt’s comment and I that I found it racist and woefully ignorant of the plight of the American family – especially of poor (I mean that economically) children.

      Then you said of me,

      And for Jim to say “good points” when you START with a racist accusation, well, that shows extraordinary partisanship on his part as well.

      Phrasing it the way she did means that the racist aspect was her opinion.

      First, I assumed that if someone wanted to challenge that opinion, they probably would. (I was right.) Secondly, I didn’t challenge it because I know Jennifer from previous correspondence and her own blog as an intelligent, experienced and innovative teacher in a private school and I gave weight to that opinion was because of that background and also because I know that the majority of the poorer-quality schools are predominantly non-white.

      In that sense I was using the same reasoning that you promoted in a comment on an EC post about millionaires this morning in that you eschew references and links and choose to let your opinion rest on your own reputation and background. The only difference in the two instances that I see is that her background is more germane to this issue than yours was to the other post.


  10. ansonburlingame says:


    I understand your respect for Jennifer. Up to now I have held her in the same regard, respectfully.

    But she DID sling the race arrow above or at least I read it that way. And yep, you got the reaction that you expected would follow over the use of the racist term against a candidate for President.

    I don’t really know if you accepted her call of Gingrich views as “racist and wholly ignorant”. I only know that you did not remark on that point. Thus my challenge to you for where do you really stand when someone calls anyone a racist.

    But all in all, just more political exchanges with differing points of views and sensitivities. All fine and well with me in your blog or mine as well.



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