This Wonderful Institution: Teaching and Learning at Rhode Island College, 1854-1958

Marlene Lopes, Special Collections Librarian and Associate Professor

James P. Adams Library
Rhode Island College

Public education expanded during the nineteenth century, and so did the need for teachers. Reformers and general citizens alike demanded a more democratic system of education, one not limited by religious affiliation that did not cater to the economic or political elite. For immigrant groups and free people of color, in particular, public education opened up new worlds of learning, provided a means of entering the wider society, and presented wider ranging job possibilities. Therefore many families placed a priority on education, at least for their sons. Daughters, on the other hand, were often not encouraged to go beyond the earliest grades and were likely to be discouraged from seeking higher education. Evening schools, with the same requirements and programs as those during the day, were set up to meet the needs of young workers in the emerging factories, those too old to attend regular classes, and women and others with day time responsibilities and obligations. Gradually public education came to be recognized as a necessity.

The establishment of free schools led to the creation of normal schools, institutions for the proper training of teachers. In Rhode Island the Commissioner of Education, Elisha Potter, called for a state financed normal school. The opening of public schools, he reported, had necessitated the hiring of more and more teachers and had led to a scarcity of good teachers. That need had been exacerbated further by the increased opportunities and higher wages available in other professions and businesses. He noted, however, one positive outcome from the shortage of male teachers: more women were being hired, and he predicted that old prejudices against their employment would inevitably die as people discovered that females, given the same education, "make not only as good but better teachers than males."

Massachusetts had established the first public normal school in 1839; Rhode Island Normal School was the ninth. In his address at the opening of the State Normal School in Providence on May 29, 1854, Commissioner Potter declared that the purpose of the school was to "qualify teachers for the public common schools by teaching them the best modes of instruction, development and discipline." He continued, " I do not mean that a teacher need only be acquainted with the branches he is to teach: the more general knowledge he has, the better he will be qualified to teach well in any particular branch." All instruction at the Normal School, however, would be given and received not for the sake of mastery of individual subject content, but rather for the purpose of learning how that subject could most effectively be taught in a public school. Normal school students would learn the art and science of education. They would also have the opportunity to first observe teaching, and then to practice under the supervision of experienced instructors.

In an 1866 article in the American Journal of Education, Richard Edwards, the first Principal of Salem (Massachusetts) Normal School and a colleague of Horace Mann, argued that public schools could only be as good as those who taught them:

The success of a school depends more upon the character and qualifications of the teacher than upon any one other circumstance, or perhaps all the other circumstances combined. … Hence, whatever improves the teacher improves the school more efficiently and to a greater extent than the same end can be otherwise attained

He therefore advocated the development in each state of a public normal school. By 1872 there were 101 normal schools in the United States, and by the end of the century nearly every state had its own institution of higher education for the formal preparation of teachers. The role of educator took on a growing professionalism, and normal schools eventually led the way for the certification of teachers.

Twenty-three applicants were accepted for the first term at RINS. Most were female. Although entry was competitive, tuition was free. An 1894 bulletin described the school's well-rounded curriculum as "instruction and training designed to develop [the] power to teach school." Courses offered "vigorous study of certain branches of science, mathematics and literature under proficient teachers." Its mission was to "awaken early the pedagogic spirit and all thro' the course to cultivate the power of insight into the true process of education." Problem solving skills and the practical knowledge of classroom experience, deemed essential in the preparation of teachers, would be provided "under the guidance of expert teachers in the school of observation and practice." Finally, training, for pay, would take place at one of the state's public schools.

Education Commissioner Thomas Bicknell in his History of the Normal School (1911) described three educators, one man and two women, as "inseparably associated with each other and with the foundation, teaching and guidance of the Rhode Island Normal School." James C. Greenough, Susan C. Bancroft, and Mary L. Jewett were born and educated in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts and were products of the Westfield Normal School where they had "imbibed and taught its inductive philosophy and Socratic methods." In 1871 Rhode Island Normal School Trustees surveyed normal schools throughout New England and the Middle States and visited those in Massachusetts in order to determine the best principles and methods for Rhode Island. They liked best what they observed in Massachusetts, and, after some negotiation, they hired the trio away from Westfield. James Greenough became Principal of RINS; Susan Bancroft and Mary Jewett would assist. Bicknell continued:

It was a great good fortune for the aspiring youth of Rhode Island to come under the influence of this distinguished trio of teachers, whose ideals became the working model of so many teachers of our own and neighboring states…. Together they set the pace, the standards of the profession, and the teachers of Rhode Island have been followers.

Many women associated with the College dedicated their lives to teaching, made important contributions, and set standards in the area of education. They also enhanced the stature of this institution in the academic world. One of the earliest, Sarah Marble, was already a successful educator when she entered the Normal School in 1872. Upon completion of the program she was invited to become a teacher at the School, a position she held for more than thirty years. To enrich her knowledge she took courses at other institutions, including chemistry at Harvard College's first summer school in 1873 and mineralogy at Bowdoin a few years later. In 1885 she toured literary shrines abroad in order to gain background in English Literature. Motivated by her belief that "excellent oral reading" was an important factor in the development of character, Sarah Marble trained every RINS student for the required public reading of an essay at graduation. Following a visit to the Normal School in 1899, Henry Barnard expressed in a letter his disappointment at not meeting with Miss Marble. Hers, he said, was a name that he always associated with the School. When she married in 1905 and had to leave teaching, the Board of Trustees cited her as one who "exemplified that professional spirit which marks a sense of the teacher's calling," one who by her own example had "taught more than the text-book." Shortly afterward she herself was appointed a Trustee.

Dr. Clara Elizabeth Craig served the College for nearly fifty years as Principal of Henry Barnard School, Director of Teacher Training, Professor of Practice, and Dean of the College. She was active in city educational systems throughout the state, lectured extensively throughout the country, contributed to national publications, and authored several books on childhood education.

At the request of the State Board of Education Clara Craig traveled to Italy in 1913 in order to study the revolutionary theories and methods of the Montessori system, to evaluate its effectiveness, and to determine how its application might improve Rhode Island's public schools. For four months she attended lectures given by Dr. Montessori and her associates and observed and practiced in Montessori schools. She reported back to the State Board that when applied properly the Montessori system transformed the classroom into a laboratory with "conditions favorable to life and growth" and allowed children the freedom to "develop without disturbance." This movement, she predicted, would change or even revolutionize kindergarten and elementary education. She recommended that its pedagogical worth be tested at the Rhode Island Normal School, and the Board agreed. Dr. Craig reorganized the Henry Barnard School along Montessori principles that she adapted to the specific needs of American culture. The success of the experiment attracted national attention to the College and had a marked influence on elementary education.

Following her graduation from RICE Mary M. Lee was appointed a master teacher in the Henry Barnard School. She became an assistant to her mentor Clara Craig, and in 1940 she succeeded her as Director of Teacher Training. She served as president of the Rhode Island Institute of Instruction, a member of the Board of Regents, and chairman of a commission on teacher education and professional standards. President William Gauge described Mary Lee as a "human milestone" who "treasured the past" of the College and "looked to its greatest days under the leadership of the able and remarkable Dr. Clara Craig …." He continued, "Dr. Lee was, in fact, a splendid judge of the changes here at the College. She held them up to careful scrutiny. She helped us to make progress effectively, and she kept us from changing to foolish or … easy ways. She had faith in simplicity and kept us always aware that character, love, and patience are the keystones to good teaching." She was widely regarded in Rhode Island as a leader in public education.

S. Elizabeth Campbell began her career as an elementary school teacher in Central Falls and ended it 40 years later as the College's coordinator of student teaching. Having graduated from RICE in 1931, she earned a master's degree from Boston University and a doctorate from Harvard. She lectured at various institutions and won national awards. In citing her achievements the President of Barrington College described her as "an educator, teacher of teachers, and gifted counselor." He continued, "You, yourself, have labored at every task you have assigned to others … [and] have strengthened the quality of education throughout the state."

Mary Tucker Thorp attended the Normal School. In 1926 she joined the staff of the Henry Barnard School and was named principal in 1937. In 1959 she became director of laboratory experiences. The Board of Trustees honored her as the College's First Distinguished Professor and named after her the first dormitory built on the Mount Pleasant campus. She retired in 1967 after spending 39 years at Rhode Island College.

During her 28 year tenure at RICE Grace Electra Bird introduced hundreds of Rhode Island teachers to the field of psychology and, in particular, to the ways in which children learn. Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1876, she received her bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago (1899), her master's from Columbia (1916), and her doctorate from Brown (1918). A pioneer in the field of child development, she took special interest in intelligence tests, wrote extensively for journals in psychology, and reported in educational publications on the methods and procedures being tested at RICE. Today Professor Bird, who was also an accomplished pianist and composer, is remembered best as the author of the College's Alma Mater.

Amy A. Thompson instituted the first course in children's literature in Rhode Island. At her retirement in 1962 after nearly 40 years of teaching English, President Charles Willard commented, "We find people like her more often in fiction than in life. The people we know from having met them in Austen or Dickens or Trollope or Lawrence remain vivid and influential in our memories longer it seems than many of the actual people who enter our lives. Amy Thompson has this intensified reality, this permanence." He went on, "Through the lean years as well as the good, she has seen and spoken out for the very necessary and continuously effective work the College has done in preparing teachers of the state."

In some instances the influence of the women of Rhode Island College extended far beyond its campus. In 1885 Normal School graduate Clara Weeks Shaw in became the first nurse in the United States to author a nursing textbook. It became a standard text for many schools of nursing, went through 58 printings, and sold more than 100,000 copies. Blanche Hazard, head of the School's history department from 1899 to 1904, collaborated with a colleague at Cornell University on an early women's studies program.

From 1897 to 1905 Mary Cynthia Dickerson headed the department of zoology and botany. Believing that it was better for students to examine specimens than to rely solely on secondary information, she led students on nature related field trips designed to train students to become critical thinkers rather than passive receivers. In 1901 she authored Moths and Butterflies, a text which she illustrated with more than 200 scientifically appropriate as well as artistically pleasing photographs that she herself had taken. In her second book, The Frog Book: North American Toads and Frogs (1906) she again used her original photographs to represent all but one of the 460 then known specimens of frogs. This book was reissued in 1969 as a Dover Classic, and today more than 1,200 libraries own editions.

Rhode Island has a history of segregation in its schools. From its earliest years, however, Rhode Island College included women of color within its student body. On September 11, 1854, the start of the second term of its first year, the Board of Examiners for the Normal School, conditionally admitted one Mary E. Watson, a "colored girl from Newport." By the end of the term she had gained full student status, and the Board acknowledged their "liability to error" in making decisions on the basis of one written exam. She became Rhode Island College's first graduate of color. Hired by the American Missionary Association, she dedicated her efforts toward the education and elevation of escaped slaves and freedmen. Josephine Silone Yates was the valedictorian of her class at Rogers High School in Newport and its first graduate of color. In 1879 she received her certificate, with honor, from RINS, and afterward she traveled west to Lincoln Institute in Missouri where she became its first female professor and eventually chair of the natural science department. She gained fame as a writer, speaker, and co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women.

Although most of these women of color came from within the state, others traveled from afar to take advantage of the equal educational opportunity that it offered. Born into slavery in 1837, Frances Jackson was twelve years old when an aunt purchased her freedom for $125 and sent her north to live with relatives. She completed the Normal School program in 1860 and went on to obtain a bachelor's degree from Oberlin College in 1865, making her one of the first African American women to graduate from a four-year college. The first female principal of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia (later known as Cheney State College), she became a popular speaker, writer, and activist for women's rights, founder of the Women's Exchange and Girls Home for students and female workers, a civic leader, and overseas missionary.

A few of them found positions in Rhode Island, usually in Newport or Providence, cities with long established communities of African Americans. Most began their teaching careers in the South or in large urban areas outside of New England. When she completed her program in 1890 Ida Anna Morgan went to teach at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. She returned to Rhode Island, earned a degree at Pembroke in 1906, and became a social worker recognized for her valuable efforts during World War I. Charity Alberta Bailey graduated from RICE in 1927. Denied an appointment in the Providence school system, she took a teaching position in North Carolina. In 1935 she moved to New York to head one of the WPA's largest children's music centers. She earned a diploma from the Dalcroze School of Music, studied piano at Julliard, and researched folk music in Haiti. For several years she taught music and also worked as a performer, writer, producer, and composer. In awarding her an honorary Master of Education degree in 1958, Rhode Island College applauded her service to children and said that her methods had inspired teachers all over the world.

During the period of 1854 - 1958, Rhode Island College provided access to education for all, and many more women than men studied and taught here. At a fee that was reasonable or even non existent, it offered an opportunity for those who might not otherwise have had one. It prepared hundreds of qualified and dedicated educators whose influence was felt throughout the state. Its faculty had a noticeable impact upon their students and the profession of teaching and beyond. This College enabled individuals to recognize and develop talents that may have gone unacknowledged or undetected.

Rose Butler Brown received her certificate from the Normal School in 1919, earned a master's degree from Rhode Island College in 1929, and in 1939 became the first African American woman to obtain a doctorate from Harvard University. Her career in education, teaching at historically Black colleges, spanned 47 years. On September 28, 1969, Rose Butler Browne, addressing those assembled at the dedication of the residence hall bearing her name, said:

I want this building to be a symbol of hope, [such that] … people who may feel that they are discriminated against, that they are not treated fairly, can look to this hall and know that there is a spirit at Rhode Island College that I have not encountered in any institution that I have ever attended…. There is a feeling that the individual is of the utmost worth and that the fulfillment of the destiny of each student is the goal of the state of Rhode Island expressed through this wonderful institution.

Page last updated: Monday, May 7, 2007