Convinced that "an ignorant people cannot form a wise government" (Whitman Looks 101), Walt Whitman commended tax-supported schools for their protection of republican institutions and for their assurance of the success of the common school movement, a Jacksonian reform. He also supported free public high schools and believed that newspapers should keep citizens informed about public school education issues. To achieve his educational objectives—good citizenship, moral character, and intellect—he wrote a stream of editorials on classroom conditions, educational principles and practices, and school reforms for the Brooklyn Star (1845-1846), the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (1846-1848), and the Brooklyn Daily Times (1857-1859). Further, as a reporter, he visited several schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan, observing classroom instruction and recommending improvements.
His focus was on developing the potential of the average child, seeking good standards to promote effective teaching and learning. As country schools were particularly prone to making poor teacher selections, Whitman advocated the careful screening of applicants to find teachers able to establish a healthy emotional climate in the classroom. He cautioned against rigidity in discipline and inflexibility in classroom management and argued as well for the provision of a pleasant physical environment (including playground space). He believed in the worth of each child as an individual—urging teachers and parents to be alert to the unappealing and unpopular children who seemed more difficult to teach. He also emphasized the importance of teaching children to rely on and think for themselves (ideas which were encouraged by phrenology, the precursor of modern psychology). Whitman was frequently critical of dull teaching methods that relied on mechanical drill and repetition which were commonplace in the teaching of grammar, arithmetic, and geography, for example; instead, he advised teachers and parents to gain an understanding of how children best learn—e.g., through motivation. He also wanted parents to visit schools, confer with teachers frequently, and build up their children's confidence.
Whitman understood the need for the expansion of the free public school system, calling for the acquisition of sites for school building construction. He sought other reforms, including provision for teacher training and supervision (he wanted primary schools to have the most qualified teachers); he also argued for employment of women teachers, improved salaries to raise the quality of teaching, expansion of the curriculum to include American history, vocal music, art, physical recreation, and free, ample, and up-to-date textbooks preferably by the best authors. While corporal punishment was a common practice in his time, Whitman pleaded most energetically for its complete abolition (cf. his short story entitled "Death in the School-Room (a Fact)" ).
Always personally interested in the schools of New York, he regarded such concern to be a civic obligation of all citizens. Though Whitman's ideas on education were unpopular in his time, they were influenced by his own formal schooling (and probably his Sunday schooling) and his schoolteaching experience. He attended School District No. 1 in Brooklyn (then the only Brooklyn public school) from about 1824 to 1831 when, at age 11, he needed to go to work. Like most large schools of that period, his school used the Lancastrian method of instruction, i.e., a single, authoritarian-minded teacher, assisted by student monitors, for a large class that learned by rote and repetition (typically, girls and boys were on separate floors). In addition, corporal chastisement was used, as Whitman no doubt observed.
At age seventeen Whitman, impelled by severely hard times, became a pedagogue. He taught in some common schools—usually for one three-month term—in Queens County (which then included what is now all of Nassau County) and Suffolk County on Long Island from 1836 to 1841. A teaching profession did not exist then; youths like Whitman, with time to spare and in need of money, were appointed—"chance teachers," as he called them (Whitman Looks 26). Still, the inexperienced Whitman did not teach the textbook as teachers then did but instead used the Socratic method of instruction, asking stimulating questions to involve himself and his pupils in discussion and learning. As he realized later, "boarding around" with the parents of his pupils was also a great learning experience for him. His thoughts about school matters may also have been influenced by the lectures on education he had attended in Brooklyn in the 1830s.
Anti-intellectualism in American life still prevails at least to some extent today and during the nineteenth century accounted for the state of public education. Whitman described it thusly: low teacher status, poor pay and lack of job security, and poor and persistent working conditions such as dilapidated school buildings, insufficient ventilation, and overcrowded classrooms. Nevertheless, as his teaching progressed, his respect for his pupils deepened. And it in turn solidified his conviction that the teacher played a pivotal role in their education. Though the job was difficult, he believed the teacher's position was "properly one of the noblest on earth" (Whitman Looks 74). (He also thought that proper parenting was crucial to children's success in school.) In Leaves of Grass he continued to teach "what I have learnt from America" ("By Blue Ontario's Shore," section 17).
In several educational controversies during the Age of Jackson, Whitman took bold positions. On the issue of secular versus sectarian schooling, he challenged the Catholic officials of New York in 1842 who clamored for government support of their schools. Whitman, who rejected religious creeds, upheld the principle of separation of church and state (many at the time thought that religious and moral training were inseparable). In the debate between nature vs. nurture, he agreed with theorists in education and psychology who during the 1830s stressed the environment as a prime determinant of human action, a belief that was rooted in the educational philosophy of Rousseau and Locke—the latter positing the idea of tabula rasa. (Interested in debating societies, Whitman helped organize one in Smithtown, Long Island, where he taught from 1837 to 1838. In one of the debates on the issue of heredity vs. environment in shaping character, he supported the view that nurture exerted the greater influence.) Whitman also accepted the scientific belief in the inheritability of acquired characteristics (parentage), which overtook the "environmental" school by the late 1840s. He felt, however, that parents could modify their own behavior, which would in turn produce the desired effect on their children. On concrete school issues Whitman greatly respected the views of Horace Mann, a leading contemporary educational reformer who also espoused the theory of democratic education and agitated for change to improve public schools.
Whitman's advanced theories of education and newly tried classroom practices put him in the forefront of the "new education" based on progressive ideas that took hold in the early decades of the twentieth century. Teachers' colleges and schools of education would do well to include Whitman in their curriculum today. Particularly useful in view of perennial social problems is Whitman's notion that investment in public education would, in his words, "preclude ignorance, crime, and pauperism" (Whitman Looks 67). Whitman also favored education for young people no longer in school, proposing free evening schools for them. He thought also that education for adult men and women was essential, equating the penny press of his day with the common school. His idea that there was much to learn outside of books was further indication of his extended view of education.
Hitchcock, Bert. "Walt Whitman: The Pedagogue as Poet." Walt Whitman Review 20 (1974): 140-146.
Hofstadter, Richard. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage, 1963.
Reynolds, David S. "Walt Whitman and the New York Stage." Thesis 9.1 (1995): 4-11.
Whitman, Walt. The Gathering of Forces. Ed. Cleveland Rodgers and John Black. Vol. 1. New York: Putnam's, 1920.
____. Walt Whitman Looks at the Schools. Ed. Florence Bernstein Freedman. New York: King's Crown, 1950.