Schooling for Shillings

How a 19th-century reformer brought the three Rs to the poor.


Imagine a private-enterprise educational system that spans the globe and teaches tens of thousands of the disenfranchised poor the three Rs. For the students, the schools are virtually free, yet they are self-sustaining. The system encourages children to develop personal initiative, adult responsibility, and an appreciation of the laws of economics. Students work at adult jobs within the school and get paid for them. They learn to read and write in months instead of years.

This is not a utopian free-enterprise pipe dream. This was the Lancaster system—in its heyday in the early 1800s, an exciting, controversial, and revolutionary educational approach. It caused considerable social upheaval by enabling the poor to break down traditional socioeconomic barriers with their newfound skills.

Ironically, its success ultimately provoked a rapid growth in public education, even though government never duplicated the Lancaster system's low cost or efficiency. The Lancaster system's rise and fall presents a stark lesson for all who are interested in alternatives to today's government education system.

As a young Quaker, Joseph Lancaster felt early in life the sting of religious discrimination. Born in 1778 in the slums of London, his family's faith barred him from attending the schools for the poor run by the Church of England. So his father taught him at home.

The painful memory of this official discrimination, coupled with a temperament suited to pedagogy—biographer David Salmon lists his qualities as "zeal, self-confidence, ingenuity,…intuitive insight into the nature of children, [and an] ardent love for them"—motivated Lancaster to teach the poor. By age 18 he was instructing London urchins in his father's attic, many for free or for a nominal charge. (Lancaster was successful in raising funds to maintain his school, Salmon notes, because he was "a skillful, persistent, and unblushing beggar, and he had joined a sect always famous for its liberal and unostentatious charities.")

The young schoolmaster was soon deluged with hundreds of students. With so many pupils and limited funding, Lancaster had to devise a radical method to make ends meet: thus was the "monitorial system" born. The system delegated to the students responsibility for teaching and doing the paperwork. The better students taught the slower. When the slower developed, they became monitors. There was one teaching monitor for every 10 students. But there were other monitorial positions that involved many of the students and spread prestige and responsibilities around.

One monitor would assign a new student to a class. Another would keep track of absences. When a student made progress, a monitor promoted him. Another made or mended pens. Another was in charge of writing slates. A "monitor-general" was in charge of all the other monitors.

The nature of the student interaction—teaching and learning from their peers—discouraged boredom or what later came to be called alienation. Wrote Lancaster: "A school, governed by such order, exhibits a scene of delight to visitors, and happiness among the children, which baffles the power of description."

Under this system, there was little for the master (teacher) to do except organize, reward, punish, and inspire. Lancaster's schools didn't need a harsh master, for they were governed almost automatically. "The master should be a silent bystander because the system and not the master's vague or uncertain judgment will be in practice," he boasted. "In a common school, the authority of the master is personal and the rod is his scepter. His absence brings riot and confusion. In his absence his assistants will rarely be minded. Under my plan, the master leaves and business goes on as usual because the authority is not personal."

His method was unique, fast, and effective. "I continually made experiments," Lancaster later recalled. "1,000 children could be taught in one school room under the care of one master and a great proportion of them finish their education in 12 months. That education comprising the art of reading, writing and arithmetic." Beyond the three Rs, his schools also emphasized geometry, algebra, trigonometry, religion, and languages.

In seeking ways to motivate his students, Lancaster stumbled on a method that brought out their entrepreneurial spirit and taught them how to deal with money. This was no small matter, since Lancaster's era was coincident with the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. Most of the students and their parents had rarely dealt directly with cash.

The schools awarded merit badges for various deeds and accomplishments. These were small paper tickets, much like trading stamps in 1960s America. And like trading stamps, the merit badges were worth little individually but had considerable value when redeemed in bulk. Toys, children's books, French half-crown pieces engraved with "a reward for merit," silver pens, medals, and purses were typical of the prizes that merit badges could buy.

Badges were also used to borrow books from the library monitor, whose job was much like a "concession." It was a bonanza for the monitor, and students often bid to purchase the concession with their merit badges. They learned, in the process, something about the dynamics of buying and selling in the marketplace.

In fact, free-market themes dominated Lancaster's ideas. Adult teachers in Lancaster's system had their income partially based on class attendance. Thus a teacher became a salesman and a promoter of the system to bring in more pupils. Anyone who could pay the few shillings a year was welcome, including girls—no other system at the time had accepted them on an equal basis with boys. In the Lancaster system, they were taught the same subject matter as boys.

Lancaster's cost-cutting experiments brought the cost of education down to a fraction of competing church or private schools. For example, students wrote on slate instead of paper. Paper was expensive, slate indestructible. To save money on books, the schools used one per subject per class. Each page was separated, placed on a stand, then the class was broken up into 10 student units. Each unit gathered around a stand and studied that one page as a lesson. The groups would then rotate so that each one would have access to all the lessons.

This was truly mass-produced education. Soon it was possible to be self-sustaining by charging as little as four shillings a year.

Joseph Lancaster was a zealot, which was a source of both strength and weakness. He believed his system would revolutionize society by eradicating illiteracy and therefore ending poverty. To propagate the faith, he wrote a short manual, The Lancasterian System of Education, and printed several thousand copies. He lectured all over the world, giving away copies of his manual to anyone who professed conversion to his ideas.

Biographer Salmon describes Lancaster's travels and successes: "During 1808–1810 he made 16 missionary journeys, traveled 6,837 miles, delivered 141 lectures, and was instrumental in establishing 95 schools for 25,000 children." All that in an era of slow carriages and boats.

Lancaster was a great salesman, but he was terrible at business. Although he earned huge lecture fees, he gave much of it away to sincere or not-so-sincere audience members who said they needed seed money to implement his plan. He also liked to live well. Robert Dale Owen, the Scottish-born American social reformer, wrote that Lancaster was "a strange mixture of honest self-sacrificing zeal and imprudent self-indulgent ostentation."

His major break toward national fame came when the aristocrat Lord Somerville attended a class and quickly became a backer in 1803. Somerville told others what he had seen, and soon, according to Lancaster's biographer and friend William Corston, "foreign princes, ambassadors, peers, commoners, ladies of distinction, bishops and archbishops, Jews and Turks, all visited the schools with wonder-waiting eyes."

This ferment reached King George III, who granted an audience to Lancaster. "I have sent for you to give me an account of your system of education.…One master teach 500 children at the same time? How do you keep them in order, Lancaster?" asked the king. Lancaster described the monitorial system. The king was satisfied. "I highly approve of your system, and it is my wish that every poor child in my dominions should be taught to read the Bible; I will do everything you wish to promote this object." The King promised 100 pounds annually, from his own funds, not the state's.

This modest patronage transformed a growing private business into a national institution. But in the end it proved fatal, as it aroused conservatives—including defenders of the Church of England—to active opposition. To his critics, Lancaster was a dangerous radical intent on creating a social revolution. Teaching the "unwashed masses" reading and writing and the virtue of self-reliance, he was making it possible for them to crack the traditional class barriers.

His most vociferous critic was Sarah Trimmer. She warned that Lancaster's emphasis on merit, not class, might lead to the day when "boys, accustomed to consider themselves nobles of a school, may, in their future lives, from a conceit of their own trivial merits…aspire to be nobles of the land, and to take the place of the hereditary nobility."

Mrs. Trimmer also attacked Lancaster for his nonsectarian approach to education. "My schools were not established to promote the religious principles of any particular sect," attested Lancaster, "but, setting aside all party distinctions, its object is to instruct our youth in useful learning [and] in the leading and uncontroverted principles of Christianity." Lancaster's liberalism enraged Tory clergymen. "If this be liberality," thundered the Archdeacon of Sarum, "it is liberality at the expense of Christianity."

Lancaster's opponents soon turned to championing a rival educational method, the "Madras" system of an obscure Scottish clergyman, Dr. Andrew Bell. The system, though it relied on monitors, taught neither self-reliance nor familiarity with the workings of the free-enterprise system. It reinforced all the negatives of the class barriers. "In utopian schemes for the universal diffusion of general knowledge," preached Dr. Bell, "there is a risk of elevating those who are doomed to the drudgery of daily labor above their situation, and rendering them unhappy and discontented in their lot."

Lancaster at first praised Bell's experiments with the Madras system, but as it became apparent that conservative leaders of the Church of England were trying to use Madras to eliminate the Lancaster system, he turned bitter, denouncing Madras as a tool of those opposed to the advancement of the poor. "The ignorance of the poor," he wrote, "who constitute a very numerous class in Britain, was felt necessary to keep the enormities and oppressions of the establishment in darkness."

The church, in promoting Madras, used the same tactics that many modern retail or fast-food chains use against one another. Wherever Lancaster opened a school, the church opened one of its own directly across the street. Backed by huge school construction funds from Parliament, the tactic was a success. Gradually, the church split Lancaster's market and, step by step, bled him to death.

But as much as the Tories and the church were responsible for bringing Lancaster down, his own profligate ways hurt perhaps even more. Early on, a number of nationally prominent men came together to form a board of directors ("The Committee of Managers") to promote the system along realistic business lines. They fused the best of utopian faith in Lancaster's system with years of financial expertise.

The committee's first task was to separate Lancaster's personal and business monies, but this infuriated the mercurial innovator. He believed that all incoming money, whether from his lectures or books or from school tuition or contributions, was for his discretionary use, including indulgence in the high lifestyle to which he had grown accustomed. The committee would brook no more of his erratic behavior.

Writes biographer Salmon of the members: "They freely sacrificed their time and money for the sake of the man, but, even for his sake, they would not sacrifice the system. They saved it from the bigotry and blindness of its opponents, and…they would save it from the folly and caprice of its inventor."

The committee, exasperated by Lancaster's chronic indebtedness, finally discharged him from his responsibilities. A paranoid Lancaster counterattacked by writing a deluded pamphlet, "Oppression and Persecution," that destroyed his esteem and led most of his remaining supporters to abandon him. Quietly, the committee raised money to send Lancaster to America.

Lancaster arrived in New York in 1818. But his system had preceded him by 12 years. By the time he stepped ashore, there were more of his monitorial schools in the United States than in England.

Lancaster was greeted like royalty. The mayor and governor officially received him. He visited the U.S. House of Representatives, which honored him with a resolution calling him a "friend of learning and of man."

Yet for aficionados of the free market, the story of the Lancaster system in the United States is more depressing than the rise and fall that took place in England. Particularly in New York State, government involvement via subsidy sullied the system almost from the beginning.

In 1805, the prominent philanthropists Thomas Eddy and John Murray formed "The Society for Establishing a Free School in the City of New York," whose purpose was to educate poor children who were ineligible for instruction by the various church-sponsored schools. Benjamin Perkins, the group's secretary, knew Lancaster and had seen his operation in England and recommended it. Within a year, the Free School Society (FSS) was incorporated, and the first classes were being held in Manhattan.

One of the Lancaster system's most powerful American friends was a man who would later serve as New York State's governor, DeWitt Clinton. Clinton was an early member of the Free School Society, and upon his request the New York State legislature granted the Free School Society a $4,000 subsidy to construct a building and $1,000 toward paying the school's expenses. The money came from a tiny liquor and tavern tax, so that the general public was not yet affected.

By 1818, three schools, teaching thousands of New York City's poor, were in operation. DeWitt Clinton was now governor. State-funded construction of five more schools was planned, which called for a wider tax—a real-estate tax was imposed.

New York State rapidly moved from subsidizing the FSS to managing it. By 1825, the Free School Society had changed its name to the New York Public School Society (PSS) and was admitting children of all economic levels. One year later, the PSS advocated a new city-wide education tax, labeling any who would oppose it "avowed advocates of popular ignorance."

Then, the coup de grace. The PSS, a closed corporation subsidized by the state, came under fire. John Spencer, state secretary, disclosed that "the Public School Society receive[s] nearly the whole amount of the fund belonging to the city." Moreover, he pointed out, the society had "acquired the entire control of the system of public education; [and] the taxpayers, who contribute to the fund, have no voice in the selection of those who administer the system."

Spencer quickly extended the state's authority by creating a Board of Commissioners (it soon became the now-familiar Board of Education) to "oversee" the PSS. Oversight meant control. Slowly, the PSS was strangled to death and finally, in 1852, the Board of Education absorbed it. Soon the cost of schooling quadrupled. Joseph Lancaster's system was dead.

The man himself had died years earlier. Lancaster settled in the Quaker redoubt of Philadelphia upon his arrival in the United States. But rumors of his profligate lifestyle and mammoth debts followed him from England. So he wandered, through South America, Canada, Baltimore, New Haven, everywhere. He was broke, staying with friends and admirers, always believing he had been persecuted.

In October 1838, while in New York to give a lecture, Joseph Lancaster was run over by a horse-drawn beer wagon, just a block away from one of his schools. He was 59 years old. Biographer Salmon writes, "His death was untimely in a double sense; it need not have come at 60, and for his reputation's sake it should have come at 30."

But let's allow Lancaster the last word on his radical and forgotten system. "Politicians," he wrote in his middle age, "have purposely interfered in what was originally a work of pure benevolence; and though they could neither corrupt or command the fountain, they have contaminated the stream."

John Chodes is the communications director of the New York City Libertarian Party.