Monitorial Instruction
John Griscom

There is probably no better test of the enlightened wisdom of a nation than the extent and sufficiency of its provision for the education of its children. But of the millions which have been appropriated for this object by nations which stand foremost in the rank of civilization, how few are the hundreds which have ever been spent for the purpose of experimental inquiry into the means of ameliorating the prevailing systems of instruction, and of simplyfying and accelerating the acquisition of knowledge. Governments, which have had the good sense to offer liberal premiums for discoveries in the mechanic arts, and to confer honours on those who extend the bounds of science, have very much neglected the science of education. Instructors have been left in general to pursue the beaten track; and while other arts have been fostered and stimulated, the art of teaching is, in thousands of instances, consigned to hands of equal insignificancy to those which are employed in the mending of shoes, or the shoeing of horses. ...

But, although little has been done through the direct influence of public and specific encouragement in the improvement of the art of teaching, even since the days when the academic groves and porticos of ancient Greece resounded with the voices of their celebrated masters, yet, accident and necessity, those fertile sources of instruction, have, from time to time, suggested amendments, by which the routine of schools has been essentially improved, and the paths of knowledge rendered more smooth and inviting. Among those improvements, none are more worthy of notice and commendation than the introduction of the monitorial system or method of mutual instruction; — a system by which much of the teaching both of the master and of the books is imparted through the instrumentality of the scholars themselves.

Of the schools under the exclusive direction of the Free School Society of this city, there are at present eleven, which comprehended, at the time of the last annual report of the trustees, (April, 1824), 4384 scholars, being an increase of 540 pupils within the preceding year. These schools are all taught upon the Lancasterian System, and the estimation in which they are held by the Corporation and magistrates of the city, who have ever taken a deep interest in their prosperity, by members of the Legislature, and by many other intelligent citizens, who have recently visited them, was never, it is fully believed, higher than at the present moment. ...

Besides the eleven schools now under the care of the Free-School Society, there are two belonging to the Female Association, containing about 600 scholars, and both monitorial; two for coloured children upon the same system, and both in the highest repute. One of them, (the male school,) has been generally considered as inferior to none in the city, for the excellency of its order, and the rapid improvement of its pupils. To these fifteen schools, all conducted not only with undiminished but increasing respectability, may be added eight or ten others, belonging to the different religious societies of the city, some of them large, and all, it is believed, managed upon the monitorial system, either of Bell or Lancaster, or a modification of them, and this with a decided preference, derived from experience, over the former and ordinary methods of instruction.

Such are the evidences of the continued reputation, and increasing activity of the monitorial system in the city of New-York; and if we turn our attention to the interior of the State, we find that a Lancasterian School is supported in each of the towns of Poughkeepsie, Hudson, Albany, Troy, Schenectady, Utica, and perhaps, some other places. Several of these schools, agreeably to the last lucid Report of the Acting Superintendent of Common Schools, are large, and it is reasonable to conclude, satisfactory and promising. ...

In the town of Providence, I have the best authority for stating, that the monitorial system is making its way with great acceptance, even in some of the more elevated branches of learning; and in Boston, in the several schools in which it has been introduced and practised with judgment, it succeeds to the satisfaction of its friends and patrons.

In Philadelphia there are seven or eight schools conducted upon the system of mutual instruction, — some of which are very large and ably managed. The system is patronised by the commissioners of public schools, and stands at present in as high repute as it ever has done. Having visited several of these schools about two months ago, I can speak with certainty of the reputation in which they are held.

In the Southern and Western States, the same efficient system has made its way, (in some places, through much opposition,) and schools are now supported in most of the large towns with increasing respectability and utility to the public. ...

In the present stage of the progress of this system, the only question which can admit of controversy, is the advantage of its application to the higher branches of knowledge, — to the acquisition of foreign languages, — to mathematics — to philosophy — history, — the belles-lettres, &c.

The principles upon which much of the practice of this institution will be founded, rest upon the belief, that in a large school, all knowledge whatever, which boys can be made thoroughly to understand, either by the force of their own application to the books, or by the instructions of the master, can, to a certain extent, be usefully imparted by these juvenile proficients, to those who are below them in acquirement, and that by this arrangement a very great proportion of the time of the inferior scholars may be rescued from idleness or mischief, the attentions of the master greatly multiplied, and the knowledge of the monitors themselves expanded, confirmed, and perfected by the practice of communicating it to others. Qui docet, discit (He who teaches, learns) is probably as true a maxim in its application to young people, as ever was uttered. We do conceive, that any kind of knowledge which can be thoroughly acquired by a boy of good parts at the age of 13 or 15 years, can be as easily conveyed by him to another, as a knowledge of the lowest elements, can be imparted by a lad of 6 or 9, to children who are his inferiors. Can any reason be assigned why a boy who is completely master of quadratic equations, should not be able to instruct others in the inferior parts of algebra, as effectually as a boy who understands the single rule of three, could superintend an operation in multiplication, division, or reduction? In all cases, where actual superiority of acquirement exists, we see no reason for believing why it cannot be imparted as easily in the higher as in the lower departments of knowledge; why, caeteris paribus,[1] trigonometry should not be as readily taught as long division, algebra as vulgar fractions, the propositions of Euclid as the intricacies of exchange, the declension of Latin, Greek, French, and Spanish nouns and the conjugation of the verbs as easily as those of the mother tongue, and the same in other sciences; presuming in all cases, that boys are never set to hear the exercises of others, or to give them instruction, in what they do not well understand themselves. Of this it will always be in the power of the master, by private and special examinations, to be fully satisfied, and to establish beyond a doubt.

But, it would be entertaining a very erroneous and unjust opinion of the monitorial system, to suppose, that any one scholar or any one branch of learning is to be consigned exclusively to the agency of monitors. The time and attentions of the master in each department are devoted to his school, his instructions are delivered wherever they are most needed, all the peculiarly difficult and nicer parts of the preceptorial office are retained in his own hands, his praelections in philosophy, in the sciences, in the peculiarities and beauties of classic authors, in all the higher parts of language, and in short, in all the more elevated branches taught in the institution, will include whatever is deemed to be necessary to complete the courses of instruction, in which the monitors are only to be employed as assistants and coadjutors. And it must be obvious to every reflecting mind, that by assigning to well qualified monitors, all the current and subordinate parts of the daily recitations, the master will have far more time which he can devote to those instructions which demand his greater skill and experience; and, that by this means those pupils who are advancing toward the completion of the higher divisions of study, will reap a greater share of benefit from the attentions of the master, than they could possibly do, were the whole, even of a moderately large school to be entirely dependent, in all its diversified parts, upon the quickness of his eye and ear.

Source: John Griscom, Monitorial Instruction ... (New York, 1825), pp. 10-13, 17-18. 20-21, 25-28, 36-40.

[1] 'other things being equal' — ED.