Learning: Education After the Civil War

Education in Indiana Overview

The 1880s period has been called the “great awakening in education” in the state of Indiana. It was a time of rapid growth of schools and increase in funding for education. The state’s educational system was “highly decentralized” and controlled by elected township officials in rural areas and appointed boards in the cities. During the 1880s the majority of the state’s schools were of the ungraded district variety housed in one-room schools in session for only 120-140 days per year. The quality of education in these district schools varied greatly and was usually much inferior to the education afforded urban schoolchildren. (Phillips, Indiana in Transition, 385-387)

School Districts

19th-century rural school districts were often created to ”bring schools to children” and alleviate the problem of getting children to schools caused by lack of transportation. This led to “neighborhood” schools and assured local control, a concept eagerly supported by the often tight-fisted farmer who sought to keep taxes down and the degree of control high.

In the Midwest, typically, the school district varied in size and shape, but schools were invariably located at a crossroad, often very near the farm of the most successful or influential local farmer. An Illinois educator noted in 1883 that the ideal was to have 9 district schools per township, with each township approximately two miles square with school located in center of district. This “ideal,” like others, was seldom attained. The 1880 map of Delaware Township (which then included parts of what is now Clay Township) shows 12 schools within the township boundary. The nearest schools to our site were at District # 2 at what is now 126th & Allisonville Road and District # 1 located just east of present day 131st & Lantern Road

“The heart of …independent school districts was its annual meeting.” Once a year, usually on a date set by the state legislature, taxable farmers met to elect then school board and set procedures for the district. (Fuller, The Old Country School, 43-47

Interior of 1886 District School Interior at Conner Prairie. I led the research for the project.
Interior of 1886 District School Interior at Conner Prairie. I led the research for the project.



“Except in Indiana, where there were a large number of brick schoolhouses, it [the one-room schoolhouse] was a rectangular frame structure, almost invariably painted white, with three windows on each of its longer sides, one door squarely in the middle of it, and a small belfry directly above the door.” Though the above description fails to fully take into consideration widespread local variations, it does offer a reasonably accurate picture of many district schools in the Midwest.

The arrangement of windows allowed for sufficient light and ventilation during warmer months, but that was often not the case in the darker, closed-in months of the school term. Ventilation, in particular, was a problem during the winter and one often ignored by local school officials. The ideal classroom (note the attached drawing found in the Indiana State University Archive) was to feature proper ventilation.

Again, ideally, the windowless wall of the school was to face west to allow sunlight to fall at the proper angle onto the students’ desks. That, however, depended upon the road on which the school sat. Invariably (Fuller calls it the ‘almost the natural law in the Midwest”) the door faced the road. The chimney was usually located on the wall opposite the door. Initially, there was often only a single privy for use by both genders.

The district school was a multipurpose facility. It was also used as a community center, grange hall, polling place, and meeting venue. In addition to classroom education for children, it was used as a site for “adult” education and entertainment by hosting chatauquas and lyceums. (Fuller, 72-75; Wrenn Collection, ISU Archives)

Teacher Education

Though many felt that teachers were born, not made, the Midwest was also home to a coterie of progressive educators who believed in teaching pedagogy (the art and science of teaching). This feeling led to a growth of “Normal,” or teacher education, schools and colleges. In Indiana, the “official” normal school was Indiana State Normal School at Terre Haute. ISNS was founded in 1865, but did not open its door until 1870. Other, private normal schools such as Central Indiana Normal School in Ladoga and Central Indiana Normal College in Danville also existed. Normal schools sprouted across the nation between 1870 to 1890.

Normal schools rose upon the tide of thought that felt teaching was a “science” which could be taught and learned just as any other science. This was diametrically opposite the views of many who felt teaching was an inborn faculty or that no formal teacher training was necessary. Many who held this view were precisely those who pushed young, untrained teachers into country schoolrooms. Even the Superintendent of Iowa Schools did not think teacher training indispensable to classroom success, but instead pointed to what he considered the four primary characteristics needed to teach: knowledge of subject, uprightness of character, a desire to improve, and common sense.

Untrained teachers and their quality (or lack thereof), though, were the major complaint issued against rural schools by the “educational establishment.” One Wisconsin school committee claimed that “poor teacher…. are the bane of the rural school.” Official at ISNS saw teacher education as a “logical necessity.” These differing views notwithstanding, it is obvious that there was often a wide gulf between the quality of education offered rural students and their city cousins.

Normal schools were not the only means of training teachers. By tradition and state law, Indiana teachers were required to attend a county “teachers institute.” These institutes were a prime learning ground for rural teachers. Institutes were 1-5 day gatherings in which those wishing to teach, inexperienced teachers, and even their older colleagues came together to share teaching skills and knowledge. At these gatherings, experienced teachers or education professionals taught others to teach. Eventually much time at institutes was devoted to teaching methods. Institutes also appear to have been used to prepare would-be teachers to take the county teaching exam in order to obtain their license. These were often thorough, intense exams that sometimes began at 6:00 am and lasted all day. The failure rate for these difficult tests was often over 50%.

Institutes were held yearly within each county. By 1886, Indiana required that each township also hold one township institute each month during the school year, usually on Saturday.

[Fuller, 162-168; Lynch, History of Indiana State Teachers College; ISNS Annual Report for 1879]


By 1870, 56% of midwestern public school teachers were female. This trend was partly due to the manpower drain caused by the Civil War and simply continued after the conflict. Additionally, women worked cheap. Because there so few other professions open to them they more readily worked for sums lower than a man would demand. On average the typical female teacher was a young farmgirl looking for a career away from the fields (though not broken down by gender, records at ISNS show that 175 of the 273 students enrolled in 1879 were children of farmers). Many of them learned on the job.


Location of district schools in 1880s circled in red
Location of district schools in 1880s circled in red


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2 thoughts on “Learning: Education After the Civil War

  1. I remember the training sessions for the school. Those and the farm trainings were some of the best I ever led.

  2. I remember the training sessions for the school. Those and the farm trainings were some of the best I ever led. Good times.

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