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college tours, college histories

Among the many other things going on this year, this summer has been a whirlwind of college tours. My daughter will be a senior in high school this year, and it was always our plan to do college tours this summer. These actually served as my “vacation” this year; with the Delta variant raging across the country, these tours have provided a way to get out of Madison and yet maintain health precautions.

My daughter decided on five University of Wisconsin campuses, based on their offerings in the major she’s interested in. And we have now been to all five. I wasn’t sure what to expect from these tours, or what we would learn about each campus, but I can say that being at a place in person provides you with extremely useful information that you wouldn’t get by simply looking at a website or doing a virtual visit.

Each tour started with about a 30-minute indoor presentation, where they mainly break down tuition and fees and other mechanics and essentials. Here participants were mostly masked. This was followed by the tour itself, which ran for about 90-minutes. The tours allowed us to social distance; masks were optional at that point, but our family wore masks throughout.

The tours make all the expected stops: classrooms, dorm rooms, sports facilities, campus eateries, the library. I always look forward to the stop on the tour when they talk about the library. I was surprised to hear the young guides on the UW-Madison tour say that the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) was not affiliated with the campus. I worked there for five years and know well that their 4 million volume/object collection does indeed serve the campus: it comprises the North American history library on campus, WHS shares an online library catalog with the UW, and many students study in its elegant, old world reading room. UW professors bring their classes to the archives and library regularly, and some of the archives and library staff teach UW classes. Many UW students obtain work-study positions there. The Wisconsin Historical Society is most certainly affiliated with the university.

As we wound our way through each campus, following obediently behind our young tour guides, some of whom walked backwards the entire way (which I thought was quite a feat), my mind drifted, as it always does, to the history behind the space I was traversing. There are 13 four-year colleges in the UW system, and each of these got its start as a teacher-training school, or a “normal” school. I was curious about this term and looked it up. Apparently it comes from the French; Wikipedia says that the first normal school was established in 1685 by Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, who founded an École Normale in Reims, France, with the goal of teaching recent high school graduates the “norms” of society via a particular curriculum that trained them to be teachers. The first normal school in the United States opened in Vermont in 1823.

In Wisconsin, the first normal school was established in Platteville in 1866; soon others followed. My Mom and Dad had an elderly neighbor who had studied at the normal school in Stevens Point to get her teaching certificate, probably in the 1920s. My Dad, my sister, and I would all go to the same school many years later, my Dad when it had become the Wisconsin State Teachers College—Stevens Point, and my sister and I when it had become the University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point, sometime after all of the normal schools (and then state teachers’ colleges) had merged to form the University of Wisconsin system (which happened 1971-1974).

Normal schools were established throughout Wisconsin to provide students with a more localized school option, and the plan was to place one in each congressional district; these were eventually established in each district except for Rhinelander’s.

One semester when I was working on my master’s degree in library studies at the UW, I took a history of reading class, offered as one of the options in the book history specialization I was following. It was a small seminar class, and we had to write a final paper. While trying to identify a topic, I came across something intriguing about teacher reading circles in Wisconsin, a form of teacher professionalization that pre-dated the establishment of the normal schools in the state. I thought this idea of reading as a way of training outside of an institutional setting would make a great paper topic, so I began to do the research, examining the Wisconsin Journal of Education (WJE) (established in 1856), especially the years 1885-1888, when the first reading circles were implemented in the state.

With few major roads and few options for traveling to bigger towns and cities, these reading circles formed, copying largely what was being done in other Midwestern states, and met in the districts where the teachers lived. The state provided the curriculum, mainly a list of required texts and accompanying exercises, which were published in each issue of the WJE. Teachers were able to buy the required titles at a reduced price, and they followed the WJE for the monthly guides and met regularly to discuss the readings.

In Volume 15 of the WJE that ran sometime in 1885, this was one of the exercises required of teachers participating in the reading circles. The detail in this lesson astonished me and gave me a new appreciation for the level of knowledge teachers were expected to have with virtually no training:

"Get clear notions of what anatomy, physiology, hygiene mean. Describe figures 1 and 2 in your own language. Get a sheep’s or chicken’s leg and find the bone, cartilage, ligaments; seek to see for yourself and describe their relations and uses. Find connective tissue in suet. Study skeleton in the figures of the book and in your own person. Find the bones, their shape and position. With figure 3 before you, write for yourself such a description of the skeleton as will show systematically (a) the position, (b) the form, and (c) the uses of the principal bones. Describe how the bones protect the brain, the heart and lungs, the spinal cord. Roast a bone three hours in hot fire to show the earthy parts. Soak a chicken bone a week in a pint of water and four teaspoonfuls of muriatic acid, to show the animal matter. Master especially the hygine [sic] of the bony skeleton."

There were also teacher-training institutes, short-term courses, often taught in the summer. But again, this involved travel and some expense, so I’m not sure how many rural teachers would have been able to attend these courses. These were modeled on the Chautauqua and Lyceum movements—adult education opportunities that circulated in the United States throughout the 1800s. Traveling speakers—clergy, entertainers, teachers, and other specialists—canvassed the country for audiences interested in expanding their knowledge on a variety of topics.

So, I was thinking about all of this as we trekked through each UW campus that we visited this summer. I thought about the teaching profession and all of the eager students who sought instruction as a way to earn a living in the early days of the state; I thought about those Wisconsin teachers poring over the assignment on bones and cartilage. My daughter is not, in fact, interested in becoming a teacher, but she is very involved with climate justice groups in Wisconsin and around the country, and there is a considerable education component to the work she does: she is quite knowledgeable about organic farming, rain gardens, native plants, food insecurity, food deserts, and how each of these intersect with climate justice, and she often finds herself speaking to groups about these topics.

Two of these campuses are now at the top of her list, so we have made some progress. And we have made some progress on her college application, as well; she is going to be doing an early admissions application, and so this needs to be submitted soon. Some of these schools have been actively reaching out to her since the tour to keep her interested; one school went so far as to provisionally accept her, in the minutes before we took their tour, based on her course credits and grades earned thus far in high school.

We will continue to “tour” these campuses long after the physical visit. There is a lot of time spent on their websites, after all, to review admissions requirements, specific majors and minors and certificate programs, housing, financial aid, etc.

And my daughter and I talk about the idea of going to college, a lot, and her thoughts on which of these campuses she can see herself studying at changes from week to week. But at some point I know that a decision will need to be made. She is understandably nervous about this transition: I keep telling her that it’s really hard to imagine now what this experience will be like and not to get overwhelmed by trying to imagine something she simply cannot envision yet.

I am nervous, too, and I will really miss her. But I am so excited for her to start this journey! I marvel at the educational opportunities that are available now in the age we live in: each of the 13 four-year college campuses in the UW system attracts thousands of students from all over the world, and they offer a dazzling array of majors and opportunities for these students. This is what I want for my daughter: To take part in this grand exploration of academics and life. To know what it means to have this educational opportunity in Wisconsin today that students in the mid 1800s did not have. To know what it means to commit to a profession and the necessary academic path that needs to be followed in order to evolve as a practitioner in that field, whether you’re immersed in anatomy in 1885 or climate and society in 2021.

Image is Schofield Hall, UW-Eau Claire, the original building on the campus of the Eau Claire State Normal School (1916-1927).


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