Normal Beginnings


During the 2015-2016 academic year Towson University is celebrating its 150th anniversary. In this blog article the Towson University Archives and Special Collections department explores the circumstances and events that led up to the school’s founding as the Maryland State Normal School and laid the foundation for its future transformation into a comprehensive liberal arts college.

Drawing on German and French traditions of teacher training, the first three state normal schools in the United States were established in Massachusetts beginning in 1839. Paid for in part by private citizens, these normal schools served as America’s initial experiment in the standardization of teacher training for a democratic public education system. When the experiment proved successful, New York and Connecticut quickly followed suit, establishing their normal schools in 1844 and 1849, respectively. According to Christine A. Ogren, author of The American State Normal School: An Instrument of Great Good,” by the time that Towson University opened its doors as the Maryland State Normal School in 1866 at least nine other states had established normal schools: Michigan in 1850, Rhode Island in 1852, New Jersey in 1855, Illinois in 1857, Pennsylvania and Minnesota in 1859, Wisconsin in 1862, and Maine in 1863.

Historic image of the Ecole normale superieure.

What exactly was a normal school, and why was it called thus? Normal schools were named after France’s teacher training institution, the Ecole normale superiere, created in Paris in 1794. The use of the term normal implied the employment of a common or standardized curriculum for training teachers for public schools. This, in turn, would help ensure that that all students in the public school systems would receive the same level and quality of education.  In 1866, M. A. Newell, the first principal of Maryland’s normal school, described the basic premise of a normal school in a report to the Maryland State Board of Education as follows:

“It is now about forty years since some bold thinkers in the Eastern States began to preach a new and startling doctrine respecting Education [sic]: – that a person requires special training to make him a good teacher, just as a man needs special training in order to become a good lawyer, a good physician, or a good mechanic.”

The premise was simple, and in that same report he went on to say,

“This truth, so obvious and so important, met with such a reception as the world generally accords to great and simple truths, when first presented. Some derided it as a truism, some branded it as false; many accepted it in theory and rejected it in practice.”

Comparatively speaking, why was Maryland so late to the normal school game? The answer to this question is complex, and suggests that while Maryland leadership accepted standardized education in theory it was slow to accept it in practice. Attempts were made by the Maryland General Assembly as early as 1825 to establish a uniform system of public education but this effort was met with resistance at the local level and prevented a movement toward uniform educational standards across the counties. At this time there was no general discussion regarding the training of teachers, generally accomplished by apprenticeship to school masters who may themselves have had varying levels of education.

The establishment of Massachusetts’ normal schools introduced a period of educational reform in the United States. As this reform spread, the Maryland Constitutional Convention of 1850 convened on November 4, 1850, and its Committee on Education again took up the issue of establishing a uniform system of public education. The Committee’s chair, Samuel P. Smith of Allegany County, submitted a report to the general Convention on February 25, 1851, based on various statistics regarding common schools in Maryland counties. After study of these data the Committee on Education’s report recommended the following: that the Maryland Legislature establish a permanent school fund as well as a uniform system of common education; that the voters of Maryland elect a state superintendent of public instruction; and that the Legislature establish a state normal school for the training and certification of teachers.

Samuel P. Smith’s report from the Committee on Education, on p. 339 of Proceedings and Debates of the 1850 Constitutional Convention

In presenting this report, Smith stated that the members of the committee had not unanimously agreed upon its terms, and a lengthy debate ensued at the May 9, 1851, meeting of the Convention.

The debates over and proposed amendments to the report are detailed at length over approximately eight pages in volume two of the Proceedings and Debates of the 1850 Constitutional Convention. The Proceedings show that there was general support for a public education system, citing the benefits of cultivating an educated citizenry and diminishing ignorance, poverty, and crime. Convention member Ramsey McHenry of Harford County is quoted as saying,

“The greatness of every State depends not upon its size, not upon the number of its inhabitants, but upon the virtue, intelligence and patriotism of its people. There is no system of police comparable to that furnished by an efficient common school education, which trains up the children of a community to be good citizens, and dispenses with a great portion of the cost of government, as well as with much of the penal machinery otherwise necessary; […] There never did exist, nor never will exist in this world, any state or country distinguished in peace or war, or illustrious in any respect, in which the education of the young was not considered a matter of primary importance and of paramount public obligation.”

Even given the high ideals of a common education, the objections to a public education system were many: a statewide system of public education would be too expensive; a general superintendent couldn’t understand the intricacies of a local school system; a state wide system would rob rich county systems to feed poor ones; counties with a good school system didn’t need supervision; a school fund created through taxation would burden an already overtaxed people. At the conclusion of the debates the status quo reigned and The Constitution of Maryland, 1850, included no provision for statewide, standardized public education.

Nevertheless, efforts to establish a state normal school in Maryland continued through the early 1860s, with talk of adding a teacher training program to the prestigious and well established St. John’s College, although provisions for training of female teachers would otherwise need to be made as St. John’s did not admit women at that time. In the absence of a state normal school some counties, such as Baltimore City, established their own teacher training programs. Finally, success was achieved during the Maryland Constitutional Convention of 1864 and Maryland’s voters passed an educational provision contained in Article VIII of The Constitution of Maryland, 1864. The provision called for the appointment of a State Superintendent of Public Instruction; established a State Board of Education and the system of County School Commissioners; and consolidated supervision and direction of the county school systems of free public education at the State level. It also allowed for the levy of a school tax to provide free tuition of the school system and to cultivate a reserve education fund of $6 million. Most importantly, it called for the establishment of a state normal school.

In response the 1864 constitution, the Maryland General Assembly passed what came to be known as the public school law on March 24, 1865. The law was authored by Reverend Dr. Libertus Van Bokkelen, a local Maryland educator and former president of St. John’s College. Van Bokkelen had been appointed State Superintendent of Public Instruction by then Maryland Governor Augustus W. Bradford and saw the public school law passed through the House and Senate.

The public school law indicated that the Maryland State Normal School (MSNS) should be located in the City of Baltimore, in a building provided by the Mayor and City Council. With the fall semester set to commence on September 15, 1865, Van Bokkelen addressed a communication to the City Council regarding the topic of a building for the MSNS, but no response was received. Wishing to confer with the State Board of Education, Van Bokkelen delayed the opening of the MSNS, and eventually took leave to rent a building, an allowance made to him by the public school law. In the mean time, M. A. Newell was appointed the first MSNS principal beginning November 1, 1865, and his first task was to conduct a survey of normal schools outside of Maryland for the purposes of gathering data to facilitate organizing and opening Maryland’s normal school after the first of the year.

Van Bokkelen was unable to find a suitable building entire to house the MSNS so he finally rented rooms in a large hall of a building known as the Red Men’s Hall, located at 24 North Paca Street, near present day Lexington Market. On January 15, 1866, the MSNS opened its doors with a modest enrollment that would grow from 11 to 48 students by the end of the academic year. On June 8, 1866, at its first commencement exercises, the MSNS awarded teaching certificates to sixteen graduates who went on to teach in various Maryland public schools.

The origins of the MSNS signified the movement of specialized teacher training from generalized theory into concrete practice for Maryland’s public educational system. Although this success was not short-lived, the establishment of the MSNS only marked the beginning of the professionalization of teacher education. In 1867 a new Maryland constitution effectively abolished the powers and the position of the State Superintendent. The duties of the position were handed over to Newell, who had little authority to influence local educational laws since supervision of county schools was handed back to local county governments. Nevertheless, Newell was hopeful that the endeavor would continue to succeed, as evidenced by these words in his report to Van Bokkelen in 1868:

“Two years ago this Normal School was started as an experiment. To-day [sic] it is an accomplished fact. Without the patronage of any sect, or the encouragement of any party, it has won its way to popular favor. No similar institution in the country has achieved a similar success in so short a time; and nothing is needed but an adequate building to make that success as permanent as it has been rapid. It remains for the Legislature to determine whether by a liberal and judicious support of the Normal School, they will provide Maryland teachers for Maryland schools; or whether they will make it necessary for young persons to go to other States for the requisite professional instruction. Normal School teaching the people will have: the only question is, shall it be obtained within the State or outside it?”

Last week the MSNS celebrated its 150th commencement ceremonies as Towson University, awarding degrees to over 3,500 graduates during six ceremonies. These ceremonies concluded a week of 150th anniversary celebrations begun with the dedication of the Legacy Walk, a brick walkway featuring the five historic seals of the university and flanked with paving stones engraved with significant dates and events in the school’s history, including the names and tenures of its principals and presidents, its relocation to new campuses, and its name changes that reflected curriculum expansions. Despite numerous challenges over its 150-year history it is clear that Newell’s choice to be hopeful about the school’s future was well founded.

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