By JIM ZBICK
Well into the 20th century, the perception of many farmers was that education was an intrusion, depriving them of a free workforce – namely their children.
When schools closed during the summer months, it didn't mean a break for a majority of youngsters. They traded their class time for a full-time job of working the family farm. To help put food on the table, working to till the fields or clean the barnyard was a fact of life for many youngsters.
Pennsylvania's early founders realized the need to develop the young minds in all areas, including agriculture. In founding the American Philosophical Society in 1744, one of Benjamin Franklin's objectives was to apply science to the improvement of agriculture.
Following England's agricultural advances during the mid-to-late 1700s, some prominent Americans decided to take a similar path in order to "promote a greater increase in the products of the land." The fear was that growing cities and the manufacturing boom were eroding the long-established farm traditions such as hard work.
In 1785, a group of 23 men, including several Founding Fathers, met at a tavern in Philadelphia to form the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture. They felt that a state agricultural college would re-establish and promote the firmly based values which were fast disappearing in the world around them.
Their goal was to have an institution that could instill a new dignity to farm life – making it more profitable, interesting, and intellectually stimulating. Thus, the state legislature chartered the first state agricultural college – the Farmers' High School – on Feb. 22, 1855. The Centre County institution was renamed Pennsylvania State College in 1873.
During the early 1900s, state officials saw the importance of boosting farm principles in the public school curriculum. In 1910, Nathan Schaeffer, state superintendent of public instruction, said the rural high school should provide opportunity for the boy to make the most of himself.
"We have tried to build up a school system which shall be like a toddler stretching from the gutter into the university on which the youth who has the strength to climb may rise into the highest and most lucrative modern occupations," he said.
Just days before Schaeffer made those comments, the state introduced new areas of instruction in agriculture for elementary schools.
The Tamaqua Courier published several articles announcing the changes. A year earlier, officials from the state board of education had visited a number of districts throughout the commonwealth, including Tamaqua, and then gave assessment reports to the schools on possible ways to improve their curriculums.
One Courier writer said that alerting schools to defects in their system was important, as was setting the students on a proper course in life.
"When we turn out pupils from the Tamaqua high school, we want to feel they are well equipped to fight the battles of life," he stated.
Concerned about "the prevailing ignorance of 20th century children as to the condition of life on the farm," state education officials introduced a new emphasis on agricultural instruction in the elementary schools.
"The department urges that this (farm curriculum) be adopted not only in the rural schools but in those of the cities as well, where it is held to be doubly important," the Courier reported.
Agriculture would be joining a course lineup which included arithmetic, civics, drawings, English, geography, history, manual arts, moral education, music, nature study, physical education, physiology and hygiene.
In introducing the changes, school superintendent Schaeffer admitted that "young men will leave the farm as long as they get better wages elsewhere." He added that the "boy on the farm" has a harder time meeting the higher standards of admission to colleges since he does not have access to a first-rate high school, which offers special training.
"We have tried to build up a school system which shall be like a ladder stretching from the gutter into the university on which the youth who has the strength to climb may rise into the highest and the most lucrative of modern occupations," he said.
Schaeffer said that as long as the shop, the factory, the store and the mine offer better wages than the farm, boys will leave the farm for that better payday.
"The farm, which at best means hard work and long hours, does not offer superior attractions to the boy and the girl who can never hope to own a farm," he said. "The school may impart knowledge that will give insight into the marvels of nature and make the farmer a better farmer, but it cannot reasonably be expected that the schools shall solely and of their own initiative stop the migration from the farm to the city."