Our History



The Vision of Henry Barnard

Henry Barnard. Source: Rhode Island State Normal School, “The Columbian Exposition Normal School Scrapbook, 1893” (1893). Columbian Exposition Scrapbook, 1893. Book 3.

          Henry Barnard, appointed as Rhode Island’s first education commissioner in 1842, understood the emerging educational requirements of the time. Barnard had studied the theories of Swiss educator Johann Pestalozzi at Yale (which advocated a holistic and nurturing approach to educating every child, of every economic background) and observed his and several other European educational institutions in the 1830s. He returned to Connecticut to organize the state’s first public school system, which he led from 1838 to 1842. In 1838 Massachusetts’ new education commissioner, reformer Horace Mann, journeyed to Hartford to consult with Barnard and Thomas H. Gallaudet, the renowned educator of the deaf, about his plan to open the first “Normal School” in Lexington, Massachusetts. 1 The idea derived from the French concept of the école normale, whose purpose was to improve and standardize the methods used for teacher education.

          Mann and Barnard thus sought to expand access and also to standardize education for American children. Normal schools initially struggled in America, and Mann’s pioneering attempts in Massachusetts relied heavily on private donations to supplement insufficient public funding.2 In fact, within a few years, Mann would have to ask Barnard to travel to Boston to persuade legislators to retain the normal school and the state’s Board of Education (a feat he accomplished) .3 However, these early difficulties did not dissuade Barnard or Mann from the belief that improved teacher training
was imperative. During the 1840s Mann forcefully articulated this stance in his influential argument that quality universal public education offered the best hope of preserving and further developing American democracy. The nation, whose ideals demanded that every individual have an opportunity to succeed, was facing increasing signs of inequality; Mann’s solution of making education accessible to all represented a moderate approach that contrasted with more radical contemporary visions of communal property or wealth redistribution. Mann believed that, through education, every American would start an adult life in possession of the skills necessary to prosper.

          When Barnard accepted his position in Rhode Island, he immediately began to campaign for a state-supported normal school and public-school system. A significant part of his plan was his notion that the normal school should have attached to it a model school in which prospective teachers could apply what they had learned in the classroom—a method currently in practice at the Henry Barnard School at RIC. Unable to immediately establish the normal school, Barnard, nevertheless, managed to greatly improve public education. Among other achievements, he introduced uniform textbooks to schools across the state and persuaded Rhode Islanders to pay higher school taxes in order to build new school houses and hire more qualified teachers.

          Mann later wrote that Barnard’s work in establishing Rhode Island’s public education system “was the greatest legacy he had left to American educators, the best working model of school agitation and legal organization for the schools of the whole country.” 4 Barnard also established a professional journal for teachers and helped create a body of professional literature designed to improve teacher quality. During his first two years in Rhode Island, his office oversaw more than 1,100 public meetings held to discuss public education in the state (hundreds of which lasted for two or more days), published and distributed thousands of pamphlets, and organized hundreds of instructional workshops for teachers.5 Through all this activity, he never ceased to champion the cause of a public normal school. Meanwhile, Providence had established its own superintendent of schools in 1838 (becoming the first city in New England to do so) and, following the Dorr Rebellion, the state’s new 1842 constitution explicitly vested the state government with responsibility for public education.6 Barnard’s labors bore fruit eventually, and in 1845 the state of Rhode Island invested him with the authority to found a normal school.

          However, the state offered neither financial nor other resources. Barnard, through his passion and dedication, was able to gather private supporters who offered property and funds to be matched by public ones. Unfortunately, Barnard’s e orts had exhausted him, and he suffered increasingly poor health, which forced him to resign his position in 1849. His departure meant that the driving force behind the cause for a normal school also disappeared. 7 Fortunately, nineteenth-century Rhode Island was blessed with more than just one exceptional education leader. Brown University created a small normal department in 1851, led by Professor Samuel Stillman Greene, and in the following year, a private normal school opened in Providence.

          The success of Brown’s normal school (average attendance was 75 students from 1852 to 1853 and 60 from 1853 to 1854) was due, in large part, to the activism of Greene, who served as its head while also acting as superintendent of Providence Public Schools and continuing to teach didactics at Brown. Brown’s success spurred the city to reopen the Rhode Island Normal School in 1854. However, before reopening the school as a municipally supported institution, the Rhode Island General Assembly voted for a $3,000 appropriation to transform the school into a state school— the first fully state-funded normal school in the nation. Thirty- one-year-old Dana P. Colburn, faculty member of the private normal school since its founding two years prior, became the first and the youngest principal of the Rhode Island Normal School, the institution that would evolve into Rhode Island College.

1Bernard C. Steiner, Life of Henry Barnard: The First United States Commissioner of Education, 1867-1870. Washington, DC: Department of the Interior, Bureau of Education, 1919: 48.

2Hector Richard Carbone, “The History of the Rhode Island Institute of Instruction and the Rhode Island Normal School as Agencies and Institutions of Teacher Education, 1845-1920,” Ph.D. diss., University of Connecticut, 1971, 173.

3Steiner, Life of Henry Barnard, 48.

4Ibid., 60.

5Memoir of Dana Pond Colburn: First Principal of the R.I. Normal School, with a Sketch of the History of the Institution (Republished, with a foreword by Henry Barnard, Hartford: Barnard’s American Journal of Education, 1862),25.

6Michael Smith and Jane Fusco, “150 Years of Rhode Island College: Looking Back on the Making and Makers of History,” What’s News at Rhode Island College XXIII, No. 12 Special Sesquicentennial Issue, August 18, 2003: 1.

7Carbone, “The History of the Rhode Island Institute of Instruction,” 180-187.