Head of the Class

The Bumpy Road From Phrenology to Public Schools

The Fowlers and their imitators made the new science ubiquitous. By the mid 1800s, converts included some of the leading intellectuals of the day: Poe believed that phrenology could serve as a basis for literary criticism; Whitman admired the Fowlers, who published the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Phrenological ideals were incorporated into a number of social movements, among them Anti-Lacing (which opposed the wearing of corsets), the Water Cure (all disease treatable, given enough cold water), temperance, women's suffrage, abolition, and the reform of the American public school.


illustration by Dusan Petricic

Phrenology and education reform were philosophically well-matched. The phrenologists thought the mind was like a collection of muscles: The more you worked them, the stronger they would grow. This meant, paradoxically, that a system which believed that character was fundamentally biological also believed that human beings could perfect themselves, given a little hard work and the right kind of teaching. Because the mind was not a single organ but a collection of different faculties, it wasn't enough to make students learn Latin verse by heart: That would train only the organs of Language and Eventuality (the ability to memorize facts), which protruded, not surprisingly, from just above the eyes. All the mental organs required training, each in its own way; students needed to sing, to run, to feel reverence and the impulse to destroy. Phrenologists also spoke out against corporal punishment: Just as you would not beat a child to make his legs stronger, so thrashing a dull pupil would not improve his organ of Ideality. Only encouragement would make his mental organs grow, and they would grow only if his body were healthy. It is no surprise that a phrenological education involved a great deal of running around in the fresh air, a diet of Graham crackers (the last word in nutrition at the time), and abstinence from unhealthy substances such as coffee, tobacco, and cucumbers. According to phrenology, all education was physical education.


John Hecker's Scientific Basis of Education was inspired by these doctrines; it is unclear whether they had much effect on New York's public schools. Far more influential, and just as enthusiastic about phrenology, was Horace Mann, secretary of the Massachusetts School Board. A Calvinist by birth and a lawyer by education, Mann was among the first educators to formulate principles that are still revered, if not always practiced, in American public schools: universal accessibility, emphasis on practical skills rather than rote memorization, and above all the notion that schools should provide moral rather than religious education. Mann's theories of moral improvement were based in large part on the work of the Scottish phrenologist George Combe, whose treatise The Constitution of Man Mann greatly admired. He wrote to Combe, "There is no one who has done me so much good as you have," and admitted elsewhere that he was "a hundred times more indebted to phrenological than to all the metaphysical works I ever read."

Phrenology also appealed to the directors of schools for children with "special needs": Samuel Gridley Howe directed the Boston School for the Blind along phrenological lines; Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet did the same for the Hartford School for the Deaf and Dumb; Silas Jones, director of the New York Asylum for the Blind, was another convert (did the blind, accustomed to understanding things with their fingertips, have a special affinity for head-reading?). The Eatontown (New York) Institute was run by a phrenological sympathizer, as was the New-York Institute for the Physical and Mental Training of Imbecile, Idiotic, Backward, Nervous, Insane and Epileptic Children.


There isn't much talk about phrenology in American schools today, or even in histories of public education in the 19th century. As Gall's science fell out of favor, few reformers of any stripe mentioned it; by the early 1900s it was just another wrong answer to the riddle of human life, like astrology, or spiritism, or Volapük. Yet bits of phrenological lore persist under new names: The pedagogues who talk about "learning styles" repeat Gall's observation that some children are better at memorization, others at art or running around; even the notion that some students are "right-brained" and others "left-brained" is based on a largely mythical view of neuroanatomy inherited from Spurzheim via the Fowlers.

What we have lost is the most important quality education got from phrenology: optimism. Horace Mann believed that public schools could teach virtue as well as reading and arithmetic (a belief he owed in large part to George Combe); what is more, he and other phrenological reformers held that no student was unteachable. To appreciate the gap between their view of schooling and our own, consider John Hecker's suggestion that easily distractable youth be taught "Geometry, Draughting, Metallurgy, Geography, History, Biography, Landscape and Historical Painting, and Natural History," to exercise their various faculties; and music composition, to use their energy constructively. The idea that children with attention deficits would be treated in this way seems funny and antiquated now, like the phrenological heads sold in kitsch shops. But is the use of Ritalin as a panacea for the fidgets really an improvement? At least Hecker believed that the mind, even when it functions poorly, can be improved by education. Medical science may cast doubts on this belief, but if schools abandon it, one can only assume that the old deluder will be very happy.

Check out the other stories in the Winter 2001 Voice Education Supplement.

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