Head of the Class



The history of public education in America begins, appropriately enough, with the Devil. In order that “that old deluder, Satan,” might not keep from the youth of Massachusetts knowledge of the Scriptures, a law was passed in 1648 requiring each village in the state to appoint a teacher of reading and writing; each town was required to have a grammar school. The law, alas, did not rid the country of Satan; and 200 years later, Americans were still complaining that their children did not know how to read and write. The public schools of the early 1800s were little different from those built by the Puritans: ramshackle buildings, poorly heated, staffed by underqualified teachers, with textbooks that were, in some cases, from the 17th century. Critics complained that public education was “but a magnificent show”; reformers came up with educational ideals and searched the country for someone to pay for them. So, in 1865, a school inspector named John Hecker sent a tract called The Scientific Basis of Education to the superintendent of the New York City public schools. The superintendent’s reply was favorable: “[Your] views,” he wrote, “are in my judgment of the highest practical importance as well to teachers as pupils—based upon the soundest principles of physical, mental and moral science, and admitting of practical application by every teacher who will take the pains of acquainting himself or herself with the principles upon which they are founded.” Hecker’s views were based on a new science which was transforming the way Americans thought about themselves and their schools: phrenology.


While at school in Baden, Germany, Franz Gall noted unhappily that his intelligence and originality did not always win him first place in his classes. Other students, who were able to learn great amounts of material by heart, rivaled and sometimes surpassed him. When Gall studied medicine at Vienna, he found himself once again among students who, although intellectually inferior, memorized and repeated information easily. Gall, vexed, observed that they had prominent eyes—and in retrospect it seemed his clever classmates in Baden also had unusually large eyes. He hypothesized that the two facts were connected: The bulge on the head corresponded to the ability to remember. Further observation suggested that people with a talent for music had their own bulge, as did painters, priests, and skilled mechanics. Every human ability seemed to swell the head in one place or another, which corresponded, Gall assumed, to a well-developed region of the brain. Some bumps were good, and others were bad: His work with mental patients, children, and criminals led Gall to identify a mental “organ of theft” and an “organ of murder,” along with organs of self-esteem, cunning, theosophy, and love of offspring. In all, Gall discovered 26 cerebral organs—the alphabet, so to speak, in which a person’s character was written.


In 1807, Gall delivered his first lectures in Paris. His system of cerebral organs became the latest fad; head-measuring replaced palm-reading in the salons of the capital. Gall had no use for parlor games; a scientist by temperament, he continued to dissect brains and to publish papers on their structure. Gall’s student Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, on the other hand, was an evangelist for the new science. He named it phrenology (literally, “discourse of the mind”), and preached its doctrine everywhere—and toned it down a little, renaming the organ of murder “Destructiveness” and the organ of theft “Acquisitiveness.” Soon Gall and Spurzheim were lecturing separately, although they remained on good terms. Gall stayed in Paris, where he died in 1828. Spurzheim proselytized in England and Scotland; in 1832, he sailed for America with a twofold mission: to see if American heads had any peculiarities worth studying, and to bring the science of phrenology to the new nation.

Spurzheim was warmly received in the New World—so warmly, in fact, that he died four months after his arrival, of a fever brought on by overwork. The size of his funeral suggests how much he had accomplished: 3000 Bostonians attended, including the entire Boston Medical Society; the Handel and Haydn Society sang an “Ode to Spurzheim,” specially composed for the occasion. That night, a group of distinguished citizens, including the president of Harvard, formed the Boston Phrenological Society. They were not alone: Inspired, perhaps, by the “Ode,” groups of phrenologically inclined men and women gathered in Baltimore, Washington, Providence—40 or 50 cities in all. They studied the work of Gall and Spurzheim, looked at brains, ordered casts of famous skulls, and visited the local prisons, to note the inmates’ distended organs of Destructiveness. Despite these attractions, the societies they founded were on the whole short-lived. Once officers had been elected, rules established, and a few issues of a journal published, most Americans found they had little to contribute to the body of phrenological knowledge, and found its precepts, for instance that the brain should be dissected radially rather than laterally, of little practical use. When it came time for the members of the Cincinnati Phrenological Society to pay their dues, an English visitor reported, “the treasurer came punctually, but found himself alone.”


Interest in the science was revived, however, by the practical phrenologists. These were experts who promised to tell you, by reading the shape of your head, what sort of job to take, what to look for in a spouse, even what to eat and how to spend your spare time. This was information the public would pay for. While scientific phrenology died quietly in the parlors of America’s cities, itinerant head-readers roamed the nation, lecturing on the cerebral organs and measuring crania in public and in private. Chief among these practitioners were an ex-theology student named Orson Fowler and his brother Lorenzo, who made so much money from their lectures and analyses that they established an office on Nassau Street in New York City, which grew into a phrenological museum and cabinet for consultations. Soon the entire family had joined the business. Their sister Charlotte turned out to be such a good teacher that she was known as the Mother of Phrenology; Lorenzo’s wife, Lydia, after a few years on Nassau Street, entered the Central Medical College in Pennsylvania; she was the second American woman to receive an M.D., and the first to hold a medical professorship.

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.


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.