Why Sheldon matters

Update: The location of the “1861” photo has been changed. The print story lists the location as inside the campus center. However, the event has been moved to south of Culkin and Tyler Halls, overlooking the Glimmerglass Lagoon. The event begins at 11 a.m.

Students today hear the words, “The Oswego Movement” and respond with puzzlement. But 150 years ago, the phrase set the world of education abuzz and permanently changed education in America.

The reason: Edward Austin Sheldon, the movement’s leader and the founder of Oswego State.

“Edward Austin Sheldon founded this institution out of his desire to improve the education of the day and to solve a pressing social need—proper training of teachers as America was rapidly developing,” President Deborah Stanley said. “Today, teaching and learning continue to be the most important of our responsibilities.”

The key to Sheldon’s success was the way he trained teachers in reformed educational practices.

“Sheldon’s method was so well received and respected that it became the most popular method in the country,” Patricia Russo, an education professor teaching the history of education, said. “Sheldon wasn’t a philosopher at all. He was much more practical; he was a businessman.”

Before Sheldon, educating children was an excruciating affair. Far from the multi-media approaches often utilized today, the process involved heavy use of “the reader.”

The reader is a textbook containing short passages and occasionally a few woodcut engravings to illustrate the concepts children were to learn. Rote memorization, hardly employed today, was the center of the educational experience.

Sheldon rebelled against that notion, basing his insights on human psychology.

“We have treated the mind too much as though it was composed of but two faculties, the memory and reason,” Sheldon wrote in the Annual Report of the Board of Education in 1891, “The severity with which these were taxed, was the true measure of success in mental discipline.”

Nineteenth-century teachers theorized that students would be successful if they memorized the material from their readers. But 20th-century advancements in neuroscience have revealed the fallacy in that method: because there are different types of memory, memorization doesn’t always coincide with understanding.

Sheldon carried a torch for object learning, a method where physical representations of an idea were used to demonstrate lessons. Children would learn about a ball by playing with one, for example.

“There has been too much teaching by formulas, and not enough by oral or collateral instruction,” Sheldon wrote to Oswego’s school board in 1850. “We are quite apt, in the education of children, to ‘sail over their heads’; to present subjects that are quite beyond their comprehension, or in a manner which fails to leave in the mind of the learner a clear perception of the truths inculcated.”

The concept of object teaching originated with Johann Pestalozzi, a Swiss educator who said the method was “learning by hand, head and heart.” The Pestalozzian method swept through Europe and into Canada, but held little sway in America before Sheldon observed it on a trip to Toronto.

He was so enamored with the technique that he recounts immediately investing $300 in a set of object teaching pictures, objects and books. Inflation statistics from 1859, when Sheldon made his trip to Toronto, are extremely approximate, but suffice to say that the $300 outlay was a large down payment.

“He imported the method,” Russo said. “He didn’t invent it. He probably didn’t even teach it all that much; he handed that off pretty quickly to others.”

Sheldon’s success, Russo said, was training other teachers in the object method quickly enough to have those first classes teach the subsequent students.

But like many famous successes, Sheldon first experienced a few dismal failures. He moved to Oswego to work outdoors, but quickly found that the winters made this untenable. Later, his nursery garden business also went under. Even an early educational venture—a program to teach poor and immigrant children in Oswego—failed to take off.

Photo by Adam Wolfe & Ken Sturtz

Still, in 1861, Sheldon gathered the first modest class of nine future teachers. For lack of space, they met in a cloakroom.

From the start Sheldon lived on Lake Ontario, in the same location, Shady Shore, where the current president lives today.

At Shady Shore, he held an annual sugar party to celebrate the harvest of maple sugars. The entire school was invited and accounts of the event describe a festive atmosphere at the small college.

“Mrs. Sheldon presided over the ‘sugaring’ process and made everyone feel at home and happy,” recounted one participant in the first sugar party. “The Sheldon home was thrown open to visitors, and the grove and grounds overlooking Lake Ontario were thronged with a joyous crowd, promenading, chatting, rollicking and romping.”

The Normal School, as Oswego State’s initial moniker, trained only teachers and only began granting degrees in fields other than education in 1961, just 13 years after Oswego State was incorporated into the state system.

The school has grown much larger since the initial class of nine. Oswego State enrolls over 8,200 graduate and undergraduate students today and boasts over 70,000 living alumni.

Sheldon died in 1897, a year after his wife. The bronze statue of Sheldon holding forth outside Sheldon Hall has its own storied history. It was unveiled in 1900, in Albany, by then-governor Teddy Roosevelt. The statue was financed by penny donations from over 200,000 students at more than 3,000 schools.

Though Sheldon himself is long deceased, his life’s work has not faltered. Today, object learning is part of the standard of teaching across America, owing its early roots to the Oswego movement. Learners throughout the nation have Sheldon to thank each time a concept that might have sailed over their heads instead glides swiftly into their minds.


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