You may know Noah Webster from his creation of the popular dictionary, but there is much more to Webster. In this video, we will take a brief look at Webster’s life and his impact on American education.
Meet Noah Webster
‘How do you spell onomatopoeia?”I have no clue. Why don’t you check Webster’s?’If that conversation makes perfect sense to you, it is because Noah Webster was an influential man who, perhaps more than anyone else in history, has contributed to creating a unified and uniquely American style of the English language. As important as that work is, Webster’s influence extends much further.
Let’s take a look at his background, and how he helped shape the post-revolution American educational landscape.Webster was born in Connecticut in 1758 to what today would most likely be described as a middle-class family. Webster’s father was a farmer and a weaver, and his mother was a homemaker. Webster wasn’t born a child whose social class had destined him for higher education, but college was a path he chose to pursue. In 1774, he set out for Yale, from which he would graduate in 1778. Post-graduation, Webster would pursue a career as a teacher, and this is where his exposure to the condition of the American education system spurred him to follow a path of educational innovation.
Becoming an Innovator
American schools in the late 1700s could be described as unorganized at best. The majority of the education system existed in the form of one-room schoolhouses. The curriculum in these schools was hardly uniform, and the teachers in these schools were usually informally prepared. In short, there was not much of an investment in the educational landscape. It sort of existed to provide the basics, and even these basics varied.
Few pursued a higher education beyond the one-room schoolhouse.Webster felt that this state of education had to change. He, like many other thinkers and innovators of his day, saw education as a vehicle for social mobility.
In a country that was in its infancy, Noah saw no better time than the present to begin making changes for the better.Now, there were a number of directions that Webster could have followed. Keep in mind that these schools were poorly funded, and the teachers were poorly trained. Other educational innovators throughout American history have pursued combating those ills. Just look at the work of scholars, such as Horace Mann, Maria Montessori, or John Dewey, just to name a few. Webster, however, chose a slightly different but equally important route.
Let’s focus on Webster’s specific route.
Creating a Unified, American Language
Webster’s contribution to the innovation of American education takes the focus of a unified language approach. While Webster worked as a teacher, he made an astute observation.
Most of the textbooks used in American schools retained a British focus, from the content to the language. As with any culture that has existed for any amount of time, the American culture, and certainly the American language, had grown quite different from its British origins. This would become the focus of Webster’s life’s work.Webster’s first contribution to the reform effort was the creation of his own textbook.
In 1783, he published, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. This book became commonly known as the ‘Blue-Backed Speller’ because of its blue cover. The focus of this book was to teach children to read, spell, and write, but the approach was uniquely American. In fact, the book was written in a way that broke down complex ideas into simple stages.This was a unique approach, and in many ways, it was a pedagogical approach that was quite advanced for the era.
This book was extremely successful, sold nearly 100 million copies, and remained in classrooms for nearly 100 years after its initial publication.After the publication of Webster’s first textbook, he would continue to work to improve and unify American English. His next book would be published in 1806. It was first called A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. In this book, Webster would offer the definitions of nearly 37,000 words found in the American English language.
By 1828, he had continued to revise and add to this work to create his famous American Dictionary of the English Language. This edition defined nearly 65,000 words. The new dictionary was truly American. It offered the Americanized spelling of words. For example, ‘colour’ was spelled without the ‘u;’ ‘centre’ was spelled with the ‘e’ in front of the ‘r.
‘ He also introduced words that did not exist in British English, such as ‘skunk’ and ‘squash.’
While Webster’s creation of the American dictionary is undoubtedly his most well-known accomplishment, he really contributed so much more. He published numerous other textbooks, wrote numerous articles, and presented numerous works focused on the importance of a common language and a strong education system. He presented many ideas for the creation of the new government of the United States and many of these ideas found their way into the Constitution. His importance to education, however, truly lies in his vision and his ability of unification.
We must keep in mind that in Webster’s day there was no Internet. There were no cell phones. The world was much less connected than it is today. Webster knew that in order for the country to move forward as a whole, it had to be both unified and unique. He helped achieve both of those goals.
Noah Webster was an American patriot with a vision of a unified and uniquely American education system bound by a common language. Webster pursued this vision by creating uniquely American texts. His first publication, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, or more commonly the ‘Blue-Backed Speller,’ remained in use for over 100 years. Still, his most well-known work was the American Dictionary of the English Language. Even today, when we think of a dictionary, the first name that comes to mind is Webster’s.
Once you are done with this lesson you should be able to:
- Give a brief overview of Noah Webster’s background
- Recall some of the books Webster published
- Recite some of Webster’s other accomplishments
- Describe the pitfalls of the American educational system in the 18th century
- Discuss Webster’s positive effect on American education