The Influence of Emma Hart Willard,

The Influence
of
Emma Hart Willard


In Emma Hart Willard's autobiographical sketch as presented to us titled "Pioneering the Education of Young Women", we get a very clear picture of how she came to be an influence in education, particularly female education. It is this word influence upon which I wish to concentrate as I examine the influence Willard had on education. "Influence" as defined in the Webster's New World Dictionary, Third Edition, means "the power of persons to affect others; the action or effect of such power; the ability of a person or group to produce effects indirectly by means of power based on wealth or high position." Within this document we find the influence of her family on her education, of teachers and male schools, and of her own self- actualization of her own influence. Even though she lived in a time where female influence was not great, she quietly and successfully wielded her influence to the advantage of education, especially female education.

There are striking examples of familial influence in this short piece. The first comes when she recounts how she was actually educated. "My father, happily for his children left to his own family, used to teach us of evenings, and read aloud to us; and this way I became interested in books and a voracious reader." (p18) It was in the home, from her father, that Willard learned modeling techniques. The "awakening" for Willard is in the home and not in the school which was an early lesson to be carried over into her own career as she transferred the lessons her father taught her to her own teaching. Another family influence was her sister, Nancy, who chose to go to school, when Emma chose to visit some cousins. However upon return, Nancy spoke to Emma and demonstrated that education was fun. "Nancy showed me her books and told me of her lessons." (p19) That was it, Emma informed her mother of her intention to attend the school with her sister. Another sister, Lydia, was also an influence. "The evening I wished to learn it, my sister Lydia had a party. The house was full of bustle, and above all rose the song-singing, which always frustrated me. The moon was full, and the snow was on the ground. I wrapt my cloak around me, and went out of doors of a cold winter on a horseback, I learned that lesson. Lessons so learnt are not easily forgotten." (p19) The ease with which she learned the lesson wasn't so much the conditions as much as it was the desire to learn the lesson. If the learner wants to learn, then the learner will do anything to learn. This desire is reflected with pride when she says, "I never failed." (p20) She is under no obligation or expectation to pass, except to herself. It is this self-esteem she will establish in her learners, she will awaken them and influence them to want to be successes, and she will do this by modeling. Family members provided Emma with the opportunity to gain influence and to wield influence through their own financial sacrifice.. The first situation involves her brothers and the second her husband. "The only two remaining sons of my mother had become merchants in Petersburg, Virginia, and were able and willing to furnish assistance to their younger sisters and also to relieve our parents from the dread of indebtedness, which at one time their utmost exertions could scarcely keep from crossing the domestic threshold." (p22) So she could support her husband, she taught, which served as a practice for her to hone her own skills of influence. "When I began my boarding school in Middlebury, in 1814, my leading motive was to relieve my husband from financial difficulties." (p22) Familial influence was vital in her growth and will play an important role in her achieving such great success.

Willard was strongly influenced by those teachers she had. In her early district schooling she says, "In my childhood I attended the district school, but mostly from causes already related, none of my teachers so understood me as to awaken my powers or gain much influence over me." (p18) We are not aware of the causes, however we can sense she is not pleased with her early school education: "..none of my teachers so understood me as to awaken my powers or gain much influence over me." She was not awakened in school. Her teachers didn't know her. Having influence over a student is a positive thing as interpreted by Willard. A teacher's influence is one which will nurture and guide, and she obviously didn't have any guidance from her district school. As already stated, she was taught at home. Another educational influence came from Dr Miner, "For two successful years, 1802-3, I enjoyed the advantages of Dr. Miner's school, and I believe that no better instruction was given to girls in any school, at the time, in our country." (p20) An association she made at this school was to be very influential in her near future. "My life at this time was much influenced by an attachment I formed with Mrs Peck, a lady of forty, although I was only fifteen." (p20) This association would lead to Emma getting charge of her own school at the age of seventeen. Again influence plays a big role in Emma's first day. There are three conflicts and power struggles going on: Mrs. Peck suggests and offers rods for disciplinary matters; the students are unruly and defy Emma's rule and influence; and Emma needs to establish her influence in the class as the teacher if she is to succeed in her goal. The power struggle ended in Emma's favor. "The next morning and ever after, I had docile and orderly scholars. I was careful duly to send them out for recreation, to make their studies pleasant and interesting, and to praise them when they did well, and mention to their parents their good behavior." (p21) After her marriage and move to Middlebury in 1814, she chose to have an influence on female education in her new school. "I had also the further object of keeping a better school than those about me; but it was not until a year or two after, that I formed the design of effecting an important change in education, by the introduction of a grade of schools for women, higher than any heretofore known. My neighborhood to Middlebury College, made me bitterly feel the disparity in educational facilities between the sexes." (p22) Feeling the pressure of Middlebury College influenced her to raise up a female education standard which would in turn influenced future female education initiatives. Her own experiences as a student and then as a teacher in a male scoiety, influenced her greatly as she forged a new influential path and plan for female education.

Willard began to gain confidence with her successes and slowly began to consciously wield her own influence subtly. Certainly from her first day as a teacher she gained some insight into her own influence. "Our school was soon the admiration of the neighborhood. Some of the literati of the region heard of the marvelous progress the children made, and of classes formed and instruction given in higher branches; and coming to visit us, they encouraged me in my school, and gave me valuable commendation." (p21) This success provides the seque to her next epiphany which happens after her marriage and in the new school in Middlebury when she says, "..I formed the design of effecting an important change in education." (p22) She is convinced her vision is valid and that she can effect a change. Now she needs to establish a reputation from which she can use this influence to make a change. "But it was not merely on the strength of my arguments that I relied. I determined to inform myself, and increase my personal influence and fame as a teacher; calculating that in this way I might be sought for in other places, where influential men would carry my project before some legislature, for the sake of obtaining a good school." (p23) Plain and simple, Emma is on a mission by establishing her on personal influence so as to make a change in education in a calculating anner. After four years of hard work in doing what she had set out to do, or in modern parlance, "she talked the talk and then she walked the walk," she boldly wrote a letter to De Witt Clinton, Governor of New York requesting his approval and support of her "plan for improving the education of females." (p25) She stood on her reputation as she wrote to the most influential and powerful person in New York about instituting a major change in philosophy in education by presenting her bold plan.

The idea, of course, became real. But as we reflect on the word "influence" one last time, consider how it took financial influence to get an education and now it does not today nor in her time in some measure thanks to Emma Willard, "..female academies in the state now receive public money." (p27) As a student her teachers had an influence on her, both positive and negative, while as a teacher she was influenced and influenced others. The influence of family is most important as we saw in her own case. In closing, imagine this image, "I (Emma) stood one evening, candle in hand, and made to my parents, who had retired for the night, what they considered a most sensible oration, on the folly of people's seeking to be educated above their means and prescribed duties in life." (p19) Then juxtapose it against the image of her speaking before the Governor and his assemblages, "The Governor and many of his friends called on us; and I read my manuscript several times by special request to different influential members; and once to a considerable assemblage." (p26) Emma Hart Willard was an extraordinary educator who has had a great deal of influence on our educational system.