The Optical Telegraph and Industrial Education

My apologies for being away so long but I’m back with new content! With graduation on the horizon (roughly 4 months away), currently I’m enrolled in a public history and “new media” course. Honestly, the term “new media” is…well…new to me. I was not familiar with the term till a few months ago. New media is beyond radio, magazines, or television programs. It is what encompasses much of what is happening in contemporary American today; video games, websites, and everything in between. New media seems to be everywhere and has been praised and critiqued for what it means for psychology, sociology, politics, education, and history.

What I’m interested in here is what new media has to do with the practice of public history. In particular, I have a personal interest in its meaning in museum education because I hope to be that field in the future. In New Media, 1740-1915, editor Lisa Gitelman makes the argument that all media was new at some point and the articles that follow her introduction demonstrate that old media used to bring up similar issues to the ones we face in the present-day.

The third chapter, Children of Media, Children as Media: Optical Telegraphs, Indian Pupils, and Joseph Lancaster’s System for Cultural Replication (a hefty title) written by Patricia Crain explores a nineteenth century educational media. In the mid to late 1800s, Joseph Lancaster, a former Englishmen turned American, changed his pedagogy designed for the London poor into missionary-style system for educating Native Americans. His pedagogy, influenced by a Eurocentric colonialism, provided American schools with a manual to mass educate while at the same time supporting acculturation in Indian boarding schools. His methods were highly visual and the teacher was merely there to dictate repetitious and standardized tasks for students. Lancaster’s pedagogy also called for the use of the optical telegraph.

The optical telegraph is not actually a telegraph it is a set of mechanized signs to alert people to do a task, it usually a flags or something similar. The telegraph was used to alert students to their scheduled task through the visual signaling system. The factory like setting of mass classroom with a rigid schedule that encouraged mimicking and decreased privacy had a modern feel not so unlike computers. Public historians and educators alike have begun to use computerized learning. In my opinion, the Lancasterian system, which also rewarded students with tokens for gifts, is not that unlike video game. Furthermore, Lancaster was not particularly interested in books for classroom learning but the use of over-sized posters. While education outside of books has its appealing aspects you could hardly say that Lancaster’s system was beneficial to the majority of students, particularly non-Western people like Native American children with a very different understanding of identity and knowledge. Perhaps the newest media can help present-day children and the larger public in a way that Lancaster couldn’t — on an individual level with cultural sensitivity.


2 thoughts on “The Optical Telegraph and Industrial Education

  1. I like the way you think about connecting Lancaster’s nineteenth-century approach to education with what is happening in the twenty-first century, namely with computers and systems of rewards. Talk more about what you see as the connection between Lancaster’s system and both. Many of us will often think of computers today as opening up avenues of creativity rather than being sites of rote learning, which Lancaster sought to instill. But are there ways in which the technology itself limits those possibilities? That what we presume to be the use of creative endeavor reflects more the way in which computers have been sold to us, rather than the reality? The potential connection with games is quite interesting as well. A Loyola PhD, Doug Guerra, wrote a really wonderful dissertation on the advent of board games in the 19th century and I think would be interested in the comparative technologies of Lancasterian education and gaming. Both seek to delimit avenues of identity formation, although gaming tends to be broader in what it allows. The use of rewards, though, for “doing the right thing” seems very much in line. Do we consider this element part of the technology itself? Or part of the way it was used?

    • I’m still trying to exactly pinpoint what reminds so much about the relationship between Lancaster’s pedagogy and modern video games. It is not only the reward system, although that was most obvious to me at first. It seems that on a whole video games allow for incredible creativity when it comes to identity but in other ways they can be limited like the optical telegraph. The fact that in a standard video game (whether used for fun or education) requires a player to accomplish a task before moving on is very much like Lancater’s use of the optical telegraph. Notably, in video games, there is also a repetitious task much like the sty stem Lancaster set up. For video game players this is an enjoyable challenge especially considering the rewards (even if they are only virtual rewards). Nonetheless, Lancaster’s pedagogy seems incredibly repressive and unaware of the human element of education. I’m admittedly biased and when I was studying to become a teacher I was a fan of a more facilitated and creative teaching method.

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