Down’s Hunter changed education in the United States
Corporal punishment isn’t part of most children’s upbringing today, thanks in part to Irishman Thomas Hunter, but Hunter’s legacy goes even further. Currently, nearly half of doctoral candidates in the United States are women, but before Hunter founded the college that would later bear her name, Hunter College in Manhattan, few women in New York received graduate studies. Among Hunter’s many accomplishments are not only becoming the founder of the first free teachers’ college in the United States, but also the president of the first publicly funded American women’s college.
Hunter’s great success as an educator is even more astonishing given his humble origins. Born in Ardgrass, Co. Down in 1831, to a humble Church of Ireland family of Scottish descent, Hunter people on both sides of the family were seafarers. His father, a sea captain, was a harsh disciplinarian who instilled obedience with the rod. His mother died when Hunter was only 6 years old. Frequently at sea, Hunter’s father gave custody of his son to aunts and uncles who despised education. Thomas, however, became literate thanks to his maternal grandmother teaching him to read through Bible readings.
Hunter despised the Irish education system and his utter disregard for the cruelty and stupidity of his teachers made Hunter an educational reformer determined to teach children with humanity.
Hunter’s father remarried after his mother’s death and at the age of 12 he was sent to an Episcopal parochial school in Dundalk where bullying by other pupils and savage beatings by teachers were commonplace. An extremely bright and sensitive child, Hunter had an innate belief in justice and railed against the many injustices committed in Irish schools. He developed a strong dislike for the brutal masters he described who sadistically whipped students. He later recalled that some of them were like demons and others half-witted, but despite the blind cruelty that was the hallmark of his schooling, the barbarities he endured never deprived Hunter of his sense of fairness and justice. Indeed, the brutality he and other boys endured only heightened his outrage at the savagery of the schoolmasters. After being called sassy by a teacher for insisting he answered a question correctly, he defiantly said, “If it’s sassy to seek justice, then I’m sassy.”
Chosen to teach a class of children barely younger than himself, Hunter only used the cane as a last resort, while demonstrating an innate talent for teaching. When the students realized his aversion to corporal punishment, they rebelled, challenging his authority, and he reluctantly concluded that corporal punishment was sometimes necessary. Hunter frequently stood up to bullies, and by the age of sixteen he had become physically and mentally strong enough to deter any aggression. Boarding school was not only an education in letters, but more importantly, in men’s affairs, which helped the cunning Hunter later in New York.
At 15, Hunter won a competition to enter a school near Dublin where he showed himself to be very proficient in mathematics and drawing. There, Hunter went to see the famous Daniel O’Connell speak in flagrant violation of school rules. Hunter claimed his sympathy for the underdog started in his childhood when he heard. A huge crowd had appeared to greet the beloved Catholic emancipator and an old woman gushed: “I came down from the mountains and saw him, – glory to God. I saw the Liberator before I died. He credited O’Connell with awakening his empathy for the suffering, saying, “I have always had the greatest sympathy for oppressed races, Poles, Hungarians, Irishmen and Blacks.” Arriving in New York, he soon realized that free public education was the great springboard for these oppressed peoples to progress.
Hunter’s innate sense of fairness made him aware of the great wrongs committed by British imperialism in Ireland. Despite his Protestant origins, Hunter rose up against these injustices and became a fervent patriot. Vehemently reading the writings of Irish republicans, Hunter became an ardent supporter of the Young Ireland movement and an advocate of republicanism by physical force.
Hunter was hired as a teacher, but soon began writing caustic anonymous articles for the Nation newspaper advocating the dissolution of the Church of Ireland. When his manager found out he was the author of the papers, Hunter could no longer teach in Ireland and had to emigrate. The Chief Constable informed him privately that the authorities in Dublin were angered by his latest letter to the Nation and were thirsty for retaliation.
In 1850 Hunter left for New York. Arriving in New York with little money and no knowledge, Hunter was unable to find work initially, but his belief in American Republican government sustained him. Hunter said: “I loved it before I ever saw it. I have become a citizen with all my heart and soul. A man with a cosmopolitan worldview, Hunter was perfectly suited to become a New York teacher educating religious and socially diverse ethnic students.
Still bitter from his experiences in Irish schools, Hunter decided to give up teaching and start a new profession, but the only job he could find was teaching drawing. He was hired at No. 35 Public School on Thirteenth Street, a school he later made famous. Hunter had an innate sympathy for children stating, “I liked boys and they liked me.” Given an art class, he quickly proved himself a gifted educator who could control a large class, even though he was only nineteen.
Hunter differed from the other teachers on one point. He hated beating his students, even when they misbehaved. Hunter’s dislike of corporal punishment was not only considered highly unusual, but was even considered by some to be a mark against him. The boys at school, however, quickly grew to like her and excelled under her tutelage.
Hunter wanted to become principal because teaching was poorly paid and not valued. In 1857, when a vacancy for Principal of Public School No. 35 arose, Hunter had proven himself to be a superior teacher, but his foreign birth was held against him. Many members of the main selection committee were xenophobic Know-Nothings, staunchly opposed to a foreign-born director. Additionally, many of these Know-Nothings mistakenly believed that Hunter was Catholic, another mark against him. A man of Republican principles, Hunter believed he shouldn’t have to advertise his religion to get a job for which he was eminently qualified. Hunter despised the Know-Nothings and their bigotry, viewing him as un-American, but he knew that these xenophobes could also prevent him from becoming principal.
Extremely affable, Hunter made friends easily and had a politician’s knack for garnering favors. He quickly turned the board in his favor and used political connections to force the Know-Nothings to vote against their biases for his candidacy. Surprisingly, he was elected unanimously. The following year, the Know-Nothings succeeded in eliminating all other foreign-born principals, but the wily Hunter survived.
When Hunter became headmaster, he inherited a rattan cane for corporal punishment, but the cane brought back horrible personal memories. He abolished corporal punishment at Public School No. 35, making it the first school not to beat students. His opponents predicted that scholarship and discipline would suffer. Despite predictions of disaster, the standard of scholarship remained high and the school became extremely popular. Thanks to Hunter’s example, New York City became one of the first American school systems to abolish corporal punishment, and Hunter’s system of nonviolent punishment was eventually adopted nationwide.
A man of great ambition, Hunter was not content to remain manager. In 1866 he was elected deputy superintendent of schools. Another man might have waited to become Superintendent of Schools, but Hunter took a riskier direction, taking the post of principal at a newly formed all-female school, while becoming an advocate for women’s higher education, a radical idea in the late 1860s. Until the late 19th century, New York City had no free academy for girls over 12, but in 1869 the city created the “Normal School” which later became Hunter College and became the first state-funded high school designed exclusively to educate women. in the art of teaching, but many chauvinists still believed that it was wrong to use public funds to educate women.
Hunter became a powerful advocate for female teachers. Normal School’s first classes were held on February 14, 1870, with 700 women in its student body. It became the first free college in America with degree-granting power. Graduates were to be entrusted with the education of the future and expected to uphold the highest moral and ethical standards. The school initially admitted only unmarried women, believing that married women should leave teaching to concentrate on their duties as wives and mothers.
Although he was initially recruited only to help establish the new normal school, Hunter eventually became its principal. setting educational standards, as well as teaching methods. Hunter believed that the best teachers were cultured writers and excellent writers, ensuring that the courses taught at Normal College were rigorous and that the students entering the school were academically capable. The candidates have been carefully selected.
During Hunter’s more than three-decade tenure as president of the college, the school became known for its impartiality with respect to race, religion, ethnicity, and social class; his relentless quest for higher educational opportunities for women; its selective entry requirements; and its rigorous academics. The school’s population grew, as did its reputation for excellence. Hunter retired in 1906 and died in 1915.
His funeral service at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine filled the huge building. Its bearers included all of the state’s most important education officials. He has been hailed for his more than six decades of service to public education that have profoundly transformed New York City. Generations of accomplished women owe their education to her unwavering faith in the education of women.