Famous Despite Himself

A local teacher makes his reputation by easing up on the rod—just a little.

A Fractur-Schriften illustration by Christopher DockBecoming famous isn’t difficult. One need only be slightly ahead of his time.

Like, for instance, Christopher Dock, the Skippack schoolteacher remembered for writing the first American pedagogy, Schulordnung (School Management), a discussion of teaching methods. Respected in his time, Dock was distinguished by his belief that beating students shouldn’t be a teacher’s only means of discipline. He didn’t advocate abolishing corporal punishment—just using it wisely.

Dock’s methods also included individualized instruction, grouping, conceptual understanding, physical education and art appreciation. Some sources also credit Dock for being the first teacher to use a blackboard.

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“If he did utilize these methods, he was probably far in advance of his age when the common means of ‘keeping discipline’ was the ever-present ferule (paddle) and an eager willingness to use it often and with vigor,” wrote R. Freeman Butts and Lawrence A. Cremin in their 1953 book, History of Education in American Culture. Dock, they said, represented the 18th century’s cutting edge—“a liberalizing outlook toward child nature and educational methods [that] began to appear among some of the smaller Protestant sects.”

Among Dock’s students were Christo-pher Sauer Jr., a prominent colonial printer, and David Rittenhouse, the astronomer, surveyor, mathematician and inventor for whom Rittenhouse Square is named.

Born somewhere in Germany—possibly Wurttemberg—Dock came to America in about 1714. In 1718, he was hired to teach at a subscription school in the Mennonite community of Skippack. After 10 years, he quit and, in 1735, bought a farm. But Dock was apparently not a successful farmer. Only three years later, he resumed teaching, which he continued until his death.

Dock may have regretted his decision to farm. “To him, the 10 years of farming were a neglect of the teaching profession for which he often felt ‘the smiting hand of God,’” wrote biographer Quintus Leatherman, who interpreted Dock’s account to mean that his harvests had been poor—a form of divine punishment.

No proof exists that Dock was himself a Mennonite, though he seems to have behaved as one. Mennonites are pacifists, and one story is that Dock was drafted in Europe, then discharged when he refused to bear arms.

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But Mennonites were also pietists, whose organization was inherently loose. Many pietists never formally joined any denomination. According to Dock biographer Gerald C. Studer, they “saw no need to join a human institution when they lived a life of discipleship to Christ.”

Pietism was a 17th-century Protestant movement whose primary goal was to revive practical—as opposed to strictly ritual—Christianity.

Education was extremely important to Mennonites, who linked personal piety to a thorough understanding of Christian doctrine. They read the Bible closely and wanted their children to do so. Despite the claims of Benjamin Franklin and other bigots that the Germans were stupid and uncultured, approximately 75 percent were literate. In fact, they had as many newspapers and printing presses as the more numerous English.

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William Penn exhibited similar concern when he prodded the Colonial assembly to mandate public education with a 1683 law requiring “all persons in the province having children shall cause such to be instructed in reading and writing.” A school was opened in Philadelphia that same year, though it closed in 1689.

Despite good intentions, Pennsylvania had quickly become so diverse that it was not practical to serve everyone with a single system. The Colonial government turned education over to private and parochial efforts. Nothing was said on the subject in the state’s 1701 constitution.

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The Mennonites preferred private subscription schools to parochial schools. Parish schools were the norm in Europe, where everyone in a geographical area was presumed to belong to the official church. But in the collective memory of the Mennonites, such churches had persecuted them. So they arrived in America insisting that separation of church, state and education was God’s will.

“The Mennonites envisioned a religiously pluralistic society,” wrote Studer. “The schools they founded grew out of common parental concerns for the Christian education of their children rather than out of membership in the same church.”

Usually, neighboring parents called a meeting, found or built a structure, set the tuition fee, and hired a teacher. That’s how it happened at Skippack, where Mennonite settlement began in 1702.

Matthias Van Bebber, a Mennonite merchant from Holland who’d come to Germantown in 1687, bought 6,000 acres and promptly gave a hundred to the Skippack settlers for educational and religious purposes. They built their first schoolhouse in 1717.

Dock’s students left no record of their experiences. Instead, Dock has been judged by his writings and the obvious regard of contemporaries. Around 1749, Christopher Sauer Sr. was sufficiently impressed by Dock’s success, suggesting that the teacher write out his ideas for publication. The elder Sauer had printed the first German Bible and first German newspaper in America. His guidance, Sauer told Dock, could help both parents and less gifted teachers.

Dock refused. “It would appear,” he later wrote, “as though I were trying to build up for myself a reputation. It would only be food for self-love.”

Dock’s reluctance was typical of Mennonites, who continually scrutinized their own attitudes and actions for anything that seemed immodest. Their books were printed anonymously. Mennonite houses rarely included the inscribed date stones on which other settlers recorded their names and construction dates.

Frustrated, Sauer went to Dock’s friend, Dielman Kolb, a Mennonite minister, with questions he wanted answered. Dock eventually agreed to respond, on condition the book not be published in his lifetime. Sauer massaged these answers into a manuscript which, in 1750, he dutifully put away, and waited for Dock to die.

Twenty years later, in 1770, Dock—still alive—allowed Schulordnung to be published. It sold out and a second edition was issued, suggesting, said Studer, that Sauer was not Dock’s only fan.

For Dock, the purpose of education was to show how “a Christian must set his steps to grow daily.” Coming from a religious context, he was concerned with the development of the whole child—morals, speaking, singing, safety habits, physical health, emotional health, courtesy, social attitudes, as well as academic subject matter.

Each day started with a prayer, but Dock noticed that students often rushed. “Children say the prayers taught them at home half-articulately and too fast, especially the ‘Our Father,’ which the Lord Himself taught His disciples and which contains all that we need,” he wrote. “I therefore make a practice of saying it for them kneeling, and they, kneeling, repeat it after me.”

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Dock gave instruction in the brushing of teeth. He cautioned them against taking two or three steps at a time, lest they fall. He reminded them to watch where they walk and to never hang on a moving vehicle. Of his 100 rules for children, 30 dealt with conduct at mealtime. His first general rule, No. 85, was “let all your politeness emanate from pure love of your neighbor.”

Dock believed a teacher should function in loco parentis—in the place of the parents. And if parental influence was imperfect, he tried to remedy it.

“I saw the unequal ability of parents in the training of their children,” wrote Dock. “They teach their children evil by their own example, and thus the teacher must counteract this influence and be stern toward such unruly pupils.”

That gave the teacher a reputation for being partial, he acknowledged. But he considered that part of the job.

Dock used the rod—but only when he thought it fit the crime. If children used foul language, Dock first learned whether they knew what they were saying. Often they did not, and were set free with a warning. Re-offenders were placed on the “punishment seat” with a yoke around the neck, and then given a “few slaps.”

“The slap of the hand, hazel twig and birch rod are, to be sure, means to prevent an evil outburst,” he wrote. “But they are not means for changing the wicked heart.”

He preferred incentives. When a child was promoted, Dock required his father to give him a penny, and his mother to fry him two eggs.

Today, Dock is probably best remembered for his Fractur-Schriften, pieces of artwork he created himself by illustrating an ornately written verse with birds or flowers. Each child received daily grades and, at the end of the day, the child with the highest score received some form of reward—often one of Dock’s drawings.

Dock taught in two schools simultaneously, alternating between Skippack and Germantown and spending a total of three days in each. One of his teaching methods was to have the students in both schools write letters to the other, with Dock acting as the mail carrier. He also wrote poems and so many songs that one biographer thought the Skippack region’s strong 19th-century singing reputation might have its roots in his classroom.

Another Dock story concerns two men discussing the fact he never showed anger. One ventured that perhaps his temper had not been tested. So, when Dock came along, the man reviled him profanely. Dock’s only reply: “Friend, may the Lord have mercy upon thee.”

At the end of each day, Dock encouraged his students to go home promptly. He then remained to pray for each student, individually, according to his or her needs. One evening in 1771, after he did not come home for dinner at his regular time, a search found Dock dead in his classroom. He was still on his knees.

And, to what would’ve been his great chagrin, he’s been famous ever since.

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at dixon_mark@verizon.net.


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