Local research celebrates Geneseo’s history as normal school

The Ella Cline Shear School of Education and the Association for the Preservation of Geneseo cohosted “Stories of the College: How the Normal School Came to Geneseo” in Milne Library to commemorate Homecoming and Family Weekend on Saturday Sept. 23.

The discussion featured research on local history presented by professor emeritus of education and author of SUNY Geneseo: From Normal School to Public Ivy Wayne Mahood, with additional commentary from school of education graduate students. Parents, students, faculty, alumni and community members convened in Milne to explore Geneseo’s emergence as an institution devoted to training and preparing teachers.

In her welcome address, assistant professor of social studies education Crystal Simmons emphasized the importance of exploring Geneseo’s past—specifically regarding its academic history as a normal school. 

“The history of the communities in which we live … is just as important in understanding who we are,” Simmons said. 

APOG president Chris Ivers ‘97 further conveyed the mission of both Mahood’s presentation and APOG’s other primary goal: to equip the current Geneseo community with an informed view of its past. Understanding and appreciating this history enables present Geneseo students to contextualize and approach their experiences at the institution from an educated perspective. 

The event specifically highlighted the 150th anniversary of the ultimately successful efforts to establish a normal school in the town of Geneseo. The social studies department in the School of Education has adopted an in-depth study on the 1867 chartering of the normal school as an ongoing research project that investigates the beginnings of the institution. 

Mahood began his portion of the presentation, which addressed Geneseo in 1866, by setting the scene. In that age, Geneseo’s distinguishing traits rested in its prominent courthouse and two branches of the influential Wadsworth family.

“[The town] was a fairly healthy community at that time,” Mahood said. “It had a bustling Main Street and, at that time, it had Temple Hill Academy.”

Mahood expounded on the significance of Temple Hill, which faced an uncertain future when internal tensions afflicting the Presbyterian Church synod threatened the academy’s funding. The state legislature, however, offered funding for four normal schools to educate teachers and stimulate the local economy with student spending in 1866. 

Obstacles obscuring the actualization of these plans ranged from debt to political opposition by prominent state legislators, according to Mahood. Normal school proponents failed at their first effort to establish a Geneseo teachers’ institution; the committee eventually succeeded in 1969, with financial and property donations from wealthy community member Brevet Col. Craig W. Wadsworth. 

Presenters underscored the significance of the Wadsworth family with repeated references to a quotation attributed to William Wadsworth, another member of the prominent local family.

“Uneducated men always have been and always will be a puppet in the hands of designing demagogues,” William Wadsworth once said.

This statement—essentially the presentation’s epigraph—conveyed not only the weight of the Wadsworth family, but the necessity of establishing a normal school in Geneseo, which would function as a hub for rigorously trained teachers.

Simmons supplemented Mahood’s discussion with an overview of her department’s research process of historical inquiry: summarizing, contextualizing, inferring, monitoring and collaborating—a heuristic approach that originated at Virginia Tech. Students completed their research by examining history within the framework of primary sources. 

Students present asked questions about local history, the rise and fall of Temple Hill Academy and the major arguments supporting and contesting the establishment of a Geneseo normal school. 

Closing the event, Dean of the Ella Cline Shear School of Education Anjoo Sikka emphasized recurring themes in education—most notably the importance of deeply preparing teachers and the role of preparation in teachers’ efficacy. 

“Teacher preparation is, to me, a hallmark of Geneseo,” Sikka said.u

Old Main (pictured above) was the Geneseo Normal School for the earliest years. On the current Geneseo campus, Welles Hall, Wadsworth Auditorium and Erwin Hall have taken the place of Old Main. (Courtesy of Wayne Mahood)

Old Main (pictured above) was the Geneseo Normal School for the earliest years. On the current Geneseo campus, Welles Hall, Wadsworth Auditorium and Erwin Hall have taken the place of Old Main. (Courtesy of Wayne Mahood)