Object Lessons: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Learned to Make Sense of the Material World – CARTER (THT)

CARTER, Sarah Anne. Object Lessons: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Learned to Make Sense of the Material World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 216p. Resenha de: BICKFORD III, John. The History Teacher, v.52, n.3, p.523-524, may., 2019.

Imagine a class exploring and classifying objects like archivists in a museum. Students’ thinking shifts from observation to inference as items are considered and reconsidered; the teacher guides attention towards concealed, unnoticed, or misunderstood aspects. Sarah Anne Carter’s Object Lessons details how nineteenthcentury American teachers used common items as catalysts for learning.

Object lessons, in their simplest form, appear as the teacher positions students to analyze and organize. Heuristics were taught and scaffolded, with the intent to teach how to think, not what to remember. Students scrutinized the minutiae for meaning and systematized their findings: natural or assembled, animal or plant, organic or inorganic, to list a few. Learners’ abstract thinking generated multifaceted understandings about the origins and avenues of familiar, overlooked objects (Chapters 1 and 2). The history and iterations of this interdisciplinary, inquirybased pedagogy are traced from Old World Europe to antebellum New York and the postbellum South; the reader follows the evolution of object lessons from classrooms into fictional stories and the trade cards, magazine advertisements, and street posters of political campaigns and business adverts (Chapter 3). Carter’s book is accessible, evocative, and engaging, much like the objects that form the book’s footing.

Object Lessons has import for scholars and teachers of distinct disciplines. Carter’s work contributes to the fields of American Studies, American history, and the history and foundations of American education. Education foundations researchers will recognize the ingenuity of having students interrogate windows, ladders, chairs, granite, tin, and other everyday objects for interconnections and manifest labor in their construction and relocation. Educational philosophy scholars will appreciate the epistemological and ontological assumptions in an ancestor of cognitive constructivism and sociocultural theory—prior knowledge impacts interpretations of new information; understandings are contextually contingent and emergent; evocative catalysts coupled with age-appropriate scaffolding sparks criticality; and through observation and reflection, teachers can better understand how students construct, organize, and articulate understandings. English teachers will identify a myriad of critical thinking and literacy opportunities, like close readings, text-based writing, and intertextual connections between diverse sources. Early childhood experts will spot the elicitation of curiosity in the hands-on, minds-on inquiry of a forebear of the Reggio Emilia approach and Montessori education. Educational psychologists will identify the cognitive tasks—analysis, synthesis, and evaluation— as students’ schema is refined with new experiences and understandings. Teachers will be reminded of education’s cyclical nature: inquiry, criticality, disciplinary literacy, interdisciplinary themes, and a relevant curricula that refine students’ prior knowledge all appeared within nineteenth-century object lessons and in twentyfirst- century educational initiatives. History teachers, especially, will likely find a treasury of new ideas. History students can engage in object lessons to experience the novelty, to recognize the austerity of nineteenth-century American schooling, and to illumine nineteenth-century America’s racial and social hierarchy (Chapter 4).

To highlight one example, the book features a detail-laden photograph of a white teacher leading a class of African American students examining a Native American. Carter unpacks this living object lesson to consider the accompanying ethical considerations along with a myriad of misrepresentations and anachronisms (pp. 113-114). Modeling how teachers were to guide scrutiny through interjection of obscure yet important details at opportune times, Carter points out how the school name of Hampton Institute, located in the photograph’s title, would mean little to students. The Hampton Institute was founded to train newly freed African Americans for service for which its most famous alumnus, Booker T.

Washington, would later be synonymous. Not grounded in literacy, object lessons complemented Hampton students’ training in gardening, farming, washing, and ironing. Photographs of Hampton’s newly freed African Americans learning to labor can offer an aperture through which twenty-first-century inhabitants can view America’s nineteenth-century past.

Object lessons ebbed, as Carter details, towards the nineteenth century’s end as new trends with differing emphases emerged. Traces of object lessons have remained or have reemerged at times. As Carter argues, “That some nineteenthcentury Americans learned and believed that things and pictures could stabilize or even crystallize ideas, however simple, should be part of the history of ideas in the United States” (p. 137).

John H. Bickford IIIEastern Illinois University

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