Day 257: William B. Rice

Wednesday September 14, 2011

The public school system in Pittsfield around 1830 is worth leading this tale, if only to report that the School Committee was concerned that few, if any, teachers at that time were making it past three consecutive years. It was, in part, still a profession that lacked respect and "dignity."

Too bad, because the report also suggests that there were some pretty strong candidates within the ranks.

That respect was still lacking around the mid-1870s, and it was William B. Rice, the brother of silk mill baron Arthur Rice (profiled a few days ago) who steered the educational ship through some stormy waters and brought a measure of credibility to those jobs.

The former Rice Elementary School in the Morningside area of the city -- just a two-minute walk from where Arthur had his factory at Burbank and Spring streets -- carried William's name for decades.

Rice held all the cards in 1876, although for sure it was a case of being careful what you wish for. But Rice was steadfast, and the city actually needed him more than he needed his role in education. That mattered little to Rice, who in truth cared greatly and pushed for education reforms.

He was the School Committee chairman in 1876, and the president of its executive sub-committee. Do the math -- Rice had all the powers of what the city was looking to hire, a superintendent. Rice, for two years, was part of a search committee to fill that position, and finally in 1879 took the job himself.

That was a good thing for Pittsfield. He served as superintendent until he was succeeded by Thomas Day in 1785. He served on the School Committee again from 1891 through 1911

A report authored by Rice in 1879 offers insight into his way of thinking. It's said he was rarely discouraged about his reform ideas and he hammered away consistently in order to see that some progress be made.

Wrote Rice, "To assign lessons and hear recitations is barely to touch the true sphere of the teacher's work. It seems to me that many, in discussing the public school question, almost entirely lose sight of the great question, why public schools should exist at all.

"To look upon the public schools as designed merely to fit children to get on in life, is to underestimate the immensely important interests which the public has in their maintenance."

Rice served during a critical stage in PIttsfield's education evolution, and it's written that the city "never had a more devoted person to education."


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