|While the Acadians were as literate
as the rest of the general population, the 19th century world perceived
them as uneducated. They were considered as an element of the white
trash of Louisiana.
It was a simple fact that an extended
education was unnecessary as far as many Acadians were concerned.
They lived a simple life of farming, ranching, and hunting. Once
they learned to communicate well enough to earn a living, more
education was not needed.
Cajun education took a turn in the
early 20th century. Though more children were going to school, the
state of Louisiana decided that English was to be the only language utilized
in school. This was set up in the 1921 constitution. Although
the idea was abolished by the U.S. Supreme Court two years later, Louisiana
schools retained the practice for over four decades. This English-only
education has resulted in several generations of Cajuns who have not learned
the ancestral language of their culture.
The education of the public has been
badly neglected in Louisiana. The unconcern of the rural population,
the long distances from home to school, the poor education of the teachers,
the lack of confidence in the schools, the low salaries, the lack of proper
buildings, have all worked against the establishment of elementary schools
until the present (1875).
In the last few years one sees a notable
improvement in public instruction. The schoolmasters are better chosen,
they must pass an examination, school-houses are being built, and the schools
inspected; the teaching is no longer a matter of the individual teacher’s
fancy but follows a new and uniform plan. Before 1850, one had only
to know how to read, write and cipher up to the rules of interest to find
a job as a schoolteacher. There was much concern for numbers but
grammar was in low esteem, and as in the time when the older people of
our own day were at school, handwriting was stressed at the expense of
spelling. More than three-quarters of the “habitants” could not readily
read handwriting; a certain number, especially among the women, could neither
read nor write. Today, in spite of the great impetus given education,
one meets many people who can neither read nor sign their names.
These are usually older people, especially women, who could not when young
receive the advantages of elementary schooling.
Half the younger generation can read
and write English more or less correctly, and French to some extent.
However, very few are sufficiently educated to keep books for the farm
or write a clear letter or narrative. This is due to the ineptitude
of the individual in some cases, to his neglect in others, or to the small
interest his parents showed in education.
Indeed there are intelligent, clever
children who attend school for five or six years without learning more
than a little reading and writing. Others, though they profited from
their lessons, quickly forgot their little pack of learning. This
is true of the greater part of the young population from twenty to thirty.
Most parents think their children
know enough when they have a fairly good handwriting and read without too
much hesitation. They then hastily remove them from school and put
them to work. In most farm houses, there is neither paper nor pen
and ink. Books are rare. There are almanacs, prayer-books,
some devotional works, and nothing more. Parents who have never read
a book, and who honestly believe that to be a farmer one requires only
a little reading, writing, and arithmetic, would probably view with jaundiced
eye any interest in books or writing for pleasure among their grown children.
The children themselves do not tend
to pursue further study because they have not progressed enough to read
even the simpler material they can come by without troublesome effort.
Further, the demands of daily work,
friendly visiting and youthful pleasure, which fill up the lives of the
young, militate against any continued interest in letters. In short,
books and pen are put aside, and at the age of 21, one can do no more than
read and sign one’s name.
Girls read much more than boys, but
most do not write. Once married, they say farewell to the pen and
almost never use one again, especially when they become farmers’ wives.
Fletcher, Joel Lafayette. Louisiana
Education Since Colonial Days. Lafayette, LA: Southwestern
Louisiana Institute, 1948.
Stephens, Edwin L. "The Story of Education
in Acadiana and a Tribute to Robert Martin, Founder of S.L.I.," Attakapas
Gazette, 26 (1991): 141-44.
Stephens, Edwin Lewis. "The Story
of Acadian Education in Louisiana," Louisiana Historical Quarterly, 18
(July, 1935): 397-406.