Tri-Counties Genealogy & History by Joyce M. Tice
1897 Year Book of the New York State Reformatory at Elmira
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Prof. A. E. Upham, Director.



The Lecture Department of the School of Letters is an organic part of the comprehensive system of instruction, education and reformation of which the Institution is a practical expression. The kind and amount of work undertaken in the lecture course is determined with particular reference to the fact that the reformatory treatment is complex, and its different features coordinated.

The Department touches directly only about two-thirds of the inmates. Of these there are two classes: (1) those who in free life had somewhat exceptional school advantages, and are able to do satisfactory work of an advanced character.

The number of such is small. (2) Those who on entering the Institution were assigned to lower classes and have been promoted to the Lecture Divisions.


There are four lecture divisions each week, one each in the four general subjects of history, literature, nature studies and ethics. The two former meet on week nights, the two latter on Sundays. The


history division is attended by the members of the highest or (A) class only, and numbers about 215 men. The literature division includes classes (A) and (B) with a membership of about 450 men. The division in nature studies is composed of an entirely different, and according to intellectual attainments, a lower class of men, the attendance averaging about 450 men. The class in practical ethics consists of the inmate instructors of the School of Letters, and such members of classes (A) and (B) as maintain a position in the Upper first or Lower First (disciplinary) Grade. Owing to frequent disciplinary reductions, the enrollment varies, averaging about 350 names.


The purpose of the work is determined by several considerations. Utilitarian principles govern. What will be useful to the men in free life is carefully considered. A constant effort if made to so stimulate and direct the men that, when restored to free life, they may follow lines of reading and study for which they have formed a taste during their detention in the Reformatory, and find in a new occupation a companionship that will prove a constant source of uplift.


The lecture method is followed in the divisions in history, literature and nature studies. Maps, blackboard drawings, and stereopticon slides are freely used. In nature studies, as far as possible, the objects are brought before the class. The treatment of subjects is made necessarily brief by the limited time of detention of most of the members of the divisions. A printed outline of the lecture is handed each man as he enters the lecture hall. This he retains and is made the basis of an examination.



The history of the United States, particularly it’s political history, furnishes the subject matter for the greater proportion of the course. This is introduced by a rapid survey of general history with a view to enlarge the pupils’ horizon and enable him to see the necessary relations and sequences in history. Whenever possible, historical facts




    are grouped about some great central personal figure, who is both a fulfillment and a prophesy. Not only is the attention of the class held better by a living treatment, but it evidently makes a more lasting impression. Current politics at home and abroad are regularly considered. Two main purposes are kept constantly in view, (1) the arousing of a genuine interest in historical reading for the entertainment it affords; (2) to acquaint the men with the facts and principles that will enable them the better to appreciate the privileges and duties of American citizenship.


    To interest and instruct a class of about 450 men, more or less fatigued with the physical activities of the day and the week, in the task, which for an hour and a half occupies the Instructor every Friday evening. The best of English and American prose and poetry is read and studied with the class. One of the most encouraging things in connection with the work here is exhibited in the manifest interest of this large class of men in literary master-pieces. A power of appreciation is evidenced that is truly surprising. Nor is a catchy story, or an interesting plot necessary to this interest, provided the author has revealed in his treatment the hand of a master. The class studies literature rather than about literature. For this purpose each member of the class is furnished a copy of the poem or story, or play studied. Each man is thus brought in contact with what the best authors and thinkers have produced.

    While the Instructor reads the play or poem, and comments, the class is encouraged in the exercise of personal judgment, and the examinations often reveal considerable critical ability. The form of literature most appreciated by the class is the play, Shakespeare being a favorite author. In this matter, at least, I believe the taste of the class may be gratified without questioning. I am sure that the recent reading of a translation of Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, and the more recent study of the Two Gentlemen of Verona have been more powerful teachers of correct forms of life with these men than more manifest attempts at moral instruction. The experience of another year confirms this statement made in the last Year Book: "It is the conviction of the instructor that work in English and American literature is particularly calculated to produce a refinement of thought


    and feeling in the class of men whose birth and training have left them deficient, especially in sensitiveness."


    Every Sunday morning a class numbering over 425 men assembles in the Auditorium and listens to a lecture on some subject connected with Nature. The members of this class have had less intellectual training than the members of the classes in history, literature or ethics, and many of them have less intellectual capacity, though if they remain long enough in the Institution, many will be promoted to the other lecture divisions. A considerable number of the men are physically and intellectually sluggish.

    This intellectual dullness must be sharpened. The work of the hour is designed to awaken interest and stimulate the imaginative faculty which is very inactive in many, almost wanting in some. The study of Nature properly conducted seems to be adapted to these ends. Common natural objects which have never attracted the attention of the men, are brought before the class. Perhaps it is a rock picked up by the roadside. At first the class shows displeasure at this apparent trifling. But that rock has a story, and an interesting one to tell, and with the interest is instruction. But better than the instruction in the facts of nature, the imaginative faculty has been stimulated, and the powers of observation aroused. The man sees something in his stone cell from that day that he had not seen before. With other members of the class he observes objects more closely and becomes a discoverer of small, but to him new worlds. New subjects are taken up each week, the general field of Nature being traversed, but with little attempt at order or system, and no attempt at completeness. The lectures are in the form of familiar talks. In the matter of subject and treatment, the thing kept constantly in mind is that which will interest. One aim has been to interest the members of the class in things apart from themselves. A gratifying feature, evidencing real interest, has appeared in numerous objects, animate and inanimate, collected by members of the class, who, during the week labored on the farm or lawn, and sent up to the desk for identification. Numerous notes and

questions likewise testify to the interest aroused. Another aim kept constantly in mind with this class is the leading of the thought of the men, without their being conscious of the process, from the thing created to the Creator, who has wrought it.


For several months the session of the class in Practical Ethics has been held Sunday evening. By outlines and brief lectures the general field of Ethics has been covered by the Instructor. A unique feature of the class is the part taken by the members who frequently occupy the entire session of an hour and a half. Practical questions are proposed, and the members of the class engage freely in their discussion. The clear thinking and nice discriminations of some of the men are a source of surprise to visitors. Discussions raise many questions from members of the class, and these questions often lead to interesting discussions. The aim kept before the class is the search for truth, in which each man is encouraged to be an original discoverer. Besides the practical duties of the individual, the class frequently discusses the larger social and political questions.

As membership in the Ethics Class is determined by intellectual and disciplinary qualifications it carries with it a certain honor which makes it a thing highly coveted by many. The sense of ownership which the members are encouraged to indulge in regard to the sessions of the class, and the freedom of discussion permitted. Tend to make the session in fact what it is in name, a class in practical ethics.


Looking back over the year I ask myself the question so often put to me by others, "What is there to show for the work?" The answer is full of encouragement. Evidences of progress, quickening and the power of rational self-direction are too frequent and too plain to raise questioning. Watching the men from week to week and month to month, one sees changes in the facial lines which correspond to changes within. But most of the changes are so gradual and subtle that they pass unnoticed, until one suddenly and in some unexpected


way, is made conscious that a man who seemed to be unmoved and unaffected by the work has been all the time undergoing the process of physical, mental and moral upbuilding.