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State Normal Schools


As college students around the state crisscross their campus, heading to class or the library, students at a few institutions may notice some unusual markers. Plaques, cornerstones, or even large benches with the words "Normal School," engraved across them. At first glance, the title seems unusual; after all, what makes a school "Normal?" Is it an award, given to an educational institution in recognition of, well, normalcy? Or perhaps, an ancient accreditation system informing students in a quaint manner that the education they'd receive at such an institution was normal; they wouldn't have to study anything too exotic.

In actuality, "Normal Schools" are schools for the instruction of new teachers. Early in the 19th Century, educators from around the country recognized the need for improved training of new teachers. Traditionally, local teachers were simply adults, or often young girls, who had a better education than anyone else in the community. Most 19th Century educational reformers acknowledged that this worked in a pinch, but argued it simply would not do for a rising industrial power such as the United States. Taking a page from the Prussian and French educational systems, American educational reformers looked to create entirely new schools devoted primarily to the instruction of teachers.

At the forefront of this movement was Horace Mann. Born on this date in 1796 in Franklin, Massachusetts, Mann was instrumental in reforming the nation's educational system. As Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, he organized the nation's first public Normal School at Lexington in 1839. Other Normal Schools soon sprung up, and by 1870, 43 were established across the nation. Each of these Normal Schools provided similar academic curriculum found at other educational institutions, but with two noticeable exceptions. Omitting Latin and Greek, once seen as the foundation of any ‘proper' education, the schools were able to increase the time devoted to instruction in the science of teaching. Additionally, the schools attached model classrooms where teaching methods could be demonstrated and instructors could be given the opportunity to practice with actual children.

Seeing the success of Normal Schools around the nation, North Dakotans sought to bring the establishments to the state, even while the state was still being formed. Embedded within the controversial Article XIX (nineteen) of the State Constitution of North Dakota was a provision calling for two state Normal Schools; one in Valley City and one nearby in Mayville. As the state grew westward, the demand for new institutions in the western portion of the state grew. Minot gained a Normal school in 1913, followed by Dickinson in 1918.

All of North Dakota's "Normal Schools" have long since changed their names, dropping the word "Normal" for "college" or "university" to better reflect the expansion of their outreach and curriculum. Yet these schools continue to provide an essential educational service, placing learned, professional teachers in classrooms throughout North Dakota.

Dakota Datebook written by Lane Sunwall


"Horace Mann", Ohio History Central http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/entry.php?rec=2380 (accessed March 13, 2009).

Stump-DeLong, Winifred. The Story of Dickinson State: The College on the Hill 1907-2003. Dickinson, ND: DSU Alumni Association, 2003.

Welsh, Donald H. Cornerstones: A Centennial History of Valley City State University 1890-1990. Valley City, ND: Valley City Times-Record, 1990.