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Are you smarter than a 5th 1916?

September 24, 2016

The educational system in Nashville has changed quite a bit over the years, but the core subjects have always remained at the forefront of teaching. But with a few changes, would you have excelled if you had been in school about 100 years ago?

Education - a topic and institution that's been well-debated and practiced all over the world since the beginning of time. From hieroglyphs to abacuses, and textbooks to Ipads - it's approached in all sorts of ways and mediums for one main goal - to convey an understanding of a topic (of all subjects) from one person to another (or anothers in this case). That's the best, most simplest definition of education I can explain at this moment. But you already knew that, right? My point, you ask? Education has been a constant throughout all cultures for a long, long time - but are you curious what education looked like about 100 years ago? And if you would have passed the same classes? You might be surprised.

Here are a few highlights of Nashville education at the beginning of the 20th century...

Based on the curriculum and standards description on the Metro Schools page, today's subject area for students to fulfill are:

  • Arts Education
  • Counseling and career guidance
  • Computer Technology
  • Early Learning Development
  • English Language Arts
  • English as a second language
  • Health/PE/Wellness
  • Mathematics
  • Personal Finance
  • Science
  • Social Studies

However, the curriculum for students over 100 years ago looked a little different...

For high school, students focused similarily on the classics with (to the right, photo of Hume Fogg High School in 1913):

  • English
  • Latin
  • Greek
  • German
  • French
  • Mathematics
  • Social Science, including History
  • Natural Science
  • Commerce
  • Mechanic Arts
  • Household Arts and Sciences
  • Drawing
  • Music

A sample report from one high school student -

For Grammar Schools:

Based on the text-books used, the courses predominantly focused on:

  • Reading
  • English
  • Literature
  • Writing
  • Music
  • Arithmetic
  • Spelling
  • Geography
  • Anatomy and Health 
  • History or Social Sciences
  • For Boys - Woodworking
  • Drawing and Applied Arts

Also found in a 1911 Courses of Study book for Nashville Public Schools, the younger grades that I'm assuming equate to current primary levels, received lessons in other types of informative arts -

I want to learn how to make a hammock! Where was that when I was in school?!

A few other highlights from the reports - I'd like to also point out that these reports reflect the culture of the time period and this was prior to desegration of schools, so these statistics still reflect the segregation of the schools.


Spring term of 1911-12, a plan to furnish textbooks and supplies to children, free of cost, was tried as an experiment in the First-B grade. The success of the plan in that grade was so evident, it was expanded through the 5th grade and further in the Grammar School courses. This plan was enabled to both save the citizens of the city thousands of dollars (by getting books at reduced rates), but also because the Board was enabled to obtain books of a high standard of a greater variety of texts under the subject of reading (what was considered to be the most important subject in the curriculum). 

Graduation presents, anyone? What did you get as a gift for graduation? Money? A computer for college perhaps? A car if you were extremely lucky? Check out what one student got for graduation, circa. 1913. I would have liked to get a piano, myself. 

And did your class have a class color or flower? How about a class cheer?

Would you at least qualify as a teacher in 1900? (Based on the test below...I don't think I would). Go ahead, take the quiz below! 

And lastly, another fun fact about education in Nashville, the first school to be established here was Davidson Academy. In 1785, Davidson Academy was chartered and endowed with 240 acres of land south of the town. The Rev. Thomas B. Craighead, a Presbyterian minister and educator, was invited from North Carolina to preside over it. In 1806, it became Cumberland College, and in 1825, it became the University of Nashville.

lucille ball


Sarah is a Program Coordinator with Metro Archives. Her interests and areas of expertise are history, reading books (of any kind), music, travel, Harry Potter, and bingeing a good comedy series. When not in Archives, she is either nose-deep in a book or planning her next trip. Learn more about the fascinating materials found at Metro Archives through their website.