The Founding of the Normal SchoolBlack & White Image of the Old Main building

In his “Notes on Education at the Columbian Exhibition,” United States Commissioner of Education John Eaton observed that “the normal school at Ypsilanti is justifying its foundation.” These words were true praise, as the Normal’s visionary founders had left a great legacy to live up to.

When Michigan achieved statehood in 1837, the state’s leaders recognized the need to train teachers for the public schools. After an early plan to train teachers at branches of the University of Michigan failed, John D. Pierce, chair of the Board of Visitors of the University of Michigan, issued a report in 1847 calling for the creation of a state normal school. Normal schools, institutions designed to prepare future teachers, had recently been introduced in the United States. Only four state normal schools had opened their doors, the oldest of these was eight years old.

Despite the normal schools’ novelty, the Michigan legislature embraced Pierce’s recommendation. Oliver C. Comstock, chair of the State House of Representatives Committee on Education, reported out a bill to create a State Normal School, and he secured the bill’s passage on March 28, 1849. The law’s preamble expressed a high mission for the school:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the State of Michigan, That a State Normal School be established, the exclusive purposes of which shall be the instruction of persons both male and female in the art of teaching, and in all the various branches that pertain to a good common school education; also, to give instructions in the mechanic arts, and in the arts of husbandry and agricultural chemistry, in the fundamental laws of the United States, and in what regards the rights and duties of citizens. 

Noteworthy here is the inclusion of students “both male and female” at a time when no state university admitted women. The University of Michigan would not admit a female student until 1870, but the Normal admitted students without restriction by sex or race from the outset. Also notable is the tension between “exclusive purposes” and “also”: in that “also” lay the seed of mission growth that would eventually transform the Normal into a comprehensive university. Finally, the inclusion of civic education in the Normal’s mission made the cultivation of responsible citizenship a fundamental aim of the school.

Speeches delivered at the dedication of the Normal School building in October 1852 hailed the founding of the Normal as a momentous event. Founding Principal Adonijah Strong Welch’s remarks included these lofty words:

It may savor somewhat of enthusiasm, yet in my humble judgment, this day's work will form a prominent item in the history of western progress. This side of the Empire State it is the first experiment of a similar character made under the auspices of legislative enactment. Who will venture to predict the influence which its success will exert upon the educational interests of the entire Northwest?

And it seems to me, sir, that in giving this edifice an elevation above the noble thoroughfare which threads our State, you have happily symbolized the relative rank which your enterprise should hold, when compared with the great physical improvements of the age.

Welch’s phrase “This side of the Empire State” did not catch on, but in a 1902 speech delivered on the fiftieth anniversary of this dedication ceremony, Professor Daniel Putnam described MSNS as “the first Normal School west of the Alleghenies,” and this formulation of MSNS’s first-in-the-west status has been repeated ever since. 

The Normal’s first catalog from 1853 presented an expanded vision of what a normal school could be. The first five American normal schools trained students to teach in grammar schools, but the Michigan State Normal School offered not only a course of study for future elementary school teachers (the English Course), but also a course of study for secondary teachers (the Classical Course). To equip students to teach in the union schools (the predecessor of the public high school), MSNS provided instruction in a wide range of academic subjects, including geography, grammar, arithmetic, elocution, philosophy, algebra, chemistry, physiology, music, drawing, bookkeeping, botany, rhetoric, geometry, geology, trigonometry, surveying, intellectual philosophy, teaching, Latin, Greek, Spanish, astronomy, and the Constitution of the United States. 

With its innovative Classical Course, MSNS aspired to train students to teach in a kind of school that was just coming into being. Michigan’s first union school had been established in 1847 (in Jonesville, with Adonijah Welch as Principal). As MSNS Principal, Welch and his faculty colleagues recognized that union school teachers needed training in both pedagogy and academic subjects; the Classical Course they devised may have been the first-ever curriculum designed to prepare teachers for secondary education. Although the wisdom of combining pedagogical and academic coursework in a teacher preparation program may seem obvious, colleges and universities maintained that their purely academic programs provided the best training for union school teachers, and they resisted MSNS’s move into secondary education preparation. For the rest of the century the Normal School would have to combat collegiate critics who held that normal schools should stick to preparing elementary school teachers.

The School overcame great adversities during its first years. In October 1859, a fire burned the main building down to its brick walls. Nonetheless, classes continued without interruption, meeting in other Ypsilanti locations, and the building was rebuilt, reopening for classes in April 1860.

During the Civil War some 160 Normal students and alumni volunteered; of these, 32 were killed in military service. Enrollment dwindled to a low of 167 in 1865, yet instruction carried on.

In 1893, the great accomplishments of the Normal’s founders were still in living memory. In fact, four of the School’s leaders in 1892 had been early graduates of the Normal. Principal John M. B. Sill was a member of the first graduating class, the Class of 1854. Professor of History and Civil Government and Preceptress Julia Anne King had graduated in 1858, Professor of Drawing and Geography John Goodison graduated in 1860, and Training School Director Austin George graduated in 1863. Goodison died in October 1892, and Sill and George resigned in 1893 and 1896 respectively, but King served for another two decades, retiring in 1915 as the last faculty link to the founding era.