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The Normal Lyceum and the History of the Normal School's Debating Societies

Lyceum Record Book, 1864
Lyceum Record Book, 1864

One of the earliest student organizations formed at the Western State Normal School was the First Maine State Normal Lyceum. Beginning in 1864, it held weekly meetings during each school term, consisting of lectures, discussions and reading selections. While engaged in debate, the members of the association were expected to “preserve that decorum which comparts with gentlemanly dignity and true politeness.” Although its Constitution and By-Laws referenced the acceptable behaviors of gentlemen, the group was open to any student of the school and the majority of those who participated in the early terms were women.

Elected officers governed the association and ran the meetings. A Critic was chosen by the President each week to make written note of any behavior believed not to conform to the high standards expected of the members and the report was read aloud at the end of the meeting. In addition to occasional lectures by Principal Gage, other faculty and invited guests, some meetings included entertainments such as music and recitations. Others were devoted to a discussion topic, sometimes followed by readings from the school’s Normal Casket publication.

Discussion topics included current issues of the post-war period, such as whether the country was more prosperous before or after the war, if the property of those who held a civil or military commission under the Confederate Government should be confiscated to pay the National debt, and if the costs of the war incurred by the cities and towns should be paid out of the national treasury. More general debates focused on social issues relating to immigration, suffrage and intemperance.

There were also some debates about education. Recurring topics including abolishing corporal punishment in the common schools, teachers devoting more attention to “brilliant talent than to those that are dull” and the practice of awarding prizes for superior scholarship. The teaching of mathematics was also a hot topic, with debates on if it should be taught and how much classroom time should be devoted to it.

Beginning in 1868, the association’s meetings shifted focus to primarily education topics and recitations or readings related to the practice of teaching, classroom management, pupil behaviors and the organization structure of the common schools system. Readings were followed by remarks from Principal Rounds and other faculty. Although there were still occasional musical entertainments, the meetings became more of an extension of the Normal School classroom than an exchange of views among peers.

The Annitorian Debating Club and The Normal Debating Club, 1866 - 1875

The Annitorian Debating Club was formed in 1866 as a private debating club. The group met weekly to discuss a question and had two Critics. Anyone who failed to abide by the Constitution and By-Laws incurred a 50¢ fine. Failure to pay the fine meant expulsion from the club. Attendance was strict. Members who missed more than three meetings forfeited the right to membership, although they could be reinstate by house ballot. The group also had a Porter, chosen by the President at each meeting, whose task was to take charge of the meeting room doors.

F.S.N.S. Students Studying, c. 1896

Most debate topics were similar to those of the Lyseum, such as whether capital punishment ought to be abolished, women are as intelligent as men, reward is a greater incentive for good behavior than punishment, and a voter should have some degree of education to be allowed to vote. Other topics were more philosophical: if the knowledge of day-break is the result of observation or instinct and if visionary speculations are necessary for successful investigation of nature as applied to scientific research. There were also Maine topics: manufacturing establishments of Maine ought to be encouraged and the manufacturing in lumber in Maine ought to receive more attention than the manufacture of woolen goods.

The Annitorian Club continued until April 16, 1870. The record of the last meeting indicated the club made the decision to divide into two sections. A new Constitution was created for the formation of the Innominatum Debating Association. Its structure and by-laws were similar to the original debating club, although the fine for non-compliance with the rules was only 25¢. This new group focused more on philosophical questions, such as beauty in art versus nature, the importance of the poet versus statesman, the advantages of acquired versus natural abilities, and the benefits of wealth versus education. The Innominatum Association continued meet until April of 1874.

The Normal Debating Club was formed in May of 1874 under yet another constitution and had more members each term than the Innominatum. Many of the debate questions were similar to those of the previous groups. However this club did venture into more risqué waters with discussion of whether polygamy should be abolished in the U.S. states and if a matrimonial agreement should precede all lovemaking.

Normal Literary and Debating Society, 1877 - 1893

In 1877, a new Normal Literary and Debating Society was formed. According to its constitution, “all male members of the school may become members.” The society held weekly evening meetings. Guests were permitted to attend the meetings if invited by a member, but could be excluded by request of one fourth of the members present. The constitution was amended by 1880 to remove the word “male” so any member of the school could become a member of the society. The list of members for fall term in 1882 included at least four women.

Many of this society’s meetings included some form of music or song along with a discussion question. Many of the topics were similar to those discussed by the earlier debating groups. By the 1880s, readings or speeches on current events were given in some meetings.

In 1885 the society adopted a new constitution. Although similar to the previous document, it operated under Robert’s Rules of Order rather than Cushing’s Manual, and included a list of By-Laws. While debating and musical entertainments continued to be the major part of the meetings, there were a few meetings in 1885 that included “two minute speeches” on a wide range of topics, such as the study of astronomy by moonlight, evening walks, baseball and spring styles of hats.

The Society almost disbanded in 1892, but continued on for another year with yet another version of a constitution. The society seemed to have an identity crisis in late 1893, debating if it should refer to itself as a lyceum or an Athenaeum, and more meetings were postponed than held. Perhaps the students’ interest in discussion was waning in favor of more active pursuits. One of the last discussion topics in 1893 was “sociables are more beneficial to the members of this school than the lyceum.”

The Athenaeum, 1893 - 1904

The Athenaeum was established in September 1893 and had about 70 members at the start in Winter Term of 1983. Membership remained robust through 1902. Although a few meetings were solely for business matters and occasional meetings featured brief readings with entertainments and no debate, most meetings consisted of one or two music performances, a reading or two, and a topic discussion.

Many of the topics related to current events, such as the government should assume control of the Nicaragua canal, Canada should be annexed to the U.S., the United States must interfere in the dispute between Great Britain and Venezuela be remain true to the “Monroe Doctrine”, and the interference of Greece in the affairs of Crete is justifiable. Suffrage for women, restrictions on immigration to the U.S. and free trade were also recurring topics.

The final record book contained only one entry for the first spring term meeting on April 8, 1904. Officers were appointed and a fee of 1 cent assessed to each member for the purchase of a new record book. The group discussed whether “devotion to fashion is productive of more evil than the tobacco habit” and decided tobacco use was the greater evil.

Without additional records, the final demise of the Athenaeum and the debating society tradition at the Normal School is unknown.

Sources: Record Book of the First Maine State Normal Lyceum, 1864 – 1866; Record. First Maine State Normal Lyceum from March 1, 1867 to March 25, 1872; Record Book of the First Maine Lyceum, April 1, 1872 – Sept. 27, 1875; Records. Annitorian Debating Club and The Normal Debating Club, Dec. 29, 1866 – April 3, 1875; Records of the Normal Literary and Debating Society, 1877-1893; F.N.S. Records of the Athenaeum, 1893-1902; and F.S.N.S. Records of the Athenaeum, 1904