Q: Have you any idea what’s “normal” in terms like “normal school” and “normal college” and “normal department”?
A: Many of today’s American universities got their start in the 19th century as “normal schools” or “normal colleges”—that is, teacher training schools intended to standardize requirements and raise the quality of teachers in public education.
Earlier in the century, a similar usage developed in British higher education, where an institution specifically for training teachers was a “normal school” and a large university’s department of education was its “normal department.”
Later on, the adjective was dropped as the “normals” grew more comprehensive and did more than train teachers.
For instance, the Normal School of Design, founded in 1837 to set standards for art and design education, was renamed the Royal College of Art in 1896.
And in the US, the California State Normal School, founded in 1880 to train teachers, eventually became UCLA, the University of California, Los Angeles.
How did the word “normal” relate to the training of teachers in those days? The use can be traced to the classical Latin norma (a model, standard, or pattern). We’ll show later how this notion made its way into French educational terminology and then into English.
The educational sense of “normal” is defined this way in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Of, relating to, or intended for the training of teachers, esp. in Continental Europe and North America.”
This sense of the adjective “normal,” the OED says, is found “chiefly” in the phrase “normal school” and is “now historical”—that is, used in references to the past.
The dictionary adds this note: “In North America, normal schools were for training primary school teachers. In Continental Europe, different normal schools also trained teachers at secondary and tertiary levels.”
(A clarification: Many “normal colleges” in the US had both short- and long-term programs. They offered not only teaching certificates, qualifying people to teach in elementary schools, but bachelor’s degrees enabling them to teach high school as well.)
The educational use of “normal,” as well as the phrase “normal school,” was adopted from late 18th-century French, where an école normale (first recorded in 1793) was a school for the training of teachers. Here the adjective normale meant “which serves as a model,” according to the OED.
The dictionary’s earliest English example—for this use of “normal” and for “normal school”—is from an anonymous English author who had lived in France in the 1790s: “At the opening of the Normal schools” (A Residence in France, 1797, by an “English Lady”).
Oxford notes that France’s first école normale “was set up by decree in 1794, and later became dedicated to training teachers for secondary education and thus (from 1845) called the Ecole Normale Supérieure.”
The dictionary’s next English citation is from a letter written on Aug. 29, 1826, by a Scottish clergyman visiting Copenhagen: “Colonel Abrahamson … has been with us all this afternoon, and has shewn us the Normal School” (The Life and Letters of Christopher Anderson, written by Hugh Anderson in 1853).
The earliest use we’ve found for the term in the US is from 1839, the year that the first such school opened in America. This is from a proclamation issued on April, 12, 1839, by the Massachusetts Board of Education:
“The Board of Education hereby give notice, that one Normal School, for the qualification of Female Teachers, is to be established at Lexington, in the county of Middlesex; and another, for the qualification of both Males and Females, is to be established at Barre, in the county of Worcester.” (From The Common School Journal, Boston, April 15, 1839. The journal was edited by Horace Mann, who signed the proclamation as a member of the state board and who was later a US congressman.)
The Lexington Normal School opened first, on July 3, 1839 (it’s now Framingham State University). Among the school’s first graduating class was Mann’s niece Rebecca Mann Pennell Dean, who went on to teach at Antioch College in 1853, making her the nation’s first female college professor.
As a later citation from the OED shows, American educators commonly used variations like “normal college” and “normal university.” This is from legislation recorded in the Illinois House Journal (1857):
“Senate bill for ‘An act for the establishment and maintenance of a normal university’ was taken up. … There shall be established in said university … a normal college for the education of teachers of common schools.”