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History of the Cajuns: Encyclopedia of Cajun Life

While the Acadians were as literate as the rest of the general population, the 19th century world perceived them as uneducated.  They were considered as an element of the white trash of Louisiana. 

It was a simple fact that an extended education was unnecessary as far as many Acadians were concerned.  They lived a simple life of farming, ranching, and hunting.  Once they learned  to  communicate well enough to earn a living, more education was not needed.

Cajun education took a turn in the early 20th century.  Though more children were going to school, the state of Louisiana decided that English was to be the only language utilized in school.  This was set up in the 1921 constitution.  Although the idea was abolished by the U.S. Supreme Court two years later, Louisiana schools retained the practice for over four decades.  This English-only education has resulted in several generations of Cajuns who have not learned the ancestral language of their culture.

Rural Schooling

    The education of the public has been badly neglected in Louisiana.  The unconcern of the rural population, the long distances from home to school, the poor education of the teachers, the lack of confidence in the schools, the low salaries, the lack of proper buildings, have all worked against the establishment of elementary schools until the present (1875).
    In the last few years one sees a notable improvement in public instruction.  The schoolmasters are better chosen, they must pass an examination, school-houses are being built, and the schools inspected; the teaching is no longer a matter of the individual teacher’s fancy but follows a new and uniform plan.  Before 1850, one had only to know how to read, write and cipher up to the rules of interest to find a job as a schoolteacher.  There was much concern for numbers but grammar was in low esteem, and as in the time when the older people of our own day were at school, handwriting was stressed at the expense of spelling.  More than three-quarters of the “habitants” could not readily read handwriting; a certain number, especially among the women, could neither read nor write.  Today, in spite of the great impetus given education, one meets many people who can neither read nor sign their names.  These are usually older people, especially women, who could not when young receive the advantages of elementary schooling. 
    Half the younger generation can read and write English more or less correctly, and French to some extent.  However, very few are sufficiently educated to keep books for the farm or write a clear letter or narrative.  This is due to the ineptitude of the individual in some cases, to his neglect in others, or to the small interest his parents showed in education.
    Indeed there are intelligent, clever children who attend school for five or six years without learning more than a little reading and writing.  Others, though they profited from their lessons, quickly forgot their little pack of learning.  This is true of the greater part of the young population from twenty to thirty.
    Most parents think their children know enough when they have a fairly good handwriting and read without too much hesitation.  They then hastily remove them from school and put them to work.  In most farm houses, there is neither paper nor pen and ink.  Books are rare.  There are almanacs, prayer-books, some devotional works, and nothing more.  Parents who have never read a book, and who honestly believe that to be a farmer one requires only a little reading, writing, and arithmetic, would probably view with jaundiced eye any interest in books or writing for pleasure among their grown children. 
    The children themselves do not tend to pursue further study because they have not progressed enough to read even the simpler material they can come by without troublesome effort.
    Further, the demands of daily work, friendly visiting and youthful pleasure, which fill up the lives of the young, militate against any continued interest in letters.  In short, books and pen are put aside, and at the age of 21, one can do no more than read and sign one’s name.
    Girls read much more than boys, but most do not write.  Once married, they say farewell to the pen and almost never use one again, especially when they become farmers’ wives.

   Fletcher, Joel Lafayette. Louisiana Education Since Colonial Days. Lafayette, LA:  Southwestern Louisiana Institute, 1948.
    Stephens, Edwin L. "The Story of Education in Acadiana and a Tribute to Robert Martin, Founder of S.L.I.," Attakapas Gazette, 26 (1991): 141-44.
    Stephens, Edwin Lewis. "The Story of Acadian Education in Louisiana," Louisiana Historical Quarterly, 18 (July, 1935): 397-406.
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Cajuns in the 18th Century   •  Cajuns in the 19th Century  • Cajuns in the 20th Century  •••  Encyclopedia of Cajun Life
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