What's normal about "normal schools"?

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Many U.S. institutions of higher education used to have the phrase "normal school" or "normal college" as part of their names, though I don't know whether any still do. When I was growing up, back in neolithic times, I somehow learned that normal meant "teacher training" in that context. And though I thought the usage was odd and even a little funny, I never really understood where it came from. The term came up in conversation a couple of days ago, so I looked into it a bit, thinking that this might be one of those cases involving an otherwise-lost meaning from medieval Latin or French. But apparently not so, or at least not exactly.

The OED just has

3. Of, relating to, or intended for the training of teachers, esp. in Continental Europe and N. America. Chiefly in normal school. Now hist.
In N. America, normal schools were for training primary school teachers. In Continental Europe, different normal schools also trained teachers at secondary and tertiary levels.

And Wikipedia tells us that

A normal school is an institution created to train high school graduates to be teachers by educating them in the norms of pedagogy and curriculum.

The main thing I learned is that according to Lewis & Short Latin normalis meant "made according to the square", and was derived from norma:

norma , ae, f. for gnorima (cf. Gr. γνώριμος); root, gno-; cf. gnarus, nosco,
I.a square, employed by carpenters, masons, etc., for making right angles (cf. regula).
II. Trop., a rule, pattern, precept

The OED thinks that normal meaning "right angled; rectangular" is rare, which I guess is probably true even though the usage meaning "orthogonal to" is common in some math and engineering contexts.

The question I'm left with is why normalis was adopted for teaching training in North America and continental Europe (and also in China and many parts of Asia), but not in England. (Or the rest of the U.K.?)

Wikipedia tell us that "The term 'normal school' originated in the early 16th century from the French école normale." And of course the École normale supérieure still exists in Paris, and is a famous and influential institution although I'm not clear that it still plays a role in training teachers for elementary education.

In the U.S., "normal schools" seem to have sprung up in the middle of the 19th century, and been renamed 50 to 100 years later. At least in the case of Normal, IL, a town has retained the name although the school located there has not.



  1. Robot Therapist said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 9:35 am

    There was a "Normal School" in Glasgow when I was little. See https://www.theglasgowstory.com/image/?inum=TGSA02525

  2. Robot Therapist said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 9:38 am

    P.S. That's Glasgow, Scotland; not Glasgow Kentucky.

  3. Rube said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 9:46 am

    My (Canadian) mother went to a Normal School, and I always kind of vaguely wondered about the term. I'll be watching with interest to see if anybody can come up with more information on the subject.

  4. Tim Leonard said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 9:51 am

    A Google advanced search for "normal school" in the UK region finds several.

  5. Dave K said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 10:02 am

    I can't cite a source for this but the explanation I heard is that "normal" is used here in the sense of a pattern or example. Normal schools were not only for training but were supposed to exhibit the latest techniques in education

  6. joel said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 10:05 am

    I found this description (in French) which suggests the 'norma' corresponds to an inculcation of dogma at schools of religious instruction, prior to the revolution.


  7. jfruh said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 10:37 am

    Somewhat related: UCLA started its existence with the clunky name of "the Los Angeles branch of the California State Normal School." In the 1910s and '20s, the school's campus was located in East Hollywood. It was renamed "the Southern Branch of the University of California" in 1919, and moved to its current digs on the westside in 1929, but its original campus is now occupied by the Los Angeles City College, and one of the streets that lead up to it is named "Normal Avenue". I've always thought it was an unusual name but never put two and two together until reading this post!

  8. John Baker said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 10:42 am

    Maybe there are insights to be had from the definition of "normal" in Webster (1828):

    1. According to a square or rule; perpendicular; forming a right angle.
    2. According to a rule or principle.
    3. Relating to rudiments or elements; teaching rudiments or first principles; as normal schools in France.

    Consider also the definitions in the Century Dictionary (1889 – 91):

    Normal. 2. Serving to fix a standard; intended to set the standard; as, a normal school (see below).

    Normal school, a school in which teachers are instructed in the principles of their profession and trained in the practice of it; a training-college for teachers.

  9. Harry Campbell said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 11:12 am

    There was a Coleg Normal/Normal College in Bangor (N Wales) from 1858 to 1996.

  10. Cervantes said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 11:58 am

    Well, I went to a highly abnormal school, although they didn't call it that.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 1:19 pm

    They were once so ubiquitous in the U.S. that there is probably plenty of other toponymic residue, such as https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normal_Station,_Memphis. I think one of the things that was distinctive about them in the U.S. context was that they definitely weren't "colleges" in the US sense of that word because they didn't grant bachelor's degrees, because even in the days when some places would give you a bachelor's degree in three years rather than four the typical normal-school curriculum only lasted two years. My sense is that in many instances the renaming of X Normal School as X State Teacher's College (usually a name that was in turn overtaken by events after another two generations or so) occurred at the same time as expanding the teacher-training curriculum to enough years that it entitled those completing it to a bachelor's degree, whether because of increasing quality of teacher-training or just increasing credentialism-for-its-own-sake. So on that account it wasn't just the oddity of the adjective "normal" that became obsolete, it was that "normal" had the connotation of not-equivalent-to-a-full-degree-granting-college, and that connotation eventually became a negative one.

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 1:32 pm

    Too late to be included in the prior comment I learned from wikipedia that the (reportedly) first normal school in the US to go to a four-year bachelor's-degree curriculum marked that transition by renaming itself "Michigan State Normal College." But the failure of "X Normal College" to become a common style of institutional name elsewhere in the U.S. (although the one in Ypsilanti wasn't the *only* example) is I think consistent with my prior hypothesis that "Normal" and "College" were widely understood in AmEng as incompatible labels or at least incongruous in combination. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Eastern_Michigan_University

  13. Lester said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 3:13 pm

    My family used to live near Normal, Illinois, home of Illinois State Normal University (now just Illinois State University), "one of the top ten largest producers of teachers in the US according to the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education" (Wikipedia).

    I always took it to mean that the future teachers learned how to inculcate the norms in their students. Is that wrong?

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 3:26 pm

    Poking around wikipedia entries in a few different languages, the French version implies that ecole normale was a 1790's calque of the German name Normalschule, the first of which was supposedly established in 1763. German wikipedia then accords with Lester's understanding: "Ihr Konzept bestand darin, den mangelhaft qualifizierten Lehrern die inhaltlichen und methodischen Normen des Unterrichts (daher der Name „Normalschule") zu vermitteln." (Per google translate = "Their concept was to teach the poorly qualified teachers the content and methodological norms of teaching (hence the name "normal school")"). It's obviously possible that a facially-plausible account given in a German wikipedia article is not the full historically-accurate story, of course.

    As to "why not in the UK," the question just before that is perhaps whether the UK in the 19th century borrowed French/German models for teacher training but unaccountably failed to borrow the name, or whether the whole institutional evolution of how schoolteachers were trained took a different historical path, making it less likely there would be an obvious occasion to calque a foreign name for the institutions used for that purpose.

  15. David Morris said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 3:34 pm

    No 'normal schools' in Australia that I know about, but when I was growing up, there were 'special schools' (for – I don't know what the preferred phrase is – children with intellectual disabilities).

  16. David Marjanović said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 5:02 pm

    Google Translate is fully accurate for once!

    The École normale supérieure and the École normale d'administration don't train teachers, but CEOs and politicians.

  17. Bathrobe said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 5:39 pm

    There is a plaque in Brisbane, Queensland, marking the previous location of a 'normal school'. I don't remember the dates but I think it was early 20th century.

  18. Rachel said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 5:44 pm

    We have normal schools in New Zealand, and I always wondered about the word. Thanks for the explanation!

  19. Mary Kuhner said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 6:09 pm

    I can't resist mentioning Normal Avenue in Ashland, Oregon–my brother's favorite street. One of its endearing features is that it runs along an unfenced graveyard, and (due apparently to strict Post Office rules about where mailboxes should be) the mailboxes for the houses across the street are in the graveyard. We first encountered this as kids and it never seemed quite Normal to us. I tried to find out if there had been a Normal School nearby, but failed; I did read a posting about Ashland's Normal Neighborhood Plan, but couldn't decide if this was a normal neighborhood plan or a plan for the specific Normal [Avenue] Neighborhood.

  20. Brett said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 7:32 pm

    @Mary Kuhner: Among the former names of Southern Oregon University (known as Southern Oregon State College when I was a kid) were: Ashland College and Normal School, Southern Oregon State Normal School, and Southern Oregon Normal School. The Oregon Normal School name was already taken by what is now Western Oregon University, which I remember as being the biggest teacher-education college in the state in the 1980s and 1990s.

  21. Andrew T . said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 10:06 pm

    The Normal School in Toronto in the late 19th century was accompanied by a Model School, where the Normal School students did their practice teaching. Until reforms in about 1870, the pupils at the Model School were encouraged to be as badly-behaved as possible, to find out what stuff the student teachers were made of.

    Diplomas on three levels were awarded, and one of the deciding grades was "Aptitude to Teach," in which the young men always did noticeably worse than the ladies in the same class — to whom they were not allowed to speak during the term, in or out of school. There's a very good and amusing description of the experience in Robert Barr's novel, "The Measure of the Rule."

    I've always taken "Normal" as indicating the intent of standardizing the teaching within a jurisdiction, in this case the Province of Ontario.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 10:26 pm

    "Jackie Chan Campus Station" (4/10/15)


    Don't miss the comments.

  23. liuyao said,

    June 20, 2019 @ 1:26 am

    The Chinese translation 師範 (early 20th century?) preserves the sense of "normal" pretty well, and it doesn't sound weird at all for it says explicitly "teacher/teaching" there. A teaching-norm school.

    Characters win (1 point here)

  24. Zelda said,

    June 20, 2019 @ 1:27 am

    Some teacher training colleges in South Africa started off as "Normal Colleges." One example is the Johannesburg College of Education (merged in 2001 with the University of the Witwatersrand) which was founded in 1909 as the Johannesburg Normal College and kept that name until (I think) 1936.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    June 20, 2019 @ 5:13 am

    "Characters win (1 point here)"

    Characters are morphosyllables. This is about morphemes, not the writing system.

  26. Mark P said,

    June 20, 2019 @ 7:51 am

    The OED must not talk to people in the physical sciences. We use normal to mean perpendicular anytime we stumble across anything that is normal to anything else.

  27. Adam F said,

    June 20, 2019 @ 8:13 am

    One of our family jokes is that the "normal school" had to change its name when my mother was admitted.

  28. SK said,

    June 20, 2019 @ 9:48 am

    Mark P, things are not quite that bad: sense 5a in the OED, "Right-angled, rectangular", is marked as rare, but immediately afterwards is sense 5b, "Standing, positioned, or directed at right angles (to); perpendicular (to)", which isn't.

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 20, 2019 @ 10:18 am

    The apparent German origin of "Normalschule" (with variants in other languages all being direct or indirect calques) made me remember the separate genre of German educational institution known as the Realschule (basically, the genre of secondary school that is less "elite" and college-prep-oriented than the Gymnasium but still more "elite" than another category or categories) and think it was perhaps a pity that English hadn't calqued "Real School" as a name for a type of educational institution. I wondered about the etymology, and the vague impression I've gotten from German wikipedia is that the relevant sense of "Real" was originally something like "practical" or "real-world-oriented" to denote curricula less heavily focused on Latin/Greek/theology than the other sorts of 18th century school the Realschulen were supposed to be an alternative to, but while that seems a plausible just-so story there may be more to it than that.

  30. Biscia said,

    June 20, 2019 @ 10:31 am

    The Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa was founded by Napoleon as a branch of the ENS in Paris and has nothing to do with teacher training anymore; it's a very prestigious and competitive institution. And a "normal route" in the mountains is of course the easiest way of reaching a summit, but everything's relative and easiest doesn't necessarily mean easy. So the other day while planning an outing I asked my husband, "You don't mean this trail, do you? Look at these pictures, I think that's a little too ambitious for us." "Oh God, no!" he said, "That's the via normale! When you see 'via normale,' just think 'Scuola Normale'…"

  31. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 20, 2019 @ 10:31 am

    David Marjanović: There is no Ecole normale d'adminstration — it's nationale, not normale. The Ecole normale supérieure is in fact (at least in principle) a teacher-training college, but for lycées, not elementary schools,

  32. Terry Hunt said,

    June 20, 2019 @ 6:34 pm

    H. G. Wells rather famously studied (from 1884 to 1887) under Thomas Henry Huxley at The Normal School of Science in South Kensington – in full, "The Normal School of Science and Royal School of Mines", so named in 1881 when formed from the amalgamation of several earlier institutions, and renamed "The Royal College of Science" in 1890. This later became a constituent part of Imperial College, London.

  33. Troy S. said,

    June 21, 2019 @ 12:00 am

    Tangentially, I've also wondered what the sense of the word "ethical" is in the phrase "ethical dative," a particular syntactical use of the dative case in Latin that seems to have nothing at all to do with ethics or morals or proper conduct. The phrase "ethical dative" is so peculiar to Latin education I can't even find an etymology.

    [(myl) I remember it well — our Latin teacher's command to "construe" expected not only glosses and morphological analysis but also the grammar-book names for case meanings. The OED says that it's a calque of "post-classical Latin dativus ethicus", and also cites the form "ethic dative", glossing both as "a use of the dative case signifying that the person denoted has an interest in or is indirectly affected by the event". But the usage is just as odd in Latin or Greek as in English.]

  34. Philip Anderson said,

    June 21, 2019 @ 7:03 am

    The term "normal school" seems to have been used throughout the United Kingdom, and the British Empire generally, in the C19th. They were generally founded by religious bodies and other charities.

    But for some reason the term was abandoned in England, and institutions changed their name accordingly; however, this was not always the case in Scotland and Wales – I first came across the term in reference to Y Coleg Normal in Bangor.

    Wikipedia attributes the naming of the Royal Normal College for the Blind to American influence, but given other examples I suspect that wasn't the reason.

  35. Neil Obstat said,

    June 21, 2019 @ 7:57 pm

    I suppose any school in Normal, IL, would be a Normal school.

  36. David Marjanović said,

    June 22, 2019 @ 8:42 am

    Argh, thanks, yes, I got the ENS and the ENA hopelessly mixed up. :-(

  37. Dave Cragin said,

    June 22, 2019 @ 11:10 pm

    I teach once/year for Beijing Normal University. As noted above, I thought the name was strange until I read the Wikipedia article. Then it made sense. Its English name is a direct translation from Chinese (北京师范大学 Beijing shifan daxue). China has a number of Normal universities.

    I sent its characters to a friend in Japan and asked if they have Normal universities there. She said "Yes and it's really strange to me." It's interesting that her reaction was the same as mine. It was a word that was "normal" in both of our languages to describe teaching schools. And then the languages changed…..

  38. Phil Jensen said,

    June 25, 2019 @ 6:29 pm

    Surprised nobody has cited one of the most memorable literary uses of the term (with 'school' etc. elided), from Eudora Welty's 'Why I Live at the P. O.':

    "Not I! I'll never darken the door to that post office again if I live to be a hundred," Mama says. "Ungrateful child! After all the money we spent on you at the Normal."

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