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Sabin, Henry
(October 23, 1829–March 23, 1918)

—educator—was born near Pomfret, Connecticut. He was educated at fundamental New England institutions: common schools, Woodstock Academy, and Amherst College. He taught in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Illinois before coming to Iowa. He served as Clinton Superintendent of Schools (1871-1887), president of the Iowa State Teachers Association (1878), and State Superintendent of Public Instruction (1888-1892, 1894-1898). In 1896-1897 he chaired the National Education Association Committee of Twelve on Rural Schools. The committee's report, written mostly by Sabin, recommended consolidation, efficiency, and professional teacher training as solutions to the shortcomings of country education. One of the foremost mid-western educators of his time, Sabin believed that well-conducted public schools fostered religion, trained a virtuous citizenry, created a prosperous economy, and ensured the success of representative government.

    As Superintendent of Public Instruction, Sabin worked to correct the defects of rural schools–the inefficiency and inadequate tax base of small districts, poor buildings and equipment, and poorly trained and inexperienced teachers. He cooperated with his good friend Homer H. Seerley, president of Iowa State Normal School, to improve teacher preparation. Both lobbied for higher and more permanent appropriations to the normal school. Both persuaded the school's board of directors to authorize county superintendents to certify pupils for admission. Sabin used this change to push for more uniform academic standards and a course of study in the elementary grades. He lobbied the General Assembly unsuccessfully for the creation of additional normal schools. He blamed his defeat on the efforts of private colleges to maintain their hold on teacher education. He also advocated consolidation, increased centralized administration with improved professional supervision, and expanded educational opportunities for all children through more high schools, free textbooks, and compulsory education. He traveled throughout the state preaching the gospel of educational reform, hoping county superintendents and local district officers would be converted to his cause. Much of Sabin's urban-inspired vision was ahead of its time; but his agenda was eventually enacted in the 20th century.

    Sabin also emphasized the training of character and citizenship through inculcating shared moral and religious convictions. Toward that end, he stressed civics and history teaching, temperance instruction (as required by Iowa law), the example of a moral teacher, the order and discipline of a well-regulated school, and reading the Bible as an opening exercise. In addition, he encouraged Americanization of a school-age population that included more than 40 percent who were the children of immigrants or foreign-born themselves. He promoted flag ceremonies as well as programs for Washington's Birthday and Memorial Day. He ruled that elected school directors and teachers should be able to read, write, and speak the English language. Instruction should be in English. He insisted that foreign language should only be taught as a subject, although his limited power as superintendent could not prevent many ethnic neighborhoods from teaching in their native tongues.

    After Sabin retired from elected office, he taught education at Highland Park College in Des Moines, lectured at teachers' institutes throughout the Midwest, and engaged in edu cational journalism, serving as an editor for Midland Schools (1899-1901) and the Iowa edition of the Western Teacher (1901). He authored two books– Talks to Young People (1899) and Common Sense Didactics (1903)– and coauthored two others with his sons– The Making of Iowa (1900) and Early American History for Young Americans (1904). Declining health ended his active work. He died in Chula Vista, California, at age 88. A 1913 letter restated his lifelong belief that the common schools are necessary to the "intelligence, integrity, and moral uplift of the American people."
Sources Sabin's official correspondence as Superintendent of Public Instruction is at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines. See also Iowa Department of Public Instruction Annual Reports, 1888–1898; Henry Sabin Scrapbook and C. R. Aurner's Letters Concerning a Projected Life of Henry Sabin, both in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City; Carroll Engelhardt, "Henry Sabin (1829–1918): 'The Aristocracy of Character' and Educational Leadership in Iowa," Annals of Iowa 48 (1987), 388–412; and William C. Lang, A Century of Leadership and Service: A Centennial History of the University of Northern Iowa, vol. 1, 1876–1928 (1990).
Contributor: Carroll Engelhardt