The first superintendent of North Carolina Common Schools, Calvin H. Wiley organized existing common schools, promoted education among North Carolinians, and set an unachievable benchmark for subsequent superintendents. At one time or another in his career, “The father of public education,” as one historian calls him, was also a lawyer, Presbyterian minister, newspaper editor, textbook writer, novelist, and state legislator.
Born in Guilford County, Wiley acquired his early education at Caldwell Institute and later attended and graduated from the University of North Carolina. After a short, two-year career in journalism and law in Oxford, Wiley returned to Guilford County and started a successful career as a novelist.
Wiley had always been interested in education, for he believed, like Thomas Jefferson, that a republic needs an educated citizenry to survive. As a state legislator, Calvin H. Wiley worked to create an office of superintendent of common schools. He believed that the existing schools needed organization. There needed to be districts; there needed to be information reports on each school in each district; there needed to be enforcement of the law regarding schools; there needed to be qualified teachers; and there needed to be studies revealing why schools were or were not successful.
His introduced legislation was rejected in 1850 but the General Assembly approved it the following year. Calvin H. Wiley was appointed the first superintendent of the common schools. He served in this position until 1865.
With evangelical zeal, Wiley traveled across the Old North State to visit various schools. Under his administration, the number of districts increased to 500, the number of schools from 2,500 to 3,082, and the number of licensed teachers jumped from 800 to 2,752. And not coincidentally, the literacy rate increased as well. Wiley wrote textbooks for the school system. The most famous was The North Carolina Reader (1851). He also started clinics that licensed teachers. For his efforts, North Carolina earned a reputation as being a pioneer in education among Southern states.
His love of his home state influenced some of his administrative decisions. For one, he required every classroom to display a map of North Carolina and he provided an informational poster of North Carolina facts to all classrooms. In his North Carolina Reader, which was adopted by the system, he writes: “Such is our beloved North Carolina! It is a land of Historic Renown—A land consecrated with memories as enduring as time, and as glorious as the stars of heaven.”
Wiley died in Salem in 1877, and then and after his death, North Carolinians were still comparing succeeding superintendent performances with Wiley’s. They were found wanting.
William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (Chapel Hill, 1989) and Milton Ready, The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina (Columbia, 2006).