Tait was born in 1831, in the City of New York, and was reared in the State
of Virginia. He received his education at the University of Virginia,
then in the most flourishing period of its history. He began his
career as a teacher in Virginia, and before he was twenty-one. In
1853, at the age of twenty-two, he came to California, and went into the
French Bank at San Francisco, teaching school in the evening. In
1857 he was appointed Principal of the Denman School, and served as such
until 1861, when he was elected City Superintendent of Schools. In
1863 he was reelected. During his term of office he advocated many
reforms, particularly in the interest of primary schools, which he thought
should, in regard to the character of their teachers, their buildings,
and other appliances of education, rank first in every school department.
Next in importance to the judicious selection of teachers, etc., in primary
schools, he considered the work of examining, classifying, and promoting
pupils. This work was then performed by the Committee on Classification,
aided by the Superintendent. Mr. Tait considered this system inadequate,
and proposed, in its stead, to commit the task to the grammar masters,
under the supervision of the committee, and at the same time to relieve
the masters of the charge of any one class, so that they might attend to
the general interests of their schools. In his efforts to better
the condition of our schools and to raise their standard, he sought inspiration
in the wisdom and experience of the leading educators of the East, and
in his views on the subject he was supported by the Board of Education.
He also was a warm advocate of religion in the school, and thought the banishment of all religious instruction from the classroom a slur on the morals of the community. Educational authorities differ very much on this important subject, but Mr. Tait insisted strongly upon the excellent moral effect of reading the Scriptures, without comment on the part of the teacher, however. During the years of him incumbency, the practice prevailed in New York and Boston, and was made compulsory by law; and, in fact, prevailed in this State—at least, in the schools of San Francisco, in 1852, but soon after fell into disuse. He also believed in the American system of co-education, but, at the same time, he advised the introduction of the European system into a certain number of schools, in view of the strong prejudice of our foreign element against the former system. He though this concession necessary in order to extend to the greatest possible number the inestimable benefits of a common school education.
In 1867 he was appointed Principal of the State Normal School, then located in San Francisco. His connection with that institution was, however, very brief, for stress of private business necessitated his resignation in 1868. In that year he moved, with his family, to Oakland, intending to devote himself thenceforth exclusively to his business interests. However, after a short residence in that city, he was prevailed upon by friends to undertake the task of organizing the schools of the young city. His long experience in San Francisco was of the greatest advantage to him in this work. Soon afterwards he became connected with Brayton’s College School, and when the College of California became the University of California, he was made one of its professors, and also give charge of the Preparatory Department. He resigned in 1873. With the exception of a term as member of the Board of Education of San Francisco, in 1876-7, his educational career ended here. After this he traveled in Europe for many years. He died suddenly in 1888, at Alameda, California.
Thus, the best years of his life were devoted to the cause of education. He was a natural teacher, and loved his profession. He often remarked that the happiest hours of his life were spent in the school-room. Those who knew him well will testify to his worth, and praise his great services to the State of California. If any man eve exaggerated the advantages of a liberal education, it was Mr. Tait, and in the education of the masses he looked for the solution of the social question.
The character and importance of Mr. Tait’s work may be well estimated by reference to the points enumerated in an address by Professor Minns, Principal of the State Normal School, delivered upon the occasion of the presentation of a silver service to Mr. Tait, then about to retire from office, in which he calls attention to the important services rendered by Mr. Tait, and which were as follows:
1. Obtaining from the State Legislature an Act authorizing the transfer of $60,000 from the General Fund to the School Fund. This money was used for building purposes.
2. Improving the finances of the department. Before he was Superintendent there was always a deficit in the School Fund; during his entire term of office it showed a surplus. Teachers were paid in cash instead of scrip; and the business of the department was conducted upon a cash basis.
3. Improving the condition of the primary schools, by providing better and healthier accommodations for the children.
4. The revision of the by-laws of the Board, and of the school regulations.
5. The introduction of the graded course of instruction in primary and grammar schools, thereby shortening the course from ten to seven years.
6. Restoring the practice of reading the Bible, without note or comment.
also upon his recommendation,” says Mr. Minns, “that Principals were directed
to assemble their pupils annually, on the day preceding the birthday of
Washington, and to read and explain to them extracts from Washington’s
farewell address, and to combine therewith such expressions as are likely
to kindle in the breasts of the rising generation a holy and inextinguishable
love of country.”