Remembering Yesterday's Lessons As We Improve Today's Schools

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

The litany of woes about our public schools reveals a disturbing distortion of memory. One form the distortion takes is to assume that most of what happened in America's schools between 1960 and 1980 was a mistake. That is an appealing position, since it seems we need to condemn before we can suggest changes.

Such a view is terribly misleading, however, for it serves to deny the considerable achievements in equity and educational opportunity of the last several decades. As the historian Patricia Albjerg Graham notes in the fall 1984 issue of Daedalus, too many seem willing to forget the way it was in the recent past. We forget that 20 years ago many handicapped children never even made it to school. We forget the rampant discrimination against black children. We forget how many junior-high-school boys were pumping gas full time at the age of 16 rather than completing high school. If we forget the considerable accomplishments in these and other areas, we are likely to engage in reforms that hinder rather than expand educational opportunities.

The distortion of memory also leads to the tendency to believe in a golden age when the schools were focused in their goals, committed to academic excellence, and uncorrupted by student freedoms. In that age, before federal involvement, the civil-rights movement, and leniency in child-rearing, America's schools were as solid as the proverbial rock of Gibraltar, or at least that is how the story goes.

That perception distorts the educational realities of most of the 20th century. We may decide that we want schools more committed to academic subjects than they presently are. We may decide that too much time in school is spent worrying about peer-group socialization or that too much money is spent on vocational shops or on athletics. We may decide that students have too many choices or that teachers are insufficiently trained in subject matter. But we ought not to make such decisions on the basis of myths about how wonderful it used to be. First, the past was not all that wonderful. And, second, some of the most difficult dilemmas we currently face have been around for a long time.

These thoughts were prompted as I recently reread Helen and Robert Lynd's Middletown. Published in 1929, Middletown is the classic American sociological study of Muncie, Ind. The sections on education in the Lynds' book ought to be required reading for anyone who talks about how rigorous and academic the schools used to be.

Take, for example, the current complaint that the high-school curriculum has become a smorgasbord, that students can choose among a variety of watered-down courses in the same way that they go through a cafeteria line choosing overcooked, non-nutritional junk food. The image of the cafeteria has become perhaps the most overworked metaphor of secondary schooling we now have. But does the image reflect a totally new reality? Not by a long shot.

The Lynds are quite clear about this. In the 30 years before the 1890's, Muncie's high-school students had to choose between two quite similar four-year courses of study. But in the decades between 1890 and the mid-1920's, the high-school curriculum--and the number of course options--exploded. Students in 1925 could choose a program of study from among 12 different four-year courses of study--among them, general, college-preparatory, music, art, shorthand, bookkeeping, applied electricity, mechanical drafting, printing, manual arts, and home economics. Each course had requirements; students did not have a great deal of freedom to make choices within a course of study once they decided which path to take. Nonetheless, by the mid-1920's Muncie's high school offered a gamut of curricular possibilities. The high school already resembled the modern cafeteria.

Much the same can be said about today's complaint that the high school has been redirected away from its historic commitment to academic excellence. Contrary to popular belief, high schools in the United States have rarely been devoted to the single-minded pursuit of excellence. In the mid-1920's, Muncie's high school, like an increasing number of high schools, took vocational ends as its primary concern. The president of the Muncie school board was quite explicit about this: "For a long time, all boys were trained to be President. Then for a while we trained them all to be professional men. Now we are training boys to get jobs." Had he included girls, he probably would have added that Muncie used to train its girls for the home and teaching; now it trains them for the home and clerical work.

The orientation of Muncie's high school toward vocational programs was not uniformly applauded. The Lynds reported that some parents were concerned about declining academic standards: "More than one mother shook her head over the fact that her daughter never does any studying at home and is out every evening but gets A's in all her work."

Yet the vocational courses remained one of the two most popular school programs in the community--the high-school basketball team was the other. "If we except a group of teachers and of parents of the business class who protest that the city's preoccupation with vocational work tends to drag down standards in academic studies and to divert the future college student's attention from his preparatory courses," the Lynds found, the "vocational work for boys is the darling of Middletown's eye." The basketball team and the vocational programs "have caught the imagination of the mass of male taxpayers."

For girls, the story was only slightly different. They were, to be sure, treated as less important. After all, it was the boys' basketball team and the boys' shops that truly counted. But the growth of vocational courses for girls was also prominent. Home economics, bookkeeping and stenography, and the emergence of a new course in child care and nutrition were becoming the focus of girls' secondary schooling.

I offer these illustrations drawn from Muncie in the mid-1920's not as an example of historical one-upmanship--"if only you knew what we historians know." Rather, I believe they illuminate the depth of the dilemmas we face in altering our schools and how long-standing the issues have been, and to suggest kinds of questions we ought to be asking.

The expansion of curricular choices so evident in Muncie's high school in the 1920's was partly based on the belief that giving students choices was a way of motivating them to learn. Part of the rationale for elective courses was that students were likely to take more seriously the courses they chose than the ones chosen for them. That view is not widely held today. Indeed, for some commentators, a wide range of course options is considered tantamount to applauding student and teacher irresponsibility. The perception about student choice has changed. Why? What does the change in perception mean about our current understanding of education and youth?

The high school in Muncie also raises questions about the role of extracurricular activities. Athletic events, clubs, and dances were considered immeasurably important to the place of the school in Muncie. Today we are much more divided about the extracurriculum. One complaint is that school-based social activities are not as important as they used to be, and that too many youths are working at after-school jobs or have little connection to their schools. The question then becomes, how do we make the high school's extracurriculum more attractive to adolescents?

But there is also a second complaint, one that derives from a more skeptical view of the extracurriculum. In this view, the more the schools cut back on athletics, clubs, dances, and other social activities, the more effective they can be in achieving the primary goal of schooling--academic excellence. The question posed by Muncie is not which of these views is right but why we seem to have gone from some general agreement on the extracurriculum to the divisions of today.

So, too, are we faced with questions about the place of vocational programs in the schools. While the vocational orientation that was so prominent in Muncie was not supported unanimously, the vocational-education courses were highly popular. They consumed substantial amounts of the school's budget and of the students' time. The belief that schools should prepare youth for employment was a primary rationale for secondary education in Muncie and, increasingly, throughout the United States.

The emphasis on vocational outcomes was becoming the reigning ideology of American education itself. There does not seem to have been a serious alternative considered. Why? Since the prominence of vocational education coincided with the rapid expansion of secondary schooling itself, was vocationalization a necessary condition of popular support? These questions are not readily answerable. But what is striking today is how divided we are over the role of vocational preparation in the secondary schools. Unlike the apparent agreement on the propriety of the vocational orientation of Muncie's high school, today we are in conflict. For some, vocational training remains an obligation; the schools are too academic. For others, vocationalism has diluted the academic obligations of the high school. Why are we so divided?

If we can begin to answer these kinds of questions, we will go a long way toward understanding what American education has been about, why it has changed and not changed. We will also be able to gain a realistic perspective on the possibilities and the likely shape of educational reform today. The questions themselves caution us: They amount to a stark plea that we not go about educational reform by creating myths and distorting the educational past. The schools have changed over the last 50 years. They have certainly changed over the last two decades. But in the recent past they have not always changed for the worse, and in many respects they have not changed as much as we tend to believe. What have unquestionably changed are our perceptions of schooling, and it is important to understand the contexts within which those perceptions have changed.

The current dilemmas of the high school are not the creation of the 1960's and 1970's. They emerged much earlier; they are deeply rooted, and they require much more sustained understanding than the superficialities that too frequently pass for educational analysis. We need to keep that in mind lest we become ensnared by the distortions that mar our educational memories.

Vol. 04, Issue 18, Page 32

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories