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Ben Franklin, Meet Forrest Gump

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Pairing a Founding Father with an education professor who survived the 60's, gets you a little lamentation and a little celebration.

I teach a “History of Education in the United States” course to teachers enrolled in our master’s program at Queens College, City University of New York. Last semester, at the first class meeting, as snow descended outside on an already icy campus, I passed out my course calendar and reading assignments and made some introductory comments on Benjamin Franklin.

The students were to read sections of his Autobiography and Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania. And I wanted them to read with some important questions in mind. What sort of knowledge was of most worth to Franklin? Toward what ends were students to undergo schooling? Under what conditions does learning take place? Who shall have access to what kinds of learning and for how long? As I was setting these directions, it dawned on me that I was sitting in a classroom located in what had once been a part of the stacks of Queens’ old library building. The library had long since been moved to a new, postmodern structure with glass walls and medieval bell tower, high-tech retrieval systems, and volumes of Plato. I had frequented the old library in the early 1960s, had searched for books in those stacks that were now classrooms and faculty offices. I was then a high school English teacher who had been given the opportunity to teach an evening course in the college’s contemporary-civilization program.

—Matt Collins



We used the old Columbia University Source Book in Western Civilization as our text. Aquinas, Erasmus, Rousseau—all those dead, white, male Europeans. One freezing winter night back then, I found in my mailbox, with orders to distribute it to my class, a notice from a library administrator who I am sure long ago preceded the card catalog into a far, far better world. The notice stated that female students wearing slacks would not be allowed in the library. My class was filled with women, most older than I. After raising children, and perhaps influenced by the incipient women’s movement, they had enrolled in college for purposes of career and self-fulfillment, a choice they would not have had in Franklin’s day. Some were outraged by the notice; most laughed at it. They went on using the library dressed as they saw fit for a cold New York winter, and no one stopped them. The notice, which once might have been taken as authoritative, carried no weight at all in the new school culture we had entered.

I told the story to students at my first history of education class meeting in the year 2000, almost four decades after the incident. They looked at me as if I were a visitor from a world at least as unfamiliar as Ben Franklin’s Colonial America. And I am. Like Forrest Gump, I was there for the ’60s and all the changes in the culture that have so profoundly affected schooling. Some lament those times, blame them for everything that has gone wrong in schools; others celebrate the decade, seeing it as opening the door for a new student-centered education. I think a little lamentation and a little celebration are both in order. (On the one hand; on the other. What else would you expect from a college professor?)

It’s silly to assume that before the ’60s our schools were characterized only by authoritarian teachers passing on bodies of information and rules of behavior to students learning by rote. Our nation’s educational history is far more complex. In McGuffey’s Fifth Eclectic Reader, a text widely used in the schools during the second half of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th, there is a reading selection that details an interview of a young teaching candidate by a school trustee. It ends with the trustee hiring the applicant. “The thing is settled,” the trustee says. “I will grant that you are a teacher among a thousand. You cannot only think yourself but teach others to think; so you may call the position yours as quick as you please.” Teaching students to think turns out to be not a newfangled idea of the ’60s, but an old-fashioned, 19th-century notion celebrated by McGuffey. But something large happened in the ’60s, some alteration in the relationship between the young people and the institution they daily inhabit. And I was, as a new teacher, caught up in it.

From 1949 to 1953, as a student, I traveled by subway to a Catholic high school in Brooklyn. Truman was president when I entered, Eisenhower when I graduated. At home in 1949, we listened to the radio in the kitchen; by 1953, we were watching TV in the living room. We freshmen at the school in 1949 were obligated to take Latin. My class was led by Brother Benignus. One night, at a fund-raiser at the school, my mother made the mistake of speaking to Brother Benignus about her little Billy. The next day, Brother Benignus, after scowling his way through attendance taking, turned his glare on me. He leaned toward my desk from his place in front of the room. “Don’t sic your mother on me, Sonny,” he said.

He called all of us freshmen “Sonny.” During that class, he called on me more than once. When I faltered in my answers, he was beside me. “Damn it, Sonny. You’d make the angels in heaven curse at you. Learn your declensions. Learn your conjugations. Say it after me.” And he spat out in rapid fire: “Agricola, agricolae, agricolae, agricolam, agricola. Nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative.” Benignus often wielded his power more benignly; but there was no question that the power was his to wield. It was rooted in a set of shared cultural assumptions about the authority of schools and teachers. The religious dimension was the frosting on the cake.

By the ’60s, I was no longer the dismayed student trying to recall case endings of Latin nouns. I was a high school English teacher in a district on Long Island. I was the authority, such as it had become. I returned from lunch one day to a particularly difficult class. The students were seating themselves. Don Taylor was at the chalkboard writing in quite large letters, “F- - - You.”

I wasn’t sure if the target of his message was me, the class, or the whole world. He erased what he had written. “I didn’t write it,” he said. “It was there.” At the end of the day, I consulted with the school psychologist. He saw the student and later told me: “He really wants to write that message to his father, on his parents’ bedroom mirror. He’s a very angry young man.” I supposed he was right and asked him, weakly, “Do you have any thoughts about how I might handle Taylor?” He shrugged and shook his head. I shrugged, too. We were in the ’60s, for better or worse, at some distance from the world of Brother Benignus.

If we teachers stay around classrooms long enough and, crucially, develop a sense for the telling moment, if we take note of the incident that speaks of big changes in the school culture and the larger society, we broaden our historical perspective on our classroom work.

Wise teachers will note the historical changes occurring on their own watch. Have there been changes in what knowledge is considered worthwhile? For example, if I am an English teacher, have the authors that students read changed? In what ways? Are there different emphases in the skills we teach? Is talk about schools among parents, students, teachers, and in the media different from what it was 15 years ago?

In what ways? Have my classroom interactions, homework assignments, grading practices changed? In what ways have students changed? What meaning can I make out of my answers to these questions? Doing educational history turns out to be not just a matter of reading Ben Franklin.


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