If you’re looking for a brisk survey of public schooling in 20th century America—and, hey, who isn’t?—then Graham’s book is perfect for you.
It’s reminiscent of School: The Story of American Public Education, published in 2001 in conjunction with an eponymous PBS documentary, though less lavishly illustrated and more personal. Graham includes touching anecdotes about her father’s first day of school in rural Minnesota in 1900 and her own days as a teacher in the segregated South of the early 1950s.
All the familiar figures are here—Charles William Eliot, John Dewey, Maria Montessori, James Conant, Albert Shanker—and some not-so-familiar ones, such as Leonard Ayres, author of the 1909 classic Laggards in Our Schools. Graham, former dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, treats their ideas fairly, if briefly, and always within the context of their times.
Graham divides the past century of schooling into four eras, devoting a chapter to each. As she tells it, schools in each era were given a distinct assignment. From 1900 to 1920, the goal was to Americanize hordes of immigrant children. From 1920 to 1954, it was to help children adjust to the social and psychological rigors of modern life. From 1954 to 1983, it was to increase access to educational programs, particularly for blacks, but also for girls, the gifted, the disabled, and bilingual students. And from 1983 to the present, it has been to raise academic achievement for all, defined as higher test scores.
The reason schools have been not entirely successful at carrying out these shifting tasks, Graham suggests, may have less to do with the sincerity or energy of educators’ efforts than with the unrealistic nature of the assignments. Schools have been asked to accomplish goals—promote virtue, guarantee justice and equality, stimulate learning—that any institution in our gonzo culture, even a better-organized and -supported one, would struggle to fulfill.