Picture Imperfect

By Stacy Weiner — March 01, 2002 4 min read
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Old photographs tell nostalgic tales about the history of American schooling. But a closer look reveals some disturbing details.

It’s almost irresistible. You see a faded old photo, and you want to slip through its surface to visit the folks peering at you across the decades. You can practically hear the clop of hooves as horses take kids to a prairie schoolhouse and smell potatoes roasting in the potbellied stove at the back of a classroom. These children who put on their finery for school picture day had no idea that they’d raise questions for viewers generations later. What would the girl in the frilly dress say about her teacher? What’s it like for that rumpled boy in a huge Chicago high school, circa 1940? When they’re not being photographed, do the kids seated at wooden desks obediently recite their lessons or slump down in adolescent petulance?

See the accompanyingphoto gallery.

Actually, the kids don’t need to speak. The pictures themselves do plenty of talking, and they reveal a lot about the history of education.

“A photo offers something that no amount of words could convey. It is a sixtieth of a second of real life,” says Eric Margolis, an Arizona State University education professor who’s been analyzing images of old schools for several years. In 2000, he published an article on his research for the online journal Education Policy Analysis; and he recently began work on what he hopes will be two books’ worth of ruminations on his growing collection of pictures. He considers the photographs historical “documents” and notes that anyone can time travel, thanks to the tens of thousands of images stored on the Web sites of the Library of Congress and the National Archives.

But Margolis, whose collection dates back to 1895, urges viewers to look at photos with more than nostalgia in mind. “I’m very skeptical of images,” he cautions. “Unless you’re trained, you don’t usually ask what’s here and what’s not here. You don’t usually ask who took this [shot] and for what purpose.”

One photo, in particular, serves as an example. It’s a panoramic vista of schoolgirls lolling on a manicured campus, one of Margolis’ favorites among the 16 he analyzed in his article “Class Pictures: Representations of Race, Gender, and Ability in a Century of School Photography.” The moment is completely staged, he says. How does he know? For one, early 20th-century technology required that the girls stand still for at least a minute until the exposure was complete. And, he adds, only a stage-managing photographer would have thought to arrange the kids in perfectly spaced clusters so as to draw the viewer’s eye across the landscape.

The photographer had ample reason to play with the scene. Michigan’s Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial School, where Native American girls were taught domestic skills, such as cooking and laundering, was part of a ederal boarding school movement designed, Margolis explains, “to drag the Indians, kicking and screaming if need be, into the modern world.” Thousands of kids, he says, were taken from reservations, stripped of their culture, and punished for speaking their native tongue. Whenever government officials invited photographers to such a school, he adds, “they were trying to make the institution more acceptable, more benign, to the people who were footing the bill: the taxpayers.”

Other photos that Margolis has collected—and that we’ve printed along with explanatory captions—are equally intriguing. There are pictures of separate but equal-looking schools for black students and images of peaceful classrooms during World War II. One school, built in 1906 in Hancock, Michigan, was such a source of civic pride that it graces a postcard, and a public school in Taos, New Mexico, appears to have been run by nuns.

In almost all the pictures, Margolis sees hints of “the hidden curriculum,” the socialization lessons that, though not found in any textbook, are as much a part of schooling as the ABCs. In a turn-of-the-century photo, for example, youngsters stand obediently at attention. “These were the days in which we had an economy more and more based on a factory model that wanted a disciplined workforce,” he explains. “So schools that taught you to sit still for eight hours a day were performing a necessary socialization function because that’s what your work life was going to be like.”

Anyone with even the slightest interest in history should learn how to “read” images, whether they’re drawn, painted, or photographed, according to Margolis. “Think about things like the founding documents of America,” he says. “Think about how much time and scholarship have been spent on what exactly was meant by this phrase or that phrase. [But] the George Washington that hung in everyone’s classroom—we don’t ask where that came from. There he is, with his wooden teeth, looking at us, and we never really talk about that picture.”


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