Federal Opinion

When What’s Old Is New Again in Education

By Boris Korsunsky — October 09, 2013 5 min read
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I am a teacher—even on my days off. So, on a leisurely afternoon, I find myself flipping through a pile of issues of Time, checking out education-related news. First, it seems like “same old, same old.”

[At] the annual convention of the National Education Association ... A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University ... roundly flayed U. S. public schools for their excessive cost, their waste of youth’s time, their superficial courses, their poor preparation for college. Said President Lowell: “The saying that there are many ways of killing a cat besides choking it with butter can be applied to American schools in more than one sense. ... What we need is a good mental training, an accurate and thorough habit of mind, not a frittering away of the attention by a multitude of small matters of which the pupil does not get enough to develop consecutive thought. Too much attention has been paid to making education attractive by smoothing the path as compared with inducing strenuous voluntary effort.”

Wow—the president of Harvard speaking at an NEA convention? So nice of him to find the time, despite his harsh words about the nation’s schools (and the cat-killing imagery that is now stuck in my brain). I keep turning the pages and find out that for the first time women students at Columbia exceeded men in the university’s total ... and last week two new colleges undertook to specialize in fitting women for strenuous modern life.

Well, the fact that women outnumber men in colleges is kind of old news these days, no? Anything more exciting, I wonder? Oh, here’s a fun story: Someone was fired! I read with great interest about Chicago’s superintendent of schools, who was accused of being a stool pigeon of King George and [r]efused a new contract as Chicago’s superintendent of schools because of charges that he introduced British propaganda. ... Dr. William McAndrew made [his dismissal] known last week ... while giving a lecture entitled “Life Among the Boneheads.”

What? Wait a minute! British propaganda? King George? Boneheads? Is this is a joke?

We are still arguing about the length of the school year, kids' bringing the wrong things to school, political interference in education, society's respect for teachers, teacher salaries."

Actually, it’s not. You see, the pile of Time magazines that I am perusing dates back to 1928—that’s 85 years ago. Sometimes it’s hard to realize just how old “same old” really is, and how contemporary “old news” may sound. The reader may be surprised—as was I—that so many things about education have stayed pretty much the same, while others took a very long time to change. Let us go back to that report on the NEA convention. The just-ousted Superintendent McAndrew offered a fierce rebuttal to Harvard President Lowell, with words that still ring true today:

If I read the times aright, the chambers of commerce, the Lowells, the associations of mayors and governors will succeed in their protests against the rising costs of education. Then our magnificent high schools will follow in the tracks of Napoleon the Little to an inglorious end. ... Once the policy of the schools was to prepare a small number of students for college. Now the situation is that we get all kinds of students, studious and lazy, dirty and clean, brought in by the force of the compulsory education law.

Also, one of the NEA delegates declared that [e]ducation fails to function in rural districts. ... A teacher in the rural school gets $750 a year and a city teacher gets $1,900. (At the time, college professors commanded annual salaries of $4,000 to $6,000, according to the magazine.)

The delegates’ suggestions? Here are two resolutions from the convention: Demand that Congress pass the Curtis-Reed bill creating a secretary of education in the president’s Cabinet (that took only another 51 years to accomplish); and condemn all political interference with school superintendents.

The “political interference” must have been quite real, and not just for the unfortunate Chicago superintendent, as follows from another Time news item:

Walter Lippman, chief editorial writer of the New York World, delivered a lecture at the University of Virginia. Said he: “I believe that the body of educators has hardly realized the power it could exercise if it chose not to endure this perpetual bullying by the ignoramuses. The teachers will be slaves if they act like slaves. Weakness always tempts the bully. If they cower, they will be bullied. The tragedy and the absurdity of the thing is that they could so easily rally a following if they had the imagination to realize how strong they are. If they chose to say that they would not endure the intolerable indignities to which they are subjected they would very soon command a new kind of respect in the nation.”

That sounds as true now as it was then.

What else was happening in education in 1928?

Horrid to many a small boy was a proposal made last week by Director Edward P. Smith, of New York state’s summer high schools. Let public schools be open the year round, said he. ... “Our 40-week year dates from the time when we were an agricultural people, when pupils were needed for harvesting crops.”

Hmmm ... “a small boy”? A little sexist, I thought; one would think that “small girls,” as studious as they may be, would be just as horrified by the prospect of no summer vacation, despite being busy outnumbering the boys at places like Columbia. Other than that, however, this proposal could have jumped off the 21st-century opinion pages—and I sincerely hope it continues to draw attention among opinion-writers in years to come.

What about the students of yore? Were they smarter? Were they better behaved? I keep flipping through the old magazines.

Ten senior girls of Woodfin High School, Asheville, N. C., will use no rouge or lipstick for a twelvemonth. Penalties: first offense, facewash; second, showerbath; third, castor oil; fourth, ostracism for two weeks.

Castor oil? Ostracism? Could they do that? Meanwhile, at Rosewood High School in Minnesota, boys decided that the best way to deal with the girls who dared to refuse to dance with them was to squirt them with water pistols. After a dozen soaked girls went home from a recent party, caught cold, were absent from school for a week, ... school officials announced that any person carrying water pistols or any other squirting apparati would be ousted from school. Zero tolerance for (water) guns—in 1928.

What can I say? Thankfully, we no longer refer to all students as “boys.” Generally, we no longer penalize female students for their rouge, and we don’t fire administrators for their fondness for King George. Yet some issues are timeless indeed. We are still arguing about the length of the school year, kids’ bringing the wrong things to school, political interference in education, society’s respect for teachers, teacher salaries, and the perpetually inevitable twilight of the American schools that still fail to provide “good mental training” to “all kinds of students"—and yet are still “magnificent,” even by the accounts of the critics. Let us hope that they stay magnificent for another 85 years, and beyond.

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