Social Studies Commentary

Doing Educational History

By William A. Proefriedt — May 24, 2000 6 min read
Doing educational history turns out to be not just a matter of reading Ben Franklin.

I regularly 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. This 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 the Autobiography, and Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania. And I wanted them to read these selections with some important educational 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 for the reading of Franklin and for the other readings in the course, it dawned on me that I was sitting in a classroom located in what had once been a part of the “stacks” of our old library building. The library had long since moved to a new, postmodern structure, with its glass walls and medieval bell tower, high-tech retrieval systems, and volumes of Plato. I had used the old library back in the early ‘60s, had searched for books in those stacks that had now been turned into 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 contemporary-civilization program at the college. 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 received 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 catalogue 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, who had, after raising children, and perhaps influenced by the incipient women’s movement, 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 in 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.

Like Forrest Gump, I was there when all these changes in the culture that have so profoundly affected the practice of schooling happened.

I told the story to my History of Education students at my first class meeting in the year 2000, almost four decades after the incident had occurred. 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 when all these changes in the culture that have so profoundly affected the practice of schooling happened. Some lament the ‘60s, blame those times for everything that has gone wrong in the 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 1960s, 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 century, there is a reading selection which details an interview of a young teaching candidate by a school trustee. It ends with the trustee hiring the young applicant. “The thing is settled,” the trustee says. “I will grant that you are a teacher among a thousand. You can not 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 relation 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 had traveled on a subway to a Catholic high school in Brooklyn. Truman was president when I entered, and 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, despite Franklin’s concerns expressed two centuries before, were obligated to take Latin. My class was led by Brother Benignus. One night my mother made the mistake of attending a fund-raising function at the school and of speaking to Brother Benignus about her little Billy. The next day, Brother Benignus, after scowling his way through attendance taking, turned his glare directly at 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 period, 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 1960s, 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 in authority, such as it had become. I returned from my 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’m not 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.”

A wise teacher will note the historical changes occurring on her own watch.

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 in the classroom?” 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 larger changes in the school culture and the larger society, we begin to enlarge our historical perspective on our classroom work.

A wise teacher will note the historical changes occurring on her own watch. Have their been changes in what knowledge is considered worthwhile? For example, if I am an English teacher, have the authors we read changed? In what ways? Are there different emphases in the skills we teach? Is talk about school purpose 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 has the student population changed? What meanings 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.

A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 2000 edition of Education Week as Doing Educational History


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