Education in the (Not Very) Good Old Days

(Inspired by recent email conversations with Straw School, Manchester, NH classmates, including two who are now teachers.)

Getting lost in Wikipedia, as I often do, I read up on the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930’s.  I was surprised at how narrowly tailored it was, and how few people it employed at any one time.  But more surprising was this paragraph about the pool it drew from (italics mine):

Approximately 55% of enrollees were from rural communities, a majority of which were non-farm; 45% came from urban. Level of education for the enrollee averaged 3% illiterate, 38% less than eight years of school, 48% did not complete high school, 11% were high school graduates. At the time of entry, 70% of enrollees were malnourished and poorly clothed. Few had work experience beyond occasional odd jobs.

The crash came in 1929, the CCC was four years later and more, its target group was quite young, so you can do the arithmetic to see how far these lads were from the Roaring Twenties with its high employment. Yet it was the schooling that caught my eye.  This was not the previous generation’s immigrants, who had few years of formal education, as with two of my grandparents.  These were native born Americans, and these were the white boys – blacks and Indians had separate groups, and I imagine their education levels were even less. 38% of these 17-23 y/o’s had less than eight years of school.

Conservatives like to go on endlessly about the good old days of education, and how their grandfathers had gone to one-room schools but rose to become physicians or chemical engineers or whatever, because the education was superior then despite the lack of resources. I lean pretty conservative, but this is just nuts.  Education was terrible until quite recently.

Bloggers and blog-commenters who think about the history of education, changes in pedagogy, and can relate this to their own experience and that of their forebears, who can construct a coherent paragraph about the topic are not a representative sample of the country.

You are not a representative sample.

Are not a representative sample.  You are the 1%, in that metric.  The 5%, actually.

Your anecdotal experience is of nearly no value whatsoever in discussing the situation.

Let me bring in related statistics about years of education in the population as a whole in the decades before and after this, in order to make a distinction. From the National Center For Education Statistics:

Progressively fewer adults have limited their education to completion of the 8th grade which was typical in the early part of the century. In 1940, more than half of the U.S. population had completed no more than an eighth grade education. Only 6 percent of males and 4 percent of females had completed 4 years of college. The median years of school attained by the adult population, 25 years old and over, had registered only a scant rise from 8.1 to 8.6 years over a 30 year period from 1910 to 1940.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the more highly educated younger cohorts began to make their mark on the average for the entire adult population. More than half of the young adults of the 1940s and 1950s completed high school and the median educational attainment of 25- to 29-years-olds rose to 12 years. By 1960, 42 percent of males, 25 years old and over, still had completed no more than the eighth grade, but 40 percent had completed high school and 10 percent had completed 4 years of college. The corresponding proportion for women completing high school was about the same, but the proportion completing college was somewhat lower.

I was born in 1953.  When I reached my 17th birthday I had more education than half the males in the country. The ones I was ahead of was weighted to the older guys, but not entirely so.  We forget.  I was at a mill city high school, and it was not unusual for kids to drop out when they turned 16 (about 20%), or before graduating (another 20%). And NH as a whole has traditionally had one of lowest dropout rates in the country.

But, you will correctly say, these numbers don’t measure the quality of education. These measure how many people went to school. Not the same thing.  Perhaps if you got to go to school the instruction was quite wonderful. Especially in higher grades, eliminating those who were less interested in education (plus however many others who might be talented but too poor) might have made for an excellent classroom experience, don’t you think, AVI?

I think not.  But I will leave all this with you to ponder before I comment further.  For now, I wanted only to remind you that things were not as our current imagination tells us.  We will get topp that. Post WWII America is insanely different from the rest of human existence in terms of education – including the rest of American history..

14 thoughts on “Education in the (Not Very) Good Old Days”

  1. I recall discussing high school completion rates when I was in high school in the ’60s. I assumed that most Americans had completed high school. After all, I didn’t know many high school dropouts in my age group. My teacher shook his head. He was right, and I was wrong.

    I recall a Botany professor telling us how good his one room schoolhouse education was, though.

  2. “Education was terrible until quite recently.”
    Not quite sure why you throw the last few words in there. Industrial education IS terrible. Schools today are aesthetically and functionally nearly indistinguishable to prisons, if we’re being harsh, and to day-care centers, if we’re being generous.

    “Post WWII America is insanely different from the rest of human existence in terms of education – including the rest of American history..”
    Schooling, yes, education, ….????

    Basically, it seems to me you are arguing with a strawman. Complaining about the state of the current education system, and pointing out ways it does in fact fall short of The Way Things Used To Be, does not equal saying that things used to be perfect.

  3. My father ran away from home to join the Navy in 1918 at the age of 15. Once the war was over, he asked his father to tell the Navy he was only 15 so he could get out. He never went back to school and worked in a bank after leaving the military. His parents owned a farm, but two of his brothers, the two younger than he, got college degrees.

    He never went back to school and was very intelligent but had no interest in education. When I was 18, he told me to “Get this idea of college out of your head.” I went to college and medical school on a scholarship.

    My mother went to “business college” in the 1910s and could type fast enough to be a legal secretary. Cousins went to college but I was the first of my close family to go.

    I have five children, four of home have bachelors’ degrees and three graduate degrees. My son who does not have a BA or BS is a firemen and, as a child, was considered by teachers who knew his siblings to be the smartest. He just was not interested in school. I sent him to private school and tried to get the school to require a GPA above a “B” average to allow him to participate in sports or extra-curricular activities but it was a small class (25 in his high school graduating class) and he was a big handsome kid so I failed.

    I told all the kids they could not get a drivers’ license unless they had a B average. He had girls driving Ferrari roadsters picking him up for dates, so I gave up at 17. He is the only one who currently owns his own home and it is now worth over $1 million. He and his wife took the kids on a Disney cruise last year during spring break.

    I should add that he now reads voraciously.

  4. Quality vs. quality. It’s fun to look at hundred-year-old grammar school graduation examinations, like this one from Bullitt County, Kentucky. Taxpayers back then, especially rural folk, knew exactly how much they spent to support the local school district and expected value in return. Eighth grade (14-years-old?) was the farthest the vast majority of the kids would go. After that they had to learn a living. They didn’t screw around.

  5. @ Brian – see my second-to-last paragraph. I hope subsequent posts will be more satisfying. I am getting to the part about quality of education. For now, I just wanted some basic data implanted into the discussion. 1) People did not actually attend school that much, 2)individual memories and anecdotes about what school was like will be unreliable, and 3) examples of what the tests were give us a false picture of what school and learning were like, for multiple reasons. I

  6. AVI: My objection isn’t at all the same as the strawman you’re arguing with. My argument explicitly wouldn’t say this part of your referenced paragraph: “Perhaps if you got to go to school the instruction was quite wonderful.”

    I would say, the school system IS terrible, and WAS terrible, if what we’re trying to do is allow each student to achieve anything like what they are actually capable of. Years of attendance is measuring something entirely different. School and society have changed so much that that isn’t at all a metric of comparitive quality.

    Where the school system is WORSE today than perhaps ever before is that it now intentionally and actively impedes the progress of the “top” students, where before they suffered from something more like neglect.

  7. We have at least one current example of the past system you are describing—the Amish. They are mostly educated in one or two room schoolhouses, taught by adults with no higher education, and leave school after the 8th grade.

    And yet they seem to be a pretty successful subculture, not only in farming but in starting and running small businesses.

  8. @ Assistant Village Idiot: People didn’t attend school that much because 1) they couldn’t afford it and 2) it wasn’t neccessary. Most of the relatives on my mother’s side in the 1910s started working in East Side Chicago steel mills when they were 16. My dad’s side was richer; they all finished high school and started working in family businesses. By the 1940s those Chicago steel mill workers could afford to send their kids to college and did because they saw the value in doing so.

    In rural areas kids were needed to work the farm. If their kids graduated from grammar school by passing the test linked above those farmers would have a leg up on their competition. You have to take into account that up until 1920 the majority of people still lived in rural areas. Their educational needs were pretty basic. It was their labor that was valuable.

    As the United States became more industrialized schooling changed to meet those higher requirements.

  9. We also have other examples of past structures. Not exactly pure one room schoolhouses, but the mixed-age classrooms of Montessori and Waldorf schools duplicate some of those qualities with limited use of technology and a lot of outdoor time. But here again, the issue of selection bias comes into play. Is it the system or the students that make it effective?

  10. The next one is coming tonight. Selection bias isn’t in it, except in the dim background, but that is indeed a large factor. I am restructuring the subsequent posts, but hope to get there.

    @ Brian – the best thing schools can do for top students is pretty much not get in their way, so we are generally agreed. They don’t do that now, nor did they then.

  11. One difference I suspect is that virtually all of the 8th grade educated could read then, many 8th graders today can’t.

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