Education in the (Not Very) Good Old Days – Part III

I closed with this in 2012. I open with it now.

Back to basics: they didn’t have all useless modern feelings stuff, or politically correct nonsense then, nor all these administrative distractions about disaster drills and recycling, and sex education and drug education, so they could read classics instead of trash. No, we had hours of penmanship drills – not very useful even then. If you weren’t good at it you had to stay in at recess and do more.   We copied things a lot, and not always as punishment. We wrote out inspiring quotes, or the Gettysburg Address. It was supposed to imprint grand ideas into our heads. Or something. A “beautiful hand” was much admired, and usually harder to read than the ugly writing, as anyone who has tried to read archival records can attest.  And we learned recitations – often the same one for everyone, and had to get up in front of the class and say it, one after another.  That’s useful.  And maps to color after labeling, and children in ethnic costumes to color, and lots of natural science to color.  Shop Class and Home Ec.  We scrubbed our desks.  We lined up and waited a lot, and sometimes marched to music.  We diagrammed sentences – kinda fun, sometimes, but not as helpful in composition as one might think.  We learned grammar, much of which turned out to be wrong, and most of which was not focused on improving our writing, but in shaming us out of using slang.  Spelling drills. Somewhat useful – not huge. Spelling bees – I was always one of the last ones standing, one boy against six girls getting every other word, but what use was that for everyone else for the last half hour, watch me and Barbara and Debbie and Judy and Hannah? A lot of standing around for us, sitting around for others. And patriotic songs. Bad ones. Maybe we should blame the 60s counterculture on terrible patriotic songs learned in fifth grade.

I was, in retrospect, in good schools, though I didn’t know it at the time. I am not citing the mistakes of poor ignorant districts. New Hampshire finishes at or near the top in testing every year. (I’m not discussing why – the whole discussion would move there if I did.) I was in the middle spot of the 60s and 70s as the major educational changes came on. I saw both. They both wasted lots of time but did okay, and really, it doesn’t matter. When we competed against other schools our city schools usually won. When I compared experiences with all those top-ranked Northern Virginia schools in college, they weren’t any better. I have since compared notes with students from bad schools, expensive schools, prestigious schools, religious schools. Mine were among the best.

But filled with useless stuff.

Here are very good reasons why schools should have been better then.

I’d like to note these before proceeding to my premise that they were, in fact, worse.

1. Women were discouraged from going into many professions, or even training for them.  A smart and competent woman, unless she and/or her parents had ambition or privilege well above the norm, became a nurse, secretary, teacher, or librarian. Those professions, then, soaked up a lot of talent that goes elsewhere today, and had a slew of the overqualified.

2. Many more children dropped out of school in earlier years.  While many of those were children of ability who could not continue because of family poverty or attitudes, it did certainly eliminate many less-able students from the class, which suggests that more material could be covered with those remaining. Children with special needs were whisked away to institutions and not seen in classrooms ever again. Ever again.

Side rant: One can say that inclusion has worsened the classroom, but what’s your other plan? We used to regard them as unimportant people, not worth educating. We unlearned that for very good moral and practical reasons. Similarly, having students drop out at 16, 17, 18 – what’s your plan for them? One can decry the lack of apprenticeships, or Voc Ed and declare in the abstract that further schooling might not be best for all. And if you really want to say 11th and 12th grade of HS really was better back in my day, because we didn’t have to bother with them anymore, go for it. It is intellectually defensible and consistent. But you have to own it, and keep saying it in a public forum, where it will be very unpopular if you want to sell it. (If you aren’t trying to suggest an idea that a country might actually use, you are in some other country, some other world, arguing for fun, not solution.)

3. Attention spans were probably longer, and competing entertainments less available.  How extensive and important these are is open to debate, as is the assumption that they are unmitigated goods.  But they might well bespeak advantages.  Relatedly, children and their parents may have been more respectful of the school’s authority, which made a teacher’s job easier. There isn’t good research data, but I think our suspicions that the overstimulation of entertainments is not good for completing difficult, focused work will prove out. Those aren’t the fault of the schools, though. They are fighting that battle on the front lines. Picture the Tough But Fair teacher we keep romanitcising trying to teach middle school today, even with a good curriculum and administrative support. Mild poverty is nowhere near the obstacle that great entertainment is. It was easier to teach in the old days.

4. Additionally, it is claimed that many useless extras taught today were not required then, allowing instruction to focus on reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.  I don’t think that is true – I think we have traded one set of less-useful tasks for another – but there is at least something worth noting here.

Part IV, the weaknesses of those purported advantages:

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

  1. You need to clarify what YOU are talking about when you say The Good Old Days.

    If you mean the 1950s or 1960s, that’s a very different conversation then in you mean the 1920s or 1930s, or even the 1880s (the Little House books give an incredible look at education of that era…)

  2. I’d like to note these before proceeding to my premise that they were, in fact, worse.
    1. Women were discouraged from going into many professions, or even training for them.

    Some truth but a lot was cultural. My high school girlfriend got a BS in ChemE in 1960. Her parents were not “privileged” and she was, I believe, the first to go to college,

    She graduated from Purdue and I was in California so she married a classmate,. They moved to California later and we socialized. She took off a few years to raise her kids and then went back and got, I believe, a Masters degree. She worked on the Space Shuttle. Sent me a photo of herself in the Gemini capsule.

    Medical schools did discriminate against women applicants because there was a perceived doctor shortage and it was assumed that women would not practice full time.

    That was true, as doctor employment agencies (Medicine is now a “gig” occupation.) now report that female physicians work about 26% less than males. Males work significantly fewer hours than we did. Medical schools have greatly expanded since my time and osteopaths, which were not considered “mainstream” in the 60s, are now fully integrated into the profession. My cardiologist is a DO.

  3. Another opinion on higher education , that I agree with.

    It’s apparent that the current collegiate system serves several functions, all of them a symptom of a deeper problem with our society. We have seen how admission to one of the elite schools is a de facto degree, which in turn is a de facto ticket into the ruling class. Any actual education is purely coincidental. It is also clear that attendance at non-elite schools is today merely a signal to employers that the person might possesses the basic readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmatic skills we used to expect from a high school graduate. This is because high school’s purpose is not to create a baseline educated citizen anymore but, rather, to provide comfy sinecures for Democrat-voting unionized teachers and the swollen ranks of lazy, useless administrators. Again, education is an afterthought – public education’s real goal is to provide jobs for Democrat constituencies.

    I have become bitterly disappointed with the U that I attended as an undergraduate,. The medical school, where I taught for 30 years,.may still be OK. It was when I left five years ago.

    My alma mater, has been deeply embedded in the admissions scam.

    The college admission scandal, where a herd of rich Democrat donors paid a ton of dough to get their half-wit progeny into Snooty U, was the perfect encapsulation of how big a rip-off college really is. Did you notice how the parents forked over cash to get Junior into school because Junior scored 112 on his SAT and then…Junior stayed in the elite school with no problem? You might think that if these schools were rigorous institutions of higher learning instead of ruling class credential rubber-stump machines, they might flunk out? But no. When the internet famous daughter of that (former) Full House / Hallmark-movie-about-a-widow-finding-love-with-a sexy-carpenter-at-Christmas starlet Lori Loughlin was busted, she was literally sailing around the Bahamas on a yacht owned by a USC trustee.<

    That Trustee, is the President of the Board and has been systematically destroying the U.

    The decision to terminate Dean Ellis, effective on June 30th of 2019, and three years before his current five-year ends, was made only two months after he was awarded a $70,000 performance bonus from the university. It also occurs in the same year that Marshall became the first prominent business school to reach gender parity in its full-time MBA program (see USC Marshall Reaches Gender Parity). It also, in fact, occurs only a month after a highly favorable 13th place finish in the new Bloomberg Businessweek MBA ranking of U.S. schools.

  4. Maybe I am under-educated, but I am still unclear where AVI is going with this series of posts.

    In the meantime, let’s think about the statement: “Women were discouraged from going into many professions …”

    To borrow one of Mark Steyn’s perceptive observations — The future belongs to those who show up. We hear a lot from the usual suspects about “sustainability”, but there is very rarely any discussion about the obvious truth that a sustainable society requires the average woman to have 2.1 children; otherwise, that society simply fades into the dustbin of history.

    One might survey the scene today and conclude that ‘Women are discouraged from motherhood’ in the current educational system. And motherhood is more than simply popping out a sprog and dropping it off at a government-run baby farm. Mothers are the essential player in the long process of raising newborns into productive citizens — which takes an enormous investment of time and effort.

    This is not to suggest that women should be confined to the kitchen, pregnant & barefoot. Women who want careers and have the appropriate capabilities should obviously be free to fight their way up any slippery pole they choose. But it is important to note that modern feminism has denigrated motherhood — and a society which denigrates motherhood is doomed.

  5. Maybe compare the family backgrounds – not just the demographics but also what the parents actually do for their kids, or make them do – of the students who succeed now vs. back in the day.

  6. @ Brian – an excellent question. I am writing about all of them to varying degrees, because when conservatives talk about the Good Old Days they are likewise all over the map. They like to talk about their parents, or dear old Miss Grundy, or a girl in their college class, or a test they read about in the newspaper from the 1920s, or what they remember, or some article from a homeschooler site, or a half a dozen other things floating about in the ether. There is a vague narrative that education sucks now more than ever, replete with outrage, and it was better in the golden era.

    Gavin asks for my thesis, quite fairly, and I swear I did not underhandedly encourage him in this to set up my response. Conservatives, some more, some less, believe this narrative about the good old days of education. My thesis is wherever you touch down in time and place in American history the idea is unsustainable. 1960? got it refuted. 1930? Same. Little House, Mark Twain, Ben Franklin? I got them all on my side, current conservatives don’t.

    As bad as I think modern education is – I foam at the mouth when Chief Seattle or Maya Angelou is mentioned, for example – teachers now actually do better in a tougher situation than they used to. They are not magicians. But the schools of old were simply terrible, but we don’t want to admit it.

    I’m attacking the whole concept among conservatives, root and branch.

  7. I pulled together a lot of photos of my parents in high school (late 1940s) for my mom who has Alzheimer’s. My parents both remember a lot from then. But one photo stands out. My parents, my uncle and others were on the student council. The photo has all of the boys in suits and the girls in proper dresses. They all looked 10 years older. I think this is part of the older education people think is missing. Society including schools, churches and families really worked at getting kids ready for entering the adult world. There was no difference if you were going to college or out to work, you were entering adulthood at 17-18. Even if your instructors or curriculum was not really that good, you were taught to treat it as something serious and important. After all this was the Cold War and the guys were off to military service at some time after they ended school. I think that is what’s missing, a sense that education is truly important in a broader sense. I think this was true even earlier (take Abe Lincoln as an example of a minimum of formal education but a truly educated man)

  8. AVI: “But the schools of old were simply terrible, but we don’t want to admit it.”

    Thanks for explicating your thesis. It seems like an over-generalization. Schools of old produced people who could write the Declaration of Independence, build transcontinental railroads, go to the Moon, and write the Great American Novel. Not a bad record.

    The purpose of education necessarily changes over time as societies change, which makes it difficult to make that case that “schools of old were simply terrible”. Judged against what objectives?

    And even if we accept your thesis that schools of old were simply terrible, does that mean we should be satisfied with the current educational system? Because we cannot change the past, only learn from it; whereas we should be able to do something about the problems with education today.

  9. AVI, I’m afraid I don’t agree with your premise, as I understand it.

    I told the anecdote about my girlfriend. My father was very anti-education., I’m not sure why. My sister did not go to college.

    I was accepted to my first choice, CalTech, in 1956. I was a national Merit Scholar but got no money because my father refused to fill out a financial statement.

    I took a scholarship to another school. Had there been student loans, I could have gotten one but they did not come along until 1960. Had I been more savvy, I could have written to CalTech to see if they had other sources of funds. They probably did but I did not know enough.

    My first wife got a BA in elementary ed and taught from 1962 to 1965 when she was pregnant. After our divorce in 1978, she went to work in real estate,. Worked her way up to Bank VP, then got laid off in a merger. She went back to teaching for 6 months and told me that, if she were educating our kids again, she would homeschool them. The elementary grades had gotten awful. She had several stories. One was a second grade teacher who did a good job gettig the kids ready to read. Irene complimented her one day and the woman burst into tears. No one had ever complemented her. The teachers would ridicule the kids they were teaching.

    She quit when she got another bank job and saw her former principal in a market later,. He tried to encourage her to go back to teaching and told her she had been his best teacher. She felt sorry for him,. She had been out of teaching for 30 years.

    My grandson’s 4th grade teacher told his mother that she could not do the math problems with Common Core methods, either. She suggested his mother teach him at home using traditional methods. She was not allowed. This is a wealthy suburb in Orange County, CA. They did get him and his sister into a charter school the next year.

  10. @ Anonymous – schools had nothing to do with the Declaration of Independence or the transcontinental railroads. They may have been somewhat involved in the moon landing and Great American Novels. I didn’t say that Americans were stupid. Smart people will pick up skills and information if you just put stuff in front of them. I suppose one can credit the schools in some sense for that, in the same way we can credit politicians for not crewing something up. It’s faint praise, but it is something that a lot of others don’t manage. That people in America got educated doesn’t mean the schools should get credit. My contention is that they have done a lot of getting in the way, but did get some minimal things accomplished, the same as they do now. I tried to read in secret in my lap whenever I could, and that was a lot of my education, but I did learn some things in school.

    @ Mike K – not you personally. the “classmate” example is used by lots of people. I was mostly attacking the general idea of anecdote as especially revealing.

  11. schools & the transcontinental railroad…building the railroads, and lots of other things, did require surveying which required trigonometry. Not sure how much of this was learned by formal schooling versus by self-education.

  12. My clearest memory of the Bad Old Days in education was modeling a real Ku Klux Klan robe and hood for my schoolmates circa 1962.

    I was tallest boy in the 5th grade class and my Southern Gran Dame schoolmarm wanted to share a Southern history lesson about the “Knights of the South.”

    My German-American Hoosier parents were aghast when I shared the story with them that night over dinner.

  13. “@ Anonymous – schools had nothing to do with the Declaration of Independence or the transcontinental railroads.”

    My apologies, AVI. That Anonymous was me. Once again, I forgot to enter my name and got the default Anonymous.

    One can certainly set out the hypothesis that schools had nothing to do with the good things that have been achieved by the products of school systems — but I wonder how one would prove that? Any ideas?

    Everything comes back to the fundamental question — What is the purpose of schools?

    Clearly, the 3 Rs are essential. Andrew Carnegie was largely self-taught in telegraphy, railroads, bridge-building, steel-making, finance — after he had learned the 3 Rs in his Scottish school. That was why he devoted so much the fortune he earned to building libraries where other young people could learn what they needed to know. The major criticism of today’s schools is that they are failing to teach everyone the 3 Rs. We focus too much resources on college for the daughters of the Upper Middle Class, and not enough on ensuring that every young American learns the basics in grade school. (Personal opinion!).

    What are we trying to achieve with schools beyond the 3 Rs? The Victorian English “Public School” (private and very exclusive) was focused on instilling a particular culture into selected young men to prepare them to administer an empire. What is our objective today? I contend that the objective of education beyond the 3 Rs should be to help all young people become responsible citizens, with an understanding of the world and the capability to look after themselves. That is where we are failing.

    As an aside, is it reasonable to assume that the smart kids will educate themselves regardless of the school system? On easily measurable sports achievements, it is fairly well accepted that most people push themselves harder and achieve higher performance when training in a group rather than individually. The same phenomenon may happen with academics too.

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