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