In 1983, the Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation at Risk, comparing low educational standards to a kind of warfare against youth. But hand-wringing over our school system is an American perennial, going all the way back to the Founding. In this episode, the History Guys explore the origins of public education, and ask whether we set ourselves up for disappointment by expecting so much from our schools. Guests include historian Jon Zimmerman and Alicia Lugo, who taught in segregated schools in Charlottesville, Virginia, and went on to run the city’s school board.
Commission on Excellence in Education. A Nation at Risk. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1983.
Kaestle, Carl. “Victory of the Common School Movement.” Historians on America. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State (22-29).
Peter: This is Backstory, with us, the American History guys. I’m Peter Onuf, 18th Century guy; I’m Ed Ayers, 19th Century guy; and I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century history guy.
Ed: A little over five decades ago, the Russians sent a dog into outer space, a mutt named Laika, that some government functionary had found on the streets of Moscow. The suited her up in a dog spacesuit, put her on a rocket ship, and off she went.
[music and woman speaking Russian]
Ed: We later learned that that little dog only lasted a few hours, and she probably died from stress. But back in November, 1957, it seemed like most of the stress was on this side of the Bering Strait. The U.S. Had been caught napping a month earlier when the Russians announced that they had launched Sputnik 1 . . .
[music and man speaking Russian]. “Today, a new moon is in the sky” . . .
Ed: . . . now they had repeated the stunt, this time with a living, breathing passenger on board, at least for a little while. What would Sputnik 3 carry – a nuclear missile?
Male Announcer: “You are hearing the actual signals, transmitted by the Earth circling satellite, one of the great scientific feats of the age.” [beeping]
Brian: It didn’t take long for the pundits to figure out who was to blame for this colossal national embarrassment – the military? No. Congress? No. The White House? No (uh uh). It was America’s schools who had gotten us into this mess. Russian schools were churning out scientists who could put a dog into space; and American schools were churning out, well, rock-and-roll.
[background music – “Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll.”]
Brian: As the cover of “Life” magazine announced the following spring, there was a “Crisis in Education”.
Dwight Eisenhower: The Soviet Union now has, in the combined category of scientists and engineers, a greater number than the United States . . .
Brian: Dwight Eisenhower, November, 1957.
Dwight Eisenhower: . . . and it is producing graduates in these fields at a much faster rate. This trend is disturbing.
Brian: It may have been disturbing, but the Sputnik episode was not the first, or the last time, schools were blamed for our national crises. Just think about all the politicians you’ve seen railing about low standards in our schools. To take a classic example, “A Nation at Risk”, the report commissioned by Ronald Reagan in the early 80s, to quote one of its best lines, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have feuded as an act of war” . . .
Ronald Reagan: “Despite record levels of educational spending, America’s students came in last in 7 of 19 academics tests, compared to students of other industrialized nations.”
Peter: On each episode of BackStory, we rip a topic from the headlines and spend an hour exploring its historical context. Today, our topic is “Public Education”, because once again it’s taking its lumps in our nation’s capitol. Here’s President Obama back in February.
President Obama: “We have one of the highest high school drop-out rates of any industrialized nation, and half of the students who begin college, never finish. This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today, will out-compete us tomorrow.”
Ed: So have we always been worried about being “out-taught”? Later in the show, we’re going to be speaking with a historian of education about what many think of as “The Golden Age of Education”, the era of the one-room schoolhouse, back in the 19th century. We’ll also look at one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century history of education, but first, we’re going to turn to our 18th century guy for some deep background on all of this. So, Peter, do people back in your period worry that we were going to fall behind our competitors, the British or the French, because our schools weren’t doing their jobs back then?
Peter: This is really deep background, Ed, and the answer is “no”. In fact, the idea that the common people should be educated was a heresy in the old days; that is, why would you want them to be able to read and write, because as many early modern thinkers thought, if people were too literate, they’d be uppity, maybe they’d claim rights or something like this. And that’s really the story of American education, it doesn’t begin in an international competition, it didn’t have anything to do with that.
Ed: How many people did go to school, Peter, was it just for elites. . .
Peter: In theory, in Colonial Massachusetts, every community with a certain population was supposed to have a school, but this was a statute that was observed more in the breach. Most education, as we know it today, took place within homes, particularly Bible-centered homes, where literacy was important in the religious life of communities, there weren’t schools to do this. You could say that churches were a kind of educational institution, but basically these were places of oral performances, that is, where sermons would be delivered, and text would be read out to the congregation. So mass education as we know it is really a phenomenon of, well, Ed’s century.
Brian: Well, now I can see Ed waiting for the school bus, but before we let him get on it, I’ve just got one more question. And yes, Peter, it has to do with your guy, Jefferson. He had a few ideas on education, didn’t he?
Peter: Absolutely, Brian, he is the author of a still-born notion of universal public education; we don’t like to emphasis the “still-born” part, we like to say that Jefferson was a great visionary in his 1779 Bill for the Diffusion of Knowledge.
Ed: It only took another 130 years to come to pass in his native Virginia.
Peter [laughing]: That’s right, Ed. Virginians are slow, but . . .
Brian: He was nearsighted, you’re saying.
Peter: . . . But his scheme of public education was that every community would support a school, for girls as well as boys, at the primary level, and then there would be this kind of peri-middle selection moved up where a few select boys would be sent on from primary schools to grammar school, or secondary schools, and then on the peak of his system, the University of Virginia or William and Mary, at that time on a scholarship. But this proposal really reflected the paranoia that Jefferson and other Revolutionary leaders had about the ignorance of the people; that if they weren’t adequately educated, they could be subject to demagoguery and they could be mislead, and so they had to be trained to be able to detect conspiracies against liberty within the ruling class. One of the paradoxical things about the democratization of American education is that the people resisted this because they suspected the motives of educational reformers; they thought education reformers were really trying to put one over on the people by taxing them to support a system of education that would primarily benefit elites.
Ed: So, let me tell you about where public education came from in the form that we know it. By which I mean, taxpayer supported universal education. Like so much, frankly I’ll have to admit, that starts in New England and Massachusetts, and Peter has described what it was like in the Colonial era with this kind of patchwork of home schooling and so forth, but with the expectation that the Commonwealth owed an education to people and that the whole population was uplifted by a more broadly distributed education. And so, in the 1830s, Horace Mann who is as close to anyone as the parent of American education, looked around and said, “You know, what we really need to do is to make this a far more coherent, forceful state-supported system.” And what Horace Mann says is, “Folks” . . , by which folks I mean wealthy people, “. . . it’s going to pay off, if you’ll pay taxes to create public schools for everybody.”
Brian: So in Peter’s period, Jefferson and others arguing we needed education to create citizens, but are you suggesting that Horace Mann was also saying to Americans, ‘Hey, you know, education produces productive citizens who can actually help this economy?’
Ed: No, he didn’t say any of that.
Ed: Yes, that is exactly, my 20th century friend, what he said, and he actually would make pretty specific argument to big manufacturers, ‘Look, guys, if you want workers to be disciplined, to answer bells, to be self motivating to the extent you want them to be, to be able to read simple instructions, education is not merely useful to the Commonwealth in creating better citizens, yadda, yadda, yadda, it is literally going into your pocketbook’. You look back at it and you could see that that’s really the only way that man was going to be able to persuade the people who paid the most taxes to pay more to educate, frankly, other people’s children. And I don’t want to be cynical. People would like to have jobs that were regular and well paying and industrial jobs brought something that we never had before, which was year-round sustained, guaranteed employment that was not tied to the agricultural cycle.
Peter: There might be another dimension to this. I wonder if immigration had something to do with the importance of education. The literacy rate in Massachusetts before Horace Mann was virtually universal for men, and pretty high for women was well. So it wasn’t that you needed those basic skills, and of course, if you had a religious population that spent all that time at church, they had their own bells, so to speak, they had that kind of discipline. But when you had large numbers of Irish, Catholic immigrants, you faced a kind of new demographic challenge. Is that an element in man’s notion of public education is to Americanize?
Ed: You know, I don’t think so. As logical as that seems, part of it would be our friend chronology.
And the fact that this . . .
Ed: . . . The fact that this begins in 1837 suggests that it predated the big tide of Irish immigration that would not come for another decade, and that would not peak for 20 more years, I think, in fact, that if man had waited until the challenge was to spend tax money to educate a bunch of new immigrants, it would not have happened. So, ironically, the fulfillment of a sense that a homogeneous America can become more homogeneous by using education.
Peter: So, Ed, what are the social changes that lead to an emphasis on education? If it’s not yet widespread immigration, is it the fact that Massachusetts farm children are moving away from home, because only a limited number of people could sustain a farm operations through the generations, so that there’s an anxiety about the future and about what provisions are going to be made for children, and a growing recognition that new sets of skills are going to be necessary to cope with an unpredictable future.
Ed: Beautifully put, Peter, and exactly right. And this takes us back to Sputnik, because the same way that the Soviets led to a great period of instability and anxiety in the country, if you’re sitting there in Massachusetts and you’re watching a lot of your population leave, and you’re wondering how it is that you’re going to be able to keep people in New England when you’ve got the Northwest open. When there’s land out there to be taken, what’s going to keep people on the rocky soil of the Berkshires. It’s also the case of manufacturing is growing, and if you want to compete with the great industrial power at the time, England, you’re going to have to have a population that knows how to invent and create. I think it’s a recurring theme for as long as we’ve been a nation. Maybe not back in the Colonial period, but it didn’t take long in the 19th century for that kind of rhetoric of ‘We’re under peril, and only education can really save us.’
Brian: Well, in a minute, we’ll delve a little deeper into that 19th century, and look into why one-room schoolhouses weren’t all they were cracked up to be. We’re also going to take a few of your calls, but first it’s time for a quick break.
Ed: Remember, if you’d like to call on a future show, have a look at our website to see what topics we’re working on, you can find us at BackStoryRadio.org.
Peter: We’ll be back in a minute.
Peter: This is BackStory, the show that looks to the past to explain the America of today. I’m Peter Onuf, 18th century guy’ I’m Ed Ayers, 19th century history guy, and I’m Brian Balogh, history guy of the 20th century.
Brian: Today on the show, we’re exploring the history of public education. Like so many other topics we’ve explored on BackStory, we tend to remember that history as being much rosier that it actually was. Take, for example, the song we’re listening to right now, “School Days”. [music]
Jon Zimmerman: “School days, school days, good old golden rule days, reading, writing, ‘arithmetic, taught to the tune of hickory stick, etc.”
Brian: That’s John Zimmerman, a historian of education at New York University. In 1949, the “New York Times” declared this one of the 10 most popular songs in the history of the United States. “School Days” is all about a one-room schoolhouse in Ed’s period, the 19th century, but it was written in the first decade of my century, by a guy named Gus Edwards.
Jon: Now what’s interesting about “School Days” is as follows: Gus Edwards was a German immigrant who moved to Brooklyn when he was 7; he never, as best we know, stepped into a one-room schoolhouse, and he might not really have left New York; actually, he did, eventually he lived in L.A., but Gus Edwards was a vaudevillian, and later became a booking agent. This is the guy who wrote our most popular and our most influential ode to the one-room schoolhouse, and he’s an urban immigrant from Germany.
Brian: Part of the reason Jon Zimmerman is so fired up about this subject, is that he’s just written a book about it. It’s called, “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse and History and Memory.” In it, he looks at the way school reformers with a wide range of agendas, invoke the one-room schoolhouse as a kind of model of educational setting. In fact, until recently, there was an actual model of the little red schoolhouse outside the entrance of the Department of Education in Washington. Zimmerman basically argues that this nostalgia, a word he likes to point out, comes from the Greek for homesickness, that this nostalgia skews all kinds of facts about little red schoolhouses, beginning with their color.
Jon: Most one-room schoolhouses were either white, or more commonly, just unpainted because school districts didn’t want to pay to paint them. [laughter]
Brian: Help me understand this, John, Americans seem to put public education on a pedestal, but we don’t want to pay to paint the little schoolhouse.
Jon: I think that’s true and I think that that contradiction goes back all the way to the founding and the common schools. The common school movement, the idea that there should be universal, state-supported education, was, although not unique to the United States, in many ways, distinct to it. By 1850, there are greater fraction of elementary school aged kids going to school in our country than in any other country on earth. But what we did in 19th century was we sent an extraordinarily large fraction, relatively speaking, of our kids to school and we sent them to school in essentially shacks; that’s what one-room schoolhouses were, they were 15 x 40 feet in dimension, and they were in every sense bare bones. Most of them did not even have a belfry or bell, even though we remember that part too; very primitive heating systems, if any at all. You read accounts of people trying to drink water in a one-room schoolhouse, but finding out that the water they had brought in earlier in the day was frozen, was ice. The teaching force which was overwhelmingly single, female and young; and young means sometimes as young as 15 or 16, often has very little more education than the kids they’re teaching. If you think about “Little House on the Prairie”,
Brian: …my touchstone for all things historical, by the way… [laughter]
Jon: …this was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiographical story and it was about her life on the prairie in the 1880s. It didn’t become popular until the 1930s, which was precisely the time when, thanks to the WPA and the PWA, the ripping down these one-room schools, and that’s important, too. Because again, this comes a venue for nostalgia for remembering institutions going away. But was does she remember in those stories; she remembers being a kid teaching other kids. And she remembers all kinds of problems with the so-called “big boys”, because you might guess that the big boys are the ones who are going to test your authority.
Brian: And, Jon, what is roughly age range?
Jon: Age 3 to 20. And often all in the same place, and sometimes there would be as many as 100 kids in a 15 x 40 square box, and sometimes there would be as few as 4. The major deficiency is that the pedagogy is what we would call “rote”. And rote means repeat. And it has to be not just because of the lack of training of the teacher, but also because of the enormous age range of kids. So they all have their own primers, and people would bring in whatever text book they had, and they would memorize it and then recite it in a rotating way to the teacher. And so it was not uncommon to find 11 or 12 year old kids that could just say a whole text book.
Brian: Wow. But was there some basis for the later nostalgia of this home sickness, as you put it?
Jon: If the question is was there reason for people look back longingly at these, there absolutely is, and here’s the reason: Whatever their deficiencies, they were communal institutions. In most cases, they were the only public building, so they were not just a place where the kids went to school, they were a place where the community met. If it’s the only public building, it’s not just a schoolhouse, it’s the place where voting happens, where debates happen; not just that, weddings, funerals, all of the holidays, Christmas, Easter and so they were not perfect, they had a multitude of deficiencies, but when people look back at them and say, “But they were ours”, this is absolutely true.
Brian: Am I being really naïve, and nostalgic to use your word, to think there was something good about getting literally everybody in the community, kids, adults, etc. all in one room and just letting them hash it out. Contrast that image, at any rate, to what we have today, this long chain of bureaucratic command stretching all the way from the Secretary of Education down to the Assistant Principal for physical education and discipline.
Jon: I think you have to go back to answer the question, to distinguish between what adults were doing in these schools and what kids were doing. The one-room schools of the 19th century were profoundly small “d” democratic and debate-filled institutions in the evening, when the entire community showed up to debate, among other things, who was going to pay for the school. You don’t have to be a nostalgist to celebrate the idea that there were these public institutions that brought everybody together to debate the content and the contours of their shared lives. However, let’s not impute that dynamic to the classroom itself when the kids and teachers were in there; because that was not a land of democratic debate.
Peter: That was the three Rs: rote, rote and rote.
Jon: Completely. My way or the highway. [laughter] And that’s why teachers devised all of these, to us, draconian punishments. By the way, the dunce cap was rarely used, but every other kind of humiliation was, often recapitulating the alleged errors since, so a kid that talked too much would have a twig affixed to their tongue; a kid who chewed gum would have the gum put on their forehead or their nose, and to me the most fascinating one, which tells you a lot about the 19th century is that a kid who was a poor speller would have to cut letters out of a newspaper and eat them. [laughter] This sounds quite barbaric, and in many ways it is . . .
Peter: Is that where “eat your words” comes from?
Jon: . . . It may be. We don’t know. But something that I find fascinating about this is, on one level it’s awful, horrible, humiliating, gross, right? But I think it’s also an example of the time when any academic failure was considered to be a function of a lack of effort, not differential ability. Right? That punishment is pre-IQ test, and it’s pre-the entire concept of disability; if you’re not spelling, it’s not because you have a different learning style that prevents you from spelling, it’s because you weren’t listening, so eat some words, here’s your punishment. So as awful as it is, I think there’s also something and in some ways I find rather salutary about it, there is something quite small “d” democratic about the idea that everyone has the same ability, ergo, if they’re doing worse, it’s because they didn’t apply themselves.
Brian: Right. There’s a presumption that there’s an equal starting ground, there. Well, Jon, I want to thank you so much for joining us.
Jon: Thanks for having me.
Peter: Jon Zimmerman directs the History of Education Program at New York University’s Steinhart School of Education. His new book is “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.” You can listen to an extended version of our conversation at BackStoryRadio.org.
Brian: Well, guys, you noticed that I took advantage of being alone with our guest to deflate all kinds of things, and I was just, to anticipating you now pulling them apart and maybe we’ll start with you, Ed. What do you think about what Jon said and does it have any application to all of those schools that you’ve studied in the South?
Ed: No, it takes the fun out of it, Brian, to roll over on your back like that, but, actually, it was a great interview. I think in many ways it captures what the experience of the 20th century south was like. The south, as we know, is a little bit behind the times when it comes to education, and it simply wasn’t the same kind of value placed on it. All the way from the 18th century on, the elite was actually pretty well educated, and they went to a lot of trouble to create academies and colleges, and boarding schools, and tutors, and all those kinds of things, but if you go back to the 19th century south, there were no mechanisms for middle- and lower-class people to gain an education. If you were African American, of course, it was illegal to learn how to read. So not only were there not schools, but there were laws that prohibited you from gaining literacy. So the idea coming along of a school for everybody was a late innovation and progress.
Brian: So this may be naïve, but at least one good thing of this notion of a common schoolhouse, is that it does strike me as a place where at least everybody could come together.
Peter: Well, they come together, Brian, but not necessarily on everybody’s terms. If you think about early public education in New England and Massachusetts, particularly, where the “King James Bible” is the text, in effect. It’s a Protestant education and that was one of the reasons why many Catholics, wanted their own schools.
Ed: And no sooner do you have public schools in New England, then Catholic schools start growing up, then you have the biggest debates and riots around parochial schools in the north in the 1840s and 1850s, because people say, “I don’t want the state educating my children into Protestantism, and I don’t want them to be using books and Bibles that are prejudice against my religion.” And the people on the other side “Well, we don’t want Catholics gathering together outside of the common vocabulary, and teaching about Popery, or whatever.”
Brian: Hey guys– I never said they sang “Kumbaya” together; I just said they came together to hash out some of these fundamental issues that are at the heart of our democratic republic.
Peter: But, Brian, these are not level playing fields. We have a notion of state neutrality, which I think we, to an extraordinary extent, live by in modern day America, but it’s been a tough slog, and you can’t take it for granted. Even today, you have to wonder what are the implicit messages, this is what’s being asked when people challenge the nature of education and the role of religion in education; what’s being taught in schools?
Brian: Well I think it’s time for some explicit messages, which is why we’re going to turn to our listeners. As we do every episode of BackStory, we’ve been fielding your comments on today’s topic on our website, BackStoryRadio.org. We’ve gotten a lot of great comments there, and our producers have invited a few of you to join us on the phone today.
Brian: We’ve got Kathleen on the line from New York City. Kathleen, welcome to BackStory.
Kathleen: Hi. I have a question for you guys. These days I hear a lot of complaints from my daughter about school – it’s too long, there’s too much homework, and I was wondering, what did the children in the 19th century think about school? The reason I ask this is because both my grandmothers, who were born in the 1880s, they loved school, they thought it was like so great, I can get away from doing chores, and so what evidence– what kinds of sources do you guys have, what did the kids of the 19th century say?
Ed: What’s interesting is how much this changed over the 19th century. At the beginning of the 19th century, they didn’t think about school all that much because they didn’t really go all that much. I think you would have seen that kids would not have complained about how long school went, but rather, would have been struck by how sporadic it was, and how short the day was, how little attention each individual student received because they were all together in one big classroom.
Brian: And I just want to say to 18th and 19th century guys, that kids didn’t really start going to school until the 20th century. Even as late at 1900, half of the kids in the United States didn’t go to school, and the average number of years that people went to school was about five years.
Peter: So, Brian, when would you say school began to present something like a total environment for children and they’d expect to go through it and they would see it as a fact of life, one that they didn’t necessarily like very much.
Brian: I would say, Peter, if you’re talking about northern urban schools, I would say by the 1920s school is kind of a regular experience for most kids. Now we’re not talking about high school, but we are talking about regular schooling, at least through what we would call middle school age years. One of the reasons for that was compulsory education laws and more and more states started imposing them beginning in the progressive era, but you know when they really took effect was during the Great Depression, and why do you think that was, Kathleen?
Kathleen: Keeping teachers employed.
Brian: Keeping teachers employed, but also keeping kids out of the work force. There were so few jobs to go around, all kinds of measures were taken in order to preserve those jobs for adults, but that’s really somewhere between the 20s and 30s; that’s when kids started complaining about school the most because they were in school the most.
Ed: I would say, having read quite a few letters and diaries and stuff in the 19th century, you don’t have to go very far to find people complaining about “Oh my God, I’m going to shoot myself if I have to sit here and read this Latin one more night.” [laughter] So I think that the point that I would make is it depends on everything else in which the education is embedded. If the contrast is shoveling out barns, school looks pretty good. So as we’ve ratcheted up the expectations of schooling, we’ve ratcheted down the expectations of everything else. Kids entire experience of being young is now channeled and focused on school. We invest it with a lot more significance than it used to have, including a lot more complaint about boredom and so forth.
Brian: Do you agree, Kathleen, are you actually interested in this?
Kathleen: I am very interested in it. I went to a New England school that had six grades in four rooms.
All participants: WOW!
Brian: How did that work . . . could you tell us more specifically how that worked?
Kathleen: Well, the teacher didn’t pay attention to all the time because sometimes she was working with the other kids, so you could spend your whole life daydreaming or reading, as in my case, and they wouldn’t necessarily know what was going on.
Brian: So, Kathleen, you’re saying you learned more because the teacher didn’t pay attention to you and you actually could read.
Kathleen: Yes, yes.
Peter [sarcastically]: Here’s a radical reform proposal. . . I like that very much. Hey, Kathleen, thanks for that great call.
Kathleen: Thank you, it’s been really fascinating.
Brian: Well, it’s time for another short break. Remember, we want to hear your stories about your own education. Did school facilitate your education or did it just get in the way? What do you think our schools today can learn from the lessons of the past? Leave your comments and questions at BackStoryRadio.org. or just give us a call. Our phone number is 888-257-8851.
Peter: After the break, we’ll take more of your calls and we’ll speak with a Virginia woman who experienced school segregation up close and personal. We’ll be back in a minute.
Brian: Production support for BackStory comes from James Madison’s Montpelier, Marcus and Carol Weinstein, Trish and David Crowe, and J.M. Weinberg.
Peter: This is Backstory, the show that turns to history to understand the world around us today. I’m your 18th century, Peter Onuf,;
Ed:I’m your 19th century host, Ed Ayers;
Brian: and I’m your 20th century host, Brian Balogh.
Brian: Today on the show, we’re looking at the story of public education in America, and asking whether people have always worried about school as much as people seem to worry today.
Peter: We’re going to take another call now. This one is from John in Moneno[?], Virginia. John, welcome to BackStory.
John .: My question is when I think about the old one-room schoolhouse with the schoolmarm that was paid by the parents of the students, when and why and how did we move from that consumer based model to our current more socialized model? Now we’re funding this big giant school system as opposed to saying that we’re watching the children from the schoolhouse making sure they’re coming out smarter and then paying for that.
Peter: I think what you’re getting at. John, is the levels between us and the education of our kids, or other people’s kids, it’s so distant we don’t really feel we don’t have much control over it, although you have to say the survival of PTAs and school boards that are responsive to local citizens, they keep alive that historic memory of having control over children’s education and over the way we govern ourselves.
Brian: As has home-schooling, which has become quite popular recently, but, I want to address the elephant in the room, the B word, because I think it goes to the heart of John’s question, and that bureaucracy. I think what John—you tell me John—is really talking about is getting away from a kind of direct-parent control and handing over control of education to all of these middle men–and the funny thing is that all these superintendents, etc. were men, and all the lower paid teachers were women, as this transition took place during the late 19th century and early 20th century. Am I on the right track there, John? Is this what’s really got you troubled?
John: Right, when did the states decide the localities weren’t very good at it and needed to get involved and then when did the Federal government decide that the states weren’t very good at it and they needed to get involved and it’s done exactly as you’ve said: It created this huge bureaucracy; the amount of money we spend educating our children in the public sector is much more than private schools spend to educate a child and it’s not because the teachers are so overpaid, or because they have really fantastic books, it’s because we have these bureaucracies, we have all these upper level administrative people that we’re paying, and it’s consuming a lot of the funds that should be either going to education or not be collected in the first place.
Brian: Thank goodness you didn’t ask that question, John, because it would have required actual historic knowledge to answer it. I’ll take a crack at it anyway. Basically, the states got involved in the late 19th century and early 20th century and by the 1920s and 1930s, it was the states that started saying it’s not cost efficient to have all of these little one-room schools all over the place. We’re going to build consolidated schools. And, of course, at the same times, states were building roads, so it was easier to get to these schools, it was easier to run school buses by the 30s and the 40s. When did the Federal government get involved? Well, you’d have to point to the very important Education Act in 1965, passed by Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, and that was aimed at poor kids. And were most of the poor kids? They were in the South. And a very funny thing happened on the way to the school house – states that were determined not to integrate; southern states started accepting this Federal money and along with money comes control. And the Federal government said we’re not going to fund segregated schools, and if you don’t integrate, this is separate from Brown vs. Board of Education– separate from the courts. The Federal government said if you don’t integrate, we’re going to cut off all that money. And you know what? Those states said we’re getting so much Federal money, we can’t even think of not accepting it, we’d better move towards integration. The last thing I’ll say, John, in answer to your question, is none of us like bureaucrats—“bureaucrat” itself is kind of a pejorative term, of course you can find examples of excess, but I think that overall these bureaucrats have really been pretty impressive at raising the standards of American education; at the same time that they have helped bring in virtually all kids to the education system. It is not easy to educate everybody and educate them well. Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox now.
Peter: It’s never too late in America and that distinguishes the American educational system from every other educational system in the world. And it’s never too late to learn something about history if you keep tuning in to BackStory . . . That’s what we’re here for, sort of a remedial education for grown-ups.
John: I truly appreciate the education that you have just given me, which is that you . . .
Peter: . . . Are you calling me a bureaucrat?
John: . . . No, a teacher.
Peter: Well, thanks so much for calling, John.
John: Well I feel a lot smarter.
Ed: So, Brian, you mentioned the school funding in Federal government help lead to desegregation in the late 1960s. I think it’s important to remember that big case that lead to desegregation, Brown vs. Board of Education, occurred back in 1954, so there’s a whole missing decade in between. Now what happened was this: Southern politicians led by Virginia Senator Harry Byrd, basically said “We don’t care what you say, we’re not going to integrate.” It was a movement that came to be known as “massive resistance.” In 1958, the Governor actually closed down the white schools in three Virginia cities so they wouldn’t have to integrate them.
Brian: And one of those cities was our own Charlottesville.
Ed: Yah. And one of the students who graduated from Charlottesville’s black high school that year was Alicia Lugo, and we’re going to hear her story in just a minute. But first let me give you a little background on her: Alicia Lugo went off to college, got her teaching degree, and came back to Charlottesville; she was assigned to teach in the same school where she had been a student. Now this is 1965, and even though segregation had officially been outlawed, the student body there was still all black. Two years later, the city closed that school and moved her over to Walker School, integrated finally after all those years. Years later, she went on to chair the city’s school board for more than a decade. Now I’m going to shut up and play for you my recent conversation with Ms. Alicia Lugo.
Alicia Lugo: I was born in Charlottesville. All my public school education was here in Charlottesville. First at all black Jefferson Elementary School, and then all-black Burley High School, which was an excellent school. I think that people have some erroneous feeling that because we had fewer supplies and less resources and our teachers were fighting over one film projector, and that sort of thing, that we were somehow receiving an inferior education. I find that laughable from the standpoint of 50-60 years later.
Ed: Did people not resent the fact that they might have multiple film projectors and better supplies and things at Lane?
Alicia: No. Projectors and supplies don’t make the excellent education experience. You have to make a child want to learn, and that’s what we came up under. To my way of thinking having been a student at all-black Burley, feeling safe knowing that there was a definite connection between my home and my teachers, my parents were intricately involved. In fact, many more black parents than now were supportive of both our teachers and our schools and Burleigh students excelled everywhere.
Ed: Why do you think that so many people then would work through the courts and sacrifice so much in order to bring about integration of the schools?
Alicia: Because they recognized that there is no such thing as “separate but equal“. That for many minority children, the segregated school system was a farce. When children had to walk two miles past an available school to go to school. Those things were jokes. But even though the “separate but equal” schools were crushed by the courts. If you walked down the halls of the average school today, you’ll see situations where classes are either all black, Hispanic, and poor white, and other classes that are all white with a token black person or Asian person in there.
Ed: So why do you think that integration did not turn out the way that people dreamed of?
Alicia: Because I think that there were those people who had no intention of letting it turn out that way. The only way systems change is that you treat them like a rubber band. As long as you keep the tension on the rubber band, you can change its shape. But one you let go of that tension, once you let go of that scrutiny, it drops right back into its original ball.
Ed: That’s a great metaphor. May I steal that?
Alicia: Sure you can.
Ed: So it’s your sense that tension left the school when there was not really a direct connection between the teacher and their community and the students and their community. Is that what happened?
Alicia: Exactly. When the scrutiny was gone because who can complain? Now we have the desecrated schools, so you got what you asked for. But we’ve got in Charlottesville, a majority African American school board, we have an African American female superintendent, an African American assistant superintendent, female, and we have a 13% drop-out rate. What’s wrong with that picture?
Ed: And what do you think is wrong with that? What’s driving that?
Alicia: Well, I guess to my way of thinking, when school is not interesting, when you don’t see any relationship between school and your future, when you feel you’re in a hostile environment, when you feel that you’re not safe in that environment, when you feel that people don’t have the level of expectations for your performance, that they do for other students’ performances, school doesn’t seem to make much sense, does it?
Ed: I see what you’re saying. If we can go back to your story for a minute, I wonder and I think about, what great changes that you saw and experienced and helped lead, did we lose a generation or did we lose some continuity or some tradition of our teachers that the people said that it is so ridiculous if the states can be playing games, like with “massive resistance” and if they’re not going to be really giving every kid a chance, instead doing this “tracking” and so forth. Did people just become disgusted and said that they would just put their energies into something else?
Alicia: Uhuh. Which is exactly what I did. I stayed at Walker one year, and I realized that the numbers of minority children dropping out of school, getting pushed out of school, somebody needed to be out there to help reclaim. And so for the next 35 years I worked in non-profits that worked with kids trying to help them get themselves on track.
Ed: I’m really grateful for your time today and your insight and a couple of metaphors I’m going to steal, but also very grateful for keeping the faith over all these years, and doing the very best you can with whatever history’s handed you. Thank you very much for joining us today; I really appreciate it.
Alicia: I enjoyed it a lot; thank you.
Ed: That’s Alicia Lugo, former teacher and school board chair right here in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Brian: There’s a deep irony in that interview that Ed teased out and it’s that at the very moment when real opportunities were opening up for African Americans in society, Ms. Lugo seems to suggest that teachers were giving up on students and students were giving up on school. How can that be?
I know this is my century, but I don’t have the answers to that.
Peter: Well, Brian, I think that was what was so upsetting to me about this interview, that sense that you won the big struggle, you thought, over integration, but there’s a bigger struggle over what we now call “racism.”
Ed: That’s the fundamental tension or tragedy in the heart of all this. On one hand, you can’t just say we’re going to have “separate but equal,” because obviously “separate but equal” doesn’t work. On the other hand, when you do that, you insert several layers of necessary bureaucracy between parents and students and the schools. I’m not exactly sure, we do know what happens is that some people spend the money to create those schools over which they have control, which are the little private schools, and Charlottesville has a number of those itself right now, which are dedicated to young women, or dedicated to people of different religious backgrounds. I don’t know that segregation, as a matter of fact it is a trivialization of that word to talk about people looking for various kinds of affinities, but I think that what Ms. Lugo would say is that real integration was never given a chance, and that economic inequalities were inserted in place of racial inequalities, and as a result, we have a sham.
Peter: I think the point is that community, which we get nostalgic about, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, and in many ways that’s what we strive for, a sense of identification with each other, of nurture and care, yet communities are also inevitably through history exclusive, and they want to define themselves according to their own image, that is, according to the group that dominates within that community. It’s a highly volatile situation, and I think the only upbeat message of all this is there’s been such massive dislocations that a new sense of community will emerge out of all this, which will at least move forward in terms of our expectations of our students. Who is going to succeed? And there’s some reason to hope that self-perpetuating notion of discrimination and superiority and racism.
Brian: Well I don’t think we should underestimate the importance of daily contact and interaction within the schools. There may be tracking within certain classes, but I don’t think we should underestimate the interaction between racial groups, starting in kindergarten, even if those relations are not smooth or out of Disneyland at all times.
Peter: Well, Brian, I think what we’ve got here is an example of schools which we expect to take the lead in social change, but in many ways, social change is going to register last in schools. It’s a real paradox.
Ed: Those are all really good points. I guess looking at it from the point of history, that’d be a great idea for a radio show. I’m struck that we’ve had 300 years, almost 400 years, of slavery and injustice, and I wouldn’t want us to despair too soon when we’re only 5 years into a new more expansive, inclusive order. There’s no doubt that what Ms. Lugo said is true, but if we lose faith that we can make that change, we’ve lost faith in America.
Brian: Ed, I think that’s a good way to sum up, and it’s a good thing, too, because that’s all the time we have today. But remember, we want to keep the conversation going. Visit us online and tell us what you think about the past, present and future of public education in America. You can find us at BackStoryRadio.org. Don’t be a stranger. Thanks for listening.
Brian: BackStory is produced by Tony Field, Rachel Quimby, and Catherine Moore, with help from Bart Elmore and Lydia Wilson.
Ed: Special thanks today to David Bearinger. Jamal Millner mastered the show and Gaby Alter wrote our theme.
Peter: BackStory’s Executive Producer is Andrew Wyndham.
Ed: Major production support for BackStory with American History Guys is provided by the David A. Harrison Fund for the President’s Initiatives at the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Richmond, Cara Brown Epstein and the W.L. Lyons Brown, Jr. Foundation, UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, and an anonymous donor.
Female Announcer: Peter Onuf is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation professor of history at the University of Virginia. Brian Balogh is an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is President and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for VFH Radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.