Monday, March 28, 2016

A Public School Education

By Matthew Shoen

It seems like we have been battling over Common Core and its implications to the education of our children for a long time. In fact, it feels like from the time of No Child Left Behind we have been fighting about what it means to educate children in this country and what skills we need to impart. Currently, we are promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) as a program of study to keep our children competitive in the global market. As a STEMless individual whose greatest science achievement will always be getting an 87 on the Chemistry Regents and who bases his belief in God on the GRE Math score of 151 he received via lucky guesses I have always been a bit leery of the emphasis we place on STEM subjects. At Preservation Studios we have worked with a number of abandoned schools throughout New York State and I have seen evidence to support my leeriness, evidence that shows that at the start of the twentieth century educators had a few very correct ideas about school curriculum. These ideas are ones that we seem to have strayed from over the last century.

Prior to about 1890, education was for the children of the rich and middle class and college was only for the wealth and exceptionally gifted. Children in schools throughout America were taught the basics of Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. If they went to private schools there was also a good chance they would learn Greek or Latin, studying Virgil, Socrates, or Ovid. The rest of America’s children worked, helping their families farm, or earn money working in factories. This had been the way of public education for centuries and it was about to change.

In 1852 compulsory education laws were passed, however these were never enforced as children needed to work and contribute to the survival of their families. Because of this, the laws were ignored and school continued to be a privilege of the upper classes. As the century drew to a close however views about education began to change, as did the demographics of America. Increasing waves of immigrants from the countries of Southern Europe were filling the country with children who were not only illiterate, but didn’t even speak English. The needs of these immigrants, coupled with changing views about what childhood should be devoted to prompted a massive expansion of the American school system. It was this period between 1890-1930 that saw the construction of hundreds of new school buildings, all of which were built with new design standards and curriculum expectations that were radically different from what had come before.

Educators during these years of expansion knew that the old methodology and pedagogy that had served them for hundreds of years was no longer appropriate. Students came to school without the ability to speak or read English, more importantly some students came to school unwashed because their families didn’t have access to bathroom facilities. Even more came hungry, damaging their concentration and performance. Schools could no longer function as one room schoolhouses, they needed to be huge centralized structures with facilities to take care of the physical needs of immigrant and impoverished children. The buildings also needed to provide intensive classes for immigrant children, getting them caught up and capable of understanding the English language. Greek and Latin were abandoned. Teachers and school administrators realized that their purpose was not to groom the next generation of American elite, or prepare children to attend college, instead the purpose of education was to create informed democratic citizens. The school as an idea moved away from the environs of socialization for the upper classes and into the realm of a civic structure erected for the good of its community.

With college no longer the end goal of primary school, administrators needed to diversify the curriculum and this is where I believe they were correct and our modern emphasis on STEM is a bit misplaced. These administrators, realized they needed to provide as many educational options as they could in order to best prepare their students for life. Further, they understood that it was necessary to entice students to come to school and offer them programs that suited their interests and talents. Dedicated spaces were made for domestic arts, electrical engineering, the sciences, and machine maintenance. In West High School in Auburn, the entire school was built with vocational education in mind. The school bore all the hallmarks of a B.O.C.E.S education center before the B.O.C.E.S program had even been initiated and was one of three high schools in Auburn, each of which focused on a different major branch of education.[1]
West High School in Auburn
The creation of all these new classroom spaces meant that the school needed to grow to accommodate the curriculum as well as the economic condition of its students. In addition to the expanded classroom spaces New York State law mandated that schools greater than thirty rooms needed to contain gymnasiums and auditorium spaces for the students. These spaces were accessible to the public, furthering the tie between schools and the civic role they played in their respective communities. Many schools utilized their auditoriums for community performances, graduation ceremonies, and voting stations during election season. The auditorium helped integrate parents with the school, investing them in the education of their child or children and fostering the sort of community interaction that had previously occurred outside the school in places like theatres, parks, and saloons. Education in all its forms was seen as the stepping stone to a better life, a life not necessarily tied to college education and old money.

Compare this to STEM, which does have excellent points but seems to be piling all the darts onto one board. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math are going to be critical features of our education system in the twenty-first century and implementing new technology to educate our students is absolutely necessary to provide them with the same opportunities their ancestors received in public schools one hundred years ago. However, while the science taught in public schools between 1890-1930 was doubtlessly suspect, it was however taught as a holistic part of the education system. The educators of this era played to the strengths of their students, molding education to their needs and interests whenever possible. That emphasis is important, and something I feel we have lost in the present day. Successful education doesn’t come from hammering home STEM, just like it wasn’t successful to teach Italian immigrants Latin poetry in 1890. Successful education is providing options to students. Inevitably a lot of them will choose STEM courses because frankly science is fun, however some kids have STEMless skills and these should be promoted and encouraged in our modern education system much like they were one hundred years ago.

Photo from

[1] These three branches were a business school, a college preparatory school, and West High School’s vocational training.

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