American Education History 101: One Room Schools

The iconic one-room schoolhouse is a good place to start trying to understand the history of education in America. I get the impression most people think that the schooling system we have today is somehow the result of organic growth from the roots of one-room schools, that the sort of schooling described in Anne of Green Gables (Canadian, I know, but same model) developed logically into the ubiquitous Woodrow Wilson Middle Schools of today. This is most definitely not the case.

A good short book on the topic is One Room Schools of the Middle West by Wayne E. Fuller, a professor emeritus of history at the U of Texas El Paso. Much of what follows can be confirmed from that source.

When the teenagers and 20-somethings that made up the vast bulk of the settlers headed West, it wasn’t a free-for-all. The Land Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 established how the land in US lands west of the Appalachians were to be divvied up and sold. All the western lands that the US had claimed under the Treaty of Paris were to be surveyed and divided into 6 by 6 mile squares, with each such square further divided into 36 1-mile squares. Square 16, one of the squares adjacent to the middle of the 6-mile square, was set aside for education  in each of these ‘townships’ . How square 16 was to be so used was not spelled out in any detail, but was left up to the settlers.Therefore, the details may vary from place to place – I’ll just give a typical outline.

So, beginning even before the turn of the 19th century, farmers within a township were banding together to build the classic one-room schoolhouse for their children. In the early days, these schools were built after the fashion of the classic barn-raising – everybody from the township gathered, each having brought the agreed-upon supplies, and, in a day, constructed the building, intended to house around 15-40 or so children.

The men then hired a teacher, typically a teenage woman graduate of some other one room school, to run the enterprise. She was directly answerable to the farmers. The school schedule was set around farm life – children attended based on their availability, when the farming tasks could spare them. The total hours spent in school thus varied from township to township, but was some small fraction of the time modern children spend in school.

The teaching model was peer to peer – the teacher rarely lectured, but rather had the older, more accomplished children teach the younger, less accomplished kids one-on-one. The teacher’s job was to manage this process and review the results via ‘recitation’, where the kids would come to her one at a time and ‘recite’ what they had learned. This method has several benefits: teaching others is a great way to learn, kids tend to learn well from the older kids they look up to and strive to imitate, and the interdependent social structure of the township was reinforced.

The teacher was typically looking for a husband, and so more often than not, only taught for a year or two before she herself became a farm wife and mother. The families and children provided continuity to schooling through a series of teachers – the typical 14 year old probably had at least 3 or 4 teachers over his educational career.

By the time the child was 14 or 15, he or she would have been finished with school, having attended, in terms of classroom hours, a small fraction of the hours a modern high school graduate puts in. But the results were good – consider that, around 1820, de Tocqueville observed farmers reading philosophy under trees while resting their horses. (Much of de Tocqueville’s observations were of the products of just these  one room schools – and he was greatly impressed.) These farmers used schools to inculcate habits of mind and reinforce habits of civilization and socialization, with the goal that their kids would be able to take their places as farmers, husbands, wives and leaders and managers of their township.

It was only about a century into this endeavor that concept of standardized testing reared its ugly head. For, while the people in the countryside had been happily and successfully educating their young in one room school houses, in the industrial northeast, another form of schooling was being implemented – the factory school, based on certain Prussian ideals. These schools were finally implemented in Massachusetts after decades of being rejected by – you guessed it – farmers, once the proportion of urban population  grew, and – more important – the dirty, ignorant, subhuman, Papist Irish started pouring in as a result of the Potato Famine. People who knew better than to trust the state with their own kids were happy to sic the state on the unwashed children of those criminal Irish scum.

So, compulsory, state-run schooling got its start in the New England, and began to slowly metastasize to the rest of the country. The graded classroom model, with professional teachers hired by professional ‘educators’ – a class that had never existed before –  encountered great resistance from the farmers. They saw it as an expensive, meddlesome solution to a problem that didn’t exist. And, once they ‘educators’ and their tests got a crack at the farm kids, they generally shut up about that aspect – the farm kids consistently did better at the standardized tests of the time than the factory schooled kids, AND had better success in college. (Few working class people went to college at that time, but enough did for the educators to look at the results – which didn’t favor their agenda, so it got dropped.)

So, by around 1900, when about half the US population was rural and after about 50 years of attack from the ‘scientific’ schooling crowd, there were still about a couple hundred thousand one-room school houses in operation. Since the professional educators lacked any science to back up their ‘scientific’ model of education, they focused on politics – getting departments of education, which they controlled, established in all the rural states -and lies and deception – claiming the one-room schools were dirty, ill-equipped, unhealthy, and comparatively expensive. The truth was that the one room schools were maintained at about the same level of luxury that the farmers themselves lived in – so, yep, they had no indoor plumbing, often needed a coat of paint, and often lacked the globes and ‘teaching aides’ the scientific schools had.

The result of the criticism was that the farmers began to fix up their schools. Bell towers, nicer buildings, better yards. This had as much to do with the increased prosperity of established farms as anything else. But little progress was made by the ‘educators’.

Finally, two thing conspired with the professional educators to kill the one-room school: the Great Depression and, much more important, the depopulation of rural America. Starting on about 1930, the Depression took a terrible toll on farmers, not the least aspect of which was reducing their strength to fight off the constant assault of the educators. So, more ‘consolidated’ schools began to spring up. Technology also helped, as better roads and buses made consolidating easier.

The one-room school persisted until after WWII, when the rural population density began to drop precipitously. Soon, there simply weren’t enough children in a township – within walking distance – to support a one-room school. As the children disappeared, so did the schools. As late as the 1960s, a few one room schools were still in operation. To this day, there are farm communities which continue to maintain their one room school, on the romantic hope that, one day, maybe there will be enough children to reopen it.

For 150 years, education in this country consisted largely of small, locally built, supported and controlled schools. The ‘school board’ consisted of a couple dozen families. The teacher was more often than not a teenage woman with what we’d call an elementary education. The school day and the school year were much shorter than what we do now, and schooling tended to be over by the age of 14 or so. Yet – this approach produced generations of Americans who, by any measure, were vastly better educated than the typical high school student  found in the typical American school today.

Final note: there exists a literature of poetry and essays about one room schools, produced by graduates. It is nostalgic and fond. Where’s the corresponding literature from the millions of students who attended modern high schools?

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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