Ed Ellingson's Blog

10. Some Thoughts on Schooling

I have a school picture taken of my grandmother in 1903.  There are some plants blossoming, so it looks like the school picture taken in the spring, probably near the end of the school year.  Think about some of the differences between schooling then and now.

Lina Pofahl at School, 1903

At that time schools operated only in the winter months.  Everyone worked during the early spring, summer and fall, basically because that’s what it took to survive.  Everyone was involved in planting, harvesting, drying, preserving, and storing food, if not for themselves directly, then for the animals that they relied upon.  The children could be “spared” from work in the winter months, but when the spring planting started in earnest, everyone worked, including children.

This is a one-room schoolhouse with one teacher.  Larger schools were simply not possible, in the country areas,  before the engine-driven school bus that could pick up children over a wide range and deliver them to a larger school.  Kids walked to school, or maybe got rides in bad weather, or from someone who was out anyway, as in taking milk to the diary.

The girls shown in the picture, the little girls in the front, are all clearly barefoot.  The boys visible are wearing boots.  The older girls are probably wearing shoes, or else their feet would stand out more in the picture.  As soon as the boys started working in the fields, or working around horses and cows, boots were justifed.

I just wonder how would it go now if parents sent their young girls to school without shoes?  Is it child abuse?  It’s certainly poverty, perhaps “grinding” poverty, if you can’t afford shoes for your kids.  It’s probably more of a relative thing; if your classmates are all barefoot, it’s not a big deal.

The objective of schooling was to make you into a good citizen.  You learned to read so that you could learn about government and participate fully.  You learned about other areas of the country, so that you could understand a little of our diversity.  No one needed to be able to read in order to be a farmer or a carpenter, although it likely had its advantage.  My grandmother was an excellent cook, but she never used written recipes; she remembered recipes and did some things by look, feel, and taste.  My mother was more into written recipes, so over the years measured ingredients, noted the actions (beat until fluffy), and wrote everything down.

I went to a one-room school for all eight years of graded school.  There had been too few children for a few years before that, so my older brother and sister went to a larger (2-room, I think) school a little further away for their first few years.  But when I started first grade there were enough kids to justify opening the school, and I remember that they put in plumbing and indoor toilets, and then got rid of the outhouse.  It had a new oil furnace, so a wood-burner probably got trashed in the process too.

A one-room school with eight grades is pretty challenging for a teacher.  One thing I remember clearly is that the big kids always helped the younger kids.  From about 4th grade up, if you had your work done, you got to have the first and second graders read to you, or do flash cards with them, or similar.

Another feature of one-room schools is that students were grouped together on an ad hoc basis.  The class of the moment would assemble up front, say 4th grade math.  If the 3rd graders were all pretty advanced (that might be just one or two kids), the they would be grouped into it.  If there was someone in 5th grade who was weak in math, they would be pulled into that group as well.  If there was an 8th grader who was a little weak in the topic of the day, all they had to do was pay attention, and they would get a review of that 4th grade math topic, and they wouldn’t have the embarrassment of actually sitting in with a group of 4th graders.

Shortly after I graduated, there were too many students for one room.  There was talk of expanding the school, but eventually it was “consolidated” with a much larger school.  Consolidating schools was big at that time; all of these little schools got phased out and joined into a large centralized unit, a factory-like setting where everyone in a room was in the same grade, where teacher’s jobs were pretty narrowly defined, where they were closely supervised, and everything was very efficient.  This wouldn’t have been possible without buses and oil, of course, but no-one thought of that at the time.

As we run short on fuel will we revert back to small, local schools?  The use of computers and the Internet make smaller schools more attractive, or less of a downside.  There’s already a huge movement in homeschooling, a reaction to some of the negative things inherent in “factory schools”.


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