Hanging in my back hallway is an old photograph of a one-room schoolhouse, with 37 children clustered in the dirt yard around the door. The teacher, tall and bespectacled, stands behind the group, and the smallest child holds a slate reading "11-02-1900." My grandmother, who was born in 1890, seventh child in a Dutch immigrant farm family, stands solemnly in the photo, as do four of her nine siblings. All of them, she used to tell me proudly, "finished school." Meaning they all completed the eighth grade--more free education than their parents, born in Groningen, the Netherlands, had--and a testament to the belief that life in America was a pretty good deal.
My grandmother, Nancy Oudsema Linega, left school in 1903, going to work as a clerk and errand girl in a neighborhood grocery and produce store. She worked there until she married at 33, earning enough to buy a car (before she learned to drive it), put a down payment on a home and do some traveling. Widowed a few years after marriage, she worked steadily through the Great Depression, supporting a young daughter and a mortgage. She was employed full-time well into her sixties, and part-time until she was 80, keeping the books for the same grocery store (now a modern supermarket), and managing customer relations.
I would describe my grandma as an educated woman. She was a whiz at numbers--one of those people who can add up long columns of figures in their head, or calculate percentages in a second or two. She read newspapers, books and magazines, and wrote long, grammatically perfect letters to me when I left home for college. She spoke Dutch, and had encyclopedic knowledge about plants and gardening, among other things. She was well-informed politically, and voted in every election--not surprising, since she was 30 the first time she was allowed to go to the polls. She also had a taste for adventure as a young woman; I am still unearthing travel souvenirs, postcards with mildly naughty messages and photos from her trunk. It must have been some fun, indeed--here's proof that motorcycles were involved:
As the debate around what students need to be successful in the 21st century rages acerbically on, I've been thinking about two very influential documents in education history, bracketing the period when my grandmother got her formal education--the thinking that shaped two distinct movements to define what students needed to be successful a century ago. Point of interest: both documents were commissioned by the National Education Association.
The first was known as the "Committee of Ten" report, written in 1892-3 by a group of university presidents and professors, headmasters of exclusive private high schools and the United States Commissioner of Education. Their mission was the creation of an optimum, standardized course of studies for high school students in the United States. The Committee, of course, was not thinking of poor immigrant or farm children--they were envisioning Young Men from Good Families, Future Leaders of our Nation. I always imagine the ten men on the committee retiring to the smoking room after finishing their work to enjoy a tumbler of brandy and some bonhomie, confident they had shaped the intellectual direction of the melting-pot democracy.
Here's a link to the plan the Committee settled on. There are nine required course threads, including ten years of Geography, Greek, Latin and a third modern language (the committee recommends German, or perhaps French), Geometry (in 5th grade), Physics, Chemistry and Astronomy--of which my grandma studied precisely zero. In fact, examining the entire plan, grades one through twelve, my grandmother experienced perhaps 20% of the recommended curriculum.
The second major shift in defining educational goals for a new era was the Cardinal Principles for Secondary Education, published in 1918 and written by 27 men and one woman, an assortment of college professors and secondary teachers who were supposed to be re-thinking high school, now that increasing numbers of teenagers were showing up there, many of whom were formerly considered "not high school material." The Cardinal Principles committee took the approach that segmenting schooling into required subjects with prescribed time requirements was only one way to get to the desired outcomes of education--the cardinal principles--which they labeled goals for successful living. The Cardinal Principles sound mushy (albeit idealistic) today, but they had considerable sway until mid-century--as well as strong criticism from those who felt that traditional intellectual rigor had been drowned in a sea of feel-good rhetoric. The Principles also led directly to a tracking model--honors, college, general, vocational--which burrowed deeply into the American educational system.
My grandmother achieved every one of the Cardinal Principles in spades, from ethical character to vocation to worthy home membership and productive use of leisure time. As for the #1 Cardinal Principle--health--my grandma lived to be 103, and voluntarily gave up her driver's license at 100. I'm not sure that she learned any of those capacities, beyond fundamental processes, in school, however.
My point here is certainly not that my grandmother's very
basic, one-room-schoolhouse curriculum was good enough--nor is it a critique of
either of the two contrasting, expert visions of an ideal 20th century
education, classic academics vs. whole-child progressivism. What I am sure of:
trying to know the unknowable future, or defending our cherished beliefs and
preferences in wordy Policy Wars, is a waste of time. Especially while there are
large subsets of American kids in truly wretched schools, and hucksters trying
to sell "new" ideas, machines and programs "guaranteed" to
make every child ready for the future.
Neither the Committee of Ten nor the framers of the Cardinal Principles accurately predicted what children would need to be successful in the 20th century. And the smartest, best-educated and most elite students of the last few generations have just led this country into an economic abyss, unable to solve our intransigent problems with health care, energy use and human equity. Speaking of the mushy cardinal principle of ethical character.
I'm not particularly bothered by a murky vision of the future ahead, or the prospect of making it all up as we go along--curriculum, instruction, technology use, learning goals and prioritized skills. You can (and probably will) interpret that as typically muddle-headed eduspeak, but truly proficient teachers adjust the parameters of their practice constantly, to fit the unique students in their class, the resources available and, sometimes, the day's headlines. Planning blind is sometimes part of an effective change process. And sniping over an exact delineation of what 21st century learners need is more about the snipers than the students.
The last word comes from Shannon CdeBaca, a true 21st century teacher, a math and science specialist with long list of well-deserved awards and a penchant for using technology creatively:
We do not have a singular vision of what you should get out of high school. Exactly do we want a high school graduate to have that they cannot get, except by completing high school? It has to be more than the conceptual standards. There has to be some set of skills, some dispositions, some creativity expansion, some appreciation for the arts and diversity and more. I am still searching for someone to succinctly describe "it".