Education: Then and Now

irodriguez2.jpgAbout every month or so in my U.S. History class we have class discussions, or what we call “open forum” about the book we are reading. The book is called “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn, and we basically spend the entire class period voicing our opinions about the recent chapter we read; whether or not we agree with Howard Zinn’s thoughts on certain aspects of our history.

A couple of days ago we had one such discussion. Someone brought up a very interesting assertion that Zinn makes, and it made me think about school. About why we go to school and why school was created. Now I’m warning you, at the end of this blog you might think me a skeptic, but I ‘m simply just throwing some questions out there.

Zinn argues that the purpose of public school was to train the lower classes as the future labor force of America; for the benefit of the economy. It’s a little sad to think that the only reason we are in school is to become working class citizens. Aren’t we in school to become educated, informed citizens? To move on to a higher level of education and pursue high level careers of our interest? According to Howard Zinn, this was not the original intent of public school. Zinn says public school was meant to teach the children of lower class families the basics of education. Teach them just enough to have a skilled working class to work in the factories and turn out the profits. Private schools and colleges were reserved for those children of wealthy families who could afford tuition and who would likely become the next elite class of the nation.

Certainly today things have changed. High level education is more widely available and we are not at the mercy of large corporations as we once were. However, I do see some similarities between now and then, which is why I’m bringing it up. The quality of public education, at least in poorer areas of the country, seems to be getting worse and worse. Public schools are not getting as much funding as they once did, all the good teachers are leaving, and more people that can afford it are turning to private schools as a result.

To connect this with Zinn’s point, the government has been making it harder for students at public school to succeed which makes private schools much more appealing. This essentially separates the higher classes from the lower. With all the wealthy, elite kids attending private school, public school can just offer basic education to the lower classes who will end up getting blue-collar jobs in the end.

I’m not saying this is how things are now, I believe it is still possible to get a great education at a public school, I just think this is where we may be headed if we keep thinking of education as a low priority.


  • Doowhopper

    I remember a poster on the wall in a classroom at Fremont High a few years back. It showed this luxurious house overlooking an ocean view and parked outside were two late model cars. The caption at the top of the poster said, “The benefits of a higher education”.
    Funny, I was raised to believe learning and education were intrinsic virtues apart from the mad quest to accumulate consumer goods. In a way I can understand the young people’s philosophy of “I want to get paid”. Most of us live very precariously from a financial perspective. It is easy to see how education can be equated with a giant job training center though one could argue how well it does even THAT.
    Zinn has a good point. To many 19th Century thinkers, education, with its emphasis on punctuality, rote memory and obedience, was considered apt preparation for the industrial revolution work force. I found it interesting that Zinn, a Leftist intellectual, has this analysis in common with conservative intellectual, Allen Bloom, who critiques American education in The Closing of the American Mind for discarding the search for truth and a life of the mind for the crass purpose of being a training ground for corporate management.
    I tell the youngsters in my sub sojourns that there are three levels of human development- the physical, the intellectual and the spiritual. You need to balance all three to become a better person.
    And, like James Brown said many years ago, “Money won’t change you, but time will take you on.”

  • jkenny

    Isabel, I appreciate the points you have made, and I do not think you are a skeptic. At some point in their education, I would bet that every student today has felt used and exploited by the education system. I myself have thought that I am being forced to buy into consumerism to receive my education (mainly every time I am required to pay for the SAT or AP exams on collegeboard.com).
    I do disagree with what you said about higher education being more widely avaliable and that “we are not at the mercy of large corporations as we once were”. In many ways it seems as if we still are at their mercy, and while there are definitely more affordable private schools and more colleges available to the entire public, proportionally to that time period, I would say not much has changed.
    I was also a part of that open forum, and I agree that it was indeed very interesting. I too think that Zinn brought up thought-provoking points, as did many of the students in our class. Some would say the purpose of education is to get your mind to think critically (probably not those oil tycoons though huh?) and this discussion certainly did.

  • cranky teacher

    It’s true much of the current outdated public school model is based on old factory “efficiency” models and was supposed to help create a certain workforce. But to judge it historically you have to put it in context a bit: The alternative at the time for lower-class people (then a huge part of the population) was NO education, or an extremely limited one. This was a farming society moving to an industrialized, urban one.

    Farm life looks better in retrospect. For critics at the time, like Karl Marx, it meant a lifetime of drudgery and a brain stunted by “the idiocy of rural life.” A side effect of compulsory education was a huge decrease in illiteracy.

    The even bigger purpose the pioneers of America’s public schools envisioned than the economic one was assimilation. The country’s WASP leaders were worried about the huge influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and wanted schools to make their children “Americans.”

    Critical writers today have pointed out that no matter how many school reform movements have come through in the past century, the model set up in the previous one has been remarkable resistent to real change. As a parent and a teacher, I’m in despair about that.

    As Doowhopper points out so well, school replaces natural human desire to learn with the habits of learning for extrinsic rewards (grades, pats on the back, prizes.)

    My students want me to trick them into learning by playing Jeopardy, which many other teachers do. Am I stubborn and puritanical to want them to take more initiative in learning?

  • Nextset

    Isabel: I think the purpose of a public school education in the 20th Century was to create a floor below which American Children wouldn’t fall. Regardless of their parent’s inability to teach them – their parents being illiterate, their parents being dead or absent – at war or working, their parents being hopelessly lower-class or unassimilated, Public School children would always be taught the basics of American Society as well as reading & writing so that they could graduate to industry, the military, higher education, or in the case of girls, to housewivery.

    Well all this worked for a long time. American Society was far more intergrated that European Society and the children of immigrants, laborers and tinkerers could grow up to be Titans or just homeowning taxpayers.

    As some point it has been decided to grow a race, a class or a culture of proletariat who would not be integrating across society. We decided to stop teaching English so that immigrants and Black students would never pass a telephone test. We decided to stop teaching Driver’s Ed so that poor students would no longer leave high school with driver’s licences needed for work. We decided to end deportment training in school so that the lower class would hardly be able to be accepted into Society – indeed, they would quickly get pulled over by the police for loud radios…

    This is the public school system you are from. Students from families and and certain towns are still taught as they were a few generations ago (for ex. Piedmont Unified School District) but most in urban America are not.

    It’s not all about reading and writing. Secondary School is not so much as where you are taught subjects, it’s where you are prepared to assume status as a young adult in US Society ready for the higher training that you take as an apprentice adult in industry, higher ed, or the military.

    I’m afraid that most of the products of OUSD are in no way prepared to take that training. They do have great self-esteem though.

  • http://www.schoolandstate.org/home.htm Re:

    I would say to you: never limit your thinking because you have a feeling it is too radical. Also, I suggest you read ‘The Underground History of American Education,’ by John Taylor Gatto.

  • Kenneth Barker

    I was a public school high school teacher for over 43 years in the state of Iowa. Things have changed in the classroom since I attended in the 40’s and early 50’s. Few of these changes have been for the better.

    Today, there is considerably more frosting and not enough cake in education. Grades come easily, giving students a false sense of their true abilties.

    Also, the family no longer exists creating a myriad of problems for those who teach. Many things that were once taught in the homes are no longer taught there. Many have no home life at all. They aren’t raised – the just grow up.

    Taking God out of our schools and justifying it as the necessary separation of church and state was one of the greatest injustices of all. It forced true believers to their homes and into private schools. It forced them to do it at their own expense.

    We cringe when we see how much better those who left have done compared to those who remained in the public schools. We try to make a difference by pumping more money into the system. It has not worked and will not work. Without morality – Christian morality – we are a lost cause dying an excruciating death.

    Finally, things are taught now in our public schools that should never be taught there. I will not even mention these because there are too many to cover,

    In Iowa, there is still some hope. We still believe in a few absolutes. Thank God for that.

    Socialism has crept into our way of life. The Constitution is all but dead and gone. The era of teaching students to learn the basics and develop skills that will help them become productive contributors rather than parasites has too often been forgotten. Tolerance, to me has become a diry word. It is especially dirty when we begin to tolerate the intolerable.

    God help us if we stay on this path. He is the only one who can.

  • J.R.

    Amen to that, but it seems as though things are playing out as expected. What seems right to man is indeed often death and or destruction(in one form or another).