I have to admit that I absolutely HATED school, back when I was forced to go. I honestly believed that the worst invention in history had to have been high school. My bias changed once I went to college. Although I never set foot on any ivy-covered campus, the experiences and eye-opening views I discovered in junior colleges and a small, public, regional university helped me to really appreciate the benefits of an education. I liked the college experience so much, in fact, that I now teach at a community college.
That’s why I decided that I’d give a presentation on the history of schools for an adult extension class. I’ve been driving all around the area – particularly through Oklahoma – to catch some old schools with my camera. So many of the schools sit as ruined hulks on the side of the road, or stand abandoned in the middle of towns… which tells a lot about how shabbily we treat history.
The remains of a school on an Oklahoma prairie.
Unlike the Old World, where cathedrals and mosques sit prominently in the hearts of their cities and villages, schools were the centers of communities in the United States. Contrary to popular opinion today, the U.S. has always valued education, and towns had real stakes in the achievements of their young. One might be Baptist, or Methodist, or Jewish, an atheist or a Quaker, but most people had a child or a niece or a nephew or a favorite neighborhood kid that they wanted to see succeed, and so schools became the great equalizers.
Of course, that’s a rosy view (pun intended, which you’ll understand here in a minute). African Americans, particularly in the South, didn’t enjoy the equalizing effects that education was supposed to provide. At one point, Texas even had a segregated taxing system for schools! Black children were helped through efforts of local citizens as well as by progressive reformers like the Julius Rosenwald Foundation (get the pun?), which distributed funds to help black communities build better school houses and hire qualified teachers.
What used to be a Rosenwald school in Tatums, Carter County, Oklahoma, a freedman's town established after the Civil War.
Education was important for Native Americans as well. While Plains Indians were forced into boarding schools (sometimes far removed from their homes), other tribes, like the Choctaws and Chickasaws, decided on pre-emptive strikes and opened up their own schools, or academies. By the late 1840s, several of these academies served both boys and girls – and even adults, during Saturday classes – all around southeastern Oklahoma.
Wheelock Academy, the first school established by the Choctaws after their removal to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), is now a National Historic Landmark. The old administration building, built in the 1880s, still stands.
Until the 1940s, many students attended schools inside one room school houses. During bad weather – or after the harvest or planting periods – teachers could have up to 50 students in their classrooms, all squeezed together in a drafty, clap-board covered room. Teachers would have to arrive at least an hour before their students in order to get the stove going, and would leave only after the school house was clean (naughty kids would help with that chore if need be). Especially for women, teaching could be hard going. Prior to the Second World War, female teachers were expected to be unmarried, and they made about a third of what a male teacher earned. The efforts of the teacher’s unions helped to bring pay equity throughout the country.
The progressive era (turn of the 20th century) helped to foster the idea of high schools. Until that time, high school diplomas were quite rare – most schooling stopped at the 8th grade. However, reform movements, the push towards standardization of education, the proliferation of colleges and universities, and child labor laws created demand for further education. By the 1940s, attending high school had become the norm, which in turn made them true community centers. An entire youth culture developed around them… homecoming dances, proms, yearbooks, football games, “cruising,” and teen movies and novels created memories and lasting impressions.
The beautiful Denison high school, which anchored the western end of Main Street, was razed in 2007. And now a CVS Pharmacy will occupy the spot! Yea, progress!
Today, our high schools tend to be built outside of the city center. I may not be a sociologist, but I have to wonder…
**** soap box alert ****
… if the reason kids aren’t doing too well in school, including having discipline problems, high pregnancy rates, and lacking in higher learning, may have to do with the removal of schools from the middle of town. New schools tend to be built on cheap land away from business and neighborhoods. Most lack windows, and instead of students seeing their communities when they leave the building, they see the vast gray of parking lots. Some schools – like my high school in Paris, Texas – look almost like warehouses. When kids feel marginalized, might they tend to act out?
Then again, the high school in Lewisville (where I live) sits smack-dab in the center of town, even though it was initially built away from town in the 1960s. Suburban growth will do that to a building. The school is a part of life in this city now, and it’s quite nice, seeing students walk to the drug store, Burger King, library, the grocery store, Sonic – it’s as if my town is anchored to the school. In the Fall, I can hear the football games from my bedroom window, and that’s kid of neat (although I have never watched an entire football game in my life).
While I never did care much for compulsory education, I sure do like its history.