Sunday, June 10, 2012

The (Not Very) Good Old Days of Education - Part I

(Inspired by recent email conversations with Straw School classmates, including two who are teachers.)

Getting lost in Wikipedia, as I often do, I read up on the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930's.  I was surprised at how narrowly tailored it was, and how few people it employed at any one time.  But more surprising was this paragraph about the pool it drew from (italics mine):
Approximately 55% of enrollees were from rural communities, a majority of which were non-farm; 45% came from urban. Level of education for the enrollee averaged 3% illiterate, 38% less than eight years of school, 48% did not complete high school, 11% were high school graduates. At the time of entry, 70% of enrollees were malnourished and poorly clothed. Few had work experience beyond occasional odd jobs.
The crash came in 1929, the CCC was four years later and more, its target group was quite young, so you can do the arithmetic to see how far these lads were from the Roaring Twenties with its high employment. Yet it was the schooling that caught my eye.  This was not the previous generation's immigrants, who had few years of formal education, as with two of my grandparents.  These were native born Americans, and these were the white boys - blacks and Indians had separate groups, and I imagine their education levels were even less. 38% of these 17-23 y/o's had less than eight years of school.

Conservatives like to go on endlessly about the good old days of education, and how their grandfathers had gone to one-room schools but rose to become physicians or chemical engineers or whatever, because the education was superior then despite the lack of resources. I lean pretty conservative, but this is just nuts.  Education was terrible until quite recently.

Bloggers and blog-commenters who think about the history of education, changes in pedagogy, and can relate this to their own experience and that of their forebears, who can construct a coherent paragraph about the topic are not a representative sample of the country.

Are not a representative sample.

Are not a representative sample.  You are the 1%, in that metric.  The 5%, actually.

Your anecdotal experience is of nearly no value whatsoever in discussing the situation.

Let me bring in related statistics about years of education in the population as a whole in the decades before and after this, in order to make a distinction. From the National Center For Education Statistics:
Progressively fewer adults have limited their education to completion of the 8th grade which was typical in the early part of the century. In 1940, more than half of the U.S. population had completed no more than an eighth grade education. Only 6 percent of males and 4 percent of females had completed 4 years of college. The median years of school attained by the adult population, 25 years old and over, had registered only a scant rise from 8.1 to 8.6 years over a 30 year period from 1910 to 1940.
During the 1940s and 1950s, the more highly educated younger cohorts began to make their mark on the average for the entire adult population. More than half of the young adults of the 1940s and 1950s completed high school and the median educational attainment of 25- to 29-years-olds rose to 12 years. By 1960, 42 percent of males, 25 years old and over, still had completed no more than the eighth grade, but 40 percent had completed high school and 10 percent had completed 4 years of college. The corresponding proportion for women completing high school was about the same, but the proportion completing college was somewhat lower.

I was born in 1953.  When I reached my 17th birthday I had more education than half the males in the country. The ones I was ahead of was weighted to the older guys, but not entirely so.  We forget.  I was at a mill city high school, and it was not unusual for kids to drop out when they turned 16 (about 20%), or before graduating (another 20%). And NH as a whole has traditionally had one of lowest dropout rates in the country.

But, you will correctly say, these numbers don't measure the quality of education. These measure how many people went to school. Not the same thing.  Perhaps if you got to go to school the instruction was quite wonderful. Especially in higher grades, eliminating those who were less interested in education (plus however many others who might be talented but too poor) might have made for an excellent classroom experience, don't you think, AVI?

I think not.  But I will leave all this with you to ponder before I comment further.  For now, I wanted only to remind you that things were not as our current imagination tells us.  Post WWII America is insanely different from the rest of human existence.


Dubbahdee said...

"...things were not as our current imagination tells us."

I find this an excellent starting point for many conversations -- both with myself and others.

dmoelling said...

A big factor was the lack of credentialism back then. My Grandfather finished the sixth grade in St. Louis, then worked over the years at Chrysler (on the assembly line), the US Post Office (with similar wartime duty) and other jobs. All these would have taken a high school education these days. He was a self taught electrician, mechanic, and carpenter. He always had home study books on basic mathematics and other subjects around.

It's easy to forget that many of today's "For Profit" schools like DeVry, the old International Correspondence Schools (ICS) and others had their start in the 1900 to 1920 era. People had a very flexible work path they could follow. Todays highly structured credential requirements are very limiting by comparison.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

dmoelling - Amen. Keep following this.

Kay Richardson said...

I myself do realize that it is beyond my imagination how WWII affected the majority of the countries worldwide and how it has changed already from the miserable case such as the story to how we finally developed and respected how to live life in a harmonious way possible.

Michael said...

Any idea when compulsory eduction to age 16 became the norm? That likely changed the landscape considerably.

Sam L. said...

A friend sent me an e-mail with an 8th grade final exam from Kansas in 1895. Unfortunately there were HTML links which prevented it from being posted here, or it was too long. Excerpts:

What it took to get an 8th grade education in 1895...

Remember when grandparents and great-grandparents stated that they only had an 8th grade education? Well, check this out. Could any of us have passed the 8th grade in 1895?
d Library in Salina , and reprinted by the Salina Journal.

Grammar (Time, one hour)
1. Give nine rules for the use of capital letters.
2. Name the parts of speech and define those that have no modifications.
3. Define verse, stanza and paragraph
4. What are the principal parts of a verb? Give principal parts of 'lie,''play,' and 'run.'
5. Define case; illustrate each case.
6 What is punctuation? Give rules for principal marks of punctuation.
7 - 10. Write a composition of about 150 words and show therein that you understand the practical use of the rules of grammar.

Arithmetic (Time,1 hour 15 minutes)
1. Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic.
2. A wagon box is 2 ft. Deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. Wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?
3. If a load of wheat weighs 3,942 lbs., what is it worth at 50cts/bushel, deducting 1,050 lbs. For tare?
4. District No 33 has a valuation of $35,000.. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals?
5. Find the cost of 6,720 lbs. Coal at $6.00 per ton.
6. Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7 percent.
7. What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft.. Long at $20 per yard?
8. Find bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10 percent.
9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per acre, the distance of which is 640 rods?
10. Write a Bank Check, a Promissory Note, and a Receipt

U.S. History (Time, 45 minutes)
1. Give the epochs into which U.S. History is divided
2. Give an account of the discovery of America by Columbus
3. Relate the causes and results of the Revolutionary War.
4. Show the territorial growth of the United States
5. Tell what you can of the history of Kansas
6. Describe three of the most prominent battles of the Rebellion.
7. Who were the following: Morse, Whitney, Fulton , Bell , Lincoln , Penn, and Howe?
8. Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, 1865.

Geography (Time, one hour)
1 What is climate? Upon what does climate depend?
2. How do you account for the extremes of climate in Kansas ?
3. Of what use are rivers? Of what use is the ocean?
4. Describe the mountains of North America

6. Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S. Name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each..
8. Why is the Atlantic Coast colder than the Pacific in the same latitude?
9. Describe the process by which the water of the ocean returns to the sources of rivers.
10. Describe the movements of the earth. Give the inclination of the earth.

Notice that the exam took FIVE HOURS to complete.

Gives the saying 'he only had an 8th grade education' a whole new meaning,

Anonymous said...

If I ask 100 of my (high-school graduate) students the freezing and boiling points of water I MIGHT find three who know them- that's the superiority of today's educational system- no more wasting time on trivialities.
I already did this experiment-

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Sam, I am unconvinced. They focused on different things then, and we don't notice what they left out that modern students learn - particularly in science.

Search "sidis" on this site and the comments touch on this.

Sanford said...

"...things were not as our current imagination tells us." I find this an excellent starting point for many conversations -- both with myself and others.