There are good reasons why we might imagine that education was better in earlier generations. I’d like to note these before proceeding to my premise that it was, in fact, worse.
1. Women were discouraged from going into many professions, or even training for them. A smart and competent woman, unless she and/or her parents had ambition or privilege well above the norm, became a nurse, secretary, teacher, or librarian. Those professions, then, soaked up a lot of talent that goes elsewhere today, and had a slew of the overqualified.
2. Many more children dropped out of school in earlier years. While many of those were children of ability who could not continue because of family poverty or attitudes, it did certainly eliminate many less-able students from the class, which suggests that more material could be covered with those remaining. Children with special needs were whisked away to institutions and not seen in classrooms as often.
3. Attention spans were probably longer, and competing entertainments less available. How extensive and important these are is open to debate, as is the assumption that they are unmitigated goods. But they might well bespeak advantages. Relatedly, children and their parents may have been more respectful of the school’s authority, which made a teacher’s job easier.
4. Additionally, it is claimed that many useless extras taught today were not required then, allowing instruction to focus on reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. I don’t think that is true – I think we have traded once set of less-useful tasks for another – but there is at least something worth noting here.
Here are the weaknesses of those purported advantages:
Better teachers: Just because women in general had unacknowledged talents and some of them went into teaching does not mean those particular women were good teachers. Let’s go back just a bit further in history, to the late 19th and early 20th C and pick up the flow of who was heading up classrooms. My great-great-grandmother taught at a one-room school in Londonderry before she was married. She was 17. Alert readers will suddenly remember Anne of Green Gables and other books of the era, and how young teachers might be. Moving forward in time, schools began to require that teachers had a highschool diploma, later a certificate from a Normal School (two-year teaching academy, later increased to four-year), then a Teacher’s Collge, and only quite far along, a Bachelor’s Degrees. Those with the earlier credentials were grandfathered – er, grandmothered – in. I had at least two teachers with a Normal School certificate only, even in my day. So whatever natural abilities they may have had, the majority of teachers did not have so much training – and there was not a lot of continuing ed in those days or supervision after.
Further, generic ability is not necessarily teaching ability. In that same district, my grandfather had Robert Frost at Pinkerton Academy – certainly a surplus of talent for an English teacher, you’d think. But Gramps wasn’t impressed. He was obvious about not wanting to be there and was apparently not very good. (Frost’s biographical info agrees that he took the job only because he had to.) So too with other teachers of the day. They didn’t want to be there. They didn’t like kids, especially boys. Lots of them were talented, competent, teachers. But there wasn’t a lot of floor in the profession. You could go pretty far down and no one would do a thing about it, just letting you plod along oddly for decades.
Some of them were great. Don’t forget that. And current education departments may destroy more teachers than they build (I don’t know that to be true, I just know that some people think so), but by age alone, a 24-year-old is going to be better than a 19-year-old. Bad training is going to be at least better than no training most of the time.
More dropouts: Not in first grade. Not in sixth grade. By highschool perhaps the system had weeded out a lot of kids who had less intelligence, or drive, or cooperativeness, and the remaining students could really sail. But that is ultimately less than a third of the system. The exception would be head-injured or developmentally delayed children, who were largely absent from the schools. If that did indeed create a better classroom environment – I doubt it would have much effect, but let’s pretend – do we want to pay that cost again?
Attention span and authority: We sat still for hours. I recall something in Reader’s Digest only a few years later noting that speeches in the Senate were kept under an hour, but fifth-graders hat to sit still for an hour at a time every day. One hour? How about 8-10 in the morning until 15 minutes of recess, then 12:30-2 every afternoon until that recess, with another 75 minutes after each? Getting up and doing things was rare. I have no idea what everyone else did, but I read in secret or daydreamed my way through it. It must have been hell for active kids. But if we were able to accomplish that better then, before TV and video games and computers destroyed our ability for sustained concentration, it still sounds more doltish and docile than “focused” to me. Sixth grade, two hours straight, most morning of the week – I’m not sure that’s a good think.
Back to basics: they didn’t have all useless modern feelings stuff, or politically correct nonsense then, nor all these administrative distractions about disaster drills and recycling, and sex education and drug education, so they could read classics instead of trash. No, we had hours of penmanship drills – not very useful even then. We copied things a lot, and not always as punishment. A “beautiful hand” was much admired, and usually harder to read than the ugly writing, as anyone who has tried to read archival records can attest. And we learned recitations – often the same one for everyone, and had to get up in front of the class and say it, one after another. That’s useful. And maps to color after labeling, and children in ethnic costumes to color, and lots of natural science to color. Shop Class and Home Ec. We scrubbed our desks. We lined up and waited a lot, and sometimes marched to music. We diagrammed sentences – kinda fun, sometimes, but not as helpful in composition as one might think. We learned grammar, much of which turned out to be wrong, and most of which was not focused on improving our writing, but in shaming us out of using slang. Spelling drills. Somewhat useful – not huge.
Part III for why we do better now.