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Your Father’s (and Grandparents’) Teachers—A Measured Appreciation


I’ve preached hard on the need for schools to embrace change and innovation as they adapt their work to the requirements of a new age and new markets. The schools of tomorrow can’t be like the schools of yesterday or even today, not in the way they think about curriculum and pedagogy; we can’t be stuck in a rut. I hope I don’t sound as though I despise everything that came before, uh, me, or that I’m one of those shrill voices condemning all the educational practices of the past as crimes against children—I’m not. This is my attempt to put some perspective on the relationship between “old times” and our own.

It’s certainly conventional wisdom now to make the claim that schools today must produce something (that is to say, provide learning experiences for kids) substantially different from an old, “industrial” model. “Schools used to be in the knowledge distribution business,” a friend has written, as if the essential measure of graduates in 1910 or 1950 had been in fact how much stuff—course content—they knew. (It makes me wonder a bit about the implied inverse, that we’re no longer about either knowledge, or distribution, or both. But of course that’s utterly wrong, too.)

I’m old enough and I would maintain fortunate enough to have spent time with grandparents who were all born in the nineteenth century, even before William McKinley became president—a long time ago. One was an educator, one a banker and civil servant, one a homemaker, and one an artist. All attended public schools in booming cities, two in the Midwest and two in the Northeast.

Except for the educator, who arguably spent a portion of his life professionally passing along some of what he had learned in his high school classes to his own students, I’m going to put forth the radical idea that what these worthy people took away from their pre-World War I high school experiences had no more to do with “knowledge,” in the pejorative sense that we use it today as an agglomeration of facts and principles learned by rote, than what we want our students today to take away from their multimodal, multigenre collaborative problem-solving projects.

Somehow we have it in our heads that our forebears were treated like robots, trained in schools that beat knowledge into them, like the ability to diagram sentences and decline Latin nouns, that was regarded as necessary preparation for work on the factory floor, a pre-marriage career in the stenography pool, or the life of a traveling salesman. Teachers of this era, we surmise, were apparently equally robotic, fortified (intoxicated, even) by their ability to inflict corporal punishment and no more understanding of the way their students thought or learned than they were of Professor Einstein’s latest equations. In this formulation, the poorly trained teachers in the old, “industrial” model depended on brute force to disseminate pointless knowledge, because that is what the Industrial Age demanded of its workers and their families.

Arrant and even arrogant nonsense, say I. Whoever was teaching my grandmothers and grandfathers (or yours, I dare say), probably had no more belief that the facts their students were asked to learn (all those datesthe worst!) were required for a meaningful life than you do when you ask students to learn the essential content that underlies the big concepts on which those projects are based. If the teachers of yore didn’t know basic neuroscience or Piagetian theories of development, the best of them learned from their students (as most of us still do, day in and day out) what they really needed to know (as human teachers, not robots): how their students thought, how they acquired understanding, what motivated them, and what turned them off.

It may have been a bit less elegant than our more scientific ways, but in the hands and hearts of patient, caring people, it was “knowledge” enough to inspire millions of children and to help shape their characters in particular directions. If wrists were slapped or humiliations inflicted, such were the unfortunate vagaries of the times as well as the probably uneven quality and nature of teachers and their lives—and there are still plenty of educators, even in these enlightened times, who have been known to “blow it” and do something stupid and cruel and dismissive; you can slam the door on a child’s aspirations just as easily via Smartboard or email as from the chalky dais of an airless Victorian classroom. We still have our share of “bad”—or at least vocationally misdirected—teachers, even with all we know about psychology and the art of hiring.

Nor did the portraits of Washington and Lincoln on their classroom walls make my grandparents into mindless jingoists, any more than knowing a smidgen of Latin made them into successful workers or parents. What the grandparents took away from school was not rote knowledge, but an understanding of how they learned, the idea that there would always be more to learn, and in some sense how the world outside their own households functioned. In their later lives they diverged (as people do) into Republicans and Democrats, smokers and disapprovers, family-driven and civically engaged, workaholics and dreamers, voters (in time) and scoffers. The skills they learned in school were not perhaps any more or less appropriate to their dramatically changing times (Think about it: Born 1896, died compos mentis 1992—what must that have been like to live through?) as the vaunted “21st-century skills” we ask our students to learn today.

I have to believe, even if public discourse in their day didn’t make much of these ideas, that the best of the men and women who taught my grandparents held in their teacher minds the notion that intellectual curiosity and flexibility, a kind of suppleness of thought and the ability and disposition to keep on learning, were central to what they were trying to get across in the classroom. We ought not dismiss their motives, even if it is easy for us to pooh-pooh the model that memorizing the parts of speech of Latin or German verbs was good training for learning how to use, say, an electric vacuum cleaner or adapt to the evolution of automobile pedal function and placement from the Model T to a 1958 Oldsmobile 88.

I will happily grant that the kind of “real world” problem-solving and a number of modern practices in curriculum and assessment design probably move us and our schools closer to helping students connect school learning to the development of lifelong curiosity and adaptability than did exhaustive grammar exercises or memorizing lists of English monarchs. But I am not going to condemn the teachers of the past as pedantic or unenlightened automata nor the schools in which they taught as nothing more than brutalizing assembly lines of thoughtless, heartless learning. Even a cursory look at the experiences of real people (because I cannot believe that my small family sample is unique) indicates that they deserve far better.

I imagine a magical circumstance in which the teachers who encouraged my grandfather (the teacher) to apply to college and who prevailed on his millworker parents to give their son a shot at higher education were suddenly transported, in a sort of reverse Connecticut Yankee way, to a classroom at my own school in 2011. They might have to update their chops as teachers (and they might actually be extremely relieved at being liberated from drilling students on material they themselves might have found dull), but I think their instincts and hopes for their students would put them right in the best kind of groove as effective educators in our time. They clearly believed in kids and put their most effective time and energy not into diagramming sentences but into helping kids reach worthwhile goals in ways that would enrich their whole lives.

1 Comment
  1. The older people I know are also examples of people who solve problems and use knowledge to create and produce.

    With a 10th grade education, my dad started out as a janitor for a power company. When he retired, he was teaching electrical engineers how to wire substations. He also could do plumbing, carpentry, small engine repair, gardening, and animal husbandry. In retirement he taught himself Greek and Hebrew and learned to use a computer.