Consider the following:
*Progressive school reformers praise the 19th century one-room school for multi-age grouping, students helping one another learn their lessons, and close connections between school and community; conservative school reformers see the same one-room school house as a place where order and discipline ruled the day and students learned basic skills.
*Technology-driven reformers describe 21st century U.S. public schools as products of a late-19th century industrial age when schools became assembly-line factories and continue to this day to turn out graduates unequipped to enter a post-industrial, knowledge-based economy where jobs require collaboration, problem-solving skills, and creativity.
Both statements about the past are myths. Both derive from reformers-turned-historians with selective memories who seek to advance their current agendas. They create a usable past. And in doing so, they tip-toe around truth.
Professional historians wince when fellow historians and policy elites dip into the past and recover evidence that is useful in pushing particular reform-driven policies. Called “presentism “ among professional historians, it is an epithet that wounds academic reputations. Not among reformers cherry-picking facts from the past, however.
Why are the above statements myths? Other historians delving into primary sources determined the accuracy of such statements labeling them as nostalgic renderings from imperfect memories. Jonathan Zimmerman looked carefully at the rural one-room school.
In Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory, Zimmerman points out how educational progressives and conservatives in the 1960s both pointed to the “little red schoolhouse”–which Zimmerman notes was seldom red since paint cost too much in most rural districts–as evidence for their current passions. Progressives committed to “open classrooms” in those decades saw through rose-colored glasses teachers and multi-aged students in the one-room school working together to learn; conservatives, deeply concerned about drugs and crime in most suburban and urban schools sprinkled pixie dust over the one-room school and saw the Three Rs, discipline, corporal punishment, and dunce caps as practices that needed to be resurrected (see YouTube of author discussing book).
Zimmerman’s careful sifting and analyzing of sources shows how the icon of the one-room school clearly had the features that both progressives and conservative attributed to the one-room school but fell far short of being an accurate portrait of all that occurred in such schools. He toppled the myth by offering a well-rounded portrait showing how memory and history are entwined in photos, documents, and recollections of teachers and students about their experiences in one-room schoolhouses.
In turning to the myth of current schools as factories producing graduates unfit for working in an information-driven economy, one need only turn to a few examples since such rhetoric is so pervasive in the past few years (see here, here, here, and here).
Many historians and other academics argue that it is a myth that U.S. schools are failing (and have failed) propagated by reformers who selectively use evidence to push their favorite reform. These scholarly challenges, however, have yet to gain much traction among the larger public in the super-heated global climate of reform talk coming from policy elites and street-level activists (See here, here, here, and alan krueger). What these scholars and journalists point out is that U.S. public schools compared to its own history of two centuries and compared internationally now are a mixed picture of successes and failures–not a black-white photo but one in rich colors.
Yet the myth of U.S. schools as failures persists in policy talk and action because such rhetoric and policies fit the ambitious agenda of technology-driven reformers eager and willing to transform failing U.S. schools into high-tech successful ones. See here, here, and here.
Historians of U.S. schooling, however, have investigated different features of public schools and described how the structures, norms. and culture of age-graded schools invested with powerful social expectations from parents and taxpayers have maintained a stability, a “dynamic conservatism,” in daily school operations that permits some innovations, including new technologies, to be adopted, others adapted and even others shunted aside. David Labaree, Nancy Cohen, Jon Zimmerman, William Reese, and other historians offer portraits of different aspects of schooling that give pause and invite skepticism of what past and contemporary reformers promised and how the best of reformers’ intentions have gone awry time and again.
These historians do not seek a usable past; they shine a light on earlier eras that reveal ideas and actions taken in the context of earlier decades. They do not pick and choose which facts best illuminate present reform agendas. Such historical detective work questions contemporary reform-driven actions and urges mindfulness, even humility, among those who construct a usable past to justify policies that, more often than not, produce unintended consequences.