Reformers Creating a Usable Past: Myths and Realities

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.

1-room schl black


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.


Filed under Reforming schools

8 responses to “Reformers Creating a Usable Past: Myths and Realities

  1. As usual, your article is true on my side of the border. We hear simply too much from those who roll out selected bits of information–the ones that advance their cause–while ignoring (or suppressing) the enormous evidence to the contrary. The only sad thing about this is that your basic idea, so clearly stated, is equally likely to be ignored/suppressed by those same people; victim, once again, to the same cognitive bias that causes us all to only select, from our memories, the parts that fit with our established framework rather than making the effort to reconstruct that framework to fit with the totality of the facts. But, as always, the truth–all of it, including the parts people would rather not hear–needs to be told again and again.

  2. Lyn Goodnight

    My father, who is now 85, was a student in one of those one-room schools. He grew up to be a very successful person without high school at all — but those were very different times, when he could get a job driving a dairy truck or working in the corn mill without any diploma. The basic skills he needed, he gained — but he has told me some of the realities of those schools as well. Freezing cold on winter mornings with one wood stove for heat. No running water, one outhouse for both boys and girls. Severe punishments for some — those on the receiving end of punishment often did not return — but they ran their farms and thus had employment without much education. My dad talks of being one of several kids whose parents only spoke French at home, and having to learn proper English on the fly when he went to school. No bilingual ed or ELL in those days — so it was sink or swim for the non-English speakers. It wasn’t all as rosy as Little House on the Prairie might have us believe. I look forward to reading Zimmerman’s book… thank you for the link.

  3. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Every time I hear someone mentioning that schools are structured based on the model of a factory, often referring to Ken Robinson, I want to start a debate. Larry Cuban does a great job explaining why.

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