Thursday, September 24, 2015

Back to School

The Emerson school Isaac helped build
Now that the school year 2015-2016 is back in session, I thought it was a good time to reflect on the earliest schools on the prairie, and the ideals for education of populist writers.

The standards for educating children have been a political issue since the founding of America.  Today's politicians debate Common Core, but the involvement of politics in education is not new.  Populist writers that Isaac read who expressed views on education included Edward Bellamy.  Looking Backward, set in an imaginary future, contrasted 'modern' educational practices with education in Isaac's time, focusing particularly on the importance of educating all citizens, not just a privileged few.  "...[W]e should not consider life worth living if we had to be surrounded by a population of ignorant, boorish, coarse, wholly uncultivated men and women...No single thing is so important to every man as to have for neighbors intelligent, companionable persons.  There is nothing, therefore, which the nation can do for him that will enhance so much his own happiness as to educate his neighbors.  When it fails to do so, the value of his own education to him is reduced by half, and many of the tastes he has cultivated are made positive sources of pain."  Bellamy's ideal emphasized the importance of universal education:  "To put the matter in a nutshell, there are three main grounds on which our educational system rests:  first, the right of every man to the completest education the nation can give him on his own account, as necessary to his enjoyment of himself; second, the right of his fellow citizens to have him educated, as necessary to their enjoyment of his society; third, the right of the unborn to be guaranteed an intelligent and refined parentage."

The 'new' Emerson School in about 1920
The Progressives of Isaac's era disapproved of segregating students into public and private schools.  In another novel written during that era, Caesar's Column:  A story of the Twentieth Century, by author Ignatius Donnelly, an imaginary future is again used to describe how past ills have been corrected.  "We decreed, next, universal and compulsory education.  No one can vote who cannot read and write.  We believe that one man's ignorance is not only ruinous to the individual, but destructive to society.  It is an epidemic which scatters death everywhere.  Continuing:  We abolish all private schools, except the higher institutions and colleges.  We believe it to be essential to the peace and safety of the commonwealth that the children of all the people, rich and poor, should, during the period of growth, associate together.  In this way, race, sectarian and caste prejudices are obliterated, and the whole community grow up together as brethren.  Otherwise, in a generation or two, we shall have the people split up into hostile factions, fenced in by doctrinal bigotries, suspicious of one another, and antagonizing one another in politics, business and everything else."

Douglas Township, Stafford Co, KS school about 1917
Isaac was a member of the Farmers' Alliance in his community, and he contributed books from his own library to the local organization. Isaac had more confidence in educating farmers than in political activities, although he did support the People's Party of the progressive era.  

In Isaac's time parents were eager to have a school nearby for their children to attend, unlike some of today's parents who make the choice to home school.  While most of the schools in Isaac's old region are public, in urban areas, private and charter schools are numerous.  How best to teach children, and what to include in the curriculum remain disputed issues.  The educational ideals envisioned by progressive authors of Isaac's time for the 20th Century have not been implemented.  (See "Once There was a Community," 3-5-2015 and "A One-room School House Surprise," 7-12-2012 in the blog archives.)

Everyone wants what is best for the children, but deciding what is best remains the subject of rancorous debate!

1 comment:

The Blog Fodder said...

Otherwise, in a generation or two, we shall have the people split up into hostile factions, fenced in by doctrinal bigotries, suspicious of one another, and antagonizing one another in politics, business and everything else

Well, they got that right, didn't they?