Old-Time Schools and Schooling

Teacher and students stand outside a one-room schoolhouse.

Photographs like this one capture the historically fragile character of public schools and schooling.  Although the nation’s founders believed that our republican form of government could not be sustained without adequately trained leaders and an informed and virtuous citizenry, the political growth of the United States always been somewhat at odds with the development of its schools.  Today, public education is often talked of as a monolith–which in some respects it is.  At the same time, it is a congeries of state and local impulses and arrangements, betokening ambivalence toward the concept of public education itself.

For much of US history, public schools were scarce, and getting schooling was not a right or requirement, but often a too-brief privilege or opportunity.  My maternal grandmother had only a third-grade education, for instance, while my paternal grandfather (who later became an electrical engineer by taking correspondence courses) had to stop school after the eighth grade because his father had died in a mining accident, leaving his mother and many young siblings to provide for themselves.  Children attended school only when circumstance permitted them to, and the education they received was often rudimentary.

In the early 1900s, when the photograph above was taken, children were often absent from school because they were in the fields and factories working.  The nexus of poverty and education has always been strained.  So too has the nexus between education and assimilation.  Why we have public schools and what the aims of public schooling should be will likely hotly debated in the months ahead.

Image by Lewis Hine from this source.

Free Folk

A mountain fiddler circa 1920.A mountain fiddler circa 1920.
Courtesy New York Public Library via Flickr Commons.

I’ve been wanting to add a few links to my website in connection with my recent posts about protest and song.  Here’s a bit of what I’ve found.

  • The Smithsonian has long been a collector of American folk recordings.  In addition to making rare old recordings available through its Smithsonian Folkways label, it has made an extensive series of podcasts (24 hours’ worth) about its collections available for free download.  Permanent links to both are on my home page.
  • Turns out, last week was a big one for folk music, with the press reporting that an outfit called the Association for Cultural Equity was on the verge of releasing for free streaming some 17,000 recordings made by the late American folklorist Alan Lomax.  Lomax was a colorful figure who spent his life traveling around the US and the world with a tape-recorder and a camera, documenting the music of the ordinary from the 1930s through the 80s.  Some 170 of his videos are already available on the Alan Lomax channel on You Tube.  A tiny sampling of the sounds and performers can also be heard here and throughout the Cultural Equity website.
  • Finally, East Village Radio hosts a weekly radio program of American vernacular music called ‘Root Hog or Die,’ put together by Nathan Salsburg, one of the curators of the Lomax archives.  (An awful saying, but isn’t one of the things we like about folk music its frankness?)  A complete archive of the show is available for free.  Some of the show’s episodes are also available on SoundCloud, whose audio player you might find easier to work if you’re a Mac user like me.