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.

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An overseer and his underlings

An overseer and two small grimy boys face the camera in a textile mill.

An overseer and two grimy boy doffers face the photographer in a Birmingham, Alabama, textile factory.

The textile mill epitomized mechanized industry, which made humans servants of machines.  Textile manufacture was one of the earliest industries in the US, one often associated with ‘sweated’ labor.  Exploitative practices reached an apogee in the late nineteenth-century American South, where mills employed black and white workers with no other prospects, drawing in many poor Appalachian families.  Conditions in the mills were such that workers (many of them children) were virtually enslaved.  Despite laboring incessantly, they lived in poverty, without recourse to their employer’s authority.  The overseer in this picture boasted of having 30 doffers to do his bidding.  The doffers’ job was to run to replace full spindles with empty ones to keep the looms running smoothly.

This picture was taken in November 1910.

Library of Congress photograph by Lewis Hine.