One of the most educated people I’ve ever known was the man my grandmother married a few years after my grandfather died. He was educated between 1904 and 1916 in a one room schoolhouse in a very poor, rural, farming community in North Carolina. One teacher taught fifty farm girls and boys of all grades in that one room building constructed with their bare hands by the poor farmers of the community.
My grandmother’s husband, Mr. S., was extremely curious and well read. Throughout his life he supplemented his education by continuously reading and adding to his bank of knowledge. He was also quick with numbers able to do any kind of basic math in his head or quickly tally a handwritten list of numbers. The history of his nation had been taught in that one room school house. He took great pride in his country’s history and republican form of government.
Mr. S. was an entrepreneur, starting his business career living in the unheated attic of the general store where he went to work upon leaving home. After saving enough to move to a local town, he worked for a larger store, saving his money until he had enough to start his own store. Through careful management, and living what today would be considered below poverty lifestyle, he kept his business going through the Great Depression and then by serving his customers well he survived the rise of the discount chain stores in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
I once asked him about his education. He had tremendous respect for the woman the people of that poor community hired to teach their children. She set extremely high standards for the students and drilled them constantly on the fundamentals. She wanted them to learn and insisted they perform. He also attributed his education to his illiterate parents. They insisted their children learn the skills they had not been able to acquire during the aftermath of the Civil War when day to day survival consumed them and their parents. Mr. S’s parents frequently talked to the teacher about progress their children were making and if the teacher even hinted one of their children was falling short there would be hell to pay at home.
I suspect the farm children who learned together through 12 grades in that one room schoolhouse were better educated than 95% of the graduates of high schools across the United States today. They could read, write, and perform basic math without the aid of computers, spell checkers, and calculators. They understood their nation’s history and government. They knew the Bible and respected both God and their elders. They were proud of their country and community and wanted to be good citizens. They also knew the difference between right and wrong as well as what it meant to be accountable.
It is simple to understand why schools fail today:
1) Our culture has disintegrated. We no longer provide our children with high expectations of performance and we no longer hold them accountable. There are no longer morals and values respected by all citizens in a community. In the age of moral relativism there are no standards.
2) God is no longer important in people’s lives. One hundred years ago the Bible was a teaching aid. Children were taught to read passages from the Bible. The stories in the Bible were entertainment and lessons for life. God was a part of daily life being honored in prayer, scripture reading, and church attendance. The church was a center of social activity in the community.
3) Teachers were hired to teach fundamentals, not indoctrinate students in philosophies dreamed up at elite institutions.
4) Parents were an integral part of the education process. They set strong standards and expectations. They reinforced the lessons taught at school and were partners with the teacher in the learning process. They valued education because it opened up new opportunities to their children.
Learning has nothing to do with poverty. The poorest students in the ghettos of today’s inner cities have food in their bellies. Their homes have indoor plumbing, electric lighting and appliances, heating and cooling, and refrigerators for food storage. In addition they have immediate access to computers, video games, cell phones, and high definition televisions. The rural farm children of 100 years ago lived in what today would be considered third world shacks with no running water, no electricity, and no central heating much less cooling. Warmth came from a wood fire in the fireplace. Light came from a kerosene light if the family could afford one. They often went hungry because the food they grew in the summer had to be carefully portioned out to last through the winter. Plus the families shared there meager stores of food with the school teacher charged with educating their children. The urban poor of today live more comfortably than middle class Americans of a century ago.
The poverty of the students and insufficient funding of the school system was not an excuse for lack of education in the American of the early 1900’s. The poor farmers of a century ago were able to band together to ensure a finer education for their children than the urban school systems of today with their technology, highly paid bureaucrats, and billions of dollars in federal money. Schools fail today because our culture no longer sets any expectations, the parents don’t care and aren’t involved, and the educators are propagandists not teachers. Without any direction and expectations the children cannot learn. Until we rebuild our culture, set expectations for our children (and educators), and hold them accountable there will be no learning.
The experience of the Vietnamese boat people who arrived here in the 70's with nothing, and within a generation produced valedictorians, is a strong example.