During the last century, what we Americans wanted and what we got from our schools shifted through four distinct periods, which I call Assimilation, Adjustment, Access and Achievement. Last week we looked at the period of Assimilation covering the early years of the 20th century. This week I look at the middle years of the twentieth century, including WWII and the post-war years, which I call the Adjustment era. In coming weeks, I will address Access, the period after Brown v. Board of Education until 1983 and, finally, Achievement, the years from 1983 to the present day. The following pictures help illustrate this tale of shifting assignments to America’s schools and their reluctance, sometimes wisely, to complete the new assignments as fully and promptly as the public and, later, policy-makers, wished.
Adjustment: 1920 – 1954
Following WWI new critics of the American educational system emerged who argued that the practices used to create patriots stifled children’s natural creativity and curiosity. These critics believed that fostering a child’s social and psychological adjustment should be the principal task of America’s schools.
If little Victor epitomized the Assimilation era, two educators, Lucy Sprague Mitchell and Carleton Washburne, embody the Adjustment period from 1920 to 1954. Mitchell with her friend Caroline Pratt founded the City and Country School in New York City as her children entered school in the 1920s. Mitchell had tried unsuccessfully to break the formalism of the New York City schools, and having inherited family money, she decided to establish a school of her own design. Its 1922 program of arts, play, shop, rest, as well as a little reading, is revealed in this chart showing the “Greenwich Village School Program, 1922 -1923.” For the children of Mrs. Mitchell’s affluent, cultured and academically eminent friends, this school provided a delightful alternative to the strict regimen of the New York City public schools. Working within the public schools of Winnetka, a north shore suburb of Chicago, Carleton Washburne organized similarly active and individualized learning for a comparable elementary school constituency. Winnetka became known as the best example of a progressive education system in America.
Not all the nation, however, immediately adopted the new curriculum of the Adjustment period. Some public schools, particularly those with large classes and teachers with limited experience, stayed with traditional formal instruction, as Miss Pruss did with her 43 First Grade all white, non-affluent students (some barefoot) in Raymond (southeastern), Indiana in 1939. This was her first and only year of teaching. Some learned to read, including my husband, Loren Graham and his friend, Ron Esarey, both of whom became educators like their fathers before them.
Other private schools in New York City, building on the expertise of the faculty at Teachers College at Columbia University, and with a student body similar to that of Mitchell and Washburne, developed extraordinary curriculum activities. For example, these students at the Lincoln School in 1942 are shown building a topographic map of South America.
Enthusiasts of these new approaches felt vindicated by the Eight Year Study, which found that graduates of schools such as Lincoln in the 1930’s did as well in selective colleges as graduates of traditional academic programs. The new, bold curriculum explained this success, the proponents claimed, not the family background of the students or the unusual expertise of many of their teachers.
While the affluent sought out or built schools to reflect this new period in America’s schools, blacks in the south labored to provide the elements of literacy for their children. These photos demonstrate the limitations black Americans faced in getting a education. In the first photo, a Louisiana mother in 1939 tutors her children at home the best she can (“The rain are fallin”), the second photo shows the profoundly limited facilities in Veazy, Greene County, Georgia.
By the 1940s “life adjustment education” became the mantra in American education. High schools reorganized their curricula to provide 20 percent of the students with college preparatory studies, 20 percent with a vocational education course, and the remaining 60 percent with courses that were intended to help them merely “adjust to life.” Public schools thus abandoned traditional academic subjects such as literature for communication, algebra and geometry for general math, history for social studies, and biology and chemistry for general science. This academically weak course of studies persisted in many parts of the country for half a century.
Patricia Albjerg Graham is the author of Schooling America: How the Public Schools Meet the Nations’s Changing Needs and the Charles Warren Research Professor of the History of American Education at Harvard University.
Photo and image credits: 1) Caroline Pratt, ed., Experimental Practice in the City and Country School (New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1924)
2) Courtesy of Loren R. Graham
3) Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, [LC-USW3-009899E]
4) Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, [LC-USF34-031938-D]5) Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, [LC-USF34-046248-D]