Smells like School Spirit

By Schrag, Peter | The American Prospect, September 10, 2001 | Go to article overview

Smells like School Spirit


Schrag, Peter, The American Prospect


"NO OTHER PEOPLE," wrote Henry Steele Commager, the most widely read American historian of the generation following World War II, "ever demanded so much of schools and of education as have the American. None other was ever so well served by its schools and its educators." A lot of us, bombarded by the educational controversies and the ongoing schools-are-failing rhetoric of the past two decades, may now find Commager's words a little quaint--even preposterous--either because he was writing about some long-gone golden age or because he got carried away by his own celebratory fervor.

The four-part PBS documentary School: The Story of American Public Education, which will air September 3 and 4, is an ambitious attempt to show Americans how accurate Commager's assessment was and still is. No institution--certainly no cultural institution--is more pervasive, more deeply embedded in the history and hopes of our democracy, or more central to our debates about that democracy than public education. For all its shortcomings, to paraphrase Commager, none other has delivered so much. School has been America's great secular religion.

Produced by Sarah Patton and Sarah Mondale and written by Sheila Curran Bernard, School breaks no new historical ground; too often it presumes that its viewers are only dimly aware of the complex and rich history of American education. Nonetheless, the program offers an important overview, plus a superb collection of archival photos and film clips that lend it a rare depth and human dimension.

Each of School's four segments covers one historical period, beginning with Horace Mann's crusade in the 1840s to establish free common schools for all children, continuing through the great era of urban growth and immigration, and ending with our latter-day debates about standards, testing, privatization, and vouchers. Here we see the nineteenth-century struggles, particularly by Catholics, to obtain secular instruction free of a "nonsectarian" (read Protestant) slant, and the fights, beginning in Boston in the mid-1800s, for racial integration and equal treatment in public schools not only for African Americans but for Latinos, American Indians, and, eventually, women. Many of these stories--for example, the successful battle by Mexican-American students and their parents in the late 1960s to end the blatant racism in the schools of Crystal City, Texas, and get something approaching respect--go far beyond educational issues: They're landmarks of American democracy.

The series devotes considerable attention to the controversies, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century, over child-centered and activity-focused progressive education--the first great model was in Gary, Indiana, in 1906--and to the checkered career of intelligence testing and the racial assumptions of those who pioneered it. It reminds us of the class-based tracking of the elite into college-prep programs and others, mostly minorities and the poor, into dead-end courses, thus revealing the dubious pedigree of most aptitude testing. It also spends a lot of time covering the push for higher standards and accountability that's marked much of the past two decades.

But perhaps the most telling element of the story--often neglected or even disparaged in this era of multiculturalism--is the part on the acculturation of the children of immigrants. School, says the literary critic Alfred Kazin in a wonderful interview conducted not long before his death, was supposed to "get us out of the barbarism of our immigrant background.... School made you love the language." And throughout there are those wonderful photos: kids caning chairs at John Dewey's lab school in Chicago (1900), students serving tea in a homemaking class (1923), a "toothbrush drill" in a New York City school (1920), the still-too-familiar clips of haters outside southern schoolhouse doors as the first integrated black students are escorted through the mob. …

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