School Days

A History of Public Education

In 1983, the Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation at Risk, comparing low educational standards to a kind of warfare against youth. But hand-wringing over our school system is an American perennial, going all the way back to the Founding. In this episode, the American Backstory hosts explore the origins of public education, and ask whether we set ourselves up for disappointment by expecting so much from our schools.

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Peter Onuf: Major support for BackStory comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the University of Virginia. An earlier version of this episode aired in 2009.

Brian Balogh: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

Peter Onuf: A little over five decades ago, the Russians sent a dog into outer space, a mut named Laika that some government functionary had found on the streets of Moscow. They suited her up in a dog space suit, put her on a rocket ship, and off she went.

Speaker 3: [foreign language 00:00:37]

Brian Balogh: We later learned that that little dog only lasted a few hours and she probably died from stress. But back in November 1957 it seemed like most of the stress was on this side of the Bering Strait. The US had been caught napping a month earlier when the Russians announced that they had launched Sputnik 1.

Speaker 6: Today, a new moon is in the sky…

Brian Balogh: Now, they had repeated the stunt, this time with a living, breathing passenger on board, at least for a little while. What would Sputnik 3 carry? A nuclear missile?

Speaker 6: You are hearing the actual signals transmitted by the earth circling satellite, one of the great scientific feats of the age.

Brian Balogh: It didn’t take long for the pundits to figure out who was to blame for this colossal national embarrassment. The military? No. Congress? No. The White House? Uh-uh (negative). It was America’s schools who had gotten us into this mess. Russian schools were churning out scientists who could put a dog into space and American schools were churning out, well, Rock and Roll. Has the cover of Life Magazine announced the following spring, there was a crisis in education.

Eisenhower: The Soviet Union now has in the combined category of scientists and engineers, a greater number than the United States.

Brian Balogh: Dwight Eisenhower, November, 195.

Eisenhower: And it is producing graduates in these fields at a much faster rate. This trend is disturbing.

Brian Balogh: It may have been disturbing, but the Sputnik episode was not the first or the last time schools were blamed for our national crises. Just think about all the politicians you’ve seen railing about low standards in our schools. To take a classic example, A Nation At Risk, the report commissioned by Ronald Reagan in the early ’80s. To quote one of its best lines, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Reagan: Despite record levels of educational spending, America’s students came in last in seven of 19 academic tests compared to students of other industrialized nations.

Peter Onuf: Each week on Backstory, we take a topic from the world around us and explore its historical context. I, Peter Onuf, cover 18th century.

Ed Ayers: And I, Ed Ayers, take care of the 19th century.

Brian Balogh: And I, Brian Balogh, well, I speak for the 20th century. And today we’re devoting an hour to public education because, once again, no surprise, it’s taking its lumps from political leaders. Here’s presidential hopeful Mitt Romney back in May.

Romney: More than 150 years ago, our nation pioneered public education, and yet, now, we’ve fallen way behind. Among the developed countries of the world, you probably know this already, United States comes in 14th out of 34 in reading, 17th out of 34 in science, and how about this? 25th out of 34 in math.

Ed Ayers: So, Peter.

Peter Onuf: Yeah.

Ed Ayers: Tell us, did people back in your period worry that we were going to fall behind our competitors, the British or the French or whatever because our schools weren’t doing their jobs back then?

Peter Onuf: Well, this is really deep background, Ed, and the answer is no. In fact, the idea that the common people should be educated was a heresy in the old days. That is, “Why would you want them to be able to read and write?” Because as many early modern thinkers thought, if people were too literate, they’d be uppity, they’d, well, maybe they’d claim rights or something like this. And that’s really the story of American education. It doesn’t begin in a international competition. It didn’t have anything to do with that.

Brian Balogh: So, how many people did go to school, Peter? I mean, was it just for elites? I mean, we think of today, everybody goes to school. Was that the case back in your period?

Peter Onuf: Well, in theory, in colonial Massachusetts, every community with a certain population was supposed to have the school, but this was a statute that was observed more in the breach. Most education as we know it today took place within homes, particularly Bible centered homes where literacy was important in the religious life of communities. There weren’t schools to do this. You could say that churches, as such, were a kind of educational institution, but basically, these were places of oral performances, that is where sermons would be delivered and texts would be read out to the congregation. So, mass education as we know it is really a phenomenon of, well, Ed’s century.

Brian Balogh: Well, now, I can see Ed waiting for the school bus, but before we let him get on it, I just got one more question. And yes, Peter, it has to do with your guy Jefferson. He had a few ideas on education, didn’t he?

Peter Onuf: Absolutely, Brian. He is the author of a stillborn notion of universal public education. We don’t like to emphasize the stillborn part. We like to say that Jefferson was a great visionary in his 1779 Bill for the Diffusion of Knowledge.

Ed Ayers: It only took 130 years to come to pass in his native Virginia.

Peter Onuf: That’s right, Ed. Hey, Virginians are slow.

Ed Ayers: He was near sighted you’re saying.

Peter Onuf: Yeah. But his scheme of public education was that every community would support a school for girls as well as boys at the primary level. And then, there’d be this [inaudible 00:06:11] middle selection as you moved up where a few select boys would be sent on from primary schools to grammar schools or secondary schools and then onto the peak of his system, the University of Virginia, or William and Mary at that time, on a scholarship. But this proposal really reflected the paranoia that Jefferson and other revolutionary leaders had about, frankly, the ignorance of the people, that if they weren’t adequately educated, they could be subject to demagoguery and they could be misled. And so, they had to be trained to be able to detect conspiracies against liberty within the ruling class. And one of the paradoxical things about the democratization of American education is that the people resisted this because they suspected the motives of educational reformers. They thought educational reformers were really trying to put one over on the people by taxing them to support a system of education that would primarily benefit elites.

Ed Ayers: So let me tell you about where public education came from in the form that we know it. Peter has described what it was like in the Colonial Era with this patchwork of homeschooling and so forth, but with the expectation, really, that the Commonwealth owed an education to people and that the whole population was uplifted by a more broadly distributed education. And so, in the 1830s, Horace Mann, who as close to anyone, is the parent of American education, looked around and said, “What we really need to do is to make this a far more coherent, forceful state supported system.” And what Horace Mann says is, “Folks,” by which folks I mean wealthy people, “it’s going to pay off if you’ll pay taxes to create public schools for everybody.”

Brian Balogh: So, in Peter’s period, Jefferson and others are arguing, “Well, we need an education to create citizens.” But are you suggesting that Horace Mann was also saying to Americans, “Hey, education produces productive citizens who can actually help this economy”?

Ed Ayers: That’s is exactly, my 20th century friend, what he said, and he actually would make pretty specific arguments to, say, big manufacturers, “Look, guys, if you want workers to be disciplined, to answer bells, to be self-motivating to the extent you want them to be, to be able to read simple instructions, education is not merely useful to the Commonwealth and creating better citizens, yada, yada, yada, it is literally going into your pocketbook.” And you look back at it and you can see that that’s really the only way that man was going to be able to persuade the people who pay the most taxes to pay more to educate, frankly, other people’s children. And I don’t want to be cynical, people would like to have jobs that were regular and well-paying, and industrial jobs brought something that we never had before, which was year-round sustained, guaranteed employment that was not tied to the agricultural cycle.

Peter Onuf: And there might be another dimension to this. I wonder if immigration had something to do with the importance of education. The literacy rate in Massachusetts before Horace Mann, it was virtually universal for men and pretty high for women, as well. So, it wasn’t that you needed those basic skills, and of course, if you had a religious population that spent all that time at church, they had their own bills, so to speak, they had that discipline. But when you had large numbers of Irish Catholic immigrants, you faced a new demographic challenge. Is that an element in Mann’s notion of public education is to Americanize?

Ed Ayers: I don’t think so. As logical as that seems, part of it would be our friend chronology, and the fact that it’s-

Peter Onuf: Not my friend, Ed.

Brian Balogh: Not my friend. Speak for yourself, Ed.

Ed Ayers: The fact this begins in 1837 suggests that it predated the big tide of Irish immigration that would not come for another decade, and it would not peak for 20 more years. So, I think, in fact, that if Mann had waited until the challenge was to spend tax money to educate a bunch of new immigrants-

Peter Onuf: It wouldn’t have happened.

Ed Ayers: … it wouldn’t have happen. So, ironically, it’s just a fulfillment of a sense that a homogenous America can become even more homogenous by using education.

Peter Onuf: So, Ed, what are the social changes that lead to an emphasis on education if it’s not yet widespread immigration? Is it the fact that Massachusetts farm children are moving away from home? Because only a limited number of people could sustain farm operations through the generations, so that, in a way, there’s an anxiety about the future and about what provisions are going to be made for children and a growing recognition that new sets of skills are going to be necessary to cope with an unpredictable future.

Brian Balogh: That’s beautifully put, Peter, and exactly right. And then, this takes us back to Sputnik because, in the same way that the Soviets led to a great period of instability and anxiety in the country, if you’re sitting there in Massachusetts and you’re watching a lot of your population leave and you’re wondering how it is that you’re going to be able to-

Ed Ayers: Right. How are we going to keep up?

Brian Balogh: Yeah. People are really saying, “How are we going to be able to keep people in New England when you’ve got the Northwest open, when there’s land out there to be taken, what’s going to keep people on the rocky soil of the Berkshires or whatever?” And it’s also the case that manufacturing is growing, and if you’re going to want to compete with the great industrial power of the time, England, you’re going to have to have a population that knows how to invent and create. So, I think it’s a recurring theme from, as long as we’ve been a nation, maybe not back in the colonial period, but it didn’t take long in the 19th century for that kind of rhetoric of, “We’re under peril, and only education can really save us.”

Brian Balogh: Well in a minute, we’ll tell for a little deeper into that 19th century and look at why one room school houses weren’t all they’re cracked up to be. We’re also going to take a few of your calls. But first, it’s time for a quick break. Remember, if you’d like to be a caller on a future show, have a look at our website to see the topics we’re working on. You can find us at

Peter Onuf: We’ll be back in a minute.

Peter O.: This is Backstory, the show that looks to the past to explain the America of today. I’m Peter Onuf, 18th Century guy.

Ed A.: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th Century history guy.

Brian B.: And I’m Brian Balogh, history guy of the 20th Century.

Gus E.: (singing)

Brian B.: Today on the show, we’re exploring the history of public education. Like so many other topics we’ve explored on Backstory, we tend to remember that history as being much rosier than it actually was. Take, for example, the song we’re listening to right now, School Days.

Gus E.: (singing)

J. Zimmerman: School days, school days, good old golden rule days. Reading, writing, arithmetic, taught to the tune of a hickory stick, et cetera.

Brian B.: That’s John Zimmerman, a historian of education at New York University.

J. Zimmerman: Well in 1949, the New York Times declared this one of the 10 most popular songs in the history of the United States.

Brian B.: School Days is all about a one room schoolhouse in Ed’s period, the 19th Century. But it was written in the first decade of my century, buy a guy named Gus Edwards.

J. Zimmerman: Now what’s interesting about School Days is as follows. Gus Edwards was a German immigrant who moved to Brooklyn when he was seven. He never, as best we know, stepped into a one room schoolhouse, and he might not really have left New York. Actually he did, he eventually went to LA. But Gus Edwards was a vaudevillian, and later became a booking agent. This is the guy who wrote our most popular, and our most influential ode to the one room schoolhouse, and he’s an urban immigrant from Germany.

Gus E.: (singing)

Brian B.: Part of the reason that John Zimmerman is so fired up about this subject is that he wrote a book about it. It’s called Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory. In it, John looks at the ways school reformers with a wide range of agendas invoked the one room schoolhouse as kind of a model educational setting. In fact, until recently, there was an actual model of the little red schoolhouse outside the entrance of the Department of Education in Washington, DC.

Brian B.: Zimmerman basically argues that this nostalgia … a word he likes to point out comes from the Greek for homesickness … that this nostalgia eschews all kinds of facts about little red schoolhouses, beginning with their very color, red.

J. Zimmerman: Most one room schoolhouses were either white, or more commonly just unpainted, because school districts didn’t want to pay to paint them.

Brian B.: Help me understand this, John. Americans seem to put education, public education, on a pedestal. But we don’t want to pay to paint the little schoolhouse.

J. Zimmerman: I think that’s true, and I think that that contradiction goes back all the way to the founding of the common schools. The common school movement, the idea that there should be universal, state-supported education was, although not unique to the United States, in many ways distinct to it. By 1850, there are a greater fraction of elementary school-aged kids going to school in our country, than in any country on earth. But what we did in the 19th Century was we sent an extraordinarily large fraction, relatively speaking, of our kids to school. And we sent them to school in essentially shacks. That’s what one room school houses were. They were 15 by 40 feet in dimension, and they were in every sense bare-bones.

J. Zimmerman: Most of them did not even have a belfry or bell, even though we remember that part too. Very primitive heating systems, if any at all. You read accounts of people trying to drink water in a one room schoolhouse, but finding out that the water they had brought in earlier in the day was frozen, was ice. The teaching force, which was overwhelmingly single, female, and young … and young means sometimes as young as 15 or 16 … often has very little more education than the kids they’re teaching.

J. Zimmerman: If you think about Little House on the Prairie, this was Laura Ingalls Wilder-

Brian B.: My touchstone for all things historical.

J. Zimmerman: … Exactly, exactly. Laura Ingalls Wilder, of course … This was an autobiographical story, and it was about her life on the prairie in the 1880s. It didn’t become popular until the 1930s, which was precisely the time when, thanks to the WPA and the PWA, they’re ripping down these one room schools. And that’s important too, right? Because this again becomes a venue for nostalgia, for remembering an institution that’s going away.

J. Zimmerman: But what does she remember in those stories? She remember being a kid teaching other kids. And she remembers all kinds of problems with the so-called big boys, because you might guess the big boys are the ones that are going to test your authority.

Brian B.: And John, what is roughly the age where-

J. Zimmerman: Age three to 20.

Brian B.: Three to 20.

J. Zimmerman: Age three to 20. And often all in the same place. Sometimes there would be as many as 100 kids in a 15 by 40 square box, and sometimes there would be as few as four. The major deficiency is that the pedagogy is entirely what we would call rote. And rote means repeat, and it has to be. It has to be, not just because of the lack of training of the teacher, but also because of the enormous age range of kids. So they all have their own primers, and people would bring in whatever textbook they had. What they would do is they would memorize it, and then recite it in a rotating way to the teacher. And so it was not uncommon to find 11 or 12 year old kids that could just say a whole textbook.

Brian B.: Wow. But was there some basis for the later nostalgia of this homesickness, as you put it?

J. Zimmerman: If the question is, is there reason for people back longingly on these, there absolutely is. And here’s the reason. Whatever their deficiencies, they were communal institutions. In most cases they were the only public building. So they were not just a place where the kids went to school, they were a place where the community met. If it’s the only public building, it’s not just a schoolhouse. It’s the place where voting happens, where debates happen. Not just that. Weddings, funerals. All of the holidays. Christmas, Easter. And incidentally, there is no memoir of Christmas in a one room schoolhouse that is complete without Santa’s beard catching on fire. You read this everywhere, and it makes sense. It’s pre-electricity, it’s lit by candle, and there’s some guy with a whole bunch of cotton on his chin.

J. Zimmerman: So they were not perfect. They had a multitude of deficiencies. But when people look back on them and say, “They were ours,” this is absolutely true.

Brian B.: Am I being really naïve, and nostalgic to use your word, to think that there was something good about getting literally everybody in the community … kids, adults, et cetera … all in one room, and just letting them hash it out. Contrast that image, at any rate, to what we have today, this long chain of bureaucratic command stretching all the way from the Secretary of Education down to the Assistant Principal for Physical Education and Discipline.

J. Zimmerman: Well, here’s the thing. I think you have to go back to answer the question, to distinguish between what adults were doing in these schools, and what kids were doing. The one room schools of the 19th Century were profoundly small “d” democratic and debate-filled institutions in the evening, when the entire community showed up to debate, among other things-

Brian B.: Whether to pay for the school.

J. Zimmerman: … who’s going to pay. Exactly. You don’t have to be a nostalgist to celebrate the idea that there were these public institutions that brought everybody together, to debate the content and the contours of their shared lives. However, let’s not impute that dynamic to the classroom itself when the kids and teachers were in there. Because that was not a land of democratic debate.

Brian B.: That was the three R’s: rote, rote, and rote.

J. Zimmerman: Completely. My way or the highway. And that’s why teachers devised all of these, to us, draconian punishments. By the way, the dunce cap was rarely used, but every other kind of humiliation was, often recapitulating the alleged error or sin. So the kid that talked too much would have a twig affixed to their tongue. A kid who chewed gum would have the gum put on their forehead or their nose. And to me, the most fascinating one … which tells you a lot about the 19th Century … is that a kid who was a poor speller would have to cut letters out of a newspaper, and eat them. This sounds quite barbaric, and in many ways it is.

Brian B.: Is that where “eat your words” comes from, by the way?

J. Zimmerman: Maybe. We don’t know. But something that I find fascinating about this is on one level, it’s awful, horrible, humiliating, gross. But I think it’s also an example of a time when any academic failure was considered to be a function of a lack of effort. Not differential ability. That punishment is pre- IQ test. And it’s pre- the entire concept of disability. If you’re not spelling, it’s not because you have a different learning style that prevents you from spelling. It’s because you weren’t listening. So eat some words. Here’s your punishment.

J. Zimmerman: So what’s awful as it is, I think there’s also something that in some ways I find rather salutary about it. There is something quite, small “d” democratic about the idea that everyone has the same ability. Or go, if they’re doing worse, it’s because they didn’t apply themselves.

Brian B.: Right. There’s a presumption that there’s an equal starting ground there.

J. Zimmerman: Exactly.

Brian B.: Yeah. Well John, I want to thank you so much for joining us.

J. Zimmerman: Thanks for having me.

Brian B.: John Zimmerman directs the History of Education program at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education. His new book is Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory. You can listen to an extended version of our conversation at

Speaker 6: (singing)

Brian B.: Well guys, you noticed I took advantage of being alone with our guest to conflate all kinds of things, and I was just anticipating you now pulling them apart. Maybe we want to start with you, Ed, and just what do you think about what John said, and does it have any application to all of those schools that you’ve studied in the South?

Ed A.: No, it takes a lot of the fun out of it, Brian, when you just roll over on your back like that. But actually, it was a great interview. I think in many ways it captures what the experience of the 20th Century South was like. The South as we know is a little bit behind the times when it comes to education. It just simply wasn’t the same kind of value placed on it. All the way from the 18th Century on, the elite was actually pretty well educated, and they went to a lot of trouble to create academies, and colleges, and boarding schools, and tutors, and all those kinds of things. But if you go back to the 19th Century South, there were no mechanisms for middle- and lower-class people to gain an education. And if you were African American, of course, it was illegal to learn how to read. So not only were there not schools, but there were laws that prohibited you from gaining literacy. So the idea coming along of a school for everybody was a late innovation and progress.

Brian B.: So guys, this might be naïve, but at least one good thing about this notion of a common schoolhouse is that it does strike me as a place where at least everybody could come together.

Peter O.: Well they come together, Brian, but not necessarily on everybody’s terms. If you think about early public education in New England, and Massachusetts particularly, where the King James Bible is a text, in effect. It’s a Protestant education. And that was one of the reasons why many Catholics, one of the many reasons why they wanted their own schools.

Ed A.: Yeah, and no sooner do you start having public schools in New England than Catholic schools start growing up. And you have some of the biggest debates and riots around parochial schools in the North in the 1840s and 1850s. Because people say, “I don’t want the state educating my children into Protestantism, and I don’t want them to be using books and bibles that are prejudiced against my religion.” And the people who … On the other side, “Well, we don’t want the Catholics gathering together outside of the common vocabulary and teaching about popery,” or whatever.

Brian B.: Hey guys, I never said they sang Kumbaya together. I just said they came together to hash out some of these fundamental issues that are at the heart of our Democratic republic.

Peter O.: Well, but Brian, these are not level playing fields. We have a notion of state neutrality, which I think we, to an extraordinary extent, live by in modern-day America. But it’s been a touch slog, and you can’t take it for granted. And even today you have to wonder, what are the implicit messages? This is what’s being asked when people challenge the nature of education, and the role of religion in education. What’s being taught in schools?

Brian B.: Yeah, well I think it’s time for some explicit messages, which is why we’re going to turn to our listeners.

Brian: As we do every episode of Back Story, we’ve been fielding your comments on today’s topic on our website, We’ve gotten a lot of great comments there and our producers have invited a few of you to join us on the phone today.

Speaker 2: We’ve got Kathleen on the line from New York City. Kathleen, welcome to Back Story.

Kathleen: Hi. I’ve got a question for you guys.

Speaker 2: Let’s hear it, Kathleen.

Kathleen: These days I hear a lot of complaints from my daughter about school. It’s too long, there’s too much homework, and I was [inaudible 00:00:38] what did children in the 19th century think about school? The reason I ask is that both my grandmothers, who were born in the 1880’s, they loved school. They thought it was like, “Oh, it’s so great, you know. I can get away from doing chores.’

Speaker 2: Yeah. Yeah.

Kathleen: So what is the evidence? What kind of sources have you got, and what did the kids of the 19th century say?

Speaker 4: What’s interesting is how much this changed over the 19th century. At the beginning of the 19th century, they wouldn’t think about school all that much because they didn’t really go all that much. I think you would’ve seen that kids would not have complained about how long school went, but rather would have been struck by how sporadic it was and how short the day was and how little attention each individual student received, because they were all together in one big class.

Brian: Yeah. And I just want to say the 18th and 19th century, guys, that kids didn’t really start going to school until the 20th century.

Speaker 4: That’s right.

Brian: Even as late as 1900, half the kids in the United States didn’t go to school. And the average number of years that people went to school was about five years.

Speaker 2: Okay. So Brian, when would you say school began to present something like a total environment for children, and they’d expect to go through it and they would see it as a fact of life, one that they didn’t necessarily like very much?

Brian: If you’re talking about northern, urban schools, I would say by the 1920s school is kind of a regular experience for most kids. Now, we’re not talking about high school, but we are talking about regular schooling at least through what we would call middle school-age years. And one of the reasons for that was compulsory education laws. And more and more States started imposing them, beginning in the progressive era, but you know when they really took effect was during the Great Depression. And why do you think that was, Kathleen?

Kathleen: Keeping teachers employed.

Brian: Keeping teachers employed, but also keeping kids out of the workforce, right? With so few jobs to go around, all kinds of measures were taken in order to preserve those jobs for adults. But that’s really, I would say, somewhere between the 20s and the 30s. That’s when kids started complaining about school the most because they were in school the most.

Speaker 4: I will say having read quite a few letters and diaries and stuff in the 19th century, you don’t have to go very far to find people complaining about, “Oh my God, I’m going to shoot myself if I have to sit here and read this Latin, you know, one more night. So I think, you know, the point that I would make is it depends on everything else in which the education is embedded. If the contrast is, you know, shoveling out barns, school looks pretty good.

Speaker 4: So as we’ve ratcheted up the expectations of schooling, we’ve ratcheted down the expectations of everything else. And so kid’s entire, you know, experience of being young is now channeled and focused on school. And so we invest it with a lot more significance than it used to have, including a lot more complaint about boredom and so forth.

Brian: Do you agree Kathleen are you actually interested in this?

Kathleen: I am very interested in it. I went to a New England school that had six grades in four rooms.

Brian: Wow.

Speaker 2: Wow.

Kathleen: You know, [inaudible 00:04:06].

Brian: How did that work? Could you tell us more specifically how that worked?

Kathleen: Well, the teacher didn’t pay attention to you all the time because sometimes she was working with the other kids. So, basically you could spend your whole life, you know, either daydreaming or reading, as in my case, and they wouldn’t necessarily know what was going on.

Brian: So, Kathleen, you’re saying you learned more because the teacher didn’t pay attention to you and you actually could read?

Kathleen: Yes, yes.

Speaker 2: Here’s a radical reform proposal.

Brian: I like that. I like that very much.

Speaker 2: Hey, Kathleen. Thanks for that great call.

Kathleen: Thank you.

Brian: Thanks, Kathleen.

Kathleen: That’s really faacinating.

Speaker 4: Thanks so much. Bye bye.

Kathleen: Bye.

Brian: Well it’s time for another short break. Remember, we want to hear your stories about your own education. Did school facilitate your education or did it just get in the way?

Speaker 4: Leave your comments and questions that or just give us a call. Our phone number is (888) 257-8851.

Brian: We’ll be back in a minute.

Peter Onuf: This is BackStory, the show that turns to history to understand the world around us today. I’m your 18th century host, Peter Onuf.

Ed Ayers: I’m your 19th century host, Ed Ayers.

Brian Balogh: And I’m your 20th century host, Brian Balogh. Today on the show, we’re looking at the story of public education in America and asking whether people have always worried about schools as much as they seem to worry today.

Peter Onuf: We’re going to take another call now. This one is from John in Moneta, Virginia. John, welcome to BackStory.

John: Hi, guys. How you all doing?

Peter Onuf: Well, we’re doing great.

John: Well, my question is, when I think about the old one room school house with a schoolmarm who was paid by the parents of the students… When, and why, and how did we move from that consumer-based model to our current, more socialized model? Now we’re funding this big giant school system, as opposed to saying, okay, we’re watching the children go up to the one room school house, making sure they come out smarter, and then paying for that.

Peter Onuf: Yeah. I think what you’re getting at John is the levels between us and the education that our kids or other people’s kids… it’s so distant. We don’t really feel that we have much control over it, though you have to say that the survival of PTAs and school boards that are responsive to local citizens, they keep alive that historic memory of having control over our children’s education and over the way we govern ourselves.

Brian Balogh: As has homeschooling, which has become-

Peter Onuf: Yeah, good point, good point.

Brian Balogh: … quite popular recently. But I want to address the elephant in the room, the B-word, because I think it goes to the heart of John’s question, and that’s bureaucracy. And I think what John… you tell me John, but what you’re really talking about is getting away from direct parent control and handing over control of education to, in essence, all of these middle men. And the funny thing is that all these superintendents, et cetera, and stuff, were men, and all the lower paid teachers were women, as this transition took place in the late 19th and early 20th century. Am I on the right track there, John? Is this what’s really got you troubled, the intervention of all these education bureaucrats, all these people who know better than parents what’s good for your kids?

John: Right. It was, when did the states decide the localities weren’t very good at it and needed to get involved, and then when did the federal government decide the states weren’t very good at it and they needed to get involved? And it’s done exactly as you said. It’s created this huge bureaucracy. The amount of money we spend educating our children in the public sector is much more than private schools spend to educate a child, and it’s not because the teachers are so overpaid or because they have really fantastic books. It’s because we have these bureaucracies. We have all these upper level administrative people that we’re paying and it’s consuming a lot of the funds that should be either going to education or not be collected in the first place.

Ed Ayers: Thank goodness you didn’t ask that question, John, because it would have required actual historical knowledge to answer it. But I’ll take a crack at it anyway. Basically, the states got involved in the late 19th century and early 20th century, and by the 1920s and 1930s, it was the states that started saying, hey, it’s not cost efficient to have all of these little one room schools all over the place. We’re going to build consolidated schools. And of course at the same time, states were building roads, so it was easier to get to these schools. It was easier to run school buses by the ’30s and the ’40s.

Ed Ayers: When did the federal government get involved? Well, you’d have to point to the very important Education Act in 1965 passed by Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, and you know, that was aimed at poor kids. And where were most of the poor kids? They were in the South.

Ed Ayers: And a very funny thing happened on the way to the schoolhouse. States that were determined not to integrate, southern states, started accepting this federal money. And along with money comes control. And the federal government said, hey, we’re not going to fund segregated schools and if you don’t integrate… This is separate from Brown v. Board of Education, separate from the courts. The federal government said, if you don’t integrate, we’re going to cut off all that money. And you know what? Those states said, God, we’re getting so much federal money we can’t even think of not accepting it. We better move towards integration.

Ed Ayers: The last thing I’ll say, John, in answer to your question is, none of us like bureaucrats. Bureaucrat itself is kind of a pejorative term. And of course you can find examples of excess. But I think that overall, these bureaucrats have really been pretty impressive at raising the standards of American education, at the same time that they have helped bring in virtually all kids to the education system. It is not easy to educate everybody and educate them well. Anyway, that’s… I’ll get off my soapbox now.

Peter Onuf: It’s never too late in America, and that distinguishes the American educational system from every other educational system in the world. And it’s never too late to learn something about history if you keep tuned to BackStory. That’s what we’re here for. This is kind of a remedial education for grownups.

John: I truly appreciate the education that you have just given me, which is that you-

Ed Ayers: Are you calling me a bureaucrat?

John: No, teacher.

Peter Onuf: Thanks so much for calling, John.

John: Yeah, take care.

Brian Balogh: Bye bye.

Ed Ayers: So, Brian, you mentioned that school funding from the federal government help lead to desegregation in the late sixties. I think it’s important to remember though that the big case that led to desegregation, Brown vs Board of Education, occurred back in 1954, so there’s a whole missing decade in between. Now, what happened was this. Southern politicians, led by Virginia Senator Harry Byrd, basically said, “We don’t care what you say, we’re not going to integrate.” It was a movement that came to be known as Massive Resistance. In 1958, the governor actually closed down the white schools and three Virginia cities so they wouldn’t have to integrate them.

Brian Balogh: Yeah, and one of those cities was around Charlottesville.

Ed Ayers: Yeah, and one of the students who graduated from Charlottesville as a black high school that year was a young woman named Alicia Lugo. We’re going to hear her story in just a minute, but first let me give you just a little bit of background on her.

Ed Ayers: Alicia Lugo went to college, got her teaching degree, and came back to Charlottesville. She was assigned to teach in the same school where she had been a student. Now, this is 1965, and even though segregation had officially been outlawed, the student body at that school was still all black.

Ed Ayers: Two years later, the city closed that school and moved her over to another school that had been integrated after all those years, Walker School. And years later, she went on to chair the city school board for more than a decade.

Ed Ayers: Ms. Lugo died last year, but in 2010 I had the chance to talk with her about her experiences in the Charlottesville city schools.

Alicia Lugo: I was born in Charlottesville. All my public school education was here in Charlottesville, first at all black Jefferson Elementary School, and then all black Burley High School, which was an excellent school. I think that people have some erroneous feeling that because we had fewer supplies, and less resources, and our teachers were fighting over one film projector and that sort of thing, that we were somehow receiving an inferior education. I find that laughable from the standpoint of 50, 60 years later.

Ed Ayers: Do people not resent though the fact that they might have multiple film projectors and better supplies and things at Lane?

Alicia Lugo: Well, projectors and supplies don’t make the excellent educational experience. You have to make the child want to learn, and that’s what we came up under. To my way of thinking, having been a student at all black Burley, feeling safe, knowing that there was a definite connection between my home and my teachers. My parents were intricately involved. In fact, many more black parents than now were supportive of both our teachers and our schools, and Burley students excelled everywhere.

Ed Ayers: Why do you think that so many people then would work through the courts and sacrifice so much in order to bring about integration of the schools?

Alicia Lugo: Because they recognize that there is no such thing as separate but equal, that for many minority children, the segregated school system was a farce. When children had to walk two miles past an available school to go to school, those things were jokes, but even though the separate but equal schools were crushed by the courts, if you walk down the halls of the average school today, you’ll see situations where classes are either all black, Hispanic and poor white, and other classes that are all white with perhaps a token black person or Asian person in there.

Ed Ayers: So why do you think that integration did not turn out the way that people dreamed of?

Alicia Lugo: Because I think that there were those people who had no intention of letting it turn out that way. The only way systems change is that you treat them like a rubber band. As long as you keep the tension on the rubber band, you can change its shape. But once you let go that tension, once you let go that scrutiny, it drops right back into its original form.

Ed Ayers: That’s a great metaphor. May I steal that? I like that.

Alicia Lugo: Sure, you can.

Ed Ayers: So it’s your sense that the tension left the schools when there was not really a direct connection between the teachers in their community and the students in their community? Is that what happened?

Alicia Lugo: Exactly. And the scrutiny was gone because who can complain? Now we have the desegregated schools, so you got what you asked for, but we’ve got in Charlottesville a majority African American school board. We have an African American female superintendent, an African American assistant superintendent, female, and we have a 13% drop out rate. What’s wrong with that picture?

Ed Ayers: And what do you think is wrong with that? What’s driving that?

Alicia Lugo: Well, I guess to my way of thinking, when school is not interesting, when you don’t see any relationship between school and your future, when you feel you’re in a hostile environment, when you feel that you’re not safe in that environment, when you feel that people don’t have the level of expectations for your performance that they do for other students’ performances, school doesn’t seem to make much sense, does it?

Ed Ayers: Well, if we can go back to your story a little bit, it makes me wonder when I think about what great changes that you saw, and experienced, and help lead, did we lose a generation, or did we lose some continuity or some tradition of our teachers, that people said, “Look, this is just so ridiculous. If the state’s can be playing games, like with Massive Resistance, and they’re not going to be really giving every kid a chance, instead doing this tracking and so forth,” do people just become disgusted and said “Look, I’ll just put my energies in something else?”

Alicia Lugo: Which is exactly what I did. I stayed at Walker one year, and I realized that the numbers of minority children dropping out of school, getting pushed out of school. Somebody needed to be out there to help reclaim them. And so for the next 35 years, I worked in nonprofits that worked with kids, trying to help them get themselves on track.

Ed Ayers: I’m really grateful for your time today, and your insight, and a couple of metaphors I’m going to steal, but also very grateful for keeping the faith over all these years, and doing the very best that you can with whatever history’s handed you. So thank you so very much for joining us today. I really appreciate it.

Alicia Lugo: I enjoyed it a lot. Thank you.

Ed Ayers: That was Alicia Lugo, former teacher and a school board chair right here in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Brian Balogh: You know, there’s a deep irony in that interview that Ed teased out, which is that at the very moment when real opportunities were opening up for African Americans in society, Ms. Lugo seems to suggest that teachers were giving up on students and students were giving up on school.

Peter Onuf: Yeah. I think that was what was so upsetting to me about this interview, that sense that you won the big struggle you thought over integration, but there’s a bigger struggle over what we now call racism.

Ed Ayers: Yeah. And that’s the fundamental tension or tragedy in the heart of all this. On one hand, you can’t just say we’re going to have separate but equal, because obviously they show the separate but equal doesn’t work. On the other hand, when you do that, you insert several layers of necessary bureaucracy between parents and students in the schools, and I’m not exactly sure at … Well, we do know what happens is that some people spend the money to create schools over which they have control, which are little private schools, which are dedicated to young women or dedicated to people of different religious backgrounds.

Ed Ayers: And so I don’t know if that’s segregation. Matter of fact, it’s not. It’s a trivialization of that word to talk about people looking for various kinds of affinities. But I think that what Ms. Lugo would say is that real integration was never given a chance, and that economic inequalities were inserted in place of racial inequalities. And as a result, we have a sham.

Peter Onuf: Yeah, I think the point is that community, which we get nostalgic about, is a double edged sword that is on the one hand, of course, in many ways that’s what we strive for, a sense of identification with each other of nurture and care. Yet communities are also inevitably throughout history exclusive, and they wanted to define themselves according to their own image, or that is a according to the group that dominates within that community. So it’s a highly volatile situation.

Peter Onuf: And I think maybe the only upbeat message of all this is there have been such massive dislocations that maybe a new sense of community will emerge out of all this, which will at least move forward in terms of our expectations of our students. Who’s going to succeed? And there’s some reason to hope that we can overcome that self perpetuating a notion of discrimination, and superiority, and racism.

Brian Balogh: Well, and I don’t think we should underestimate the importance of daily contact and interaction within the schools. Yes, there may be tracking within certain classes, but I don’t think we should underestimate the interaction between racial groups starting in kindergarten, even if those relations are not smooth or out of Disneyland at all times.

Peter Onuf: Well, Brian, I think what we’ve got here is an example of schools which we expect to take the lead in social change. But in many ways, social change is going to register last in schools. It’s a real paradox.

Ed Ayers: Those are all really good points. I guess looking at it from the viewpoint of history, which maybe that’d be a great idea for a radio show.

Peter Onuf: Yeah, let’s do it.

Ed Ayers: I’m struck that we’ve had 300 years, almost 400 years of slavery and injustice, and I wouldn’t want us to despair too soon when we’re only 25 years into a new, more expansive, inclusive order. There’s no doubt that what Ms. Lugo said is true, but if we lose faith that we can make that change, we’ve lost faith in America.

Brian Balogh: Ed, I think that’s a good way to sum up, and it’s a good thing, too, because that’s all the time we have for today. But remember, we want to keep the conversation going. Visit us online and tell us what you think about the past, present, and future of public education in America.

Peter Onuf: You can find us at Don’t be a stranger.

Ed Ayers: Today’s episode of Backstory was produced by Tony Field, Rachel Quimby, and Katherine Moore. We had help from Bart Elmore, Lydia Wilson, and David Berringer.

Peter Onuf: Our production staff also includes Jess [Engebredesen 00:12:19], Eric [Mettle 00:00:12:20], Ellison [Quance 00:00:12:21], and Neil [Beschenstein 00:12:22]. Jamal Millner is our technical director. Backstory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

Ed Ayers: Major support for backstory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel. History made every day.

Speaker 5: Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. Backstory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

Eric Mettle: Hey guys, Eric Mettle here, one of the associate producers for Backstory, and I’m coming to you because we need a little bit of help. We’re working on an episode about emancipation, a full hour about what emancipation meant in the 1860s, and what it means today. And as part of that hour, we’ve been looking around and we’ve been wondering why aren’t there any memorials to emancipation? Nothing modern at least. There was one memorial built in 1876, but if you Google it, you’ll see that it’s outdated in a lot of ways and very controversial.

Eric Mettle: And so we’ve been thinking, what would a modern memorial to emancipation look like? If we could design our own memorial to one of the greatest moments in American history, what would that memorial look like? And we thought maybe you, the listeners, would like to help us out. So if you can just shoot an email to or you go to our website,, you’ll see there’s a page for our show on emancipation. On that page, leave a comment. Let us know “This is my design for the emancipation memorial.”

Eric Mettle: Now, this is a delicate task, and it’s something that I think a lot of people would like to have input on. So help us out. Thanks.