Friday, October 6, 2017

Johann N. Neem's "Democracy's Schools"

Johann N. Neem is a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and a professor of history at Western Washington University. He is the author of Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts.

Neem applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Democracy's Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America, and reported the following:
Page 99 opens with Hiram Orcutt’s memories of his student days in a New England district school under “incompetent” and “cheap teachers.” Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was a bit more generous. Although teachers relied on “birchen arguments” (the stick), Whittier acknowledged that they at least helped children learn “the mysteries / of those weary A B Cs.”

Antebellum education reformers wanted to transform teaching. They sought teachers who appealed to students’ innate curiosity rather than relying on the external force of “birchen arguments.” Advocates of a more democratic pedagogy, reformers believed that students should learn to think for themselves, not just obey fearful teachers. Page 99 thus opens with critical depictions of antebellum teachers. I appreciate reformers’ hope that great teachers would make classrooms places where children felt alive.
Yet I did not want to limit myself to elite reformers’ perspectives. My goal was also to understand the experience of teachers and students on their own terms. I read teachers’ and students’ diaries, and empathized with their struggles. One schoolmaster was overwhelmed by his one-room classroom. He could not get the kids to cooperate. By late January, he “almost gave up to sobs and tears.” One morning, after starting the fire, he looked around at his charges, walked out, picked up his paycheck, and left. He cared but he just couldn’t do it anymore. As a teacher, I get it.

And students too struggled. While I admit to being inspired by reformers’ dreams, students spent long days in school when they wanted to be elsewhere. Despite education reformers’ hopes, students in their diaries rarely described their time in school as exciting and intellectually stimulating. Instead, they did what their parents and teachers asked, but looked forward to recess and snowball fights. I sympathized with them too.

Ultimately, I wanted to depict how complicated a space classrooms were/are. They are filled with real people with their own dispositions and aspirations. Since the 1960s, some scholars on the left and right have portrayed schools as if they were total institutions capable of “social control.” While schools mattered greatly, teachers struggled to keep their students’ attention, and students struggled to pay attention. Parents, policy makers, and educators sent teachers and students mixed messages. Far from total institutions, public schools competed with all the world’s distractions while trying to cultivate a fragile space where students might learn and grow.
Learn more about Democracy's Schools at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue