As students and teachers across the country settle in to the familiar routines of another school year, we as educators would do well to reflect not only on where our education system comes from, but also on where it is headed in the coming years.My colleague at NYU Steinhardt, Jon Zimmerman, professor of educational history, has just published an insightful new history an icon of American schooling for over a hundred years. His book, Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory, brings his own experience in the classroom to bear on his inquiry into our nostalgia for this bygone institution, and the ways our attitudes toward “the little red schoolhouse” have changed with the times.The idealized version we carry of the one-room schoolhouse — with its tidy red clapboard exterior and white trim, complete with a bell tower up top and warm, inviting hearth inside — is miles away from the often unpainted, cold, and windowless structures that still dot the American landscape (more than a quarter million, according to Zimmerman).As variegated as the history of the one-room schoolhouse is, one thing that has remained the same is our tendency to re-imagine it in ways that serve our own purposes. For liberals, the schoolhouse was a place of communalism and cooperative teaching and learning; for conservatives, the schoolhouse was a place of quiet obedience, where values such as patriotism and industry were inculcated in the young students. Zimmerman writes:
“Whatever their political or pedagogical bent, Americans have imagined a little red schoolhouse to suit it. Unavoidably, then, they have exaggerated certain dimensions of the one-room school and downplayed others. That does not make them manipulative, cynical, or evil. It simply makes them human. We all tailor the past to serve the present, all the time. But Americans are probably more likely to do it when they encounter an icon like the little red schoolhouse, which is so shared and loved. Just as they have altered the memory of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln in light of latter-day events, so have they distorted the one-room school.”
Despite the many differences in schooling that separates our own time from that of one hundred years ago, the little red schoolhouse remains a powerful symbol and, as Zimmerman notes, “it connects us to a shared past.”
It is worth reflecting on this past as we confront the challenges of 21st-century education. The schoolroom of today looks nothing like the schoolrooms of the 1800s — or even of the 1900s. American schools are more diverse today than at any point in history. English language learners are now the fastest growing student population. Further, in NYC, almost half of all students come from immigrant-headed homes, representing 190 different countries.The task for educators and citizens now is to translate the values of the “little red schoolhouse,” (community, cooperation, patriotism and industry) to fit the needs of a globalized culture, with its demands for interdisciplinary thinking, critical problem solving skills, and the cultural knowledge and skills to work with all individuals in our diverse society.