Bill Kauffman: The 'little red schoolhouse' of legend, whatever its flaws, made more sense than the warehouse-schools of today





[Mr. Kauffman's most recent books are "Ain't My America" (Holt) and "Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin" (ISI). ]

Tacked to my wall is a lithograph of the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. For many years, it graced my mother's one-room schoolhouse in Lime Rock, N.Y. Antiquarian relic or enduringly relevant image? The same question may be asked of the "little red schoolhouse" itself, whose reality and legend are the subject of "Small Wonder." Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at New York University, sets out to tell "how -- and why -- the little red schoolhouse became an American icon." Mr. Zimmerman proves a thoughtful and entertaining teacher.

First, the chromatic debunking: One-room schools were often white and seldom red. The teachers were usually young unmarried females, pace the most famous one-room schoolteacher in literature, Ichabod Crane. They swept the floor, stoked the stove, rang the hand-bell and taught their mixed-age students by rote and recitation. The schools could be a "cauldron of chaos," in Mr. Zimmerman's alliteration, as tyro teachers were tormented by Tom Sawyers dipping pigtails in inkwells and carving doggerel into desks.

Yet these one-room schools, Mr. Zimmerman notes, were "a central venue for community life in rural America." They hosted plays and dances and box socials and spelling bees and Christmas pageants.

In 1913, Mr. Zimmerman says, "one-half of the nation's schoolchildren attended one of its 212,000 single-teacher schools." By 1960, progressive educationists, growing cities and the centralizing pressures of two world wars and a Cold War had reduced the total to just 1%.

The attempt to abolish one-room schoolhouses, whether by the carrot of state aid or the stick of government fiat, set off one of the great unknown political wars of U.S. history, pitting farm people who "invoked classic themes of liberty and self-rule" against the "mostly urban elites" who "would wage zealous battle against the rural one-room school." Typically, two Delaware schoolconsolidators informed the hicks that "modern education . . . is less romantic and more businesslike, more formal, more exact, more specialized, done according to tested methods and a standard schedule." Such grim exactitude sounded like prison to parents used to the comparatively anarchic and localized governance of rural schools....

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