Jonathan Zimmerman: Little Red Schoolhouse: gone, but unforgettable





[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," which was published last month by Yale University.]

The Little Red Schoolhouse is dead. Long live the Little Red Schoolhouse.

Seven years ago, the U.S. Department of Education unveiled eight new entrances to its headquarters in Washington, D.C. Each was shaped like a little red schoolhouse - with a slanted roof and a bell tower - and emblazoned with the name of the department's signature education law: "No Child Left Behind."

In June, the Obama administration ripped down the schoolhouses and replaced them with photos of young people in a variety of settings: reading, attending class, playing sports. In a note to his staff, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the photos should "serve as a daily reminder that our mission is about helping kids."

They're also part of an effort to re-brand No Child Left Behind, as students return to school this fall. Obama has pledged to defend the law's testing and accountability measures but also to give states more flexibility in meeting them. The first step is changing the law's name, which Duncan has called "toxic."

No matter what we call the federal measure, however, it still will need an icon. And it will be hard to find a better one than the Little Red Schoolhouse, which has endured as America's dominant educational symbol for more than 150 years.

That's because it embodies community, the distinct geographic spaces and face-to-face relationships that bring us together. Schools are not only about "helping kids," as Duncan wrote, or about providing the best education at the lowest cost. They also help define who we are, as residents and citizens of a particular locale.

As late as 1913, on the eve of World War I, fully half of America's students attended a one-room school. Despite the romantic image of the Little Red Schoolhouse, these buildings were often little more than barren shacks. Most of the schools weren't even red, because parsimonious school boards refused to spend money to paint them.

But the schools belonged to the community, and that was the whole point. Often the only public building within miles, the one-room school hosted marriages, funerals, political rallies and spelling bees. It also featured plays and pageants, which provided the sole entertainment in many parts of the country.

The one-room schoolhouse would=2 0die a slow death in the 20th century, as more and more Americans left the countryside. But it lived on in our memory, thanks to the simultaneous growth of the commercial entertainment industries. Consider the 1907 song "School Days" by vaudevillian Gus Edwards:

School days, school days,
Dear old golden rule days
Readin' and 'ritin' and 'rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hickory stick
You were my queen in calico
I was your bashful, barefoot beau
And you wrote on my slate, "I love you, Joe"
When we were a couple of kids.


Four decades later, the New York Times would rank "School Days" as one of the 10 most popular tunes of the 20th century. A German immigrant to Brooklyn, Edwards had probably never set foot in an American one-room school. But his song preserved it, at least in our minds.

So did the enormously popular Little House in the=2 0Big Woods children's book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, who had actually attended and taught in a one-room school in the 1870s and 1880s. Wilder did not start to write until the 1930s, when her first effort - an autobiography - failed to find a publisher. So Wilder turned to historical fiction, much of it set in a one-room school. Depression-era readers thrilled as the young protagonist Laura was whipped by her teacher, recited "the whole of American history" at a school performance, and eventually became a "schoolmarm" herself.

The Wilder series would enjoy another burst of popularity in the 1960s and 1970s when a successful television adaptation ("Little House on the Prairie") brought renewed attention to the one-room schoolhouse. In the 1980s and 1990s, hundreds of former one-room schools were converted into "living history" museums. Visiting schoolchildren competed in spelling bees under the watchful eye of a hoop-skirted schoolmarm, whose paddle or hickory stick conjured up the rigid discipline of yesteryear.

Most recently, the Internet has fueled a brisk trade in original schoolhouse furniture and other antiques, especially hand bells. At a 1992 reunion at a one-room school in Michigan, one former teacher used her own bell to call alumni to dinner. It mattered little that the teacher had actually purchased the bell after her school installed an electric buzzer. Like "School Days," a song that few students ever sang, the bell rang out in our collective imagination, for the schoolhouse we want to remember.

The Obama administration would do well to remember it, too. Fearing the negative connotations of No Child Left Behind, the Department of Education has started to call the law by its original name, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. But the president who won that measure, Lyndon B. Johnson, chose a very old-fashioned setting for signing it: the one-room school he had attended in Gillespie County, Texas.

Long since converted to a private home, Johnson's one-room school was a "corny" setting for the signing of a "great education bill," his wife, Lady Bird, admitted. But it worked, like no other image can. Anyone who wants to reform our current federal education law probably will have to start from there.



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