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4 All Are above Average Children at School WHEN I WAS a high school freshman, my parents spent the year in England, and I went to a school that specialized in preparing boys for public school exams. Not, I admit, with its largely upper-middle-class clientele, a typical English school. I was beginning Latin and took along my high school text so I could coordinate with what I expected to have to do the following year, back home. The book was glossy, filled with pictures and stories, in English, on themes like “Mario goes to the Forum.” The British text I was given was a third the size, no pictures, just lists of words and grammar to learn. My English teachers were amazed at the reluctance of my American text to force a reader into substance , at its shiny superficiality. Soon I was using just the British text, which got me ahead far faster, with the result that, when I returned home, I essentially skipped to the fourth- year class, where (being the only student in class) I simply read the Aeneid. Foreign language courses in American schools remain remarkable for their unwillingness to force memorization and immersion and, as a result, for their slowness in providing students with usable language capacity. The comparison is complex: foreign language neither was nor is something Americans take too seriously (even in comparison with the parochial British). General high school populations in the United States should not be compared with elite European students. And I’m not a foreign language education expert, so my sense of American coddling may be off the mark. Still, I believe there is a relevant point. One of the reasons we teach language with lots of sugar coating, and sometimes limited effect, is 81 that we fear overburdening our student charges. Too much memorization or, to update my experience a bit, real immersion might strain their brains. And that, in turn, is what this chapter is partly about. The chapter is not, I hasten to add, about American educational lag, as a consistent topic or definite conclusion. Comparisons here are truly complicated, and we are sometimes provided with apples-andoranges contrasts that are unfair to American systems in juxtaposing our comprehensive high schools with elite secondary schools elsewhere . We also pursue goals, such as individual creativity, that work out quite well and that should be added to any full assessment. But we do have a distinctive educational system, and concerns about its impact on potentially vulnerable students form part of its distinctiveness . The chapter focuses on concerns and commitments in relation to schooling. Other anxieties have attached to schools, including fears of strangers, violence, and drug use, and these should be factored into the parental arsenal, as well. But it is schooling itself, as a learning process, that provides some of the most central and revealing insights. The emphasis is on what parents, along with teachers and other experts, thought about children and education as the transition to a definition of childhood in terms of education was completed in the 20th century. The concentration is on the middle classes, but with recognition that other groups were involved in the process, affected by and often influencing middle-class opinions. The early 20th century brought not only new but also fundamental shocks in parental perceptions of children and schools in the United States. This may not seem surprising. Many readers will legitimately feel that, given the distance of a hundred years, we should expect to see some fundamental problems of adjustment between past and present. Diligent readers of this book thus far, already aware of the 20th century’s concerns about children’s frailty, will be additionally armed. To a historian, who tries to live partly in the past, the anguish provoked by early 20th-century schools, particularly for middle-class parents , was initially an unexpected finding. That immigrant parents felt anxious, encountering formal education for the first time and in a foreign , partly hostile culture, was predictable, and this did form part of the early 20th-century climate. But there was more. 82 ANXIOUS PARENTS Widespread education was not new. American kids, particularly middle-class kids, had been going to school regularly since the 1830s, except in the South. So why the early 20th century as a special point of tension, as if parents were seriously reconsidering what schools were doing to their children? The answer is partly the host of innovations at that time, all in the...


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