- Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory
Jonathan Zimmerman's book is a concise discussion of the rural one-room schoolhouse as both historical reality and imagined entity. Like other titles in the Icons of America series, which treat such topics as the hamburger and the Liberty Bell, it is a short book at 184 text pages. In keeping with the text's emphasis, the book's thirteen images emphasize representations of schools drawn from posters, prints, board games, and cartoons, rather than actual buildings. They include just four Depression-era Farm Security Administration photographs of schoolhouses.
Zimmerman argues that real, historical, rural one-room schools rarely resembled the often politicized, symbolic icon of the little red schoolhouse. His reminder of the gap between reality and representation simultaneously cautions historians to consider their sources carefully and endorses a historical approach that distinguishes between the two and explains each. In examining representations of the rural one-room school, Zimmerman proposes that Americans have had an ambivalent relationship to progress, both celebrating modern improvements and mourning their casualties. In this account, Americans come across as particularly anxious, whether about contemporary challenges or lost traditions. He presents the little red schoolhouse as an especially potent site for nostalgia, a force that sanitizes memory through both omission and misremembrance. This book convincingly tracks the developments that turned the little red schoolhouse into a powerful icon, but Ialso would have welcomed an expanded discussion of why education is such a contested aspect of American culture and why other potential symbols of education failed to become as visible and debated as the schoolhouse.
Zimmerman structures the book around two sections: "History" (41 pages) and "Memory" (115 pages). This decision allows him to contrast discussion in section one of the historical realities of rural one-room schools with the account in section two of how nostalgia and politics colored Americans' memory of these schools. In the history section, Zimmerman justifies the selection of rural one-room schools as a topic, noting that as late as 1913, "one-half of the nation's schoolchildren attended one of its 212,000 single-teacher schools" (17). He describes the shift from log, sod, and other cheap and available building materials to frame construction, the disadvantages of the commonly used stove heating, the post-Civil War transition from benches to desks, embellishments such as belfries and classroom equipment, and the often poor condition of these schools. While he notes the community-building role such schools played as gathering places, he also discusses the ethnic and racial tensions that challenged and sometimes divided such communities. Indeed, he notes that minorities continued to languish in one-room schools even after other Americans began abandoning such schools starting in the 1920s and accelerating through the 1940s. (The reality of this inequality in the context of mid-century Mississippi is explored by Jennifer Baughn in an article in this volume.—the editors) In describing the recitation-based pedagogy, reliance on corporal punishment, and general lack of resources that had earlier been common in these and other schools, Zimmerman highlights their shortcomings in contrast to their ultimately positive reputation in public memory.
The first chapter on memory tracks the [End Page 120] demise of the rural one-room school beginning in the late 1910s and early 1920s and its replacement by consolidated schools that collected larger student bodies in multiroom regional schools. Following historians such as Wayne E. Fuller, the author argues that consolidation came after improvements in roads and transit, as well as pressure from bus and tire companies. Elsewhere in the book, he also notes the impact of postwar population growth and rural-to-urban migration. This chapter primarily focuses, however, on the impact of "Progressives," who, Zimmerman claims, waged a successful battle to consolidate schools by attacking the shortcomings of rural one-room schools and countering rose-colored popular memories of them. Using a broad sampling of images, films, poetry, and...