- Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory by Jonathan Zimmerman
In today’s environment of Google searches, “smart” classrooms, and instruction via digital avatars, few educational institutions seem more remote than the one room school of nineteenth century rural America. But as Jonathan Zimmerman makes clear, the disappearance of ungraded, single teacher schools in the decades surrounding World War II did nothing to diminish the power of the “little red schoolhouse” as a cultural symbol. If anything, the onward march of urban and industrial modernity fueled a wave of politically amorphous nostalgia in which the rural neighborhood school functioned as a “free floating signifier” (77), available to partisans of many causes across the nation’s ideological spectrum.
Zimmerman begins his account with a compact survey of the rise and decline of semi-autonomous rural district schools. Beginning as log structures on the frontier and evolving into framed buildings in more settled regions, one room schools were less often red than white or simply unpainted. By 1850 they enrolled 75% of U.S. students, reflecting the rural character of the nation’s population and the lower attendance rates among urban dwellers. Initially financed through a combination of private tuition and public revenue, rural schools took on the religious and cultural characteristics of the surrounding community. Teachers owed primary allegiance to parents and members of local school committees who hired them and paid their salary. School terms conformed to the labor demands of farm life and school buildings often provided a “central venue for community life” (37) by serving as polling places or providing space for town meetings, church services, and various social events. The relationship was a durable one that proved highly resistant to outside intervention.
The “common school” movement of the late antebellum era marked the beginning of a century-long drive for tax supported education organized by grade levels, with standardized textbooks, professionally trained teachers, and centralized bureaucratic administration. Pressures for change gained momentum after 1900 when educational administrators waged a relentless campaign for school consolidation. These efforts, together with falling enrollments brought on by rural out-migration, resulted in a steady decline in the number of one room schools during the next half century. Small schools persisted longest in the racially segregated South where the dilapidated and ill-equipped structures provided stark evidence of the educational neglect experienced by black students. Zimmerman is to be commended for including southern developments in his discussion, although his focus on African American schooling tends to obscure the place of education in a major Progressive era campaign to “uplift” the South’s white masses. By the end of the 1950s the triumph of consolidation was a national fait accompli, as indicated by the fact that only one percent of American students attended schools employing a single teacher. [End Page 217]
The general outline of the history Zimmerman presents will be familiar to all students of American education. He breaks new ground, however, in his extended discussion of the pervasiveness and ambiguity of schoolhouse imagery. The list of causes with which the “little red schoolhouse” has been identified defies easy description. For many in the post-Civil War generation Winslow Homer’s celebrated 1872 painting “Snap the Whip” depicting boys playing a popular schoolyard game, became a sentimental icon of lost innocence in the age of the Robber Barons. At various times the schoolhouse symbol has been invoked by spokesmen for the Country Life Movement of the 1920s, by Henry Ford at what became the “living history” museum of Greenfield Village, by New Deal celebrants of the American folk ethos, by Cold War anticommunist zealots, by advocates of English only instruction, and by present day advocates of school prayer. Allowing for a few notable exceptions, Zimmerman concludes that in pedagogical debates the one teacher schools has “symbolized traditional rather than progressive instruction” (113). In the realm of public opinion it would also appear that the old time school has become the cultural property of the political right, a group aptly symbolized by the Michigan home...