At the distinct risk of being labeled as a dinosaur before you even start to read these brief paragraphs let me pose a question. How would you like going to a school where you would be an individual rather than a number; where you could learn and progress at your own pace while receiving personal help from advanced students all around you as well as from a teacher; where you could pick up as much upper grade knowledge as you could absorb, and where you would not be graded on someone’s idea of a “curve”, but with a simple three point scale with the word completed as good as an A? Of course you would be expected to arrive on time, listen for the bell during recess, bring some fuel for the wood /coal stove in winter, keep the snow shoveled, help keep the place clean and orderly, show respect for others, and act as a teacher’s aid in tutoring others who need to lean on your level of accomplishment, and in the process come to understand that you are a valued addition to your family and community.
Chances are that your grandparents and great grandparents - if they lived in rural America before 1940 or even 1950 – went to such a school; one which had just one room and one teacher for all six grades. And if you could ask them I think they would comment favorably, maybe even enthusiastically about that experience. It certainly worked out well for U.S. Presidents Abe Lincoln, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson (known as the education President) and for Robert Menzies who served as Australia’s Prime Minister for 18 years, as well as for John Adams who taught in such a palace of learning. Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of Little House on the Prairie was so influenced by growing up in such a learning atmosphere that the experience stamped her with the inspiration which gave birth to her writing career.
By 1920, the “little red schoolhouse” (most were actually painted white) was an almost ubiquitous feature of America’s rural landscape, with 200,000 of them delivering an elementary school education. In Illinois alone where they numbered more than 10,000, teachers were so badly needed that a worthy applicant could obtain the required two year degree tuition free if they pledged to teach in-state.
A restored schoolhouse from 1854 still serves as a public meeting place in historic Oysterville, Washington.
Al Cooper Photo
Often built by the local citizens themselves, these very practical buildings with two front doors – one for boys and one for girls - opened onto their respective cloak rooms and then one large area, with the raised teacher’s desk in front. While early structures featured benches for the “scholars”, they soon replaced them with individual one-piece desks (with ink wells of course) as soon as they could afford them; smaller ones in front and those for the older students to the rear. A pot-belly wood or coal stove provided heat in cold weather and tall windows were the sole source of illumination. Two separate privies stood somewhere out back, with old catalogs, newspapers, corn cobs or leaves for the convenience of “patrons”. Somewhere near the building would be a hand-pump supplying all the fresh cold water some boy would get to tote.
In front would be a large blackboard, a cabinet for the meager supplies, and probably a globe or world map; after reading, writing and ciphering, there was a heavy emphasis on geography and history (unlike today.) Rhetoric was a natural offshoot of reciting material aloud, inasmuch as memorization was the fundamental teaching and testing method during an age when paper was a luxury.
School began each day with a bible quote and a patriotic song, with a recess in the morning and in the afternoon, and an hour for lunch carried to school in pails or baskets. In cold weather, some mothers sent partly baked potatoes in their kids’ pockets for hand-warming, later to be baked on the school stove for lunch. In good weather, the students were free to wander as long as they could still hear the bell, and their games were simple but imaginative. Depending on farm and crop needs, school would not meet during spring planting and fall harvest times.
When our family moved to the farm in Vermont, my younger brother attended a one-room school house, and now and then I had the privilege as a big wise high school classman of visiting as a teacher’s assistant. And I loved it! In no other teaching environment could I have found such a spirit of comradeship and mutual caring among such a diversity of age and scholarship.
If education is the handmaiden of democracy, I can’t help but believe that those old “one-roomers” had something that our modern-day “warehouse” schools can’t touch. By the way, there are still 300 of them in our country’s “outback” today.