My Granddaddy Attended A Failing School*
Being a history teacher means any time I have the pleasure of finding artifacts I want to learn as much as I can from them. Sometimes the lessons I receive don't have the outcome I wanted, but still give me profound insight into how much American society and our values in our institutions have changed.
My Grandfather attended Henry Ford Trade School and worked on the school newspaper from 1938 until his graduation in 1940. Imagine my joy at discovering among his personal items my Grandmother kept after he passed away were two bound volumes of The Craftsman, his high school newspaper. Reading about high school life attending a trade school provided a fascinating window into public education and what industrialists like Henry Ford believed was necessary to educate teen age boys and prepare them for life in the world of assembly line manufacturing. What did they learn? The three main learning principles of the trade school were:
· A boy must be kept a boy, and not changed into a premature working man (( Take that, Newt!)).
· The hand as well as the head should be trained.
· The only way to really learn is by doing ((Today we call that 'hands-on' education, and wish we could do more of it in our classrooms.)).
True to the mission statement of the school, boys spent class time training on machinery they would use on the job after graduation, and time in classroom studying subjects needed to earn a high school diploma. A video of boys learning how to use the metal lathe in 1938 shows the 'hands on' curriculum of the school.
As for The Craftsman, the student paper reported on student life, conferences and trips the boys attended, speakers and VIP's who visited the school, new machinery the school purchased to add to the trade side of the curriculum, holiday programs, contests and social events the school had for students. I especially enjoy the articles that featured student interviews and polls.
Like the poll on the front page of the May 5, 1939 issue of The Craftsman. Being spring and the end of the school year, naturally the paper's main focus reflects the focus of the students – the end of the school year and graduation. The front page contains the headline of the guest keynote speaker for the graduation ceremony, along with the announcement of a foot bath being installed to help fight athlete's foot. As interesting and humorous as those articles were, neither caught my interest as much as the two paragraph article at the bottom left of the page:
That can't be right! Only seventy four percent of twelve hundred students wanted to graduate from high school? And to astonish and shock the twenty first century reader even more, only forty two percent of that group planned to go to college!
Where is the outrage and admonishment of the obviously incompetent faculty? Why aren't politicians thumping their chests and screaming for school reform in 1939? Where are the state standardized content knowledge tests and AYP and the press waiting with baited breath to print the test results and shame this horrible failure of a school? Didn't anyone care?
I understand that in 1939 things were different then. There were plenty of jobs available for high school graduates with no skills. Fewer professions required college degrees, and most of all, our public schools weren't strapped with state standardized tests and their funding hinging on the aggregate score. Teachers weren't expected to prepare everyone for college, like we are today. This of course according to politicians and conservative think tanks is a heinous crime. All students should plan to go to college and get strapped with staggering debt made possible by lending institutions happily waiting to offer high school graduates student loans. That's the proper way to educate our kids today, right?
And it's not as if high school graduates in 1939 weren't facing challenging times ahead. By May of that year Hitler had already begun planning the invasion of Poland, Lockheed refused to sell Japan any more planes, and the Child Refugee Act, which would have allowed Jewish Children to escape Europe and live in the United States was facing a slow, agonizing death in the U.S. Congress.
*Only by 21st century standards!