Little Red School House: Lessons
Posted February 3rd, 2013 in Blog by Rick Hill

little_red_schoolhouseIn the book Small Wonder, author Jonathan Zimmerman, covers the history of the one room school house and describes how the Little Red School House became an American icon. In his book he poses the question which asks if the school house is a relic or an enduring and relevant image of American Culture.
Mr. Zimmerman notes that the one-room schools were “a central venue for community life in rural America.” He also described the rift that emerged between urban elites seeking greater control over the national educational system and rural values that emphasized liberty and democratic self-control. The debate was obviously won by the centralists and resulted in the closure of almost all of the small schools in favor of the predominantly larger, standard tested, and efficient warehouse-like schools by the mid1950s.
Over time the one room school house became a symbol of rural individualism and home front democracy and the larger schools became the symbol of a centralized, spotless, and well planned educational system. Often the debate became more about hickory stick justice, monkey trials and school prayer but eventually it was framed primarily as an efficient consolidation of schools to provide a better education. Yet, the leading proponents were often the highway and automobile lobbies that sought reasons to expand highways and the new consolidated primary and high schools presented a compelling reason for by-passes and new four lane additions. In the end the classic themes of liberty and self-rule lost out to a bigger and more enlightened educational system.
While Mr. Zimmerman chronicled many of the strengths of the small school that included individualized study programs, self-guided study working at one’s own pace and group learning; it eventually was challenged because it represented local and community control which often taught values that were very different from those in larger urban areas.
In the end of the book, Mr. Zimmerman’s Small Wonder, raises a question: Did the benefit of the technologically advanced educational facility off-set the lost soul of the communities? In a Wall Street Journal review of the book by Bill Kauffman he poses the question. “I wonder if Americans will ever tire of chasing after the gods of Progress and Bigness and rediscover the little things, red school houses among them, which once gave us our soul”. I too wonder if other icons of a lost era will be rediscovered, valued and re-invented for the sake of real communities.


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