An Equal-Time Critique of Education in the Mid-1950’s

by Barry Garelick

Those of you who have read my articles about math education know that I defend conventionally or traditionally taught math.  I have been accused of casting the earlier eras of education as a panacea.  What I actually argue is that while such traditional approaches may have in fact been taught poorly, this does not mean it was not/cannot be taught properly and I advocate for using techniques that worked rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water.  But in the interest of equal time, I thought I would write about aspects of the earlier era of education (namely the mid-1950s) that were not so good.  And rather than write about math, I thought I’d change the pace and write about social studies.

I disliked school my first few years.  School for the most part struck me as boring, and I looked forward to second grade which was markedly different than Kindergarten and first.  Rather than being in the same room all day long, we got to sit at real desks in “homeroom” class (where we learned spelling, arithmetic, reading and writing), and in the other half of the day went to various classes: Science, Art, Music, Library, and Social Studies.

On the first day of second grade, I was to report to the Social Studies class first thing in the morning, and then the rest of the classes would follow.  I made a mistake, however, and reported to the homeroom in the morning.  When I didn’t hear my name called all day, I suspected something was wrong.  Things got straightened out the next day, and I went to Social Studies first thing and everything was fine.

I labor over these details because they figure rather prominently in the story I am about to tell. The homeroom class had a list of school supplies on the blackboard that we were to copy down, and the teacher left it up on the second day, so that I complied.  Social Studies also had such a list, but the teacher left it up for only one day.  When I attended the class in the morning of the next day, there was no such list.  While I had seen this list when I attended the wrong class the day before, I felt that because I was not supposed to be in that class at that time, whatever had been told to the class did not apply to me. Thus, my unassailable second grader’s logic dictated that I did not need a notebook.

This was a very serious mistake.  The notebook was one of three main components of the class.  The second was a textbook called “Someday Soon” by Paul Hanna.  The third was the teacher, Mr. Flashner, a short, rotund man, who had a reputation for having a quick temper and was rumored to have thrown a pencil at a student and put out his eye.  No one I had met ever doubted that such rumor was true, so our behavior in that class was unparalleled.

Students were seated at tables—six for each one. We took turns reading aloud from the book “Someday Soon” which like many social studies texts of that era, focused on the community and how it functioned. The book was typical of how social studies was taught at that time.  In subsequent grades, students would then learn the history of one’s city, state, and would build ever-outward, to ultimately achieve a John Dewey-like vision of the world as one large community.

We read about firemen, policemen, how bread is baked at night, how it’s distributed during the day, the role of various workers in our lives, trains, how roundhouses work, telephone workers, telephone poles and other related topics that caused me to wonder: What on earth was this book getting at?

The book was made even more mysterious by Mr. Flashner’s true-false tests on the material covered in the book.  Each test had 10 questions and we were to mark our entries in our spiral bound notebooks, keeping our work covered at all times.  Seated at his desk, Mr. Flashner would read the statements in an eerily neutral voice so that there was no inkling of which way he sided in the matter.  Some of the statements were obvious but others I found perplexing such as: “The fireman is my friend.”  I wanted desperately for the statement to be true, but having few friends in my life at that point, I most likely marked it “false” since I knew even at that early age that friends were fairly hard to come by.

It occurred to me that none of this mattered because I didn’t have a notebook.  On the other hand, I knew that not having one was horribly wrong—particularly when it came time to grade the tests.  Grading was done by having us exchange notebooks with the person across from us.  He would read the answers and we had explicit instructions to mark correct answers with a blue checkmark, and wrong answers with a red “X”.

The boy across from me would pretend to correct my phantom notebook, though he wasn’t happy about being complicit in a crime that could result in loss of eyesight. Others at the table were not happy about my lack of notebook either and asked why I didn’t have one. I only knew that after that first test I had reached a point of no return and felt there was no way to ask my parents to buy one without them asking “Why did you wait to tell us?”   I had no answer for my table mates.  I told them I couldn’t afford one.  While a dime then is probably worth a dollar today, nobody at my table believed this.  But they never betrayed me, as much as they disliked me for embroiling them in my deceit.

After notebooks were returned to their owners, Mr. Flashner would call our names in alphabetical order and we were to call out the number of questions we got right.  There were eight or nine students called ahead of me.  I knew nothing about averages or central tendency, but instinctively used the mode of the scores called out to guide me in what I would call out.    If there were, for example, a preponderance of “8’s”, I would call out “7”, so as not to raise suspicion over a high score.

This went on for several weeks, as we continued to read about the various aspects of how a community worked together.  One day, however, Mr. Flashner decided to read his statements while standing up, and noticed something odd.

Expecting to hear a neutral statement, I was surprised to hear him say: “Barry, where is your notebook?”

I answered as neutrally as possible.  “I don’t have one,” I said.

“You WHAT?”  I readied myself for the pencil through the eye.

“Come up here. Now.  Quickly! COME UP HERE NOW BEFORE I TUMBLE ALL OVER YOU!”

I was not prepared for this Dickensian side of him, though at the same time, as heavy as he might be I was somewhat relieved that he was thinking in terms of tumbling over me than gouging my eye out.  I stood in front of his desk and he continued the inquisition.

“You have not had a notebook for the entire time in this class?” he asked.

“No.”

“Why not?”

There were two possible answers that came to mind.  I knew that the business about not being able to afford one wouldn’t pass muster. But neither would the “absent the day I was told to bring one” reason.  So I said I didn’t know.

“What were you doing all the time we were taking tests?”

“I pretended to be taking them,” I said.

“And what about the scores?  Where did those come from?”

“I made them up.”

“You made them up!?”  And then he said nothing more for a few seconds.  When he next spoke, his voice shifted into a more matter-of-fact mode.  “Do you have a brother or sister at this school?”

“My brother,” I said. He appeared to be thinking about something.

“You are in serious trouble,” he said.  And that was that.

My brother was in the seventh grade, and was summoned to Mr. Flashner’s classroom after we had been dismissed.  My brother was and still is remarkably expert at recalling his particular experiences in the second grade, and what passes for logical reasoning at that age.  But even he was at odds to answer Mr. Flashner’s questions about my lack of notebook—he didn’t even know about it.

The matter escalated of course, and I was subjected to more questioning at home by my parents.  “Why didn’t you tell us?”  It was impossible to explain my logic, such as it was, and easier to just say “I don’t know” and thank my lucky stars that I still had both my eyes.  Besides, everyone in my family knew I was a good kid and was overwhelmed by events.  Somehow things got worked out in a conference between my parents, the principal, and Mr. Flashner.  He would have me take make-up tests, and I would take them in my new notebook.

Over the next two weeks, a few minutes out of each class period would be spent with me up at Mr. Flashner’s desk while he read the various statements to me quietly and had me mark T or F in my newly acquired spiral notebook.  He didn’t appear to be the ogre I once thought him to be, and he treated me nicely.

In the meantime, my odd behavior at not having a notebook got suspicions up and I was given a hearing test just in case I was deaf.  My parents suspected that it might not be my hearing, but I might be showing the affliction of either the “gifted” or the “retarded” as the two extremes were defined in those days.

They suspected I was in the former category, but it would not be until 4th grade that they would find out for sure.  Schools tested for IQ and administered the Iowa Tests for Basic Skills starting in 4th grade.  At that time, few if any gifted programs existed in the public schools. Private schools were the only alternative. Apparently I did quite well on those tests and my teacher would call my parents recommending they consider sending me to a private school.

My parents decided not to, perhaps based on an experience related to my second grade social studies disaster. My mother, thinking I might benefit from a school for gifted students, took me for an interview with the principal of a private school.  He sat in a large leather chair and viewing me with the same curiosity that one examines a black widow spider, leaned forward and asked me: “Can you tell me why you did not bring a notebook to your social studies class?”  I again didn’t know the answer to this question, but it didn’t matter.  My mother made up her mind about the school and said there was no way she would have me attend. “He looked at him like he was a criminal, for God’s sake,” she told my father that night, as I listened from the top of the stairs.

Somehow I adjusted to life in a public school and did just fine.  My mother told me years later that Mr. Flashner had become the laughing stock of the school for being outwitted by a seven year old boy.  He was one of the only male teachers at that school, at a time when most teachers were women and was also quite young.  She recalls at the conference with the principal his amazement that “The other kids at his table all covered for him!”  Clearly, Paul Hanna’s underlying message in Someday Soon about community involvement had escaped him.  But somehow he got through the difficult time. (My brother had him for a class in civics a year later; he tells me he was one of the best teachers he ever had.  I like to think I played a role in that.)

“Someday Soon” continued to be a mystery to me, but I plodded through it and admired the pretty pictures of trains, planes, firehouses and telephone workers learning to climb telephone poles.  “Someday Soon” did not see shame in owning your own business or charging money for goods.  It was all part of public responsibility.  People could be rich if they wanted (like the Pringles, a rich family talked about in the book—they lived in a mansion with their very own park), but they still had to pay taxes.  And taxes helped pay for public parks and libraries and schools.

As was typical of the time, no minorities appeared in the book, except an African American porter.  Also typical of the time, the schools were the way to the future.  In the last chapter of the book the kids return to school after their summer vacations and closes with an optimistic view of the future:

“Back in school and ready for work!  Someday they would all grow up.  Some of them would be firemen, and some would be engineers.  Some would be doctors and nurses and teachers and clerks.  But no matter what kind of work they would learn to do, they all would be needed.”

I hope this equal time statement has been enlightening.  In closing, let me add the following: For all the problems of schools back then, that era probably produced more home-grown engineers than are being produced now.

(Source: Someday Soon by Paul R. Hanna and G.A. Hoyt; Scott, Foresman and Company; 1948.)