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Small Wonder

Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory

Jonathan Zimmerman
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Small Wonder
    Book Description:

    The little red schoolhouse has all but disappeared in the United States, but its importance in national memory remains unshakable. This engaging book examines the history of the one-room school and how successive generations of Americans have remembered-and just as often misremembered-this powerful national icon.

    Drawing on a rich range of sources, from firsthand accounts to poems, songs, and films, Jonathan Zimmerman traces the evolution of attitudes toward the little red schoolhouse from the late nineteenth century to the present day. At times it was celebrated as a symbol of lost rural virtues or America's democratic heritage; at others it was denounced as the epitome of inefficiency and substandard academics. And because the one-room school has been a useful emblem for liberal, conservative, and other agendas, the truth of its history has sometimes been stretched. Yet the idyllic image of the schoolhouse still unites Americans. For more than a century, it has embodied the nation's best aspirations and-especially-its continuing faith in education itself.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15627-0
    Subjects: History, Education

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    On 11 April 2002, the U.S. Department of Education held a rally at its Washington, D.C., headquarters to celebrate its signature reform measure, No Child Left Behind. Community activists, students, and even local football star Darrell Green paid tribute to the new federal law. Secretary of Education Rod Paige unveiled the eight new entrances to the department’s headquarters, built to protect passersby during renovations to the building’s facade. Each one was shaped to resemble America’s most enduring educational symbol: the little red schoolhouse. Like so many other renditions of the icon, each entrance bore a slanted roof and a bell...


    • [PART ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 11-14)

      In 1897, Clifton W. Johnson wrote an introduction to a new edition ofThe District School as It Was, by One Who Went to It. Published first in 1833 by Warren Burton, a New Hampshire minister, the book recounted Burton’s childhood terrors and triumphs in a one-room schoolhouse. Sixty years later, it remained one of America’s most popular historical accounts of its “old” country schools. Like all sources, however, it was incomplete, and as time elapsed, the book had assumed a rosy hue. “We have only fragmentary reminisces left,” wrote Johnson, who had written his own history of New England...

    • ONE The One-Room Schoolhouse as History
      (pp. 15-52)

      In 1902, at the dawn of a new century, the University of Wisconsin education professor Michael V. O’Shea pleaded for an honest history of the “old-fashioned” one-room school. “For many decades the little red schoolhouse has occupied a coveted place in the affections of the American people,” O’Shea acknowledged. Yet its real story was far less impressive than the romance enshrouding it, he added. Four years later, in another appeal for an accurate account of the one-room school, O’Shea pointed out, “There is in the breast of all of us a deep reverence for what our ancestors did, but when...


    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 53-56)

      In 2004, Richard Peck published a jocular children’s novel with the evocative titleThe Teacher’s Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts. The story starts with the death of the hated Miss Myrt, who had ruled the local one-room school with an iron hand. Yet before her day, the preacher declares at her funeral, times were even tougher. “Yes, sisters and brothers, the old schoolhouse, the first schoolhouse—the log schoolhouse with its stick chimbley daubed with clay,” he reminisces. “Who remembers when children were happy to learn? Who remembers when children were eager to learn?” The preacher pounds his fist...

    • TWO Sentiment and Its Critics
      (pp. 57-96)

      In November 1892 a Nebraska newspaper launched a bitter attack upon a popular symbol. It was election season, and candidates of every stripe had seized upon the image of the little red schoolhouse. Yet according to theOmaha World-Herald, country schools in Nebraska had never resembled the pretty, bright building on campaign posters and buttons; they were dirty, damp, and cramped. “‘The little red school house’ so fondly alluded to sounds very sweet when juggled about in a great collection of sentiment,” theWorld-Heralddeclared, “but the facts are against it.” Better to recognize the newly consolidated schools in the...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • THREE From Poverty to Democracy
      (pp. 97-131)

      In 1940 the New Deal photographer John Vachon outlined the subjects he hoped to capture on film in the coming year. As a member of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration, Vachon wrote, his first task was to depict “under-privileged people” across rural America. But he also sought to tell “Stories of American Institutions,” including courthouses, stores, barbershops, and most of all schools. Working mainly in the Midwest, Vachon resolved to dramatize the differences between “inadequate” one-room schools and newer, consolidated buildings. Later that year, a second FSA photographer under-lined the same goal in the pictures and captions...

    • FOUR Open Classroom or Back to Basics?
      (pp. 132-168)

      In 1974 education professor Halas Jackim spearheaded a campaign to restore an abandoned one-room schoolhouse at the State University of New York, Oswego. Jackim had recently helped found the One Room School House Association, which located and purchased the school; now he needed funds to move the old building to his campus, where it would remind students and other visitors about the historical roots of “progressive” teaching methods. “This project will bring into focus the fact that many of the ‘new’ ideas in education, such as the open classroom and the ungraded school, were ideas used in the one-room schoolhouses,”...

    • CONCLUSION Dear Old Golden Rule Days?
      (pp. 169-184)

      In 2000, the Arizona historian Michael F. Anderson wrote a foreword for the first comprehensive guide to America’s restored one-room schoolhouses. A respected scholar of the West and the National Park System, Anderson began with the best-known lines about the American one-room school: “School days, school days/Dear old golden rule days/Reading and ’Riting and ’Rithmetic . . .” Then he paused. “I don’t know who penned the verse, nor do I remember the rest,” Anderson wrote, “but I can imagine the songwriter with wrinkled brow and wistful smile lost in memories, perhaps casting his or her mind’s eye back to...

  7. Notes
    (pp. 185-218)
  8. Index
    (pp. 219-233)