In a famous Monty Python sketch, four elderly men from Yorkshire, England sit around reminiscing about the “good old days.” They talk about their humble though happy beginnings, drinking tea from cracked cups without sugar, milk — or even tea. They talk about living in shoeboxes, eating cold gravel and waking up before going to bed. “You were lucky to have a room,” one boasts. “We had to live in a corridor.” They conclude with this old chestnut: “Try telling the young kids of today that and they won’t believe you.”
Like the Yorkshiremen, we have a tendency to exaggerate and romanticize the past. We view our history through rose-tinted glasses. But while nostalgia makes for great comedy, it doesn’t always add up to good education.
I recently visited a school to help the administration identify strengths and challenges. While walking the hallways, I came across a young boy sitting by himself outside a classroom. He was writing in a notebook with a lead pencil. I asked him what he was doing. Not sure he was allowed to talk to strangers, he whispered, “I’m in trouble. I have to write, ‘I will not talk in class’ 100 times.” I immediately thought of Jack Nicholson in The Shining: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” I also thought about how important it is to talk in class.
I then stepped into a classroom. There were about 30 students and one teacher. The kids were sitting quietly at desks lined up in neat rows. The teacher stood in the front of the class and lectured from notes on a whiteboard. She was asking them questions about the American Revolution: “Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? Where was ‘the shot heard round the world’? Who said, ‘Give me liberty or give me death?’ ” I thought to myself, where else, besides college and church do we find people in this configuration? And don’t they have Google?
During the visit, I saw children filling in coloring books, teachers doling out gold stickers to “scholars” for completing assignments, and countless kids working on worksheets. I even overheard a teacher say, “When I was your age …”
I thought of the Yorkshiremen.
The school I visited was not unlike the one I attended — many years ago. Whiteboards had replaced chalkboards, and worksheets were now printed on copy machines rather than the antiquated mimeograph machines of yore; but otherwise it was pretty much the same. The schedule, teaching practices, curriculum, and even the lunch menu (fish sticks and tater tots) were basically a carbon copy of my 1970’s-vintage elementary school. My parents and I would have felt right at home — and so would Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of “The Little House on the Prairie” books. It worked for us, we might argue; there’s no reason to believe it won’t work for this (and the next) generation of kids…
But try telling that to the young people in our rapidly evolving business and professional worlds, and faith in past practice will only be met with skepticism.
Public education in this country was designed to fuel the Industrial Revolution, not to program the digital age. Twentieth-century schools pumped out workers like widgets. They were assembly lines for kids who would someday work on assembly lines. They manufactured the Protestant work ethic, nationalism, conformity, and compliance. And, they did it well. The United States, especially after World War II, ruled the world.
A lot has changed in 75 years. The world is now relatively flat, manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas or have become automated; entire industries and professions have come and gone; vinyl was replaced by tape, CDs, and then MP3s before staging an improbable comeback. The global economy has radically changed, but, strangely, the vast majority of our schools have not. One of the main though seldom mentioned culprits is nostalgia.
Teacher colleges here and around the country are staffed with professors who teach the way they were taught. Their students go on to teach the way they were taught, producing generations of new educators who aren’t all that new. It’s a vicious circle.
Teachers are not the only victims of nostalgia. Administrators, school board members, parents, politicians and PTOs are all influenced by fond, sometimes myopic memories of their own childhoods. Proms, chalk talks, Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils, Mead Composition Books. Ridgemont High and Animal House shape their expectations and policies.
At its best, nostalgia leads to wonderful and worthwhile traditions and practices. Honor codes for example, first introduced by colleges such as William and Mary and the University of Virginia, are now common in high schools around the country. Tried and true approaches like language immersion, Montessori, apprenticeship learning and the Socratic method have all been passed down from one generation to the next.
At its worst though, nostalgia can perpetuate bad practice. For example, I once met a principal in rural Louisiana who used a paddle that had been used on him decades earlier. His painful and humiliating experience was obviously more influential than contemporary research (and laws) on corporal punishment.
At another school here in New Orleans “bad” students were forced to wear bright orange safety vests, a shameful practice dating all the way back to the Puritan New England of Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” Not until the school was threatened with lawsuits did it abandon the practice.
More importantly, nostalgia often perpetuates practices and curricula that don’t prepare students for the post-industrial age. Rote memorization, sit-and-get instruction, multiple-choice tests, fixed outcomes and an overreliance on extrinsic motivation are, in many ways, holding kids back. Collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and other 21st century skills require a different approach.
To break this vicious circle, we need a bit of collective amnesia. We need to “think different.“
For New Orleanians, including me, Hurricane Katrina was a devastating, unforgettable experience. It changed everything, not least public education. Before the storm, the city’s schools were among the worst in the country. After Katrina, most didn’t exist. The city was given an unprecedented opportunity to start over from a clean slate, a slate free from the negative influences of nostalgia.
In a follow-up column, I’ll survey some of what we’ve been writing on that blank slate — innovations that have drawn national attention to public education in the New Orleans area.
Folwell Dunbar is a former Peace Corps volunteer, teacher, coach, staff developer, school evaluator and principal. His work has appeared in Teacher Magazine, Independent School, School Administrator, Edutopia, the New York Times and other publications. He is currently working as a change agent with schools here and around the country. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.