The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

August 23, 2013

Readin’, writin’ and ...

By David Christy, News Editor
Enid News and Eagle

— Maybe your only brush with the history of education here in America comes from some movie clip, where kids all sit in neat and tidy rows in a one-room school house, with painted-white clapboard walls and a pot-bellied stove in the corner for winter heat.

Always, seemingly more girls than boys fill the desks, their hair in pigtails with large ribboned-bows, black leggings and bright smiles.

The boys, in their bib overalls, looking for mischief, pulling on those same pigtails and fighting at recess.

Laura Ingalls Wilder painted this common scene in her “Little House on the Prairie” books, and again, recreated on our TVs from the late Michael Landon series by the same name.

Or maybe it was Scout and Jem, on a southern Alabama school playground during the Depression, with Scout fighting with a boy during recess from “To Kill of Mockingbird.”

Those are the images of early day education painted upon many of our memories, at least from the past half century or so.

Or maybe, it’s some of today’s youngsters, who have visited and viewed and participated in living history of early day education at Enid’s own Turkey Creek School — a living, breathing testament to the history of education in America at the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center’s Humphrey Heritage Village.

At the restored one-room school on South Fourth Street, visitors and students alike get to take a step back into history — even if for just fleeting moments or hours — to be greeted by the village schoolmarm, and back to the simple days of readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmatic. That was in the day of Maguffey Readers, chalk and slate, ink wells, nibbed pens and lunch pails.

While it seems primitive by today's standards, where iPads and SMART Boards, computers, calculators and other innovations have become the standard rather than the novel, America only advanced from its European influences when public education finally moved out of the dark ages of thought.

Europe, from whence this nation sprang, was not the center of enlightenment for the masses. Education, from the British Isles to Germany to Spain and France, was far from universal. Mostly, only the privileged received formal educations.

The powers that be from our early history thought education an after thought and dangerous, except in places like ancient Greece, where education was encouraged and cultivated.

Of course, as history has taught us, the only thing dangerous about education is the fact it enlightened the masses that they were being subjugated to shortened lives of back-breaking toil by the select few.

It allowed governments to advance that represented all people, rather than a handful of monarchs and totalitarian leaders who held absolute power.

Two-hundred years ago in America, most learning happened at home, where parents taught their children as best they could, or in churches.

The Puritans were the first to point out the need for some type of public education, establishing schools on these shores to teach the basics of reading, math and writing, and to also establish core values.

Actually, it was Thomas Jefferson, the finest mind of his age, who argued vociferously that the newly formed United States of America needed an education system, and that tax dollars were needed to fund it.

However, his pleas fell on deaf ears, and for nearly a century longer, this nation was without any standard form of public education.

It wasn’t until Horace Mann of Massachusetts and Henry Barnard of Connecticut pushed for compulsory school for every child in the nation, that minds began to change from the old European ways.

Massachusetts passed compulsory school laws in 1852, before the Civil War. But it wasn’t until 1918, at the close of the First World War, that all American children were required to at least attend elementary school.

Today, recent statistics show about 50 million children are enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S., and there are more than 97,000 schools employing 3.2 million teachers.

Spending on school students from pre-kindergarten through senior year in high school nationwide has risen from $2,101 back in 1959, to nearly $10,000 per student as of five years ago.

Unfortunately, Oklahoma lags in this category, when compared to other states across the land.

In fiscal year 2011, Oklahoma expended an average of $7,587 per student per year — 48th among the 50 states.

Compare that to New York, which leads the country in spending at $19,076 per student.

Of course, cost of living plays a huge role in that disparity, as do other factors, and it compares apples to oranges.

Maybe it is better to see how far we have come in public education, than to see how far we still have to go — historically speaking.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid