Many of us fantasize about how education was during the
good old days. We would like to remember education in
the 1920s (or think of it, if we can’t remember it) as being
the optimum education process: one teacher, in a one-
room school, learning the three Rs and morality and
respect and courtesy and The American Way. Minimal
taxes were needed to support the schools and the school
“marm” was paid in chickens and green beans and an
invitation to Sunday dinner. Plenty of unruly children, but
no vandalism or cruelty. No outsider control of curriculum
and all reports to county and state authorities completed
on two sides of the same sheet of paper.
To begin with, education was never that simple, even
though we may remember it as such. There were
problems, even then. Reading about some of the earlier
schools, both in the West and in the East, indicates that
some really sick people taught children in those days.
There was virtually no supervision, so adults could do
almost as they wished with the children under their care.
We don’t like to think of that when we remember.
Supervision of instruction and public interest in its
schools as honest-to-goodness institutions of learning is
one thing which has happened to the Little Red
Schoolhouse (LRS). People won’t tolerate mistreating a
child any more nor should they. Child protection laws
have become effective to protect the student from the
“sick” teacher who would rather dominate the student
than educate him. Admittedly, some of these laws have
made it very difficult to discipline children in any fashion,
but even these laws were passed as a result of abuses of
authority on the part of school adults.
Another change since the LRS is the child labour laws.
Most kids do not learn how to work. If they are lucky they
can work for their parents. However, most employers are
afraid to hire anyone under the age of 16 or even 18 because
of the child labour laws. This means that our young people
are entering the job market as young adults without
knowing how to work. Like any other skill, job skills and
attitudes are learned a little at a time, and if those 18 to 22-
year-olds you have working for you don’t know how to
work, it’s because they should have started learning when
they were 12-15 years old … and they didn’t.
During the days of LRS, we did not have compulsory
attendance laws. Too often compulsory attendance laws
keep a young person a prisoner in the schools, whether he
wants to learn anything or not. During the days of LRS, a
person went to school until he got what he or his parents
thought he needed to survive as an adult. Now, in most
States, the student must stay in school until the age of 16.
In some States, those with the most severe discipline
problems, the students must stay in school until the age of
18 or until they have completed high school.
Students we now call “‘handicapped” were not permitted
to go to school during the LRS days. In fact, mentally
handicapped youngsters were frequently hidden in
closets or basements and treated, even by their parents,
as little more than animals. Education was cheap, as I
mentioned earlier, but so was everything else. But we did
not have athletics programmes like we do now with a
variety of different age teams, or numerous types of
musical bands, or counsellors or school nurses, or
reading teachers or honours programmes or programmes
for the gifted and talented or law suits or hot lunches or
school buses or elementary physical education or two
working parents or teacher unions or federal mandates or
legislated curriculum or computer education or drugs.
Hey, folks, education is no longer cheap! For the most
part, the programmes which have been added are very
Is education, as a process learned in a modern school
building, better or worse than during the days of the
Little Red Schoolhouse? I honestly don’t know. It is
certainly different. And I know the LRS had to change to
meet the demands of a modern society in order for its
graduates to survive. Society has changed since the Little
Red Schoolhouse and the schools have had to change with
society. Schools are shaped by the societies they serve,
and that is as it should be. Ask schools to be accountable
for the changes we make, but don’t ask them to stay the
same as they were in the good old days.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE THE LITTLE RED SCHOOLHOUSE?
A brief look at the changes in education since the
the Little Red
International Journal of Educational Management, Vol. 8 No. 6, 1994, p. 15
© MCB University Press, 0951-354X
John. H. Holcomb
John H. Holcomb is Director, Cross Timbers School Development Council, Tarleton State University, Texas, USA.