Lately, Glenn Beck and David Barton have been pushing their summer internship program. In a brief spot Monday, Beck and Barton claimed education was great until progressives took over in the 1920s. From the article:
Prior to the 1920s, students completed school through eighth grade and each year had to pass a written exam that involved understanding the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, George Washington’s Farewell Address and their state constitution, Barton explained. The older system of education was called “spiraling” because students would revisit the same topics while expanding on them each year.
Today, students learn history in discrete chunks with the “tri-division” method, studying Christopher Columbus in one grade, the Civil War in the next, and so on, Barton asserted. Because students are learning their history piece by piece, they never go back to the same period again and don’t retain the information in a real way.
In response, historian John Fea provided a citation from 1917 which contradicts Barton’s claim.
Surely a grade of 33 in 100 on the simplest and most obvious facts of American history is not a record in which any high school can take pride.
This quote comes from a 1917 article in the Journal of Educational Psychology by J. Carleton Bell and D.F. McCollum. Bell and McCollum surveyed Texas schools and learned that history education wasn’t doing well. The 33% figure is an average of history knowledge scores at a sampling of high schools in Texas. Please note that I said high schools. Contrary to Barton’s claims, students went to high school before progressives took over, whenever that happened.*
The context for the quote is telling. According to Bell and McCollum, some Texas school districts didn’t start teaching history until later in elementary school if at all. Barton’s golden age wasn’t as golden as he described it. Bell and McCollum write:
The final average per cents, of the five high schools are Austin 30, Brenham 33, Houston 33, Huntsville 24, and San Marcos 31. With the exception of Huntsville the schools present about the same general picture—wide variations in the responses to particular questions, but these variations balancing each other. In the elementary schools the final average per cents, are Austin 10, Brenham 18, Houston 12, Huntsville 17, and San Marcos 23. It must be noted that for San Marcos we have only the sixth and seventh grades. Comparison of the results grade by grade shows that Austin and Houston are in the same class and that the other three schools are distinctly in advance, making at least fifty per cent, better showing. Column one, however, shows the reason. In the Austin and Houston schools no work in history is given before the seventh grade, while in the other schools the pupils begin history in the fourth or fifth grade. In view of the fact that pupils who have begun history later make as good a showing in the high school as those who began it earlier (compare Houston with Brenham or San Marcos) it might be argued that the study of history by elementary school pupils is a waste of time. The case, however, is by no means so simple. The high schools of Houston and Austin have the reputation of being very well administered and of having an exceptionally high grade of teachers. If the other cities had as well organized and equipped high schools perhaps their pupils would have made a better showing. Surely a grade of 33 in 100 on the simplest and most obvious facts of American history is not a record in which any high school can take great pride. (pp. 267-269)
Reading the Bell and McCollum article provoked my interest in education before 1920 and so I looked up several reports on education during that time period. None of what I have read so far provides support for Barton simplistic analysis. For instance, Barton makes it seem like education was done one way – students all learned history the same way and all went to college after eighth grade. However, the reports from that era make it clear that there was little uniformity of teaching methodology. For instance, a report on history education dated 1898 says:
In all of our work we have endeavored not only to discover any agreement or common understanding that may exist among American teachers, but to keep in mind the fact that local conditions and environments vary exceedingly; that what may be expected of a large and well-equipped school need not be expected of a small one, and that large preparatory schools and academies, some of them intentionally fitting boys for one or two universities, are in a situation quite unlike that in which the great majority of high schools are compelled to work. We have sought chiefly to discuss, in an argumentative way, the general subject submitted for consideration, to offer suggestions as to methods of historical teaching and as to the place of history on the school programme, being fully aware that, when all is said and done, only so much will be adopted as appeals to the sense and judgment of the secondary teachers and superintendents, and that any rigid list of requirements, or any body of peremptory demands, however judiciously framed, not only would, but should, be disregarded in schools whose local conditions make it unwise to accept them.
The traditional age for beginning Latin is about fifteen and the average for entering college is nineteen.
Nineteen would be old for an eighth grader. The 1892 Committee of Ten (convened by the National Education Association) recommended that all school districts provide instruction through the 12th grade.
Graduating high school students wanting knowledge of history could consult this list of books or attend a college with a good history program (write and ask, I can name several).
*Early in American education, many students only went through 8th grade in anticipation of entering the work force. Barton’s contention that students went to school through 8th grade has some truth to it. However, college was not the end result for most of them (on Beck’s audio, Barton claimed students just went on to college after the 8th grade).