My Grandfather on Public Education

© Jon Roland 1998, 2001

My maternal grandfather, Frank Kubala, taught school in Texas from about 1899 through 1935. For most of his teaching career, he taught in a one-room schoolhouse. His students, who included my mother and her three brothers and three sisters, were mostly the children of humble farmers, who often paid their tuition in farm produce, so my grandmother often had to take in washing to make ends meet, and my mother and her siblings were often malnourished. Despite these difficulties, my grandfather managed to impart a high quality education to his students, and he had a loyal following. About 1965 some of his former students organized a reunion to honor him, and nearly a thousand people, representing the generations of his students and their families and descendants, attended.

In the one-room schoolhouse, which was the system of teaching established during most of the 19th century, students were not grouped into classes by age. Aside from there not being enough students of each age to do that, it was considered more effective to teach by giving each student study assignments appropriate to his or her level of development, and engaging more advanced students in each subject to teach less advanced ones. Thus, every student was not only expected to perform well on exams, but to perform well as teachers of other students, which resulted in a level of mastery that studying for exams seldom achieves. The method used was known as the Lancasterian System.[1]

Beginning toward the end of my grandfather's career, the modern system of public education, with students grouped by age into classes, was adopted, largely inspired by the teachings of Frederick Taylor, the first efficiency expert and originator of the concept of the modern factory assembly line, and earlier, by Horace Mann. My grandfather taught in such schools until he reached retirement age and he qualified for a pension. I knew him in retirement, and the books and educational materials he used were among the things I first learned to read. He was an avid reader, a life-long member of the National Geographic Society, who used to walk to town and back every day, rain or shine, about two miles each way, to get the mail, which included his beloved National Geographics and a special health food he swore by. Considering that he remained healthy and alert to the age of 94, perhaps there was something to it.

I will never forget a conversation I had with him one day. I asked him about his views on the differences between the one-room schoolhouse and the modern system of education based on the Taylor model. He replied that he didn't think the Taylorian system was a good one. It enabled more students to be taught with fewer teachers, he said, using a lecture method, like that used in universities, but students learned less well, and more talented students were held back to a pace of the average or slower student. Without having to teach what they had learned, they soon forgot the material, especially subjects like history, government, and law, that required an element of discussion and debate to make them interesting.

But my grandfather had one special concern, which was that when students are grouped by age, they spend too much time with others of their own age, and not enough time with adults, or with students of other ages, with the result that their development becomes excessively influenced by their peers, and insufficiently influenced by adults. Such students would tend, he warned, to reach the age of adulthood with adolescent values instead of adult values, and we would increasingly, from generation to generation, become a nation of adolescents. He might have added, perhaps even of infantiles, demanding, selfish, impulsive, attention-deficient, and entertainment-centered.

Much has been made of the deficiencies of the current public education system, and sometimes reformers cite exams from the 19th century as indicators of how much educational standards have declined. I have observed the decline during my own lifetime, from the years 1950-62 when I attended public school in a small town in Texas, through today in California. I estimate that the level of education to have declined by about three years from 1910 to 1960, and another four years from 1960 to 2000, although even at those levels, the real mastery of the subject matter has declined at each level.

This decline has resulted in part, perhaps, from the attempt to educate every student to the same level. In fairness to the one-room schoolhouse era, only about 30 percent of the children of that era went to school beyond the first few years, and they were the most talented, so that by middle or high school the standards were set by the more talented and motivated. No student who resisted discipline would be permitted to remain in school, and in my day any unruly student or bully would have been sent to "reform school". There was no question of exposing good students to bad ones in the hope the goodness would rub off on them. It was well understood that it would be the badness that would rub off on the good students, and that could not be allowed. Nor could the less talented students be allowed to set the pace of instruction. The aim was to prepare students for higher education, not for a trade, and everything was bent to that aim.

Another thing has changed over the course of the 20th century. For the first 60 years, public school teachers were drawn from the pool of the most talented members of society. My teachers were people who had been A-students when they attended college. But I noticed during my senior year of high school that it was the C-students who were planning to go into public-school teaching, students who, in an earlier age would not have been able to get into college at all. The A- and B-students were aiming for careers in the professions and upper-level management positions in business. The same pattern of drawing from the less-talented held for other fields of public service: law enforcement, judges, legislators, and journalists, among others. Those fields most critical to civic virtue, and ultimately, to constitutional compliance and the rule of law, became increasingly the domain of persons of modest talent, and more importantly, of modest virtue. Today we are living with the results.

Most people today are so familiar with the established system of public education, grouping students into age cohorts, that they hardly imagine any other system, or how the mere organization of students in this way could have a profound adverse effect on our civilization and on our constitutional liberties and form of government. It is easy to attribute the general adolescence and civic dereliction of our culture to affluence, but there may be another explanation, sinister in its simplicity, and easily avoided had we had my grandfather's foresight.

If we are to save our constitutional order, we must return to some form of the Lancasterian system of education. That does not mean returning to actual one-room schoolhouses, of course, but organizing students of varying ages into teacher-led learning villages in which the more advanced students teach the less advanced. We should not give up on the ideal of educating everyone to the maximum extent possible, but neither can we permit any student to be held back by others, or exposed to delinquent influence. If some children lack adequate parental guidance, the deficit must be supplied, perhaps by placing them in military-style boarding schools, where they can also be supervised to prevent them from bearing children of their own until they have reached the level of economic and emotional development needed for parenthood.

Whatever it takes, the pattern of children raising children must be broken, or our constitutional civilization surely will be.

[1] The method used was developed in the early 19th century by Joseph Lancaster, born in slums of London, who while still in his teens, was able to teach 1,000 children in an abandoned warehouse — by himself — because he had discovered a radically efficient, cost-cutting idea: "The Monitorial System", which has also been called the Lancasterian or Lancastrian System.

Lancaster let the children teach, and each child teacher became a monitor, with the better ones teaching the slower ones. As the slower students gained speed however, they too became monitors. There was one monitor for every 10 students. Through this small group peer interaction, no one had a chance to get bored. Merit badges were awarded for excellence. Like today's Green stamps, they could be converted into merchandise prizes like pens, wallets, purses and books. Anyone who could pay four shillings a year was welcome, including girls. No other system had accepted them on an equal curriculum basis with boys. And the subjects were not just the basics, but included algebra, trigonometry and foreign languages.

Not only could the system be run profitably on such small tuition payments but four shillings per student was a fraction of what it cost to operate. Lancaster did it with brilliant economics. The students wrote on slate instead of paper. Paper was expensive, slate indestructible. One book per subject per class was used. Each page was separated and placed on a board suspended overhead. Each group of 10 studied a page as a lesson. Then the groups rotated.

In New York, the story was the same during the first half of the 19th century. Indeed, Government officials were amazed that masses of poor children could be taught so well for so little. These bureaucrats believed they could do the same job for the same price. They were wrong. In 1806, DeWitt Clinton, New York's Mayor, moved in by subsidizing the Lancaster system with a minuscule real estate tax. Using this subsidy as a toehold, the city gradually managed, then controlled and then set up a rival system. By 1852, New York City had absorbed the Lancaster schools via the now-famous Board of Education. Taxes rose dramatically and the quality declined as the Government monopolized schooling.

In Lancaster's native England, the story was just as sad. The Church of England saw Lancaster as a dangerous radical since he was giving the "unwashed masses" the skills to move upward. It counterattacked with a monitorial system of its own, conceived by Rev. Andrew Bell. But his way did not teach self-reliance. Nor was it designed to educate or even teach writing or ciphering. It only taught Bible studies. Backed by massive funding from Parliament, the Church of England destroyed Lancaster by opening schools directly across from his and pirating his students.

— Text in blue from an op-ed article in the New York Times, 12-19-88,
by John Chodes, vice chairperson of the Libertarian Party of New York City.

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