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Graham Contemplates the History and Future of Education

Patricia GrahamFraming a discussion around her recent book, Schooling America, Warren Research Professor Patricia Albjerg Graham provided insight into what the American public has sought from its educational institutions, what educators have delivered, and what may come in the future on Wednesday, May 10, at this semester's final Askwith Forum, Schooling America: How the Public Schools Meet the Nation's Changing Needs.

A former dean of HGSE, Graham has also worked as director of the National Institute of Education, president of the Spencer Foundation, director of the Education Program at Barnard College, and a high school teacher in Virginia and New York City.

This is a book about knowledge and virtue or, as I'd prefer to say, wit and character, and the extent to which we have asked our schools to provide our younger generation with wit and character," she said. "[Also], how the emphasis has changed over time between an emphasis on wit or knowledge [and] an emphasis on virtue or character.

Tracing the entire 20th century, Graham broke down 100 years of education history into four periods she considers the four A's: assimilation, adjustment, access, and achievement.

Graham told a story about a Danish-speaking boy in the early 1900s, who attended Minnesota Public Schools.  He was slapped across the face by his teacher when he responded to a question with his name.

Graham revealed that this boy was her father, and that he graduated school by the eighth grade having learned English, some numbers, penmanship, patriotic lure, and some Longfellow. At the time, public schooling wasn't the focus for youth, many of whom were immigrants, yet America was focused on them.

"The schools were interested in not just what the children were doing, but also the immigrant parents," she said, citing how a Cleveland school provided opportunities in six different languages encouraging immigrant adults to learn. However, by the 1920s, the divide between rich and poor education in America began to grow, marking a period of adjustment.

The style of education differed depending on the area of the country in which one lived. Educators began to see that the education of a child in a wealthier community in New York could vary greatly from that of a student in the Midwest or that of a black child in the South. Educators in one community, Graham said, assumed that they knew what was good for other areas, but they failed to take into account the significant contributions of community, family, and culture in education. Still, the thinking had begun that there could be one model of education that would work well everywhere.

"This is the only period [in which] educators were calling the shots," Graham said, noting that these were mostly white men, who had experienced success in school and didn't know how to recognize those who hadn't. "This is a book about knowledge and virtue or, as I'd prefer to say, wit and character, and the extent to which we have asked our schools to provide our younger generation with wit and character.

"The 1950s brought tremendous change in education with Brown v. the Board of Education, desegregation, and the evolution of education policy. "Before 1960, we didn't have policy…what the creation of policy did to schools of education was turn them on their ears," Graham said. At the same time, however, policy provided for a lot of change in the country and gave more access to all children.

The publicizing of A Nation at Risk in the 1980s drew attention to the need for improvement in schools. As a direct result of this report, Graham said, the public shifted education to focus on achievement. "We see school now as…a way to get a good job," Graham said. Over the past century, it isn't only K–12 education that has seen a lot of changes, but colleges too.  

Graham credited World War II, the Manhattan Project, and the GI Army Bill, as well as the 1960s and student's social concern as part of what shaped colleges into what they are today. Yet, despite the progress and evolution of public education, there are still many questions that need answers. "We have a difficultly addressing what education is for," Graham said.

"Is it for the country so that we can raise responsible adults or for the individual child to get ahead? Obviously, it's both…but no one wants to talk about balance." However, Graham said that she is optimistic about the future. "Things are a lot better," Graham said.

"It's not that we don't have a great many problems, but we are thinking…. That might lead to action."