Education's Histories

methodological grist for the history of education

Our Trickster, the School {part 1}

May 1st, 2014 by
This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series "Our Trickster, The School" by Adrea Lawrence| May 2014


“How was school today?” the education historian asked herself.

“I don’t know,” she replied.  “My sources didn’t tell me anything about it.”

“Well, what did you learn?”

“I learned that in spite of Horace Mann’s promises, school stages absurd scenarios, it bites people, and it benefits people.  It’s a trickster.  I’ve been duped.  I’ve been saved.”

Tricksters

We might not like to think of the school as a figure or institution that dupes us; it is supposed to affirm our studied efforts and sensibilities.  But the school, as an institution, does not always do this.  Even as it offers an opening into another world with myriad possibilities, it often serves as a foil to the educative.  And as it can squelch the educative, it can open a “pore”1 and offer a workaround out of a riddled situation.  It is a trickster.

As linguistic anthropologist Myrdene Anderson writes, “trickstering presents the truth such that no one can believe it—nor can they afford not to.”2  Might the school be a trickster?  As a trickster, the school can serve as a methodological and axiomatic guidepost for historians of education.  It can reveal explicit matters of curriculum, social endeavors, and educational intent.  It can also cloak, concealing learning outside of school, broader matters of social formation, and cultural amnesia.  The school as trickster likewise can manifest as a humorous tonic as it operates as “a pore-seeker,”3 as Lewis Hyde puts it, looking for gaps and ways through a seemingly impossible situation that were previously invisible.  The trickster is the spotlight and smoke; it is the fool and role model; it is a prismatically muddled and transparent wayfinder; it shows us how we should and should not live in this world.

The Promise

An Indian Boy in the Trail, Crow Reservation, Montana, 1909.  Photograph by Joseph Dixon.  Courtesy of the Mathers Museum, Wanamaker Collection,  Bloomington, I.N., W-2394.

An Indian Boy in the Trail, Crow Reservation, Montana, 1909. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-2394.

Spades
Without undervaluing any other human agency it may be safely affirmed that the Common School improved and energized, as it can easily be, may become the most effective and benignant of all the forces of civilization.  Two reasons sustain this position.  In the first place, there is a universality in its operation which can be affirmed of no other institution whatever.  If administered in the spirit of justice and conciliation, all the rising generation may be brought within the circle of its reformatory and elevating influences.  And, in the second place, the materials upon which it operates are so pliant and ductile as to be susceptible of assuming a greater variety of forms than any other earthly work of the Creator.4 — Horace Mann
Spades
 
U.S. Indian School, Carlisle, Penna., 1909. Photograph by Haines Photo Co. Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., LC-USZ62-25358.

U.S. Indian School, Carlisle, Penna., 1909. Photograph by Haines Photo Co. Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., LC-USZ62-25358.

Spades
 
Lodge Grass Mission School Pupils Mounted, Lodge Grass, Crow Reservation, Montana, 1908. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-0947.

Lodge Grass Mission School Pupils Mounted, Lodge Grass, Crow Reservation, Montana, 1908. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-0947.

 

The School Reveals and Cloaks

Education historians study the school because it is important.  It is an aperture of sorts through which we can see the world and one that sharpens our vision of our society’s aspirations.  For Horace Mann, the school had the potential to be the most beneficent and influential cultural creator the United States had ever seen.  Nevermind that the nation, in 1848, did not quite cohere; the school had the potential to resolve the nation’s growing pains.  So, too, could it remedy cultural conflict by streamlining and smoothing out the school curriculum through standardization.  The school could inculcate moral instruction, rearing children by the norms and measures set by the state.

Spades“’It was ordained, just like the city on the hill,’” said the education historian. 

“Wasn’t it?” she questioned sardonically.

“Ha!”Spades

The seriousness that Mann and his likeminded contemporaries devoted to the school matched the gargantuan task of creating a common culture and a national ethos.  And this is how the school found itself a trickster:  parents, and eventually the state, gave it their children and set particular conditions on the school.  It was to teach reading, writing, ciphering, pan-Christian values, and the like; in doing so, it would be cultivating American citizens.  These were the conditions, and this was the revealed purpose of school.  Would it succeed?  Would it fail?

In the long game of social formation, the school was both a culture creator and an instrument of social control.  For some, social control was an explicit purpose.  Orville Taylor, an education writer and publisher of The Common School Assistant, wrote, “To govern men, there must be either Soldiers or Schoolmasters, Books or Bayonets, Camps and Campaigns, or Schools and Churches—the cartridge or the ballot box.”5  The choice was either school or social and political chaos.  Historians Wayne Urban and Jennings Wagoner argue that the perceived threat of tumult was so dire in the increasingly urban, multi-ethnic, and mechanized Northeast that common school “crusades” were launched with the intention of pressing children into learning.6  In urban areas, which had significant concentrations of newly arrived immigrant populations, reformers were intent on recruiting larger numbers of children to school; in rural areas, reformers were concerned with improving facilities, teacher quality, and lengthening the school day as attendance was already high.7  In both the urban and rural contexts, the school served as a liaison for adaptation.  Communities in both the city and countryside experienced rapidly changing possibilities for work and thus social life.  Both types of communities needed reassurance that some recognizable form of life with interpretable categories for understanding the world would continue.  This, in part, became the job of the school.  Formalized learning, though, also carried with it the potential of arming groups that were supposed to remain disarmed.

The school straddled its revealed purposes:  before the Civil War it met the conditions placed upon it with free white children but withheld formalized learning from children who were slaves.  By law, learning how to read and write were subversive activities for slaves.  During the Civil War and immediately afterward, however, slaves and ex-slaves established schools for themselves and their children.  Historian James D. Anderson writes that Blacks in the South “viewed literacy and formal education as a means to liberation and freedom.”8  Schools were so important, Anderson argues, that Black parents and communities did not trust outsiders to teach their children how to read, write, cipher, and learn the workings of the political and economic structures.  Black communities established their own schools.9  For African Americans, historian Adah Ward Randolph writes, “The actual school itself was a manifestation of faith” in the revealed purposes and promise of formal education.10  The ubiquity of private Black schools in the South marked a threat to the social and political order of the planter and poor white classes.  The school was simultaneously a savior and disrupter.

With such focus on the visible roles of school in society, the broader role of learning as educative social and individual phenomena became submerged.  In 1916, John Dewey wrote, “We have laid it down that the educative process is a continuous process of growth, having as its aim at every stage an added capacity of growth.”11  If Dewey is right, then the shine of the school has worked to conceal a multitude of other educational processes.

American Indian education is an illuminating case in point.  We know something about the formal schools that missionary societies and the U.S. government established to convert Native children to Euroamerican social, gender, economic, religious, and linguistic practices thanks to groundbreaking studies on boarding schools and children’s experiences in them.12  But we have not necessarily looked at the larger educative processes in play, such as how did Native communities learn to navigate the colonization efforts of the U.S. government and non-Native populace?  How did Native communities create new categories of meaning to explain their places in the world?  How did Native communities learn to navigate the economic and political systems imposed upon them?  How have they learned to weather and even flourish in these systems?

The school was a plastic shape shifter that served multiple purposes to contradictory effect.  While it was the emblem of individual advancement and social uplift, it was also the tool that attempted to permanently strip cultures and languages from children.  The school helped create a national ethos that was muddled in a colonialist enterprise.


Donald Warren of Indiana University and Christopher J. Frey of Bowling Green State University served as peer reviewers for this essay.  We are grateful for their careful attention to and thoughtful feedback on this meditation.





 

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  1. […] Education’s Histories is a curated digital research collaborative devoted to methodological and conceptual problems, practices, and innovations in the history of education field. Throughout May 2014, the project debuted “Our Trickster, The School,” by Adrea Lawrence, a serial essay published in four parts. You can begin reading Part 1 here. […]