I was a rather dreamy and quiet student in public school until the sixth grade. In that year, because I had missed several months of classes the previous spring (my brother had died and I was sent to live with an aunt in New Jersey), I was shunted onto what today would be called the “slow track.” This was a class from which not much was expected, at least by the school system. But the system didn’t factor in Adele von Ebert. As her name suggests, she was the very model of the Prussian schoolmistress, even to her pince-nez eyeglasses, which blazed into every corner of the classroom. Her great virtue as a teacher was that she paid attention. Nothing you said or did went by her. I had never before really known what was expected of me in class, so I had kept quiet and dreamed. Now I was treated with the utmost seriousness—and the light went on. I discovered I could think, learn, and speak. I ended the year by being promoted to a “rapid advance” class—the fast track multiplied by two, so I eventually entered high school a year ahead of my former classmates and ever since have remained under the impression that I am younger than everyone else.
Was Mrs. von Ebert teaching in the tradition of the progressives or the conservatives? Was she child-oriented or subject-oriented? At the time, of course, I would not have been aware of any of these terms, although, in broad strokes, they have defined the history of elementary school education in the United States. It is a history that Carl Kaestle traces in this issue with a welcome clarity. And as Kaestle points out, it is not so much what the schools actually do and teach that arouses our concern; it is our often misinformed and irrelevant perception of what they’re doing that inflames rhetoric and arouses indignation.
It is always the best or worst of times for public schools, though lately the worst seems to be ahead. In the cities—delinquency, broken families, poverty, and general degradation. In the suburbs—electronic distractions, petty values, and general degradation. Society doesn’t have the answers; why should schools? Well, we’ve got to blame someone, and the schools live in our mythic consciousness as cradles of virtue and hope—so they’re always on the spot.
On a political level our anguish about schools is understandable in terms of who gets what money to do what for what goals. We don’t want to see our children and our society shortchanged. But those of us who do not believe that humans are only political or economic animals should not forget Mrs. von Ebert. Like all the good teachers in my life, she was a person who turned the light on for me so I could make my own way. As good parenting cannot be measured by the politics of the parent, so good schooling is not measured by the methodologies of the teachers but by the ability to reach to the depths of a child’s passion for knowledge and autonomy from the depths of one’s own.