History in Focus: Back in the day…
“Back in the day….” is a phrase often used in frustrated conversations about our supposedly screwed-up modern world as compared to some idealized yesteryear. As a history teacher, I encounter these rose-colored comparisons when I get caught up in a conversation about the state of our public schools in the produce section at City Market.
Lucky for us, a good friend discovered a copy of the 1925 Moffat County Public Schools Course of Study, Grades One to Eight out at the family homestead north of Elkhead Reservoir. It gives us the chance to examine if “back in the day” our schools were better than the current version.
Using the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) 2020 state standards for comparison, I decided to examine the two documents with some of the same “thinking skills” I use to traumatize my students: context, comparison, and analysis of change and continuity over time.
In 1912, Moffat County had 12 school districts which increased to 38 by 1935, primarily one room affairs serving the isolated homesteading communities sprinkled across the high desert. Overseeing these far-flung schools was Superintendent Laura Canon, elected to the post on the Republican ticket, and a former teacher in the Sugar Loaf Basin, just north of Lay.
First, the 1925 curriculum is a grand total of 52 pages whereas, after rummaging around the CDE website, a variety of PDF files add up to a total of 1,428 pages of standards. Either the field of education in 2020 is much more efficient, or it has become just a wee bit more verbose. In 1925, students studied seven subjects; in 2020 the CDE produced standards for twelve.
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In 1925, eighth-graders in Civics learned the role of government and in return citizens should, “be honest in all public relations, pay taxes cheerfully, obey the laws and insist that others shall do so; vote; be loyal at all times.” In 2020, the eighth-grade Social Studies standard 4 (Civics) asks students to “discern various types of law,” “evaluate the strengths of rule of law,” and “identify and evaluate issues that involve civic responsibility, individual rights, and the common good” (p.98).
Instead of honest, cheerful, and loyal, eighth-graders plow through a series of value neutral intellectual exercises regarding cornerstones of Western civilization.
One frequent criticism is the removal of the Bible from the classroom. In 1925, specific portions of the Bible such as The Sermon on the Mount, The Lord’s Prayer, and a few of the Psalms are specifically required for reading and recitation. Today, Reading for All Purposes standard 2, says eighth-graders should “analyze religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new.” The Bible is still here but is no longer considered a sacred text.
The 1925 Course of Study states, “Memorizing classics enriches speech, cultivates the taste, and establishes a habit that will afford pleasure in later years.” Instead of memorizing and good habits, the 2020 CDE Reading for All Purposes standards are peppered with the terms “analyze,” “evaluate,” “apply,” “verify,” and “distinguish.” 1925 built knowledge whereas 2020 aims for a system of thinking.
In Physiology in 1925, seventh-grade students learned hygiene, nourishing meals, and health of the mouth — brushing teeth, I presume? (p.39). Turn the page to 2020, and the Comprehensive Health standards cover the gamut of abstinence, STDs, HIV, emotional well-being, unintended pregnancy, personal boundary behavior, alcohol and drug abuse as related to sexual activity, violent relationships, and more… (p.73-88). Wow… I feel fortunate I teach the lighter topics of the Holocaust, Wounded Knee, and nuclear armageddon.
We may wish to believe teens in 1925 were better behaved, but remember 1925 was smack dab in the middle of post WWI disillusion, Prohibition, and America’s first sexual revolution. With the spread of the automobile, our youthful great-grandparents gleefully figured out the back seat was for more than just passengers.
An unfortunate travesty is the formula for calculating the tonnage of hay is nowhere to be found in the 2020 standards! Rules of etiquette were emphasized in 1925: “A gentleman rises when a lady enters the room. When a gentleman meets a lady, he tips his hat. If a lady drops anything a gentleman picks it up and hands it to her.” (p.51) Our coarsening society could learn from 1925’s ideas of chivalry.
While it is normal to feel nostalgic about Moffat County of 1925, I think the changes in America from 1900 to 1925 were far more radical than what we’ve experienced from 1925 to our present era. However, 1925 is frozen in history, the raw emotions of that era have faded, and “back in the day” is a warm memory.
To my AP World History students: If you read this article, please send your critique of my AP thinking skills to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will cheerfully and honestly read your thoughts.
Extra credit is available until March 23.
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School and can be contacted at email@example.com.
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