Wednesday, August 28, 2019

At Home in Kansas

Caught in a side view mirror
When my family moved to Kansas in 2000, the prospect of adjusting to a new community brought great trepidation. I imagine the feeling was similar to that of a settler’s wife, she who might have come west more than a century earlier, around 1880, as a young bride.

The young bride may be akin to a state of mind, the wistfulness that comes from leaving what is comfortable and moving to unfamiliar territory.

Perhaps the Civil War has just ended, and she is following her husband to a strange flat land of extreme temperatures and wary natives, where most news of the outside world comes from the Methodist circuit rider who pays monthly visits to conduct a revival or perform a baptism.

That was me, trailing my husband out to the Plains, hopefully anxious and anxiously hopeful – a young bride, figuratively speaking, wishing to feel at home in millennial Kansas. For despite the homogenization of American culture, communities do maintain distinctive social structures. I found that it would be necessary to acquire a local state of mind in order to fit in.  

View from a Target parking lot;
Overland Park, Kansas

From its earliest days as a territory, Kansas challenged those who made the journey. Whenever the pioneers reached their destination – whether by covered wagon after the Homestead Act of 1862 or by train during the rise of the Populist / agrarian movement a few decades later – they found unpredictable weather and unbroken land.

Even before they got to the place, there were premonitions. One woman would recall:

To me Kansas spelled destruction, desperadoes, and cyclones. I could not agree with my husband that any good could come out such a country, but the characteristic disposition of the male prevailed, and October 1, 1879, saw us bound for the “Promised Land.”  

A dairy farm lingered in suburban
Johnson County, Kansas

My family arrived in mid-July and waited for the temperature to cool. Day after day – 107, 105, 106. Occasionally, a faint prairie wind blew through. We stayed inside nearly all the time, enacting the nineteenth-century drama of the parlor darkened by curtains pulled against the sun.

Would the doorbell ring? Would the minister pay a call on the new family? That did not happen.

Eventually the heat diminished, and our two sons began the school year. I started to find my way, always driving, along the wide streets and through the startling checkerboard of big-box stores and fields filled with hay bales.

By the time of the High Holy Days in October, we were invited to break the fast at the home of neighbors, where the hostess’s famous ten-layer Jell-O mold, presented in the world’s largest trifle dish, arose in the center of the buffet.

Land for sale
It’s not easy to understand why any individual will become comfortable in certain places and not others. There are cities and towns where the fit is right, and we discover with pleasure what Willie Morris called “terrains of the heart.”  

We do not need to be kept in familiar boxes in order to feel sure of ourselves. However, there are things we grow to as a habit without which we may not be happy.   

Of course, I did not appreciate Kansas while we were there. That’s an old story.  Further down the road, when I was no longer a young bride, it became possible to know and understand the place.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Receive the summer sky

Be firm, rail over the river, to support those who lean idly, yet haste with the hasting current; 
Fly on, sea-birds! fly sideways, or wheel in large circles high in the air; 
Receive the summer sky, you water, and faithfully hold it till all downcast eyes have time to take it from you! 

from "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"
by Walt Whitman 

Long Island Sound on the way from New London to Orient Point

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

"My world is not your world, O Census-taker"

In 1922, the poet James Rorty published “What Michael Said to the Census-Taker.”  The poem is not well-known; just 150 pretty copies were printed by a San Francisco antiquarian named Edwin Grabhorn. 

Rorty, who was also an author, editor, and journalist, would become best known for co-founding The New Masses, a leftist magazine associated with the Communist Party of the United States of America.  He also decried Senator Joseph McCarthy and published McCarthy and the Communists, which is thought to have helped diminish the senator’s influence, and other works of social criticism.  

The son of Irish immigrants, born in 1890 in the industrial city of Middletown, N.Y., Rorty graduated from Tufts University. He drove an ambulance during World War I and received the Distinguished Service Cross.  Upon his return to the U.S., Rorty worked in advertising before cynicism set in and he turned to writing full-time.     

“What Michael Said to the Census-Taker” embodies themes to which Rorty returned throughout his life: pacifism, defiance, justice, and hypocrisy.  It’s an interesting poem and well worth reading, which is why I’m posting it here.

"yapping on the roadside of the world"

"Homer sang to me"

"I saw the torches sway and go out."

"When the moon rose over Calvary, I was there."

"A red glow flushed the cheek of the saint in
the stained-glass window"

"I'm Bolshevik!"

"And the jail's open door flapping, 
flapping in the wind."

"If you want to know who I am, I shall tell you"

Double left-click on images to enlarge them.

*The poem is in the public domain.

**The philosopher Richard M. Rorty was the son of James Rorty.    

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Schoolman

Ballroom at the Hotel Fort Des Moines in Des Moines, Iowa, site of the
1921 convention of the National Education Association 

Summer is always hot as hell in the Plains States and that’s inscribed in his soul, for he was a boy in rural Kansas and a young man in Nebraska. 

Now it’s July 1921 and Fred Hunter is ready to handle the heat of Iowa.  He’s on top of the world as he pulls open a bronze door to enter the lobby of the Hotel Fort Des Moines.  He’s ready for anything. 

Fred is president of the National Education Association, the nation’s most prestigious organization of school teachers and administrators.  The 64-year old group’s annual convention is about to begin.

Fred Hunter was a rising star in the
field of public school education.

In and out of the hotel’s ballrooms and lounges, Fred will preside over five days of discussions, debates, and reports.  Four thousand participants are expected.  Most will arrive in time for “Educational Sunday,” as described in the official program: Homer C. Stuntz, Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal church of Omaha, will speak about “Educating the Other Half of the World.”

The next morning, in between greetings from college presidents and state officials, the group gathered for an Americanization pageant performed by children in the Des Moines Public Schools.  Since the late nineteenth century, the children of immigrants had been the focus of Americanization programs in the nation’s public schools.

Immigration slowed during the Great War but after the Armistice it surged again.  Consequently, Senators Albert Johnson and David Reed were busy drafting the nation’s harshest immigration law to date.  The Immigration Act of 1924 would encompass the Asian Exclusion Act and, using drastically revised quotas, slam the door on Italians, Jews, and Slavs.   

Back at the convention, female teachers and male administrators discussed salaries, tenure, visual and music education, daylight in the classroom, rural school consolidation, the creation of the junior high school, and educating the Negro.

Excerpt from the NEA's 1921 Report on the Negro in Rural
Education and Country Life. 
Utter indifference among those
who could have made a difference.

The leading topic was student health and hygiene, including the trachoma epidemic* and proposals for sex education.  Nearly 20 sessions were devoted to health issues.

Some of the charts concerning student health which
appeared in the 1921 NEA convention program 

But the real buzz at the convention concerned something else entirely:  the application of business practices to schooling.  Educational administrators had fallen under the spell of efficiency.

Styling themselves as executives, the schoolmen – as they now liked to call themselves – sought better ways to monitor truancy and supplies, keep costs down, and standardize teaching practices.  They wanted more student testing.  They wanted to account for every red rubber playground ball. 

And so school administrators shifted their emphasis from education to efficiency.  As school districts grew larger, the schoolmen called in experts and ordered surveys.  Not until the thirties did the trend start to wind down, although arguably it never went away entirely.

Fred was an adherent of the education efficiency movement, but he didn’t stay a schoolman.  He had set his sights on higher education soon after kicking off his career in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he served as superintendent of schools between 1912 and 1917.

During those years, as popular culture stormed across the country, Fred voiced deep concerns.  He worried about the movies, dance halls, and penny arcades where wide-eyed youngsters learned about divorce, adultery, suicide, drinking, and robbery.  Teenagers were dancing the Tango and the Maxixe.  Church socials had been swapped out for bowling parties.    

Fred called for “a constructive program to control the amusement instinct” – build more playgrounds and sponsor activities at local schools.  Insist on vocational guidance for each student.  Establish an “efficiency list” comprised of reliable girls and boys who are available to perform tasks for local merchants.

But he probably didn’t want to keep wrestling with social deviance and the health crisis in the public schools.  As president of the University of Denver and chancellor of the Oregon Higher Education System – he would hold both positions – he could largely detach himself from those problems.

So here’s to Fred, president of the National Education Association, slamming down the gavel on July 3, 1921.  He welcomes everyone to the glittering new ventilated hotel and jovially shakes hands with his fellow schoolmen. 

Despite the sobriquet “Roaring Twenties,” the decade was disastrous for immigrants, minorities, and poor people (although very good for business). 

The schools were besieged by single-issue influencers ranging from the American Legion to Nativists to the Women's Christian Temperance Union.  The teaching of history became a battleground. The juvenile justice system meted out thousands of sentences.  For many public school students, it was the worst of times.

Dr. Frederick Maurice Hunter
*Trachoma is a contagious disease of the eye that can lead to blindness.  Many thought it was brought to the U.S. by immigrants, but it also proliferated among white Appalachians and Native Americans.  

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Edith + Edith Again

The H. W. Wilson Company produced The Debaters
Handbook Series 
between 1910 and about 1950.

In 1907, a Minneapolis publishing executive named Halsey W. Wilson was looking for writers and researchers to work for his growing company.  Spurred by his wife, Justina, he asked a University of Minnesota professor to recommend several alumnae.  A young woman named Edith Phelps left her teaching job and came on board right away. 

In short order, Edith would become a supervisor and editor at the H. W. Wilson Company.  She wrote dozens of guides to such topics as the income tax, immigration, and the League of Nations.  

These became known as “debaters’ handbooks,” and were used by high school and college teams who sparred competitively about the social policies and laws of the rising century. 

But really, the handbooks had a larger significance.  They were particularly useful to people who lived in rural areas, with their reach extending well beyond debaters to men’s and women’s clubs, voting leagues, and adult education programs.  

In fact, making this literature widely available tied into the Progressive ideal of educating as many Americans as possible. 

Halsey W. Wilson
In 1913, when Halsey Wilson decided to move his company to New York City, Edith Phelps went with him.  For the next 40 years, she worked in the vanguard of what became known as information sciences.  In 1922, she became an officer of the company. 

Back to the other Edith.

Within several years of Edith Penney’s arrival in New York, she made her mark on one of the most innovative projects in the history of American education: The Eight-Year Study.  This experiment posed a challenge to the time-honored methods of evaluating college applicants long used by admissions officials. 

The study explored whether students’ performance in the college preparatory curriculum was the best indicator of college readiness and future success.  What would happen if students were to pursue an alternative high school curriculum in the humanities and social sciences?

That question lay at the heart of The Eight-Year Study, launched in 1930 by the Progressive Education Association.  That year, high school teachers and administrators started to collaborate with researchers and college professors to revise the traditional curriculum. 

Between 1933 and 1940, 29 public and private high schools and 200 colleges and universities participated in the experiment.

Along came more classes in the manual and fine arts, a shift from survey-style courses to electives that focused on a few texts or a historical era, and the elimination of material that students had regurgitated since elementary school.  There was a concerted effort to embrace unconventional opinions and interpretations.   

The outcomes were positive.  When it came to college the Eight-Year Study students turned out to be as successful as students who followed an established curriculum.  They also developed a wider range of interests outside the classroom.    

As a high school principal and member of two committees that directed the study, Edith Penney became committed to educational reforms that would have been unheard of during her Minnesota childhood.  

Radical as the work seemed during the 1930s, several of the ideas that emerged from The Eight-Year Study have endured.

 The Eight-Year Study was published
in 1942 in five volumes.
Professional development for teachers, testing methods that would provide more accurate and meaningful measures of students’ knowledge, and greater variety and student choice of courses were among the changes.  

High schools also began to push back against onerous college entrance requirements. 

Unfortunately, the results of The Eight-Year Study received little attention when they were published in 1942.  Some critics thought they were inconclusive while others feared change.  Regardless, by the time the war ended, school administrators were not in the mood to innovate.  Every so often, however, the study draws renewed attention.

Edith May Penney retired in 1948 and died at the age of 96 in 1974.

Edith May Phelps retired in 1948 and died at the age of 98 in 1980.

Continued from post June 5, 2019.

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Little House at Melrose

Wedged between two buildings at the Melrose station
along the Metro North line to North White Plains

I have traveled along this train route thousands of times and never noticed this little pink house.  It reminded me, of course, of the book called The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, published in 1942.  

The Little House is a beloved children's classic.  The story goes that the house was built around 1900 far out in the countryside.  Over the years, however, the city encroached with roads, shops, and skyscrapers. 

By 1940, the house was stuck between two tall buildings and coated with soot.  One day, the great-great-granddaughter of the original owner of the house spotted it and decided to move it back where it came from. 

The house was loaded onto a flatbed and driven far from the city.  It ended up perched happily on a hill in the country.

Now, once more it was surrounded by grass and trees, with no noise except for the birds singing.  Once again, the little house could see the stars shining at night.

Who knows the story of the little house at the Melrose station?