Class Warfare Blog

January 15, 2017

You Have to Ask “Why?”

Have you ever heard of the High School Movement? I certainly had not, so I looked it up in Wikipedia, which provided the following:

The high school movement is a term used in educational history literature to describe the era from 1910 to 1940 during which secondary schools sprouted across the United States. During this early part of the 20th century, American youth entered high schools at a rapid rate, mainly due to the building of new schools, and acquired skills “for life” rather than “for college.” In 1910 19% of 15- to 18-year-olds were enrolled in a high school; barely 9% of all American 18-year-olds graduated. By 1940, 73% of American youths were enrolled in high school and the median American youth had a high school diploma. The movement began in New England but quickly spread to the western states. According to Claudia Goldin, the states that led in the U.S. high school movement (e.g. Iowa and Nebraska) had a cohesive, homogeneous population and were more affluent, with a broad middle-class group.

“The United States exceeded Europe in mass secondary education. The American system of education was characterized as open to many (mostly white) students, forgiving, lacking universal standards, and academic. On the other hand, the European system was closed, unforgiving, with uniform standards, and academic for some and industrial for others. Secondary schools in America were free and generally accessible, while in most of Europe they were costly and often inaccessible with difficult entrance exams. In the United States, schools were provided by small, local districts. Because decentralized decision making system rose competition among districts for residents in the United States, the U.S. moved quickly in building schools initially. In contrast, schools were provided by the central government as a national decision in Europe. Further, high school was designed to be the terminal degree rather than a pre-college diploma of office or skilled blue-collar workers in the United States. By 1955 80% of United States youth had graduated from an academic high school. In this setting general skills and social mobility were emphasized, not specific training or apprenticeships. Even by the 1930s, America was virtually alone in providing secondary schools that were free and accessible; however, this accessibility was limited to white students. While in Europe the rate of those graduating from academic high schools was only 10%-20%. Most Europeans, 40%-50%, attended full-or part-time vocational training.

“From the viewpoint of economics, this movement led to the increase of women’s labor force from 1930 to 1950 in the United States. Knowledge and skills women gained in high school helped them attain better jobs outside the home.

I didn’t know this. I did know that the transition the country was in from a farming-based economy to one less involved in farming made a great many farmers job’s superfluous. In the late 19th century, 40% of all jobs were in farming; now it is closer to 2-3%. As labor required more expertise to be effective, it became smart to keep kids in school longer. It also kept the kids out of the job market for non-farm related jobs.

So, greater prosperity for all and greater opportunities for women. Wow! But, wait, there’s more!

In the early 1960’s a combination of events lead to a similar expansion, this time in U.S. citizens going to college. In the mid-1800’s there was a tremendous growth in the number of four-year colleges, mostly in the western states. But, still, the number of colleges was relatively small. Also, the entrenched eastern colleges had different ideas regarding the purpose of a college education from the newer western colleges. The western colleges were more pragmatic, teaching subjects like engineering and mining and animal husbandry. The eastern colleges were more traditional, emphasizing philosophy, the arts, as well as the law and medicine. We have remnants of those disputes still today: in many eastern colleges the BA degree is considered superior to the “more pragmatic” BS degree. In the west, it is the reverse.

As few people went to high school as there were in the early 1900’s, the demand for students to take slots in U.S. colleges and universities was still being met. But in the early 1960’s there was a huge explosion in the number of community colleges. These were colleges which only addressed subjects that were addressed in the first two years of a tradition four-year program, hence their label as “two-year colleges.” At one point in California in the early 1960’s, a new community college was opening about one per week. Even though many derided these colleges as “high schools with ash trays” and pointed to programs in cosmetology and welding as being inappropriate topics for colleges, this expansion lead to a number of things: for one it lead to a great many students being able to afford a college education (I was one of those) and it allowed a great many more to attend college due to having one in close proximity. The State of California credits the expansion of the college-educated workforce for a great deal of the expansion of its economy, especial in areas like aerospace, electronics, and high tech (Silicon Valley, etc.).

As a community college professor (later), I remember entertaining delegations of Chinese educators coming to this country to see our colleges and universities and especially they wanted to see our two-year colleges. Nowhere else in the world was attendance in college being offered to so many citizens as was being done in the U.S.

So, since the expansion of education to a greater and greater share of the U.S. population has lead to unprecedented prosperity and well-being, you have to ask why are our public schools currently under attack? “Entrepreneurs” have high jacked the voucher school and charter school movements expanding those offerings substantially by siphoning off funds from public schools to do so. Of course, there was a disinformation campaign involved (a major weapon in the plutocrats arsenal). Our public schools were described as failing, not up to international standards, etc. “Evidence” was cherry-picked to support these false claims. And people have offered almost no resistance to these efforts resulting in the dismantling of our system of public schools and colleges. Why is this being done?

Oh, greed. Well, that explains it. There is money to be made in opening these “schools.” So much money that new stories of mismanagement and malfeasance at charter schools are now a daily occurrence. These schools, being offered as a promise to do better than the “failing public schools” are, of course, not doing better, most are about the same but many are far, far worse and many only do as well as they do by excluding “difficult” students: those “of color” and/or disabled.

This is another example of the Killing the Goose that Laid Golden Eggs Syndrome. You know how the parable goes: a goose is discovered that lays golden eggs. After extensive discussions, the owner of the goose is induced to kill the goose and harvest all of the eggs inside of it. (This is a terrifically stupid story in that anyone ever having lived on a farm knows that fowl take a day or more to create one egg; they aren’t egg dispensers having many eggs inside and just dispensing one a day.) Of course, killing the goose reveals no more eggs and now that the goose is dead, there will be no more eggs.

The Great American Economy was built not on capital and entrepreneurship, but on educating American workers so they became the most productive workers in the entire world. We are now in the process of destroying that educational base. I remember when “public education reform” was something done to make education better, not just more profitable for the rich.

Let me requote the above “The American system of education was characterized as open to many (mostly white) students, forgiving, lacking universal standards, and academic. On the other hand, the European system was closed, unforgiving, with uniform standards, and academic for some and industrial for others.” Why are we trying to take the system that worked so well and transforming it into the one we superseded?

Oh, greed, I forgot for a second.

And, you will notice that we denied this opportunity to people of color, to whole we offered only substandard educations. Why are we continuing this practice, a practice that has worked so poorly and not offered them what worked for white people?

Not with a bang, but with a whimper. Is this how you want to go out?



  1. Probably you ought to read up on the Morrill Act and the system that created land grant colleges, as well as on the Ford Foundation or the Carnegie Foundation and the expansion of community colleges, as well as the post-war GI Bill and the impact on 4 year institutions, especially public universities, which grew massively starting in the 1950s.

    It’s been decades since I read up on the history of American higher education (during the “Nation at Risk” report era), so I can’t be particularly helpful. Certainly the backlist of Jossey-Bass Publishers would have plenty to read.

    In any case, very good point about expansion of educational opportunities and economic growth. Now we need to focus on the quality or intensification of the quality of outcomes of an already expanded system. Not to mention, costs. We have a widespread system but because of the decline of funding, higher education is less available to lower income households. cf.

    The privatization theme is another element that is wholly different, not unlike how the new interpretation of the second amendment led to a rise in gun culture (and gun killings), the general neoliberal ideology has demonized “government” and even “government schools.”

    Comment by Richard Layman — January 15, 2017 @ 2:16 pm | Reply

    • I didn’t go into the land grant colleges as they weren’t a trigger of a general expansion, and the GI Bill while important didn’t lead to the building of a great many new colleges, and well the post was already getting a bit long. I have read extensively about the history of higher education, especially about efforts in the General Education area. And I was there for most of the community college expansion, both as a student and teacher.

      Comment by Steve Ruis — January 15, 2017 @ 9:00 pm | Reply

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