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PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION - HUMBUG

Story ID:11486
Written by:Christine Auburn (bio, contact, other stories)
Organization:1934
Story type:Story
Location:Center Line Michigan United States
Year:1950
Person:Educators
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PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION - HUMBUG

It’s still there. I remember it well. It was called Busch High School in the 1950s. It was the place I acquired the knowledge of a chimpanzee – zilch. The school is still on Busch Street but it’s now called Center Line High, and it appears they’ve changed their pedagogy methods. When I googled it, I learned that Center Line High School, according to the 2017 U.S. News & World Report, had earned the Bronze Award for Best High Schools in Macomb County, Michigan. Zowie!

What I endured in the 1950s was a pitiful version of Progressive Education. It was John Dewey who would eventually be named as the father of Progressive Education. Dewey believed that the school, as a “little democracy” could create a “more lovely society.” As a pathetic failure of the Progressive Education experiment, I politely beg to disagree. Citing one interpretation of Dewey from pbs.org/onlyateacher/timeline, both teachers and students needed to be free to devise the best forms of learning for each child.

Every morning I slogged my way to school where I knew full well I was trespassing through private farmland. If the weather was especially rainy or if we had a deep snow from the night before, I might have taken the long way. In that case I was obliged to pass the house of the nosy neighbor and then walk several blocks down Lawrence Street. Of course, I stopped at my Aunt Stella’s mini-grocery on the corner of Ten Mile Road to see what yummy Polish foods were in the glass display case. That meant I would also pass Flatengen’s where I was further tempted to spend my milk money on a Hershey bar. I rarely did because I didn’t like being late. My brother, two years younger than I, regularly spent his 25 cents on a package of cigarettes with 3 new shiny new pennies in change.

I hated my high school years. I didn’t hate school, just my school. What galled me were my classes – well, just one class. What I endured wasn’t called Progressive Education; my school called it Combined Studies. Unlike high schools of today, it was English, Social Studies, History, and Math all rolled into one.

My entire class year enrollment was fewer than eighty students divided into two sections. Each section spent four hours in one room with one teacher! My room was taught by Mrs. White and the other supervised by Mr. Arnold. I had heard rumors that Mr. Arnold’s class was fun, although I seriously doubt they learned any more than we did.

We learned nothing in our Combined Education class – no English, history, social studies, or math. We sat in circles of five to six, or maybe it was seven. I was a nonentity and perhaps my classmates were as well. Except for lunch hour, one year of Biology and electives, we bided our time in that one classroom from morning to lunch. Mrs. White, bless her, seldom uttered a word. She sat on her elevated dais which spanned the width of the classroom and read French literature. All day every day.

For my three years there, we were offered no instruction: no books, no workbooks, no homework, no lectures, no assignments, and no tests. As far as I can judge, the concept might have been that the leaders among us would lead while the followers would follow. In sum, we would learn to be cooperative with one another. We didn’t.

I won’t admit that I learned nothing in those three years. I had fun listening to whispered conversations in library science, and I learned that there existed a system for classifying books. I was a super typist, yet I don’t remember a single project from art class.

I learned a great deal of life’s lessons from Mr. Reginald Eldred, my music teacher, although I probably didn’t recognize it at the time. Everyone was required to take one semester of music. I was told I had a voice and could join the school choir. Out of the school choir emanated the acapella choir. I was a star, even if just one among 20 other stars.

In acapella I learned that it takes many parts to make up a team. I learned that focus is critical and practice makes perfect. I learned that trust and leadership are essential to complete a job. As an acapella choir member, to sing in harmony means singing no louder than the singer on either side of you. That entails careful listening. As a bonus, music always improved my mood. I gained a camaraderie that was unavailable in any other part of the school.

Being naturally shy, what I learned in Combined Education was to be more reserved. Being shy is not all bad. You know how to listen which, in turn, can help toward a more caring and empathetic person. While I was among the quiet ones, I watched presumed leaders become more noisy and belligerent.

I wasn’t judged for being shy in high school or maybe I really didn’t care anyway. Friendships were hard; I had none. There were two girls among my classmates whom I admired, so I made efforts at modeling their particular mannerism. I distinctly remember an attractive long-haired blonde girl who articulated with remarkable flair. From then on I attempted to speak distinctly without my ethnic accent. I watched another girl who consistently displayed the most elegant manners during lunch hour. She sat straight, unhurriedly unfolded her napkin, and placed it delicately on her lap. I had been taught never to chew with my mouth open but I was impressed that she never did even while lunching with other classmates.

In my senior year of high school, my family relocated to what I might classify as ‘Middle America.’ Royal Oak was only 8 miles away but from my blue collar neighborhood it was definitely middle class.

The new school was hard pressed to put me into grade-appropriate classes. In my neglected Combined Education past, I had had no didactic instruction. Without three prior years of English, I was placed into Advanced Speech where no one received less than a C grade; I received the C. Lucky for me, another year of mathematics was not required; that surely would have prevented my graduation. By state law, I was compelled to take one semester of Government and another of U.S. History. I knew Government would be the harder for me so I chose to take it the first semester. I failed of course -- with a grade of F. I retook it the second semester and received a D. I passed U.S. History with a D.

Other than those two requirements, I was placed in Red Cross Aid, Home Economics, and Child Care. I received my sheepskin and marched across the auditorium stage with my new classmates.

It was only in college that I learned to invent myself and take risks. I will be forever grateful to the intake counselor from University of Detroit, an esteemed Jesuit University, who probed the longings of a young girl and recognized her eclectic proficiencies. The counselor admitted me as a probationary student in spite of a severely limited academic competency from a school that had completely failed me. I won’t even begin to say how hard that was without a simple education.

My basic knowledge, I would discover, was appalling. I knew what a noun was but not too sure about a pronoun, let alone a verb. Was that something to eat or draw? I couldn’t tell East from West, North from South, vice versa. History? What history?

I give praise to God for gifting me with an innate ability to read well. I learned about learning in my first few grades of my rural Bad Axe, Michigan one-room school. One of Mrs. Erb’s methods was for the older children to assist the younger. Together, as a team, we learned not only the Three Rs but also cooperation, collaboration, and perseverance. Combined Education provided none of these.

Two educators have made an astounding difference in my life – one from my earliest years and the other from the start of my adult life. It was hard. That’s what life is all about. It’s about overcoming your personal roadblocks and becoming a better person. I can honestly say I am a hundred percent different person than what came out of my high school. May I humbly propose that a modest beginning can be the beginning of a noble existence.