September 26, 2008

In formidonis

A week ago or so, my daughter's composition class teacher assigned an essay that was clearly linked to the history class: not an essay, but Jonathan Edwards's Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741), the quintessential First Great Awakening sermon. I am not religious, certainly not Christian in any of its flavors, yet I think I recognize the emotion Edwards was trying to awaken in his listeners: terror.

Terror was the emotion that would drive listeners to convert, to join Edwards as a parishioner.

Terror is the term that we apply to those who would settle their grievances by wreaking violent havoc on the world.

Terror is the emotion that President Bush exploited to justify an ill-planned invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Terror is now what millions of Americans face in uncertain economic conditions.

Apart from questions that HR departments and unions have fielded about pension plans, what are the consequences for schools?

The major historical work on the Great Depression and education is Tyack, Hansot, and Lowe's Public Schools in Hard Times (1984), and it easily filled the historiographical space of "what we think we know about the subject but haven't yet seen written down in one place." Schools were hit fairly hard in the Depression, as were all public services—teachers had their share of payless paydays in cities that had insufficient revenue to meet payroll. That's on the downside. But the Depression was also the era when the majority of teenagers began attending high school for more than a collective smudge of time. The Depression did not entirely cause the switch in teen behavior: for several decades, children had been increasingly excluded from full-time work either because of the growth of child labor laws, employers' decisions that they didn't want underage workers, or in the 30s, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which encouraged Southern landowners to kick tenant and sharecropping farmers off the land. (The growth in mechanization of farming in the postwar era, together with a shift in cotton growing from the South to California, essentially finished the job as far as the 20th century trends were concerned.)

With few alternatives, high schools became the institution that absorbed millions of teenagers who would probably not have attended school at the same age in the 1920s. So, as the late Edward Krug has noted, though the federal government had New Deal programs that looked like they could be the institutions of youth (the NYA, WPA, CCC), public schools easily rebuffed that in the late 1930s and became an institutional reservoir for teens. The extent to which that's good is an open question: I would love to see a debate on that point between Claudia Goldin and Jeffrey Mirel.

The larger point, if there is one: don't assume that the educational consequences of an economic downturn are easily predictable. Some are: budget cuts are likely to be severe in many places. But the twists and turns of schools can surprise us. I'm not going to go all pollyanna and suggest that retrenchment will "enforce efficiency." That's happy talk b.s. (before scrutiny). But there are going to be surprising consequences from our current crisis. I'm not sure what they're going to be: when I received my history Ph.D., I got a rear-view mirror, not a crystal ball. But you don't need a history Ph.D. to know that something interesting in education will happen in the next year that would not have happened without the financial crisis.

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Posted in Education policy on September 26, 2008 12:57 PM |