High School Education-Fifty Years Ago
I entered James Monroe High School in the Bronx, New York in 1944 as World War II raged throughout the world. New York City had both three and four year high schools due to the existence of junior high schools which had three year programs. Elite high schools like Bronx High School of Science were four, but James Monroe only had grades 10 through 12. It was the largest high school in the world with about 12,000 students. Those of us who had been in the Rapid Advancement(RA) program were kept together in special classes. The tenth grade would identify students in this manner–10A-1, 10A-2,…. 10A -40, and so on. My friend Pete was in 10A-42 and dropped out after a semester because the teacher referred to his class as the “dumb ones.”
The auditorium of James Monroe seated over 2,000 students and its stage reputably was only exceeded in size by Radio City Music Hall. Some students were in commercial programs which emphasized secretarial skills for girls and we did have an auto shop and woodworking shop. Those in the RA program were educated to go to college. It was assumed most would attend the city colleges which were free in those days. Our teachers made clear there were quotas in private colleges for Jews and it was difficult for those of east European Jewish background to get accepted. I believe the writer and great literary critic, Lionel Trilling, in the 1930s was the first Jewish professor in the English Department of Columbia University.
The high school curriculum for RA students was exclusively academic and we no longer had any experience with skills like printing. I was among those students pulled out of classes for special “language training” because we had a “New York City accent.” Each class had about thirty five students and we no longer did extensive group work as was common in junior high school. The dominant mode of instruction was lecture-discussion. We had a “Home Room” teacher who served as our counselor and made certain our program met standards of the city college system. There was a lunchroom and I began to bring a sandwich to eat at lunch.
Most of our teachers had entered the profession in the thirties and the men were too old for the armed forces so it was rare, due to the draft, to have a teacher in his twenties. I have been in social studies education for over fifty years and still believe our social studies department at James Monroe was far superior to any I have encountered in my education career. Our social studies department had two people who had a Ph.D, and three men who had been lawyers. They were passionate, dedicated, and engaged classes in high level intellectual discussions.
In social studies classes, a student was expected to get on her/his feet and discuss topics. Most teachers referred to us as: Mr. Stopsky or Ms. Goldstein, not by our first names. My favorite social studies teacher was Mrs. Wallach. She sponsored a History Club that had over a hundred members and we met weekly for discussions. I vividly recall the first day in her class. I was talking with my friends before class began and did not realize she was behind me. Mrs. Wallach tapped me on the shoulder and asked my name. She smiled and said, “oh, David’s little brother and I am certain you all are from Bryant Avenue.”
Most of my social studies teachers openly said they were Socialists– Eugene Victor Debs Socialists– and had no hesitation discussing controversial issues. It was in these social studies classes that I first encountered extensive discussion of Negro issues and the evils of segregation. We learned about the ideas of Booker T. Washington, but Paul Robeson was the one our teachers most admired. Robeson was a social activist who openly challenged segregation. I must emphasize my high school did not resemble American high schools due to the presence of such a liberal faculty.
Due to the war, we constantly discussed issues in the world. Our social studies teachers were engaged in the world around them, not just in the past. We spent over two weeks in 1945 discussing the formation of the United Nations and its implications for the future.
As I look back, it is clear we devoted as much time to current events as to the past of American and world history. The mode of instruction was– Mrs. Wallach would discuss some topic, raise a question or issue and then we would discuss it. If we did not get engaged, she might pick up a blackboard eraser and heave it against the back wall and tell us to get with it. It was the passion of our teachers in social studies that most impacted me.
I was a terrible math student and struggled in the geometry and trigonometry classes of Mrs. Klingerfuss. She would present a math lesson, we would go to the blackboard and do examples, then back to our seats for more examples. It was rote memory and I never understood what was being taught. In science classes, we were introduced to the idea of a science lab and did experiments along with learning from the textbook. Again, the emphasis was on memory. Ironically, in this very liberal school, the ideas of Eugenics were very popular. Few science teachers grasped that Hitler was carrying out the ideas of Eugenics they were teaching. The essence of the Eugenics movement was by sterilization the world could end families that produced thieves and mentally deficient people.
There were no provisions, as far as I could recall, for students who had emotional or mental issues. You were smart, stupid or in between. On my block we had two boys who obviously were of very low IQ. Hymie would be given tasks by store owners so he could earn some money, but I don’t recall him ever going to school. A local community would find ways to assist children who were classified as “mentally deficient,” not the school system. I do not recall any blind or crippled students in class.
Due to the size of the school and the limited number of boys who could make an athletic team, we had an extensive intra-mural athletic program for home room classes. There were no girl teams and girls did not participate in the intra-mural program. My home room class in the 11th grade played for the basketball championship of the school– we lost by one point. The great disappointment of my school life.
We had an extensive theater program and plays were put on throughout the year. We had a large band program–girls were obviously in both theater and band programs. We continued having “music appreciation” sessions during which we listened to classical music to give us “some culture.” Art programs could best be described as “terrible” and we continued “coloring within the lines.”
World War II was constantly in our minds. Boys in senior year knew they would graduate and enter the armed forces. In that time period, to enter the armed forces was considered the height of patriotism. This may have been a factor which got many boys who otherwise would not be political, to think about current events. During World War II, President Roosevelt insisted Americans see pictures of dead soldiers in order to understand reality, and the Japanese blundered by showing pictures of the beheading of American prisoners. Even in my Jewish neighborhood, hatred of the Japanese was more pronounced than hatred of Germans.
My informal education was still an important factor in learning. My best friend, Pete, dropped out of school and entered the apprenticeship program of the photoengravers union where his father worked. Many boys who dropped out of school got into an apprenticeship program. Pete spent three years delivering packages around New York City. Pete was over six feet tall, blond haired and quite handsome with a wonderful smile. He would walk into book stores and ask: “which book should I read?” Through Pete I was introduced to the works of Sartre, Gide, Camus, Celine, Hemingway, Faulkner, Orwell, and one day he went into the James Joyce Book store which led me to the writings of Joyce.
In English class I would be reading “Green Mansion” but together with Pete I would be reading Orwell’s “Down And Out In Paris and London” or the esoteric writings of Andre Gide and eventually all the great Russian writers. Of course, neither one of us knew “what we should learn from the book” but just read and learned whatever we got from them. By age 18 I had read what most English majors in college would have studied by their senior year. And, I doubt if one in ten had read the works of Louis Ferdinand Celine.
I never once referred to my private readings in an English class. My English teacher, Mrs. Klaff, would make us go through a book chapter by chapter and she would ask recall questions and then give the Friday quiz. I preferred reading books and thinking about their ideas, and in my discussions with Pete we might even stumble onto a key concept. By the way, many boys who were not in RA classes read books like “Suds Lonnigan” by James T. Farrell who was a noted author. A majority of boys on my block who were not into academics read books.
We forget that it was not until the post WWII G.I.Bill of Rights that mass college education became available to average people. Bright students dropped out of high school for economic reasons but still retained an intense desire for learning. In many work places workers still hired a “reader” who would read books while men and women worked.
I inhabited a “male world” in which girls played scant role. I did not date although some boys were actively involved in social life and attended school dances. Athletics were very important to boys in my neighborhood and an individual attained “status” based on athletic ability, not book learning. As “Big Al” would often say to me, “Yeah, you got a college degree, but you still need a nickel to get a ride on the subway.” We were typical first generation immigrants who aspired to enter the American ethos through means of sports, entertainment or crime. Playing the “numbers” or gambling were common among my boys my age since they were part of ghetto culture.
As I look back on my high school days, our teachers conveyed a sense of hope for the future. The Depression was over, Hitler and the Japanese had been defeated, there was a UN which would avoid mistakes of the League Of Nations, and America no longer had an isolationist mentality. The death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945 shocked us since for a child my age, he was the only president we had known since childhood. I expected to attend City College of New York along with my friends in the RA classes, but I had absolutely no idea about a career choice. Optimism was in the air in 1945, but within a few years as the Cold War began, many felt confused concerning the future.
My generation most probably fit into the closing years of the Dewey movement in education. By the fifties, it was difficult to experience Dewey’s ideas of democracy for children and intense citizenship education as part of the school curriculum. Fear of communism and atomic war permeated schools leading to indoctrination more often than education. McCarthyism was in full swing. I welcomed the sixties and the Open Education movement because it was an extension of Dewey. Nor was it surprising that many Open Education leaders connected their ideas to Dewey. During my fifty years in education, John Dewey’s philosophy of education has always remained dominant in my teaching philosophy. It reminds me of childhood experiences with some wonderful teachers.
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