Remember this Quote-of-the-Day from John Taylor Gatto's The Underground History of American Education?
I lived through the great transformation which turned schools from often useful places (if never the essential ones school publicists claimed) into laboratories of state experimentation. When I began teaching in 1961, the social environment of Manhattan schools was a distant cousin of the western Pennsylvania schools I attended in the 1940s, as Darwin was a distant cousin of Malthus.In the comments to The George Orwell Daycare Center, written two months before that QotD, I found this from reader DJ:
Discipline was the daily watchword on school corridors. A network of discipline referrals, graded into an elaborate catalogue of well-calibrated offenses, was etched into the classroom heart. At bottom, hard as it is to believe in today’s school climate, there was a common dedication to the intellectual part of the enterprise. I remember screaming (pompously) at an administrator who marked on my plan book that he would like to see evidence I was teaching "the whole child," that I didn’t teach children at all, I taught the discipline of the English language! Priggish as that sounds, it reflects an attitude not uncommon among teachers who grew up in the 1940s and before. Even with much slippage in practice, Monongahela and Manhattan had a family relationship. About schooling at least. Then suddenly in 1965 everything changed.
Whatever the event is that I’m actually referring to—and its full dimensions are still only partially clear to me—it was a nationwide phenomenon simultaneously arriving in all big cities coast to coast, penetrating the hinterlands afterwards. Whatever it was, it arrived all at once, the way we see national testing and other remote-control school matters like School-to-Work legislation appear in every state today at the same time. A plan was being orchestrated, the nature of which is unmasked in the upcoming chapters.
Think of this thing for the moment as a course of discipline dictated by coaches outside the perimeter of the visible school world. It constituted psychological restructuring of the institution’s mission, but traveled under the guise of a public emergency which (the public was told) dictated increasing the intellectual content of the business! Except for its nightmare aspect, it could have been a scene from farce, a swipe directly from Orwell’s 1984 and its fictional telly announcements that the chocolate ration was being raised every time it was being lowered. This reorientation did not arise from any democratic debate, or from any public clamor for such a peculiar initiative; the public was not consulted or informed. Best of all, those engineering the makeover denied it was happening.
I remember well the math lessons of the 3rd through 6th grades. During the 3rd through 5th grades, the textbooks used were a series for those grades by the same author and publisher. They taught arithmetic by explanation, example, and drill, and overwhelmingly they applied those lessons to the real world through innumerable story problems, as they were known at the time.Coincidence? I think not.
I dearly loved those story problems. They taught us to think. They taught the real-world use of arithmetic to answer questions and solve problems. They taught the use of algebra in simple, practical, useful ways, thereby making its later formal study easy.
Then came the sixth grade. We had a brand new textbook, with no curled page corners, no writing in the margins, no dirty fingerprints, and damned little in common with what we had used before. Your contrast between the classroom example of 1960 and 1970 (new math) is spot on. We were perhaps ahead of our time, as I was in the sixth grade from September, 1964, to May, 1965.
What I remember most about that textbook is that I didn't like it, the rest of the class hated it, and the teacher complained about it to us, in class. She did her best to teach what she would have taught had she still used the old textbooks, so we learned much more from the blackboard than from the book.
I recall a meeting between all the teachers of our school (grades 4-6) and the school board one afternoon just after class let out. I heard the voice of my teacher as she shouted at someone, which she rarely did, so I sneaked into the dark back of the auditorium where it was held. (I walked to and from school, so it didn't matter if I stayed late.) She ate out the board for having forced this textbook on us, and the Superintendent, a family friend whom I knew well, as he lived across the street from us, was bleeding from the ass before she was finished. The other teachers listened to her for about ten minutes, and then, when she sat down, they gave her a standing ovation. She kept her job. We kept using the textbook.