Monday, November 22, 2010

What was school like 80 years ago?

I listened to John Merrow's podcast with Alfie Kohn with my wife's 93 year old grandfather.

The moment it was over, he said, "you know, we never said a word in school. We sat there in our desks and the teacher talked."

"Did you ever raise your hand," I asked.

He laughed, "oh God no. Almost never. I wouldn't dare. You know Shannon (another one of his grand-daughters who teaches grade three) teaches and she says her kids are always talking and discussing and working together."

Bennie then said, "You know, I left school with a lot of questions."

I could see this last comment was said with a sad, regretful tone.

"I was kind of bashful, and I felt like I just shouldn't interrupt the teacher. But you know, years later, I was talking to a Wildlife Officer and he was giving a seminar on some such topic and he told us not to be afraid to ask questions - after all, there's probably a 160 other guys waiting to ask the same question."

I could tell that Bennie took great relief in knowing that his questions were falling on a safe crowd.

"You know, to me grade 9 was a chore, but grade 10, 11 were more enjoyable."

So I asked him, "What was the difference?"

"In 1935, I was in grade 9 and, I had a coal oil lamp. It gave off a kind of red light - not bright at all. But then for grade 10 and 11 we went to a gas lamp - it gave off far better light.

"After grade 10, my old man said he couldn't afford to send me to school, but mom said go ahead and register and he'll have to pay the five dollars a month."

"Was 5 dollars too much money?"

"Well, when you didn't have much, anything is too much, but no - we could afford it. Dad just wanted me to stay home and help him on the farm."

Bennie then asked me, "what grades did you like?"

"Well, I really liked learning about the World Wars. I like the tanks and the aeroplanes. I then got interested in the politics as I learned about Hitler, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt. But you got to remember that I was interested in learning about this at home on the Internet."

"Oh, well I learned everything from the radio."

I explained, "when you listened to the radio, you had to listen to whatever they decided to tell you. Imagine if you could have told the radio to share with you what you wanted to hear about - that's the Internet."

He shook his head with disbelief, "oh, wow. That would have been something else."

He's right.

I really enjoyed my chat with Bennie.


  1. I need to talk to my grandfather about his experience of school.

  2. What I like is first person accounts of real events like this. This is the place to (1) start a discussion, (2) get more data, (3) explore possiblities.


  3. My great grandmother passed away over the summer at 104 years old. I wish I had asked her some of these questions before she moved on. I know about her life in Germany during Nazi reign and her escape to the US, but I know nothing of her pre-war education in the early 1900s.

    One of the nice things about teaching college, though, is that my students share their education histories with me. Several of my students spent their early years of education in other countries. I love hearing about their experiences.

    I think what you have here could make an interesting assignment. I think students could learn a lot by asking older generations about their learning experiences and comparing them to their own.

  4. Such a great idea sharing stories of school from long ago. This would make a great series or even it's own blog. You know with testimonials, video, podcasts etc....What School Was Like.

  5. What a great post! I regret not sitting and documenting my many afternoons spent with my Gramma. The changes in technology she witnessed in her 86 years on this planet are mind blowing. It is nice to go beyond the events and reflect on the cultural context. I should have asked more questions - different questions.


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