05 May 2009

Literature & Education: High School for Everyone

By Delia DeLeest

The relative affluence of the twentieth century, as well as a general exodus of the majority of the population from farming life into the cities, brought about an unexpected change. Education was no longer just for the well to do but was now brought to the masses.

No longer needed to work the farm or, in many cases, to help provide for the family in other ways, young people had the opportunity to continue school past eighth grade and enter high school. Along with more education, young people also received a new name...teenagers. The term wasn't used previous to the 1920s.

It use to be that working for the family was considered more important than getting an education. I suppose if you compare learning algebra to providing food for the dinner table, they were probably right. But as people moved out of the country, they no longer needed the entire family to keep things moving. The head of the family could bring home a paycheck, which bought things previously thought to be luxuries such as canned food, ready made clothing and manufactured soaps and toiletries. The mass production of such things made them cost effective for the average American family, thus, allowing kids to remain kids much longer than past generations.

They didn't just receive an education in high school either. One of my favorite books I refer to during my writing is a 1927 yearbook from a high school in Chicago that I received from a friend. I was surprised to see basketballs teams, drama club, an organized group that focused on charity, and even a posture contest. Apparently there was more than reading, writing and arithmetic going on in those hallowed halls. Another thing that shocked me was that this particular school was integrated. I'm not sure how common this practice was across the country, but interspersed among the traditional white students were a fair number of African Americans. I'd always thought that "separate but equal" was the rule across the United States, but I was happy to see that apparently this wasn't the case. Sometimes I think we give our ancestors a bum rap they don't always deserve.