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Education’s Good Old Days – How Bad They Were

Attacking the public education system is probably one of the most popular and least-informed leisure activity in the United States. Behind this contempt for today’s public education lie ill-informed notions that things were better in the past.

As someone who went to school in that past – about 50 years ago – I feel qualified to report that the good old days were … pretty terrible. Offered for your consideration: P.S. 107 in Brooklyn, NY where I attended elementary school.

It was what’s now called “teacher directed” education. I call it potato-ricer schooling: Different sized and shaped potatoes go in, and uniform homogenous potato mash comes out.


We sat in straight lines – we had to because the desks were nailed to the floor. You were expected to work neatly, quietly and by yourself. Repetition and rote learning were the central pedagogical methods. Discipline was draconian. Although New York law prohibited hitting children, the verbal “discipline” was as bad – it just didn’t leave bruises.

High school was no improvement, even though my family now lived in upstate New York where I attended a highly ranked – high API, Affluent Parent Index – high school. I ping-ponged from high marks in what I was good at (English), to failing grades in what I wasn’t (mathematics – again, the model was teacher-directed: the teacher delivered the material, and if you couldn’t understand it, it was your fault), with ample class skipping to make life endurable.

Whereas in elementary school I sat mutely tormented by boredom, in high school I acquired a “bad attitude” for my inability to get with the “teacher directed” program. There was an interlude in my junior year when I was thrown out of three social studies classes because I disagreed with the teacher and said so.

First there was Thelma Trotty, for whom all history devolved on one singular principle: the systematic oppression of people of color. I disputed racism as the first cause of history and got tossed out of AP History.

Then there was Ethelea “Ma” Pecola, who wore rope braids wrapped around her ears – popular in the 1870s before Star Wars’ Princess Leia gave them a new lease on life a century later. For Ma, the first cause of history was Outside Communist Agitators. I similarly disputed this thesis, which sent me to Miss Frances Durkin’s class.

Frances was warming the classroom chair until she could retire happily with her pet Chihuahuas, about whose welfare we were apprised on a daily basis. I lacked patience for the Chihuahua updates, and so landed in Barbara Brace’s class.

Barbara was an early practitioner of what’s now called “student-directed” education. She and I conducted a semester-long analysis of the social, political and economic causes and consequences of the Civil War; uninterrupted by the snoozing football players and the winking sorority girls who, with me, occupied the bottom tier of the education system – the one that preceded expulsion.

As you might guess, my education left me ill equipped for the demands of higher education. I squeaked by my college freshman year – at the State University of New at Stony Brook, then New York’s premier druggie college – with a solid D-minus, despite never getting drunk, smoking pot, or taking LSD (I had already done all that in high school before I turned 18).

A couple of school-less years spent driving cross-country with my boyfriend and working for a San Francisco insurance company at the kind of job you get without a degree supplied a maturing interlude.

I returned to college with a new seriousness, immeasurably helped by being able to take classes that interested me, where thoughtfulness was generally encouraged. My hateful early math experiences – long division and trigonometry being the most detestable – led me to give math a wide berth.

I followed a BA in Music with an MS in Computer Systems (equivalent to what today is called Information Systems), and success in math courses that involved only zeros and ones, and required no cosine tables.

When I later realized that mathematics is full of fascination and beauty, it only increased my resentment toward my early education; which systematically stifled any fascination and beauty you might accidentally discover with one curt word: Irrelevant.

Fast-forward 30 years. I was shocked to discover that the au courant education fad was “back to basics.” And hip yuppie parents wanting to keep up educationally with the Joneses were elbowing to get ahead of a waiting list of 700+ at Millikin Basics; where instruction is “teacher initiated, directed, and supervised” and “repetition, review, and practice necessary to the mastery of the basic subjects is stressed.”

I know people whose children go to Millikin and I’m sure that even in the “back to basics” constellation things have changed in half a century. But just reading about Millikin Basics induces flashbacks to my childhood’s worst moments; requiring infusions of Ativan washed down with copious snifters of brandy simply to recover my composure.

Regardless of the educational Joneses, I swore my son would never experience the misery I did in school, even if that meant he wasn’t getting into Harvard.

He attended Village School in Campbell Union district – a parent-participation elementary school modeled on Washington Open, where “mutual respect, trust and acceptance are key in working together towards the common goal that every child shall succeed,” in an “environment [to] encourage children to develop positive self-concepts, work cooperatively with others and to learn from choices and firsthand experiences,” and in classrooms that “provide a flexible, enriching atmosphere that excites children, stimulates their natural curiosity for learning.”

Despite not being tormented with rote spelling drills and unmerciful hours of long division, he will nonetheless graduate from college this May with a BS in electrical engineering, a 4.0 average, and zero debt. It seems to me the proof is in the pudding.

As I wrote this, I became curious about what happened to P.S. 107, which was closed for fire code violations shortly after I left its infernal precincts.

Today, PS 107 is John Kimball Elementary School, and today’s hip, helicoptering Brooklyn parents are now fighting tooth and nail for admission. Kimball’s program features “integrated co-teaching,” where, in the principal’s words, “School has to be a place where kids are totally engaged…and where they feel respected and feel safe to take risks.”

I promise you, no such words ever crossed the mind, let alone escaped the perennially pursed lips, of PS 107 principal Miss Virginia Massimine. (Some things, however, haven’t changed. The school is still in discussions with the NYFD about those same code violations.)

From my perspective now, I’m thinking about my future grandchildren’s education. And here’s my main hope: that Common Core curriculum drives a stake through the heart of potato ricer education, and assessments – previously known as “tests” – focus on how to think instead of what to parrot.

Perhaps then we’ll have a 700+ waiting list for Washington Open.


1 Comment
  1. Rick Terrio 5 years ago

    I love your post!! You were dead on about NHS. I had the same experience most of same teachers. I had an even worse experience w drafting teacher – abusive and cruel. I should have gone to principal or sued. So many of us did poorly in college & flunked out. Like you I made it to CA and did well. I ended up with mba in DC. NHS was a disgrace – it ruined so many lives. No one knows the toll it took in drugs, alcohol, divorce & crime. Please say some more. This needs a national voice. There may be hundreds & thousands of NHS schools in every country. Best wishes & regards. Rick ‘66

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