After the War, teacher self advocacy remained muted but other sectors of the culture ramped up to alter public education as the primary tool for building a modern society, and with it, the public’s perception of what it meant to be a teacher.
The movie movement began in earnest to influence the perception of public education. In 1955 Hollywood chose to highlight violence in “The Blackboard Jungle”. Rather than providing an impetus to problem solving, it became a rationale for criticism and downgrading of public education’s image. On Broadway and soon in theaters, “Inherit the Wind” presented the right of a public school teacher, John Scopes, to teach evolution. That argument is still current today and had a similar effect. Even though it may have been meant to advocate for academic freedom, it tended to present the teacher as an agent not subject to cultural control. This was in contrast to the benign and sentimental portrayal in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” of the previous decade.
In the emerging world of television, Our Miss Brooks, played by Eve Arden, teaches English at Madison High, rents a room from Mrs. Davis, gets rides to school with student Walter, fights with Principal Conklin, and tries to snag shy biology teacher Boynton. It is significant that in the last year she switches to Mrs. Nestor’s private school.
Playing a witty, no-nonsense teacher, Miss Brooks is seen as a force not to be fooled, yet only within the walls of her classroom. Outside of this small arena, she is still unfulfilled romantically and so poor she cannot afford her own transportation to her classroom. Little attention is placed on her skills; rather it is her disciplinary attitude that is emphasized. She’s a good kid keeper.
Television wasted no time in launching its own educational or children’s content, piped directly into the children’s living room. Tucked in between westerns, cozy family scenarios, and crime dramas were Captain Kangaroo, Kukla Fran and Ollie, Romper Room, or HowdyDoody.
Children and their world were suddenly the important person, somewhat autonomous, and the focus on the show. While the family shows treated the younger members as part of the unit, Leave It to Beaver focused on a bewildered younger brother, Dennis the Menace presented mischievious behavior as funny, and Lassie featured boy’s best friend.
Quiz shows awarded money for knowledge. However The Rebel introduced the concept that being against authority could be a good trait. The Twilight Zone stood alone in exploring imagination and more serious perspectives on human nature. These shows began to change what people perceived as acceptable or desirable in family life, society, and even where learning could be found.
Meanwhile male scholars were busy, ramping up their views of how to model education by focusing on what they thought was wrong with it. Proposals for new school models included Bruno Bettelheim’s work in 1950, Milton Friedman proposed school vouchers in 1955, and John Goodlad proposed ungraded schools as the decade came to a close.
Major criticism of public education was led by Arthur Bestor, Jr., who complained about educational standards in 1953, calling education “a wasteland” and Rudolph Fleish explained why Johnny couldn’t read in 1955.
The red herring of the space race was laid at education’s feet when Life magazine wasted no time in comparing U.S. and Soviet systems of education in 1958 after the October 4, 1957 launch of Sputnik. Not to be outdone, C.P. Snow published “The Two Cultures” in 1959 claiming that the separation between science and humanities was hindering our ability to solve social problems. This set a precedent for laying any perceived cultural problem at the door of the teacher, who was heavily supervised and shackled in what she could and could not present.
In the higher realms of the universities, Harvard had time to agonize over whether we could afford academic freedom in 1951. In contrast to Snow, in the same year Talcott Parsons had explained how education was a socializing force. Two years later how public schools dealt with religion was studied. Benjamin Bloom sought to categorize education into a hierarchy with his Taxonomy in 1956. To this day, this is one of the more useful developments that have practical benefits for teahcers.
During this decade Kingsley Amis published a satire about the academic world called “Lucky Jim.” Meanwhile a real Lucky Jim, Ivan Dixon, who later starred in “Hogan’s Heroes” and many other dramas, graduated from Lincoln Academy, a refuge for black students during segregation, claiming that “that school saved my life.” (http://schugurensky.faculty.asu.edu/moments/#50s) And in 1957 women had to disguise themselves as men to sneak into a campus lecture by John F. Kennedy. (http://schugurensky.faculty.asu.edu/moments/1957sarick.html)
But the voices that supported public education teachers were well muted. Critics would become even more strident in the next decade.