The Way School Used to Be

August 15, 2011

Back to school!

Over the next several days, millions of children and teenagers will head back to class.  There, they’ll learn important skills in math, reading, and doing holiday themed word searches and busy work.

And as parents, teachers, and students get their school supplies and classrooms ready, it reminds me of a few of the ways school has drastically changed, just since I was a student (which was not all that long ago.)  Sure, math and history hasn’t changed much.  But there are all kinds of things that used to be commonplace in every school, things that kids don’t even know they’re missing!

Five Things These Kids Are Missing In School

Computer Lab “Teachers”

Kids today have grown up so immersed in technology that they pretty much know how to program their own video games or send suggestive photos of themselves by the time they’re in fourth grade.  And they can pretty much count on their teachers to know as much about computers as they do.  Ten or fifteen years ago, it was a different story with the adults.  As schools cobbled together funding for computer labs, students were subjected to the agonizing weekly ordeal of an old schoolmarm trying to teach them to “double-click,” because that was as far as she had read in the owner’s manual.  Unbeknownst to the teacher, all the students were deftly playing The Oregon Trail or SimCity the entire time.

School Un-Security

Students today don’t know what school was like pre-Columbine.  Near the end of my school career, schools were installing cameras and keypads on the doors.  A week before graduation, I was hauled to the principal’s office for using a keycode to get in a door I was not supposed to know, a code which, unbeknownst to the administration, was known to 25% of the student body.

Students today take it for granted that schools are locked down, and while security seems cold and intimidating, there is an upshot.  No more mommies waltzing right down to little Johnny’s classroom because he forgot his lunch and embarassing him in front of everyone.  Missing lunches will be confiscated at the door, searched and x-rayed, and delivered by campus police.

Silence is Golden…and Mandatory

For centuries, learning was done in cold, dead silence.  The only background noise available during math time was that gross kid making farting sounds with his armpit, or someone throwing up in the hallway.

Now, students expect that their entire, mundane days should have a soundtrack like a dang movie, provided by their iPods.  Kids complain that they cannot “concentrate” without their “music.”

The irony is schools do not allow students to wear clothing that references to drugs, violence, sex or other inappropriate topics.  However, all these topics are just fine for students in the privacy of their own eardrums.  iPods are to teachers what TV is to busy parents.  They placate children so they don’t need attention.  And with all the busywork that students do, they have more hours than ever to pump sexist, violent, anti-social messages into their heads.

Reading, Writing, and Corporate Sponsorship

It used to be that students went to school to learn about math, science, and writing.  Now they get some of this, but they also get valuable corporate propaganda!

Just as I was in high school, the trend started of putting vending machines in schools.  Suddenly, high schoolers had a little more “choice” in spending their lunch money.

But it turned out, the vending machines came at a price higher than the snacks.  Suddenly, school assemblies were “sponsored” by Coca-Cola and other mega-corporations.  Their one purpose was to propagandize a captive audience of stupid kids, to turn us into loyal consumers.

Recognize him without the gray?

It wasn’t just vending machines.  Every TV in every classroom existed in exchange for students being forced to watch a propaganda reel each morning, thinly disguised as “news” (which was where Anderson Cooper and Lisa Ling got their starts.)

Cloudy with a Chance of Concussions

Finally on my list, the one area of school that seems to have gone backward in technology…


Kids used to enjoy the thrill of injuring themselves on all kinds of dangerous playground equipment at schools.  Merry-go-rounds, slides, jungle gyms, they all offered a myriad chances for broken bones and delightful schoolyard contusions.

Recess today in a lot of schools resembles something like recreation time in a prison yard, where students are issued a half-inflated ball and told to “play” in a parking lot or a bit of grass.  If playground equipment exists, it’s not nearly as fun as it used to be.  After all, half the fun of recess used to be never knowing when the fun would end with someone bleeding!

That’s it for my list.  How else has school changed since you were a little munchkin walking the halls?

22 responses to The Way School Used to Be

  1. Good old highschool computers classes. I remember being forced to show the teacher that I could google search before I could pass the class, even though I had taught myself basic HTML and built a basic website by then.

    Back when I was in school you could buy awesome junk food at school. There was all sorts of candy, icecream and many an Aussie child’s favourite- meat pies. Getting to buy your lunch rather than bring it from home used to make a kids week. If you had enough money to buy food for your friends, you were the coolest kid on the playground. From what I hear, most schools in Australia have now gone depressingly healthy.

    • Yeah, junk food for lunch was the new hotness when I was in school. Fruit snacks still count as fruit, right?

    • My son is is only in grade 5, so he doesn’t have cafeterias yet but their weekly hot lunch program has been introduced by the Ladies who Lunch society – they have such offerings as sushi, pita with tofu, beef sliders. My son’s favourite day is still hotdogs (here’s hoping they don’t take that off the menu). Don’t these women have kids?

  2. Knives!

    Knives and how to use them.

    That’s a shocking change in my view. When I was a kid, no boy in school was fully dressed without a pocket knife.

    When the teacher needed to cut open a box of books or cut the cord binging a packet of materials, she’d ask, “Who has the sharpest knife?” and a dozen guys would whip out their knives and it was a matter of pride if she picked your knife among many offered.

    And guess what–never once did I even hear of anyone being clumsy enough to cut his own hand, and I certainly never heard of anyone getting cut by anyone else.

    Different story now, I suppose. Different, and poorer, world.

    John Cowart

  3. You definitely hit on about every single thing I’ve noticed as well. Which is why I’ll never be a teacher – I’d want things to be how they were when I was in school because, hey, I turned out alright!

  4. Great blog, Matt! I took computer science in 1972 and we put our programs on punch cards. It was great until I dropped mine in a puddle at the bus stop!

    History HAS changed. There has been a trend to write history with the a new perspective bound in political correctness. We are seeing the censoring of certain historical terms (but not sexual). The worst is the judging of certain historical events with biased views as if they took place today. It is like Ahmadinejad saying that the Holocaust never happened! (I am also concerned that we use the Internet as some sort of “source” for true scholarship.)

    I don’t think that most schools are more dangerous. My mother taught in the inner city and there were cops in the hallways in the late 1950’s! I don’t have any problem with better security, there were a few hooligans in my suburban schools that brought knives and guns to school. there were bullies, and I am sure a few shake downs in the boy’s bathroom.

    We always had recess, and intramural sports. Of course in high school we had team sports too. It seems sad that in an effort to supposedly bring up levels of education, they have cut out exercise? Then we have an obesity problem – if I correctly recall, 2+2=4. I thin one of the things that Europe has right is longer school days, and shorter summer vacations.

    What has changed is that use of both government and corporate propaganda (why can’t they just sponsor rides at Disney World?). It seems as if everything is based on some sort of spin, an not on facts. They ram facts down your throat, have little debate, and rarely give kids time to think through answers.

    And finally, agenda driven curriculumas – need I say more on that?

    (I taught at two Christian schools, and one prestigious boarding school. None allowed the histrionic Walkman’s during school hours, or t-shirts with anything written on them.)

  5. Schools used to teach penmanship, too. But that was long gone by the time my two boys started school. I can recall a presentation at a school open house, and the 8th grade teachers were proudly showing examples of creative writing on an overhead projector. Looking at page after page of handwritten projects, I had to ask the question: Did any of the 8th graders write in cursive? There was an embarrassed silence, and then one of the terachers explained that penmanship was something they taught when they had time. Translation: it’s no longer taught.

    • That’s definitely been taken out of the schools in my area. So sad – my son will never be able to read a handwritten note from me or anyone else, unless I print it. I guess I’ll have to text him to tell him I love him.

    • I know about that. My mom is an elementary teacher and with all the standardized tests they have to teach for mow there is no time for penmanship.

    • The only penmanship I have the opportunity to do myself is a very occasional signature on the back of a credit card every few years. My world is very much a digital one, and I had a paperless office since 1994. It’s a good thing too, the doctors receptionist said that I had penmanship worse than the doctor himself. Being the best of the worst is not really an accomplishment.

  6. You are right–most schools have crappy computer teachers.

    But I want to take a moment to brag on my mom (because it’s her birthday). She is an elementary computer teacher who was a computer science major in collge. She has those babies learning far more than I ever did in class.

    My mom does not have one bit of teaching background, but is well versed in her field of study=a great teacher. Some of my teachers over they years had tons of teaching, but no deep knowledge of their specialty.

  7. Your blog brought back lots of memories from my school years! I remember learning about the binary code, floppy disks (remember when they were actually floppy?) and playing Oregon Trail from my grade school computer lab teacher. I grew up in a really small town so we never had security or corporate sponsorship at school, and I doubt they have much now. But I can’t say for sure. I certainly remember how much fun recess was. You’re right about kids getting hurt – it was almost inevitable, but not really a big deal. I injured myself during recess one morning, which led to lots of stitches, surgery and a facial scar that I still have (23 years later). But I’m pretty sure my parents never thought that “recess” was the one to blame! When I take my kids (age 3 and 18 months) to the playground, I encourage them to do things that push their limits and their safety a little bit. I absolutely do not want my kids to be sissies! haha

  8. Some of the changes you mention are outside my realm of experience in Canadian schools. For example, as far as I know high schools, not even inner city schools, don’t have security.

    You also didn’t mention cell phones. My son expects that when he is high school (grade 8 here), he will have a cell phone. Some of his friends already have one. I’m shocked and amazed that students are allowed to use their cell phones during school hours. The use of a cell phone in class is up to the discretion of the teacher.

    And the city that I live in still put great value on recess and outside. As a city-wide initiative, all children in grade K-8 are required to have 20 minutes of cardio exercise a day. This is outside of regular gym class. In my day, we weren’t required, we just did it.

    And I loved the merry-go the best, not being whipped off felt like such an accomplishment. If you could get a teacher to spin it – even better because they had more powerful spins.

  9. “No more mommies waltzing right down to little Johnny’s classroom because he forgot his lunch and embarassing him in front of everyone. Missing lunches will be confiscated at the door, searched and x-rayed, and delivered by campus police.” That had me laughing as I pictured “The Terminator” stopping by Johnny’s desk, dropping the lunch in front of him as he tells Johnny that his mom stopped by.

    I don’t have much to say about how school has changed because I homeschool my kids. Like, public school, it is not a perfect system because it is run by imperfect people (my husband and I), but it does keep the indoctrination, and corporate sponsorship out of their lives and introduces them to God and the Bible. I do know, however, that due to funding cuts, the local public school had a community cleanup day and asked parents to donate high pressure washers and elbow grease for the event.

    I do miss the playground equipment that could break legs (teeter totter), knock the wind out of you (flying off of merry go rounds) and force you to conquer your fear of heights and practice balance(jungle gyms).

  10. As the kiddies head back to school, I reflect that it is the beginning of the twenty-second year that I shall not be there to greet them. tra la!

    On a related note, what is this “school” of which you write?

  11. My son started the 2nd grade on August 1st (we are in an area that does the year round schooling– 9 weeks on, 3 weeks off— so he starts the new school year a little earlier than some).

    The “security” is a little stronger than when I was in school— but no metal detectors. Maybe that starts in middle school. I do have to check in at the office and have an ID badge printed off with my photo on it, if I want to go anywhere in the school during normal school hours. And during teacher conferences, come to think of it. They also have a pretty slick video camera surveillance system, which you can see as you get your little photo ID badge in the office.

    There are no vending machines, and lunch seems to have pretty much the same fare that I remember in elementary school. Pizza, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, spaghetti, and the like. I think they require the kids to take at least one vegetable side…so, yay for health, or something.

    There is no computer class, but my son does have a “media” class. As far as I can tell, they teach him how to find educational games on the internet to play….. either that, or he learned that neat trick himself….

    As far as recess goes, they have 4 different playgrounds, all of which are pretty awesome. So, recess is still loads of fun at my son’s school, at least.

  12. I’m not convinced by all the arguments about teaching kids technology. Yes, we need to keep kids trained and up to date to work in technology careers but it seems the overwhelming majority of their technology time is spent on activities that have no real value.

  13. I cannot remember that far back, I think a kid in my class went on to invent fire though.