A VIEW from LICK SKILLET: Life and learning in US as it was a century ago

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By Gerald Largen

As the reader may know, Sunday’s News Sentinel’s Life section featured a fascinating article on three local centenarians, including one hundred year old Walter Pulliam.

Although a great deal of the article relates Walter’s accomplishments, including his career with the Army in WWII, moving from Infantryman to working on Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper, through his newspaper career with the Washington Post and with the News Sentinel, but curiously enough, not a single mention is made of his long final episode as editor, publisher, and owner of the Harriman Record and its subsidiary publications.

We may at some time correct this omission, but for today, we wish to refer to a supplementary table that ran with the story on these centenarians which lists some fascinating statistics.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 53,364 persons are 100 and older in the USA.

Of these less than 20 percent are of the male persuasion, meaning that there are over four lassies to every laddie in the centenarian classification!

We males wear out a lot quicker it seems.

The table then gave a long list of facts relating to the way things were in the year 1910.

To better orient the reader, you will recall that 1910 was four years before war broke out in Europe to start World War I, a.k.a. “The War to End War”, and seven years before the U.S. entered that war.

It was also nine years before the Eighteenth Amendment outlawing beverage alcohol was adopted and ten years before it began to be enforced, (and 13 years before it was Repealed.)

It was also ten years before women got the vote by passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

William Howard Taft was entering his second year as president, following Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt.

With this background, here are some of the items listed by Bonnie L. Callen, R. N., PhD, U. T. School of Nursing, describing life in the United States in 1910:
• Eight percent of homes had a telephone.
• There were 8,000 cars in the U.S. and 144 miles of paved roads. The maximum speed limit in most cities was 10 mph.
• Only 14 percent of homes had a bathtub. (And other indoor plumbing?}
• The average U. S. wage was 22 cents per hour.
• Sugar cost four cents a pound.
• More than 95 percent of births took place at home. The average life expectancy for men was 47 years.
• Ninety percent of doctors had no college education. They attended medical schools, many of which were condemned in the press and by the government as substandard.
• Marijuana, heroin, and morphine were sold over the counter at pharmacies.
• The five leading causes of death were pneumonia and influenza; tuberculosis; diarrhea; heart disease; and stroke. There were about 230 murders reported in the country in a year.
• And finally, only six percent of Americans had graduated from high school.

Although all the foregoing items are of interest, it is the last one which we find most interesting, and of most relevance to the present day.

If only six percent of the Americans of 1910 had graduated from high school, then 94 percent had less than a high school education, and, in fact it is likely that half or more of that 94 percent had less than an eighth grade education.

So, it must have been a really ignorant country — right?

Well, not really.

In point of fact these people with their paucity of “book-larning” had moved the frontier to the point where there were 45 states in the union and three more would soon qualify.

They had built the railroads knitting together the continent, and the telegraph and telephone so that the continent could communicate as well as travel.

They had established the USA as a world-class power, and engaged in external adventures in Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, etc., as well as worldwide commerce selling the produce of our farms, forests, mills and mines around the globe.

Our inventors held their own with the most eminent of Europeans in devising agricultural equipment, business machines, cars, and aeroplanes, and other devices, and then exploiting them by manufacture and sale.

Now, we do not mean to belittle the benefits of education, far from it. But there are many forms and fashions of education, and we seem to have been caught up in that expression once applied to television, i.e. the medium is the message.

Well, it isn’t.

The important thing is that the pupil acquire knowledge, not that he be subjected for a continually lengthening period of time to a certain methodology of teaching more calculated to satisfy the theory of teaching than the fact of learning.

And, this statistic points out a fallacious conclusion which our modern society seems to have come to, which is that the critical criterion in gaging how well a student is being taught is how long the student spends being taught.

If a pupil could be taught to take on the world and make his way through it successfully with less than twelve years schooling in 12 year or less, and now, one hundred years later is held to require at least 16 years of schooling to be so qualified it would logically follow that either the present day student is not as capable as the 1910 student was, or  the methodology of teaching is not as effective that of 1910 was.

As the regular reader may recall, we have previously brought up the matter of Oxford University in this regard.

Oxford is, as you know well, one of the most respected institutions of higher learning in the English-speaking world.

It is the school to which Rhodes Scholars are admitted to acquire superior educational attainments.

Yet, as we told you in some detail a year or so ago, the standard time required to achieve a bachelor’s degree from Oxford is not the four years required by virtually all American schools of higher learning, but only three years! Why is that?

With their three year degree, most any Oxford graduate can march into any forum on the globe and acquit himself with ease as an educated individual at least on a par with, if not superior to, a graduate of Harvard, the Sorbonne, Heidelburg, or any of the other European or American colleges or universities.

We cannot help but believe that one of the problems confronting our educational accomplishments is the triumph of the new “theorists”, the same who gave us the new math and the new reading, etc., none of which could equal a 1910 grade school pupil’s grasp of these subjects.

Couple this with the interference of 50 state legislatures populated with right-wing ideologues worshiping false educational gods and wallowing in abysmal ignorance who are attempting to run the educational systems of the states by such crusades as censoring textbooks over evolution, and canceling Common Core, and one can but weep for the youth of the nation.