The Little Red Schoolhouse

The distorted history of an American icon.

Small Wonder Cover

A hundred years ago, half of U.S. school children attended a one-room school. But by the early 1960s that figure had declined to less than one percent, and today the one-room schoolhouse has all but disappeared from the American landscape. Yet with its bell, flag, and iconic color, it remains an instantly recognizable image, idealized in our collective national memory. 

In the brand-new book “Small Wonder” (Yale University Press), New York University professor Jonathan Zimmerman examines the history of the little red schoolhouse, and how America remembers—and misremembers—this national icon. Today we invite you to go back to school with Failure as Zimmerman imparts a quick lesson about the red schoolhouse, which, you may be surprised to learn, was very often not red.

Why did the little red schoolhouse become an American icon? 

A few reasons: First, it built upon a common 19th and early 20th century experience—attending a one-room school. Second, it became the target of a massive “memory industry” in the late 19th century, when painters and poets began to romanticize it. Finally, in the 20th century the image was invoked by a wide range of Americans to suit present-day predilections. Liberals invoked the little red schoolhouse on behalf of “cooperative learning,” while conservatives celebrated it as a lodestar of strict discipline.

What was it like to attend a one-room school?

In general, the physical plant was Spartan and threadbare: a few benches and desks, and nothing more. It was often extremely cold, unless you got a place near the fire. Instruction occurred almost entirely by rote—that is, kids memorized passages from books and recited them. And the teacher kept order via corporal punishment and a variety of other punishments, which typically echoed the infraction. Kids who spoke out of turn had twigs attached to their tongues, for instance.

What brought on the decline of the little red schoolhouse?

Urbanization and the development of the auto industry, which made it feasible for children to attend consolidated schools that drew from a wide geographic area. Also, reformers from the Progressive Era through the New Deal targeted the one-room school as a symbol of poverty and ignorance.

In the book you note that progressives and conservatives have different visions of the little red schoolhouse. How so? 

Progressives see the little red schoolhouse as a symbol of what they call progressive education: activity-based (think spelling bees), cooperative, and tightly linked to the surrounding community. For conservatives, the little red schoolhouse symbolizes older virtues that America has supposedly lost: discipline, respect for authority, and religious faith.

Why has its wholesome image endured?

We’re all infected with nostalgia. We want to return to a world that was simpler and more stable than our own. We’re also ambivalent about progress. We like to think of ourselves as cutting-edge, but we worry about values and virtues that we are leaving behind.

Why is it difficult to get people to reflect on the negative aspects of one-room schooling?

Nobody likes a scold. If you have invested your psyche in a given view of the past, you want to hold onto it, and you’ll bridle when some carping historian says “it wasn’t really like that.”

Typically, what color were one-room schoolhouses?

They were white, which was the least expensive paint, and often went unpainted, reverting to a weather beaten gray. That was the cheapest option of all.

Is there any possibility that the one-room schoolhouse will make a comeback?

One-room schools? Doubtful. But smaller schools have made a comeback—the Gates Foundation has given them millions—and they, too, look longingly back to the little red schoolhouse. The small-schools trend reflects a historical reversal of early 20th century school consolidation: instead of combining different schools into larger ones, we’re breaking up large schools.