Dropping In: Education and the American Dream

Myth of the Successful College Dropout

Myth of the Successful College Dropout

“Appealing as it may be, the against-all-odds story of the college dropout is not the story we should be selling our young people.” (The Atlantic) The term “dropout” entered the American discourse in the 1930s. Before 1937, the majority of Americans did not earn a high school diploma, much less a college degree. However, since the founding of the United States, access to high quality and affordable education has been the safest bet for reaching the American Dream of financial independence. The onset of the Great Depression highlighted the necessity of secondary education for success as an adult. The 1920 census marked the first time that the majority of American lived in urban areas rather than the rural countryside. The nation’s slow transformation from a rural society to a more urban landscape paralleled the growth of advanced public education. In 1931, historian James Truslow Adams coined the phrase, “The American Dream” as a shared national value. He denied that the American Dream was a desire for great wealth. Adams argued instead that the idea was “of a land where life should be better, and richer, and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement”(The Epic of America, 1931). Public education provided that road to opportunity for the majority of young Americans.

In 1910, 20% of 10-15 year olds spent their days working for wages and most Americans did not attend school beyond age 14. An even higher percentage of young people labored in agriculture. Only 15% of American adults had a high school education and most communities did not offer public schooling beyond 8th grade. Race, class, gender, and ethnicity also hindered access. The number of high schools expanded rapidly in the 1920s, but primarily in cities. Small towns and rural communities continued to lag far behind and Jim Crow segregation meant that black Americans had even fewer opportunities for quality education.

By 1930, only 50% of 14-17 year olds attended high school. The onset of the Great Depression forced thousands of schools to close their doors or shorten school terms. Nevertheless, by 1933, the New Deal included funding to keep thousands of teachers employed in school districts that ran out of money. Work-relief programs like the Works Progress Administration paid for the construction of thousands of new high schools. These new facilities coupled with the dismal job market to encourage teenagers and their parents to believe that a high school education as a necessity for success in adulthood. The New Deal’s National Youth Administration sweetened the pot by offering modest stipends to young people who stayed in school and earned a high school diploma, or even a college degree. In 1937, for the first time in American history, the majority of the nation’s 17 year-olds earned a high school diploma.

The trend continued in the decades after the Second World War. Baby boomers and their parents increasingly embraced attending college as a necessity. The recent attention to the problem of college loan debt makes it enticing to believe that college dropouts may be better off than their peers who stay in school. Success stories like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are often used as examples of successful college dropouts. However, these individuals are exceptions. As a look at the experience of young Americans in the past shows, a high school and college education is an individual and a public good. (The Atlantic).

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Today’s Best History Blooper: Ben Franklin was the Greatest U.S. President

Calvin Coolidge was Greatest President

Calvin Coolidge was Greatest President

Another sad history howler in online media. Today, THRILLIST, a national media/entertainment blog, sent the following statement in an email to subscribers:

“Many Philadelphians would argue local hero Ben Franklin is the greatest president of all time, because his face is on the $100 bill, and because the quality of American education has really declined in recent generations. Thankfully Thrillist is here on George Washington’s birthday to explain to you why the greatest ever was actually… Calvin Coolidge?”

The suggestion that Silent Cal was the greatest president is galling. Gratefully the laughable reference to founding father Ben Franklin as a possible alternative is a bad joke about the quality of American education. Historians have a lot of work to do.

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WHM: It’s That Time of Year…Again

The profusion of events crowded into annual Women’s History Month celebrations can be exhausting. I’ve spent my professional career advocating for the inclusion of women and gender in historical study, but I’m conflicted about themed history months as the best way to educate the public about this neglected past. Even more daunting, the desire to celebrate women’s history too often results in a lack of critical analysis about the missteps and failures of well-intentioned activists and their allies.

Tonight’s Women’s History Month roll-out event at WHYY, Philadelphia’s PBS affiliate, previewed parts of a new documentary that skillfully balances celebration and criticism. The slick 3-hour film MAKERS: Women Who Make America is described on the PBS website as “the remarkable story of the most sweeping social revolution in American history, as women have asserted their rights to a full and fair share of political power, economic opportunity, and personal autonomy.” Narrated by Meryl Streep, the opening sequences predictably use the usual suspects and historical media images to tell the story of second wave feminism following World War II. Most important, the documentary includes new voices from the next generations of women examining the failures of the movement and the need for a continuing struggle to protect civil rights and gain equal opportunity for every citizen regardless of gender and class.

MAKERS is scheduled to air Tuesday, February 26, 8pm on PBS.
Check local listings imagePBS

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Wanted: Historians to Advise Emory President

How is it possible that the president of Emory University pointed to the 3/5ths Compromise as an example of political compromise and good governance? President James W. Wagner made that claim in the winter edition of Emory Magazine. Many faculty formally protested the claim and the president’s weak apology. Clearly a constitutional “compromise” that indirectly recognized slavery, denied rights of citizenship, and was a major factor leading to a civil war that divided the nation and led to the death and suffering of many Americans is not a symbol of compromise and good governance. Too bad Emory’s president and the magazine’s editors didn’t take more American history courses.

Even Wikipedia has a more complex interpretation of the 3/5ths Compromise than President Wagner.

The president’s “apology”is available at

For subscribers, today’s Chronicle of Higher Education includes the Emory controversy.

Busted by history.

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Buffalo Bill Cody in the News

Wild Bill Cody

Often called “cigar store Indians” because most were stylized portrayals of Native Americans, such statues were advertising markers for tobacco stores. Of an estimated 100,000 crafted in the late 19th and early 20th century, less than 3,000 still exist.

Kit and Barry Cody were killed in a plane crash in Central Florida on February 16, 2013. The Missoulian identified the victims as the great-grandsons of William Cody, the founder and star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. For better or worse, the sad story will be noticed by many  because of the brothers’ link to William Cody and his over-the-top, circus-style production of the American West. The late-nineteenth century cigar-store statue of William Cody on display in the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania is a glimpse into Cody’s popularity during his lifetime. The statue appeared on the streets of Philadelphia after Cody’s Wild West Show visited the city in the late 1880s. The four-hour, distinctly American, circus-style extravaganza toured the United States, Great Britain, and Europe from 1883-1913. The Library of Congress has a plethora of research material on Cody’s Wild West Show. The Cody Archive is also a good source and includes Thomas Edison films of the diverse performers in this over-the-top extravaganza. http://codyarchive.org/multimedia/wfc.vid00001.html

Studio 360 did a terrific audio presentation, available online, analyzing the Wild West Show’s continuing influence in shaping the public image of the United States and its history.

It is interesting that Cody’s great grandsons sadly lost their lives in Florida, a state that the Wild West Show ignored, but was another important part of the settling of America’s last frontiers. Land hungry Americans rapidly grabbed land in Central and South Florida at the same time Cody’s Wild West Show popularized images of the Wild West. The modernization of both regions depended on industrialization and the country’s increasingly diverse population. Questions about immigration, citizenship, land development, and the role of the federal government continue to shape today’s political debates. The settlement of these last frontiers within the continental United States contained huge commitments from the federal government. Understanding the breadth of U.S. expansion in the West and the Southeast in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century offer valuable insights about the roots of continued political debates. Broadening the history of frontier settlement to include Florida as well as the iconic West helps to explain why this battleground state today is so influential and and important contributor often to the circus-like politics that surpass the battles in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

William Cody's Wild West Show

William Cody’s Wild West Show

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Priceless Melton Barker Short Films

Capturing the voices and images of children from the past can be illusive. Even when the sources do exist, archives and libraries rarely make it easy to identify sources that relate the direct experiences of kids. One exception is The Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI) website featuring short films by Melton Barker produced from the 1930s through the 1970s. http://www.meltonbarker.org

Barker was an entrepreneurial filmmaker traveling across the United States and remaking the same short film, “Kidnappers Foil” over and over. He made money by casting local kids and then selling tickets to screenings of his newest remake of the film in the community’s local theater. Unfortunately, most of Barker’s films no longer exist, but TAMI has posted a few priceless examples. The current collection features kids from small-towns in Arkansas, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania. The young performers are clearly parroting Barker’s simplistic script, but the films reveal the kids’ voices and regional accents. The diverse ethnic and racial make-up of their daily lives is also depicted in some of the films’ black and white images.

The TAMI Melton Barker film collection is a terrific resource that helps break the myth that children’s experiences are too illusive for serious historical research.

Priceless Melton Barker films

Priceless Melton Barker films

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1922 Kodachrome Color Movie


1922 Color Movies

This mesmerizing short film from 1922 is “bewitching” and important for its coquettish  portrayal of female sensuality. The flapper image popularized by movies of the time showcased female sexuality in ways previously unheard of in mainstream culture. This amazing color film clip dramatically displays the revolutionary change in this significant decade. Conservative social critics and some first wave feminists condemned the changes putting female sexuality on public display. Many younger women, however, saw the changes as reflections of greater freedoms. In many ways the debate parallels similar complaints about Beyonce’s all-female revue at last week’s 2013 Super Bowl. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kKVorba5GLs Public displays of female sexuality = power, or exploitation?

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Presidents and Bathtubs

Hacker Guccifer is getting lots of attention for posting George W. Bush’s bathtub self-portrait. There is a history behind presidents and bathtubs. William Howard Taft had a special large tub moved into the White House to fit his oversized girth. As far as I know, there are no soaker self-portraits by Taft. We should be grateful.

hacker images

Workers sitting in Taft bathtub before installation.

Workers sitting in Taft bathtub before installation
Bathtub buddy at 335 pounds
Presidential bathtub buddy William Howard Taft at 300+

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