Time for a Boomer Education Comeback?

Mister Boomer recently heard an interview with an author who wrote about the differences between the Chinese education system and that of the U.S. in an effort to discover why our country continually lags behind in elementary education surveys.

The author said that in China, children must obey their parents as the ultimate authority figures, and when they went to school, the teachers were the ultimate authority. Not even parents are allowed to question teachers’ methods or course study. While this cultural imperative imparts a strict discipline that is evidently conducive to prepping students for higher education, it sounds far more rigid that anything we have had in this country … or does it? Mister Boomer was struck by the similarities to our Boomer-era education.

Granted, things may never have been as disciplined as required in a Chinese classroom, but the way we rose through the school ranks is far different than what transpires today. First off, we were also taught to respect and listen to our parents, which, for the most part, we did. When we went to school, the teachers were thought of as an extension of the parents. That meant what the teacher said, went. If you came home and said, “The teacher hit me,” a parent might have responded with, “Good, what did you do to make her hit you?” Our parents would take the side of the teacher every time.

Yes, there was that corporal punishment aspect of classroom discipline that causes litigation today. Mister Boomer stayed along the straight and narrow, but he saw classroom beat-downs that would horrify today’s supermarket tabloids. It is doubtful that many people would want to return to that aspect of “education,” but it is a part of our shared history. Despite the threat of bodily harm, kids accepted teachers as authority figures.

This system sometimes broke down when there was a substitute teacher. Kids enjoyed giving her (teachers were mostly female) a hard time on occasion, though it was usually light-hearted mischievousness. Take, for example, one day Mister Boomer remembers: He was probably in fourth grade when the school principal came into his class and introduced a woman who was to be the sub for a few days. Immediately after the principal left, the substitute passed around a pad of paper and asked the kids to write their names so she could take attendance and get to associate the names with faces.

Almost immediately, muffled snickering could be heard as the list passed down one row and up the next. When it reached Mister B, he could see what the snickering was about. Enterprising youth as they were, most wrote their own names, but also added another fictitious one to the list. Naturally, at the top of the list a pre-teen boy had written above his own name,“Jack MeHoff.” Almost every student had joined in the fun, adding “Chuck Wagon,” “Luke Warm,” “Willie Makit,” and, in a rare bit of solidarity, a girl penned “Helen Bach” after her name. Mister B, feeling the peer pressure, added “Pete Moss.”

The payoff would come when the teacher called each name. Was she in on the joke or just clueless? Sure enough, she started at the top of the list, much to the delight of the class: “Jack … Mee-Huff, is that how you pronounce it? … Jack, where are you,” she continued as the class burst into laughter. She caught on pretty quickly after that and navigated the name land mines to conduct a regular class. There were no further incidents for the duration of her substitute days.

Is it time to return to a level of classroom respect that we experienced as boomers? Who can say, especially since so much has changed. Kids today are far more advanced in their course studies than we were, not to mention the influence of technology. Yet the U.S. lags down the list for education quality on the world stage.

What do you think, boomers? Are there aspects of our own Age of Innocence that can be applied today, or has that ship sailed into the annals of history?

Boomers Did Not Question School Starting Times

Kids are back in school just about everywhere this week, prompting fresh controversy in the news about starting times. School start times vary from state to state and in some cases are local school district decisions. Every few years, a new report surfaces that says middle and high school start times are too early. This latest round of news is courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, which stated that the average national start time is 8 a.m. According to the American Academy of Pediatricians, the National Sleep Foundation and others, the recommended start time for adolescents would be 8:30 a.m. or later.

Though Mister Boomer could uncover no corroborating evidence, it seems logical to him that school start times were based on when parents of a particular region felt they could get their children to school. Consequently, the average start time has not changed much since the 1930s.

Contrary to the sitcoms of the boomer era, the majority of fathers in the country worked in manufacturing jobs in the 1950s and ’60s. Work start times were 7 a.m. or earlier, so dads would often be gone before the children got out of bed. Nonetheless, it was considered a woman’s job to get the kids off to school. Since it was also the woman’s job to get her husband a breakfast before he went off to work, presumably she would have time when her husband walked out the door to wake the kids, prepare their breakfast and see them off to school between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m. At least this train of thought fits Mister Boomer’s experience, and every family of the kids he knew at the time.

Of course, by the very early sixties, his mother revolted and refused to get up to cook Mister B’s father a breakfast. Soon after, she announced she wasn’t getting up to see her kids off to school, either. No matter to Mister Boomer and his siblings, as they ate a bowl of cereal (and later, Carnation Instant Breakfast and Pop Tarts) and learned to pack their own lunches before walking two miles in a snowstorm to get to school before the 8 a.m. start time. But we digress.

Several scientific experts are stating that kids need at least 8 hours of sleep, and later start times in some counties is supporting evidence that students are more alert, ready to learn, and are more productive. Coaches are saying they notice the later start times are contributing to better performance in sports as well.

Then again, there is a report that says two out of every three teens get less than the recommended eight hours of sleep. Of course, the question immediately arises that, if kids need eight hours of sleep, why aren’t they going to bed earlier? Mister Boomer recalls an expanding bedtime schedule as he grew; in his younger years, it was 9 p.m. but by the time he was a teen, he often stayed up to 10:30 or 11 p.m. Since his alarm went off at 7 a.m., presumably he and his siblings got the requisite eight hours. That was then. Nowadays, kids have so many more distractions than boomers did, first among them the smart phone. There is one report that says on average kids spend the first hour when they go to bed on their phones, texting, watching videos and updating social media posts.

In boomer days, if a peep was heard from the bedrooms down the hall, parents might shout out, “shut up and go to sleep!” It seems these days that parents do not command that level of authority. Mister Boomer works with one Gen-Xer who was so frustrated by his early-teen kids’ nightly behavior that he impounded their cell phones at bedtime.

Oh, that George Jetson, dropping his kids off to school in the morning on his way to work. It seems in boomer times we could not envision a time when school would start later in the morning.

Science, however, is saying it’s not only the eight hours that are required, but the disruption of the circadian rhythm at the earlier hour that is coming into play. Certainly many a boomer recalls dozing off in an early class. And many boomers — including Mister B — can attest to napping in a 7:30 a.m. college course. In Mister Boomer’s case, it was a Humanities course. No sooner did the professor shut the lights and turn on the slide projector than he was fighting to keep his eyes open.

From Mister Boomer’s perspective on our shared boomer upbringing, there were things that just were, and that was that. School start time was never a question, it just was the time you had to be there. For the most part, he does not recall a lot of kids dozing off in class early on, either. At that time, teachers would hardly have stood for it, and might give a kid a swift whack with a ruler if a kid was discovered dozing.

Mister B is no expert on the subject, and doesn’t play one in his blog. He is just pointing out another of the growing list of differences between the generations of when boomers yawned at the dawn’s early light and today’s generation that wakes up to a blinking screen.

What time did your school start, boomers? Did you ever fall asleep in an early class?

Some Boomers Took Typing Classes

In our modern age using a keyboard is necessary for almost all complex interactions with computers and other electronic devices. Yet as boomers, we did not have the advantage of knowing this electronic revolution would require each of us to learn to type in one form or another. Consequently, some of us took typing classes in school, but most did not.

Typing classes were not required in any school district in the country. In the Boomer Era, a high school diploma was the equivalent of today’s college degree. As a result, most boomers were headed to work after high school, not on to college, as only about one third of Baby Boomers received a college degree. As a course elective, girls were drawn to learn the skill of typing more than the boys since a good portion of employment was divided by gender-specific roles — some jobs designated for women, some for men. Girls who took typing classes were more employable for the secretarial pools which they could look forward to joining after graduation. The boys were more apt to go to factory or office work, where typing, if required, would be done by secretaries.

Typewriters became a part of the business world in the late 1800s, during the Industrial Revolution. Up to that point rows of men hunched over desks copied correspondence, inventory and financial figures by hand, as they had for centuries. The typewriter introduced a new efficiency to business. In that era, both men and women became typewriter operators, but it quickly became a profession for women as the YWCA started teaching them how to operate the machines. The first electric typewriter was invented in 1902 to further that efficiency, but did not catch on very quickly.

However, it took two circumstances to affect the adoption of typing classes in schools. First, the development of the QWERTY keyboard in 1878 made the idea of touch typing — that is, typing without looking at the keyboard — a possibility. The earliest keyboards had the letters arranged in alphabetical order. The common belief is that this arrangement caused a lot of jamming in early typewriters as the mechanical arms swung up to strike the paper, so a more efficient means was explored. Secondly, as business boomed, educators began to look at typing as a useful skill to teach their students.

The first typing classes appeared in 1915. The smattering of courses taught in the public school system around the country continued through the 1920s. The idea never caught on with educators enough to raise the course to required status.

IBM introduced the IBM Selectric in 1961, and quickly captured about 75 percent of the business market. It was the first electric typewriter to offer a type ball that could be swapped to change fonts. When boomers began taking typing classes in the 1960s, most school districts either could not afford — or did not want to commit — the funds to the electric models. Consequently, a good portion of boomers who took typing classes learned on manual models. By the 1970s, electric machines replaced the manual models in most high schools. This was a big deal, because boomers will tell you — like driving a car before power steering, typing was a physical task. It took finger strength to strike the keys, and they had to learn to strike them with equal pressure across the keyboard.

Speaking of boomers and typing, here is a fun fact: it is commonly repeated that the mother of The Monkees’ Michael Nesmith invented Wite-Out. Earliest versions of typing correction fluids made their debut in the 1920s, but Bette Nesmith Graham developed her version in the 1950s when she worked as a secretary for an insurance company. In 1956 she patented her formula and named it Liquid Paper. A decade later she was making millions. In 1979, she sold her company to the Gillette Company for $47.5 million dollars. Her son Michael inherited half of her fortune when she died in 1980. So now you know — it wasn’t Wite-Out, it was Liquid Paper!

Mister Boomer did not take any typing classes, ever. In college he developed his own hunt-and-peck style to type his term papers. Incidentally, studies show that people who use the touch type method are not necessarily any faster or more accurate than people who are self-taught with various other methods, including hunt-and-peck.

Mister B preferred to write his papers longhand first, then the final edited version was typed for handing to the professors. His father had purchased a used manual typewriter when Brother Boomer went to college, so that became Mister B’s hand-me-down. It was a 1929 Underwood, and served Mister Boomer well into the 1970s until he began his work career.

The 1929 Underwood manual typewriter that Mister Boomer used in his college years.

Today using a keyboard is an everyday occurrence, but typing classes are still not a required subject. Classes are offered, but no longer referred to as “typing.” Classes are taught now under the title, “keyboarding.” As time marches on, even the QWERTY keyboard is in question, too. Alternate arrangements of the keys are being touted by some companies to reflect today’s double-thumb typing on mobile devices. Still others say the future belongs to voice recognition. When that day comes, boomers who did not learn how to type will be on the same level as today’s kids, who start using keyboards as early as age two or three. Keyboards will begin to disappear and become yet another invention that boomers will have a living history with, only to see them go extinct in their lifetimes.

Did you take a typing class, boomers?

Boomers Played Outside When School Was Out for Summer

The annual last day of school was one of the most anticipated days of the year for Baby Boomers. It would be 1972 before Alice Cooper coalesced what boomers were thinking in anticipation of summer vacation, in his song, School’s Out. Before that time, boomers everywhere repeated the refrain that was incorporated into Cooper’s song:

No more pencils
No more books
No more teachers’ dirty looks

Once the mad dash out the school doors was history, boomers couldn’t wait for a summer of outdoor play. And that is exactly what boomers did: spend as much time as possible in the Great Outdoors. A typical summer vacation day for Mister Boomer and his neighborhood was to get up the same time as when school was in session, have a bowl of cereal, and head out the door. He wouldn’t return until dinner time, though on occasion stopped by his house for a cool drink from the hose or a quick sandwich. Parents knew their kids were with a group of other kids, and didn’t know or need to know where they were at any given time. Truth be told, Mister Boomer, his brother and a host of neighborhood kids might very well be a close as a block or two away, or as far as many miles via bicycle.

For Mister Boomer, outdoor play fell into a few categories. One of the most popular among his neighborhood was the all-day baseball game. Innings easily reached double-digits as playing was more important than a game winner or loser. Another was to play in nearby woods and fields. The boys could imagine all sorts of army scenarios, hunt for snakes and mudbugs, pick wild berries and create make-shift weaponry from fallen branches. At one point the neighborhood was deeply involved in creating tree forts. More like platforms than actual buildings, the boys scrounged chucks of wood in alleys and fields, then borrowed hammers and nails from their fathers’ workbenches. Each fort in the forest was built and occupied by four to six boys, and ranged from 10 to 20 ft. off the ground.

Meanwhile, boomer girls in the neighborhood sometimes hung out with the boys, but more often they chose to play in the yards of their neighborhood friends or at the elementary school where the city had various day camp activities available. Mister B would ride Sister Boomer over to the school on his bike, where she could learn how to weave strips of vinyl into useless keychains, among other things, while Mister B might play a game of table hockey.

After dinner, most kids headed back outside. Mister Boomer’s neighborhood often had games of hide and seek. Both boys and girls from seven to early teens would participate. The games would encompass the entire block and have more than fifty players. Once the game was finished, kids could sit on porches or lie in the grass and stare at the constellations. No one had air conditioning in his neighborhood, so the night air felt good after being in the hot sun all day.

By comparison, today’s kids don’t like to spend much time outdoors. Everyone knows kids don’t have the freedom to roam the way boomer kids did, but the results of these changing times have short and long-term ramifications on the health of children. The birth rate has declined by 41 percent since 1960, so neighborhoods have fewer children who can get together as a group. Parental worries about heavy street traffic, pedophiles and missing children add to the mix. A survey by the Center for Disease Control and the Kaiser Family Foundation discovered that on a typical day a child is six times more likely to play a video game than to ride a bike. Bike riding is down 31 percent since 1995.

Many surveys are trying to get to the bottom of this trend, and have discovered some interesting reasons for the indoor preference. One line of thought blames air conditioning. In boomer days few people had home air conditioning. In Mister Boomer’s case, only some stores and the movie theater had it. Kids now have never lived without it, and have grown accustomed to indoor air rather than outside heat.

Others point to the parents. A survey by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) found that participation in every organized sport — including soccer,  basketball, football, track & field, baseball and softball — has dropped significantly in the past five years. Softball alone has seen a drop of 30 percent in participation. When asked, parents offered several reasons why they preferred their children not to participate in these organized outdoor activities: risk of injury; behavior of coaches; commitment of time; cost; and the emphasis on having fun over winning. All valid reasons, but other outdoor play does not seem to be substituted.

Some studies point to the release of Nintendo 64 in 1996 as the beginning of this downward trend away from outdoor play. Video games were around since the early 1970s, but the release of Nintendo 64 greatly enhanced the look and feel of the games, and expanded the amount of games available. The Kaiser study found, on average, today’s kids ages eight to 10 spend six hours a day watching TV, playing video games and using computers.

So, were we boomers outside more simply because we had no other choices? Or are today’s kids inside because of overprotective parents and an addiction to all things electronic? Scientists and physicians predict this trend toward less outdoor play will result in a less healthy generation, which is already reflected in the obesity rate among children. Could it be the answer to much of our country’s health concerns — especially among children — is more outdoor play?

What memories of summer outdoor fun do you have, boomers?

Boomers Learned About the Birds and the Bees

Debates about sex education were headline news in the boomer era, but our generation was far from the first to be caught up in the decades-long controversy. Some historians point to the time in the 1800s when the U.S. began changing from an agrarian society to a manufacturing base as when sex education discussion — particularly, how to teach children about it — first surfaced. Before that time children observed farm animals mating as their own natural introduction to what euphemistically became known as “the birds and the bees.” Almost immediately sides were drawn as who should teach the children, when they should be taught, how it would be taught, and what would actually be conveyed to them.

Since no definitive solution was forthcoming, debates continued into the 1900s. By 1912,  the National Education Association was backing a program to train teachers about sex ed, though no official academic agenda was in place. The government got involved in the fray during World War I. Faced with widespread STD transmission among the troops, the army began making training films about the dangers of syphilis and gonorrhea. This experience led government officials to suggest that maybe sex ed should be taught in schools as a matter of national security.

By the 1920s — itself a decade known for libidinal behavior — sex ed in the form of social hygiene and health was being taught in at least a third of U.S. school districts. As World War II began in Europe, the U.S. Public Health Service stated it was an “urgent need” that sex ed be taught in schools.

After the War, the Boomer Generation was emerging. Education and health associations inside and outside the government and education circles again put forth an effort to establish nationwide training in schools. By 1955, the American Medical Association, in conjunction with the National Education Association, produced five pamphlets, referred to as “the sex education series,” that became the first national effort at standardizing information. That put boomers smack dab in the middle of a controversy that was reignited by both religious and political groups.

For the next decade sex ed in schools was labelled as everything from “smut” to “a communist plot.” This opposition coincides with the anecdotal research Mister Boomer has conducted on the subject. Namely, if, how and what boomers were taught about “the birds and the bees” in school varied greatly, depending on the state and the decade in which the boomer came of age.

Jewel Akens recorded this hit in song in 1964.

In Mister Boomer’s history, the subject isn’t complicated. As previously noted, Mister B spent his elementary school years in parochial school. Nuns weren’t exactly the type of teachers one would expect to know much about the subject, let alone teach it. Mister Boomer recalls that even the topic of the human body in sixth grade Science class was controversial. As students stared at “The Human Body” chapter title in their textbooks, the nun announced that this chapter could be read on each students’ own time. Several of the students, including Mister B, were fascinated by the clear acetate overlays in the chapter. They were the only color images in the book, and represented the organs, muscle and nervous systems. The teacher was not amused, demanding everyone close their books and repeated that it was up to each student whether the chapter would be read at home.

It wasn’t long after that, the subject of “the birds and the bees” was actually a topic in Religion class. The sum total of the discussion went like this: The nun told her students that at this point in their book, each student was supposed to ask their parents to give them “the talk.” As proof that this task was accomplished, the parent would sign the designated spot in their child’s book.

Mister B dutifully brought the book home and reluctantly opened it, explaining to his parents what his teacher had said. Immediately his mother got up from the dining room table and, walking away, said Mister B could talk with his father. Mister B’s dad, holding the book, escorted him down the hall toward his bedroom. Outside the bedroom door, he broke his silence. “If you ever have any questions, you can ask me,” he said. With that, he signed the book and gave it back to Mister B. The subject was never broached again.

Having been given “the talk,” Mister B had to learn about “the birds and the bees” the way many boomers did — on the street. Of course, misinformation ran rampant, but without any corroborating evidence, any tidbit was treated as truth. Some boomers talk of breaking into their father’s stash of Playboy magazines as their first foray into the subject. For Mister Boomer, the first “naked ladies” he saw were in the form of anatomy drawings. His neighbor’s parents were both artists and the boy brought one of their books to show around.

Other than that, the only mention of sex in elementary school came in the form of a movie that was supposed to illustrate the dangers of teen pregnancy … but, obliquely filmed with shadows and symbols to tell that story, it went over the heads of most of the kids. So much for sex ed until “health” class in high school. Even then, though, very little was said about “the birds and the bees.”

Did you have “the talk,” boomers? Was there any sex education taught in your school?

Boomers Said, “Hail to the Chief”

We’ve arrived at another Presidents’ Day on the calendar, but as any Baby Boomer can tell you, the holiday didn’t exist when boomers were young. The day, still officially called Washington’s Birthday on the federal list of holidays, was marked for February 22nd, Washington’s birthday. President Rutherford B. Hayes first signed the declaration of the holiday in 1879, but it only covered the District of Columbia. It wasn’t until 1885 that all states adopted the holiday. At that time, only four other days were nationally-recognized holidays: New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

In 1971 the Uniform Monday Holiday Act took several federal holidays and moved them to Mondays so people would have a number of long weekends throughout the year. As a result, the day is celebrated the third Monday in February. The nation’s retail industry and labor unions wholeheartedly supported the change, and it was the retail industry that brought other presidents into the picture as a way of extending their weekend sales opportunities. Today we embrace the notion of celebrating all of the country’s presidents, rather than just Washington, or Washington and Lincoln, though their images still dominate the landscape of sale ads.

In the early boomer years of the 1950s and ’60s, there was Washington’s birthday on February 22nd, and Lincoln’s birthday on February 12th. It was up to each individual state as to which of the days, or both, were official holidays. In Mister Boomer’s state, the only way the days were any different than any other day was that the post office and banks were closed. Everyone else seemed to be working, and schools were open.

Schools enjoyed teaching about arguably the country’s two most famous presidents. Starting in kindergarten, kids were taught the story of how George Washington chopped down his father’s cherry tree, and when confronted, owned up to the act by saying, “I cannot tell a lie.” As a result, Mister Boomer recalls coloring pages of the images of a hatchet, cherries, tri-corner hat and a chopped down cherry tree. These symbolic images were also fodder for drawings and art projects. By contrast, poor Abe Lincoln only had the symbol of a stovepipe hat — and it was black at that — and possibly a standing Abe Lincoln holding the Gettysburg Address.

Like the story of Columbus “discovering” a New World, the Washington cherry tree story was repeated for decades, without regard to whether the story was actually true. In fact, there is no evidence that the story is factual, at least in its entirety. Most historians agree that the story began when Parson Mason Weems published a book called, “The Life of Washington,” in 1800, one year after Washington’s death. Lacking corroborating evidence, it would appear Weems, an author and not a historian, concocted the story as a parable to teach children the virtue of honesty. Several stories in his biography are considered dubious in nature, so Weems is credited with expanding the mythology of Washington.

Recently, however, a piece of cloth that depicted the cherry tree story, made in Germantown, Pennsylvania, came up for auction. The cloth, if authentic, was made prior to the publication of Weems’ book, and before Washington died in 1799. Therefore, the story may not have originated with Weems, but existed earlier and Weems adopted it. Nonetheless, Weems did not actually write that Washington chopped down the tree; merely that he “barked” the tree (though the story says the tree was sufficiently hacked up that it probably did not survive). Taking these two items that have surfaced into consideration, that has led some historians to conclude that there may be some truth to the story after all.

Washington was a revered figure in the early days of our Republic, so it was not a far-fetched notion that his legend and myth would expand with each passing year. As far as some truth, it has been noted that the story begins when Washington, as a boy age six or seven, was given a hatchet as a birthday gift. Knowing that young boys do like to chop at things at that age, it is plausible to suppose the young Washington took a whack at a cherry tree and chipped the bark. However, it is also plausible to surmise that a boy of that age may not have the physical strength to actually chop a tree down; it would have to be a pretty small tree to fall with only a few chops from a young hand.

So, did he or didn’t he? That’s one for the historians to argue. As for boomers like Mister B, the story brings back school day memories that were synonymous with the holiday we now know as Presidents’ Day.

Were you taught the lesson of Washington’s cherry tree honesty in school, boomers? Which president’s birthday did your state celebrate?