Helen A. Handbasket, America’s Schoolteacher

It can get weird. Sometimes, as a mild-mannered historian, I get a overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Sometimes stories from today’s headlines seem to shamble straight out of the past.

Case in point: As I warm my heels down here in sunny Florida, I got a little freaked out by the startling similarities of the letters in today’s local newspaper to those I uncovered in the research for my book about educational conservatism. Whatever the decade, it seems, people like to take potshots at teachers. Since the 1920s at least, it has been a popular national pastime to criticize the vast incompetence and presumed political chicanery perpetrated by our local teachers.

First, some background. SAGLRROILYBYGTH might have noticed a warmer, more humid tone in these pages lately. It’s due to the fact that I’ve been enjoying some family vacation time in sunny Florida. As a compulsive culture-war chatterer, though, I couldn’t just sit back and sip something. I cracked open the local paper, and 1949 jumped out.

Florida newspaper

Hello? It’s 1949 calling…

The story in the Charlotte Sun from Executive Editor Jim Gouvellis concerned a controversial recent event by local politician Paul Stamoulis. Stamoulis had given a series of lectures about the dangers of Islam. Some folks thought it was a good idea. Others thought it was a scary abuse of power by a right-wing ideologue.

Editor Gouvellis opened up the pages of today’s paper to letters from the community. The issue of political Islam was relatively new, but the tone of the letters was eerily similar to those I found in archives around the country, from the 1920s through the 1980s.

In particular, I was creeped out by the echoes from Pasadena’s school controversy between 1949 and 1951. Back then, an intrepid local newspaper editor tried the same thing. He asked for letters from the community. What did people think of their schools?

Pasadena indep

Nossir…I don’t like it.

The issues were different. Today’s Floridians are weighing in about the propriety of an elected official using public money to make inflammatory speeches. In Pasadena, parents were mad about the alleged misdemeanors of “progressive education.” You’d think the two things would have nothing in common.

But they do. Lots of people–wherever they live, whenever they lived–seem to assume that teachers are terrible. Public-school teachers, at least.

And to your humble editor, the tone and target of today’s letters seem shockingly similar to that of Pasadena, 1949. So similar, in fact, that I thought I’d try a little experiment. I’ll post below a clip from today’s Florida newspaper mixed in with a bunch from Pasadena, California, 1949.

Can you pick out the local one? Without cheating and clicking on the story link above?

  1. There is a growing feeling among parents that there is something amiss in our public schools.
  2. As for your comment and others’ regarding [XXX]’s lack thereof of a formal educational background, I do believe that perhaps we need more such “teachers” in our educational system today, based upon the misinformation being spoon-fed to our children by today’s so-called educators.
  3. Another claim that the teaching fraternity continually push forward is that they are grossly underpaid.  My observation is that in [XXX] this is untrue.  For nine months’ work and occasional brush-up courses in the summer they receive the same salary or better than competent office help receive for 11 ½ months’ work.
  4. I have personally felt that the modern school system of education is based on politics. . . . This larger percentage is easy prey to propaganda leaders and naturally look up to them, thinking the fault lies in themselves and not in the school system of education.
  5. In my opinion, the honorable school board is using our youngsters as educational guinea pigs.

Can you tell which one of these is today’s newspaper and which is from your grandparents’?

Leave a comment


  1. 1 and 4 are today, and 2, 3, and 5 my grandparents had to endure.

  2. What makes this tough is that the Floridian contemporary is probably a retired person who may have been learning to write in 1949 and is prone to use an older style of rhetoric as a part of their cranky conservatism. This is a contest of “find the youngest old fogey.”

    #1 is the only one with a decent sentence, but it takes the perspective that people are only just beginning to suspect the schools are full of commies. No conservative would say that now; they know this is now an orthodox and mainstream view.

    #2 and #4 are the worst writers, but #4 sounds older — s/he uses several unusual, obsolete phrases. So does #3.

    That brings my greatest suspicion to #2, which has the most tortured phrase (“lack thereof of”). Is that something people used to say? Could a newspaper in 1949 possibly have allowed such a mistake to go uncorrected?

    College essays today sure abuse “lack thereof” a lot. Google Books ngram says “lack thereof” was very rare up until the 1960s when it shot up enormously and is still rising as a common phrase.

    #2 is the one that seems most compatible with a defense of a demagogue without credentials, which is the contemporary issue in your local paper. I’d like to believe this populist know-nothing sentiment was far less common in 1949.

    So that’s my guess. #2 is the contemporary Floridian retired Baby Boomer who is blissfully unaware of his own intellectual and verbal skills and eager to recommend know-nothing religious bigots as the best teachers to fix our ailing schools.

  3. We have a winner! Number two is from today. All the rest came from the Pasadena Independent, late 1949 and early 1950.


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