Etchings of Democracy
School desks and the politics of nostalgia
Desks have been ubiquitous in American schools since the mid-nineteenth century. Made of wood and iron, bolted to the floor, they began as fixtures in the truest sense of the word. So firmly did they anchor the classroom that when progressive reformers finally introduced movable models in the early 1900s, they complained that teachers lined them up as if they remained fastened in place, with children fastened firmly within them. Reformers worried that such arrangements would produce passive students. Rest assured, they did not. Confined, bored, and eager to assert modest claims of identity and ownership, students began to deface any surface within reach. Soon, “seats and desks [were] adorned with every embellishment that the ingenuity of professional whittlers [could] devise.” (1) While historians have analyzed desks as physical artifacts, they have yet to reckon with the implications of those illicit etchings, their effect on public memory, or their ongoing role in the politics of education.
School desks have since become fixtures in the public mind. Mainstays of museums and antique stores, they derive a sort of totemic power from the words and ciphers carved into them. Walt Disney prominently displayed a desk bearing his childhood initials at his hometown museum in Marceline, Missouri, symbolizing the small-town past that his theme parks would market to the masses. When New York governor Alfred Smith ran for president, he returned to his Catholic school for an obligatory photograph in his old desk, where an opened drawer revealed his childhood markings. (2) There have been dozens of scenes like these, unsubtle and inescapably American: great men reflecting on humble beginnings, character-building lessons, mischievous scrapes, and their own good fortune, evoking sentimental visions of innocence and egalitarianism through scratches on outdated furniture.
To say that desks obscure the complexity of the past is self-evident, but the degree to which they do so is nevertheless remarkable. Historical truth does not stand a chance against the moral truths that they seem to embody. Henry Ford frequently took reporters to the one-room school he had attended as a child, which he later relocated to Dearborn, Michigan. On one such visit, in 1936, a reporter caught his breath as Ford “stood at [his] desk and pointed out the initials ‘H. F.’ carved on its slanting top.” “For a moment he appeared lost in reverie,” the reporter wrote, and “it was difficult to read his thoughts.” The pause invited readers to juxtapose Ford’s childhood with the looming burdens of greatness, the sort of cinematic irony that would frame Citizen Kane a few years later. Yet entirely absent from the story — and probably from Ford’s own inscrutable reflections — was the fact that he had carved those initials not as a boy, but when the school reopened only seven years before. Indeed, the first thing Ford did upon entering the building was to pull out a penknife. So powerful was the need to authenticate lived experience with childish scrawls that he felt obliged to do so as an adult and, at the same time, absolved himself from the implicit fraudulence of the act. This is not to say that Ford knowingly misrepresented the initials’ origins. More likely he fell victim to his own mythology. (3)
In a similar vein, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum has twice courted controversy by displaying a desk from Choate, the elite New England boarding school, with the initials “JFK” scratched on the surface. There were serious doubts about the piece’s authenticity from the outset. Its owner, the wife of a former teacher, had been unable to convince Choate officials to accept the desk as a donation, and experts pointed out that it was not the style used during the 1930s, when Kennedy attended the school. Yet the museum displayed it anyway, from 1979 to 1993 and again in 2016, reasoning that it might “evoke Jack’s life as a high school student.” Kennedy’s former roommate sent a letter assuring visitors that the president “carved his initials in everything,” adding the thinnest veneer of credibility to an otherwise obvious fraud.
Time and again, the act of carving one’s initials into a desk has superseded reason or doubt, evoking something far greater than the act itself. Its hold on the American psyche says something about the politics of nostalgia, in which schools have played a central role. Given the massive changes afoot in American society and in schools themselves — from progressive education and high school expansion in the first half of the twentieth century to desegregation, delinquency, and drugs in the second — it is understandable why successive generations of conservatives might long for a return to the little red schoolhouse of their imaginations. Schools are easily accessible and heavily symbolic political spaces, and, as Mark Lilla observes, the yearning for simpler times “can be a powerful political motivator, perhaps even more powerful than hope.” “Hopes can be disappointed,” he notes, while “nostalgia is irrefutable.”
Some scholars accept nostalgia as a necessary and even desirable basis for public history. Sociologist Fred Davis argues that interweaving personal and collective memory is not only integral to one’s sense of self but softens “what could be a powerful, panic-prone reactivity to jarring change and uncertainty by turning it into tender musing.” In a similar vein, historian Gordon Wood has defended conservative Tea Party activists as “ordinary citizens [trying] to find some immediate and emotional meaning” in the history of the Revolution. These statements are hard to credit in our current political climate. In the past two years, Donald Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” has weaponized wistfulness, stoking conservatives’ anger with a narrative of social decay. The vision of America as a white, Christian nation inevitably equates diversity with decline, necessitating a defense of traditional arrangements (and injustices) and opening an unbridgeable divide between social groups. It denies the very possibility of a shared past. In education, changing student demographics have led the same Americans who venerate vandalized desks of the past to condemn them in schools today. In recent decades, damage to school property has led to the subordination of minority students, overly harsh disciplinary measures, systematic underfunding, and the abandonment of public education by many white families. By cultivating a perception of schools in crisis, nostalgia actually worsens the problems that they confront. (4)
While most historians are rightly critical of this whitewashed history and the politics that it enables, one could question whether their efforts to debunk it will actually change anyone’s mind or elevate public discourse. One could also question their reduction of nostalgia to mere misinformation or self-deception, which ignores the phenomenon’s nuanced origins in European Romanticism and the authenticity, sympathy, and historical sublimity that it can impart. Nostalgia speaks to powerful human needs and can be a legitimate means of knowing the past, though not quite in the therapeutic way that Davis and Wood suggest. Its validity depends on whether it can foster historical continuity rather than disjuncture: whether fond recollections can prompt forbearance, understanding, and mutual recognition rather than reflexive condemnation. To say that Henry Ford or Walt Disney oversimplified the objects of their yearning is not to indict yearning as such, nor the conservative preference for custom and slow change that nostalgia embodies. (5)
Transforming desks into symbols of simpler times wrenches them out of historical context not only because it obscures the shortcomings of schools in the past but because it overlooks the intentions of the vandals themselves. Suffice to say that no child carved his initials into a school desk to make a point about national innocence or to condemn subsequent generations of students. The act represented a different and far worthier form of conservative nostalgia, one which we would do well to revive in our current political discourse. Because of the sedentary nature of recitation- or lecture-based learning, American students spent most of their days in desks, looking at surfaces covered with a palimpsest of gouges and ink stains. Besides lowering their inhibitions and offsetting boredom, these marks forged a connection between past, present, and future occupants. They promised a degree of permanence and authenticated students’ being in a particular space, initiating the individual into a community of shared suffering. In a small way, they affirmed the sense of belonging that Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, Wendell Berry, and others place at the heart of a democratic society: “The mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives.” (6) In short, desks became a physical meeting-place between the individual and the community, and children, well aware of the sentimental conventions surrounding them, performed their role in an ongoing ritual. They carved their initials, brought them up in graduation speeches, and ruefully turned out with their neighbors when the old desks were discarded. Nostalgia was present in this process from the outset; desks were cenotaphs commemorating the future as much as the past. (7)
It is noteworthy that this sort of community spirit need not be exclusionary and cannot be relegated to bygone eras. While some conservatives lament the loss of local control in education — overlooking the ways in which their own decisions and policies have undermined it — the fact is that most parents and students retain strong support for their local schools, which remain a vital source of social cohesion. I am untroubled if myths and sentimental memories account for some of their support; not because I favor wishful policymaking or condone useful falsehoods to achieve political ends, but because, as Tocqueville observed, American society thrives when it imbues the public good with personal meaning. Voters are not wrong in their attachment to tradition, only when they deny others’ claims to it. The choice confronting us, in schools and in general, seems to be whether our politics will be guided by a toxic, reactionary nostalgia or a nobler version, intent on preserving human connections amidst change. Immigrants, students of color, and all the children who move through our schools will one day leave a mark on our society. Let us hope, first, that they feel sufficiently invested to leave a mark next to ours on their desks.
Campbell F. Scribner is a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the author of The Fight for Local Control: Schools, Suburbs, and American Democracy. He is currently working on a book about school vandalism.
1. Henry Barnard, Practical Illustrations of the Principles of School Architecture (Hartford: Case, Tiffany, and Company, 1851), 13.
2. “Smith Visits School of Boyhood Days; Finds Initials He Carved in His Old Desk,” New York Times, March 3, 1924.
3. “Ford Reopens Childhood School at Dearborn; Sits Among Pupils and Carves Initials in Desk,” New York Times, September 16, 1929, 6.
4. Judith Kafka, The History of “Zero Tolerance” in American Public Schooling (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011); Cara H. Drinan, The War on Kids: How American Juvenile Justice Lost Its Way (New York: Oxofrd University Press, 2018).
5. Christopher Lasch, True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: Norton, 1991), 117-118.
6. Paul Theobald and Dale T. Snauwert, “The Educational Philosophy of Wendell Berry,” ERIC (1990), 3; Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992); Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (South Bend: Notre Dame University Press, 2007).
7. “Passing of the Old School Desks — Bethalto People Buying Up Desks They Carved on for Forty-Five Years,”Alton Evening Telegraph, July 17, 1913; “St. Gabriel Alumni Bid School Goodbye,” New York Times, June 30, 1909; Hilary Green, Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 15.