When my wife and I visit my mother and stepfather, we often duck out to go for a walk in nearby Holton, a beautiful old town that lies on the prairie in eastern Kansas. We park along the street, walk the neighborhoods, and then poke around in a few of the shops in the old town square.
The town is very proud of its heritage. Established in 1857, it supported the farming community around it, and the antique stores are full of hundred-year-old pictures that detail a thriving prairie town full of banks, barber shops, and small grocery stores.
On our last visit to my mother’s we again went to Holton, and as we walked along we noticed my stepfather’s construction van parked in front of a block of old two-story buildings. One front door standing wide open revealed a thin stairway leading up.
I called up the stairs and he called back for us to come on up.
We climbed up the steep staircase to the top landing, which led to lofts on the left and the right. In one were the makings of a new apartment, newly framed, the kitchen and bathrooms fitted for the installation of modern appliances. The other had yet to be dealt with. The floors were littered with early-twentieth-century debris—pieces of wood, windows, and cornices. My stepfather was working for a friend who had bought several of these old buildings, helping her restore them to something of their former glory.
While in many places older buildings have been bulldozed and replaced by uglier and flimsier structures, this was a grueling but worthwhile effort to not only save but to restore something old and beautiful.
He showed us the new windows installed on the wall facing the square—windows that had been designed to precisely resemble the windows shown in pictures of the building from 1910. Such windows are expensive now, of course, as is most of the work that has to be done to restore buildings like this.
He made a point to show us how much more skillfully made the older fixtures were than those now available at the local home improvement store. He kicked a board at his feet. “Look at this board,” he said. “Notice anything about it?” We could only stare blankly.
“There are no knots in any of this wood. When they built buildings and houses back then, the boards had to be perfect. No knots. Boards with knots were used to build barns.”
One after another he pointed to the quality of the scrap pieces of wood scattered about, of the arched frame of a door, of the brickwork on the walls. These were not buildings for the rich or the privileged, but for common residents and shopkeepers.
He explained that some of the wood and the cornices had endured and could be reused, ancient as they were, but that other things would have to be replaced with newer, lower-quality versions. Though it would be impossible to remake these structures perfectly, the approximation would still have something of its original integrity.
We tend to look down on the past. We prize all the things we have now that previous generations did not have, but we seldom reflect on what they had that we do not or on the things we have that are not of the quality they once were.
We need to ask ourselves whether education is among those things and whether, instead of bulldozing the original idea of education and replacing it with some newer, lower-quality version, we need rather to rebuild and restore the ideal of education that once prevailed—that of helping our students become better human beings.
We can never fully restore the education of a hundred years ago, but we can—and should—take some of the materials, refurbish them, and, even though we’ll have to use a few knotted boards, reconstruct the kind of education that nourishes a child’s soul.