Like most first-world kids today, growing up, I took for granted the fact that I had the opportunity to attend school until full adulthood (and beyond). But, for many of our family members even just a hundred years ago, that opportunity was not available, and simply attending school was a huge privilege.
One of my favorite pieces of information listed in the 1940 U.S. Census for each person enumerated is "Highest Grade of School Completed." When I first started learning about my great-grandmother, Sophia Krupa Bodziony, I found her and her family in this census and noticed that she only had a 2nd grade education (see below). In my subsequent research, I learned that she was born illegitimate in one of the poorest areas of what is now Poland in the late 19th century. I'm willing to bet she never attended a school at all, but learned the little that she did know from a family member.
Sophia's story isn't unique in my family tree. None of my great-grandparents had an education beyond the 8th grade level, yet all of them had children that graduated from high school and grandchildren that earned college degrees. And these stories of educational betterment are not limited to this time period. In fact, this discussion is very relevant in today's society, where everyday we hear stories about first-generation high school and college graduates, especially among families who are new to America. It is important for our children to realize how fortunate they are to have the educational opportunities they do have and to not take them for granted.
I encourage you to look at the 1940 Census with your school-age children or grandchildren and talk with them about some of the factors that may have limited their ancestors' educations:
- Lack of a school nearby and/or no transportation to get to nearest school.
- Illiterate parents who couldn't teach their children
- Need for children to help with work at home/farm
- Need for children to work a job to earn money for the family
- Too poor to afford proper clothing and supplies for school
- Limitations to education based on society's perception of gender, race, class, and/or nationality
I created a simple chart to help you and your child visually examine and organize how your family's levels of education have progressed through recent generations. Learning how to read and interpret charts is a skill that can be found in many state educational standards, and looking at census schedules is a great way to practice that skill. (Click image for PDF.)
Do you have school-related ephemera in your family history holdings? The start of the school year is a great time to get them out and show them to your children. Class photos, yearbooks, report cards, diplomas, and even just photos of your ancestors' old school buildings can help kids form a connection with their ancestors. Here are just a few examples from my family:
©2017 Emily Kowalski Schroeder
Census Source: "United States Census, 1940," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-L9M1-3L3T?cc=2000219&wc=QZXY-V33%3A790106001%2C798889101%2C800542301%2C800546801 : accessed 14 September 2017), Ohio > Cuyahoga > Cleveland City, Cleveland City, Ward 14 > 92-347 Cleveland City Ward 14 (Tract N-6 - part), Sisters of St. Joseph - St. Hyacinth's School > image 26 of 32; citing Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940, NARA digital publication T627. Records of the Bureau of the Census, 1790 - 2007, RG 29. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2012.