Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


T. Cullen Davis constructs the school lists, giving life to one of the most popular urban myths of 20th century education

The history of education, as the history of many other fields, is full of urban myths. An urban myth is a story or a presumed fact that is often quoted and believed as true by many people but it is totally or largely fictitious.

Sometimes it is not easy to distinguish an urban myth from a true historical event. Here we call the attention of educators to a popular urban myth in the history of twentieth century education. It is the one that compares the school problems of the past and of today. The common belief is that schools in the first part of the 20th century had to deal with simple problems, such as talking, chewing gum, running in the halls, wearing improper clothing, making noise, not putting paper in wastebaskets or getting out of turn in line. The schools of the latter part of the twentieth century, instead, had to address more serious issues, like rape, robbery, assault, theft, drug abuse, arson, bombings, murder, suicide or alcohol abuse. We have heard this story so many times that we take it for granted, and it has become one of our unquestioned assumptions about schooling.

Is it true that schools of the past faced only trivial troubles, while present schools face much more significant problems? Is there any clear evidence or any serious research behind these comparisons? Is there any way to know if this was good research or an urban myth? These were not easy questions to answer, at least until Barry O'Neill, a professor of political sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, decided to trace this comparison, which now seems natural, to its original source.

After some research, O'Neill was able to trail this comparison to the year 1982, and managed to find its original author. The creator of the comparison was identified as T. Cullen Davis of Fort Worth, a born-again Christian who devised the lists as a fundamentalist attack on public schools. When O'Neill asked him how he had arrived at his items, Cullen Davis admitted that he had not done from a scientific survey. O'Neill pursued the questioning one step further and asked Cullen Davis how he knew the top offenses in the schools in the past. "I was there," was Davis' reply. Not surprisingly, O'Neill then asked how he knew the current school problems. Davis' answered:  "I read the newspapers."

Although this comparative list of school problems was not based on any research or even on a basic survey, O'Neill points out that many social, educational and political leaders (including senators, mayors, state education officials, journalists, university professors and deans) accepted the lists as factual. Moreover, O' Neill adds, during the late eighties and early nineties the lists became the most quoted "results" of educational research, and possibly the most influential.

On March 6, 1994, O'Neill shared his findings about the dubious truth backing the 'two lists of problems' in a short but interesting article published in The New York Times Magazine (pages 46-49) entitled 'The History of a Hoax'. After eliciting the facts, O'Neill makes the following comment about the lists and the intentions of those behind them:

In their nostalgic contrast of then and now, the school lists constitute jeremiad. On their face they are criticizing schools but their real target, like the jeremiad, is society in general. They place drugs, pregnancy, rape or suicide as problems in the public schools. But is a typical school more hazardous or immoral than its surrounding area? Blaming the schools is illogical, but is rhetorically right, since responsibility for schools falls on all Americans (p. 47).

Then, towards the end of the piece, O'Neill notes that the spread of the school lists proves that jeremiads are not in decline, and concludes with the following words of warning for educational policy-makers:

The lists are not facts but a fundamental expression of attitudes and emotions. They overlook the successes of American public education, its great expansion since 1900 and its high quality despite taxpayer resistance. The lists' broad sweep ignores that some public schools are devastated by violence and substance abuse and others hardly touched at all. They should not guide our choices on education policy.

Here is a page with a link to the full 1994 article The History of a Hoax by O'Neill in The New York Times Magazine.


O'Neill, Barry (1994). The History of a Hoax. New York Times Magazine Section, March 6, 1994, pp. 46-49.

Personal communications with Barry O'Neill, April 2003.


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