"Small Wonder" by Jonathan Zimmerman

Small Wonder The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory Jonathan Zimmerman

Icons of America
Publication date:
03 Mar 2015
Yale University Press
256 pages: 210 x 140 x 19mm
15 b&w illus.
Sales territories:

The little red schoolhouse has all but disappeared in the United States, but its importance in national memory remains unshakable. This engaging book examines the history of the one-room school and how successive generations of Americans have remembered—and just as often misremembered—this powerful national icon.


Drawing on a rich range of sources, from firsthand accounts to poems, songs, and films, Jonathan Zimmerman traces the evolution of attitudes toward the little red schoolhouse from the late nineteenth century to the present day. At times it was celebrated as a symbol of lost rural virtues or America’s democratic heritage; at others it was denounced as the epitome of inefficiency and substandard academics. And because the one-room school has been a useful emblem for liberal, conservative, and other agendas, the truth of its history has sometimes been stretched. Yet the idyllic image of the schoolhouse still unites Americans. For more than a century, it has embodied the nation’s best aspirations and—especially—its continuing faith in education itself.

Jonathan Zimmerman is professor of education and history, New York University. His previous books include Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century and Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools. He lives in Narberth, PA.

Received a Special Citation for the 2010 Book Awards, given by the Colonial Dames of America

"A remarkable history of one room schools and about their place in our collective memory."—John L. Rury, University of Kansas

"This beautifully written book makes a unique and original contribution not only to the history of American education, specifically, but to American social history, writ large."—Jeffrey Mirel, University of Michigan

"One of America's most thoughtful historians, Jonathan Zimmerman is also one of the most innovative, as he shows in this remarkable new study of a universally recognized but—until now—incompletely understood educational icon.
Thoroughly researched and crisply written, Zimmerman's account of the little red schoolhouse's past, actual and
remembered, is authoritative, nuanced, and full of surprises. Small Wonder makes a big contribution to the
interpretation of American culture."—Charles Lane, author of The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre,
The Supreme Court and The Betrayal of Reconstruction

“Readers will enjoy this unique look at how the little red schoolhouse came to be our foremost symbol of education.  Each chapter is filled with thought provoking perspectives and information.”—Mark Dewalt, author of Amish Education in the United States and Canada

“By focusing on the little red schoolhouse, Jonathan Zimmerman leads the reader on a fascinating journey through the real and imagined American past.  Much more than a study of schooling and its hallowed symbol, this book is a rich, instructive, and often entertaining opening onto American culture, the politics of culture, and our educational values over the past one hundred and fifty years.”—Paula S. Fass, author of Children of a New World and Margaret Byrne Professor of History at the University of California at Berkeley