Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Deeper Look at History - Sutton School Grads

While recently looking something up in the Sutton High School Alumni Directory I was again struck by the predominance of girls in the early years. I wondered how long that lasted and what were the reasons for that marked tilt.

A study of history can happen on several levels. The history column in the Clay County News is a “study” of history at a shallow level being several tidbits of facts from the past. We call those “data points” – just disjointed facts.

If we take a deeper look at a set of disjointed facts we will generally have an opportunity to learn more. A collection of facts plus a bit of imagination and a deeper look expands those facts into a story. That often happens in genealogy research.

My great grandfather died in 1890 at the age of 51. His widow lived to age 88 in 1932 – a few cold facts, but what was Rhoda’s life like after James died?

A photo and the cold facts of dates for birth, marriage and death
are only a start in learning about your ancestors. This family of
Mom and daughters left clues to their interesting and complicated
 lives. We just have to look deeper to uncover their stories.
A look at their offspring offers a clue. The widow was left on the west Kansas wheat farm with eight of her eleven children still at home at ages 18, 16, 13, 11, 9, 7, 5 and 2. Now that is interesting. Add those new “data points” to the few we had before and we've the makings of a story.

By blending in more simple facts about her life and that of those offspring, where they lived, etc. and we learn more and more about Rhoda’s life. For instance, what prepared her for this? Could it have been that when Rhoda was 19 her own mother died at age 47 trying to have her tenth baby leaving Rhoda the oldest daughter with 14, 11, 9 and 4 year old brothers? That was while James, her “intended” was one year into his three year absence with the 82nd Indiana Infantry marching through the Confederacy.

That could be a character building experience.

Meanwhile, back at the Sutton High School Alumni Directory, how long did the number of girls in the graduating classes continue to exceed the boys?
The Sutton High School Alumni Directory for 1884-2001 is a 
priceless resource to uncover “data points” about most of the past 
residents of our community. Take some time to look deeper 
into these pages and you may be surprised at what you find.

I made a spreadsheet. Sure enough, in the first three years, 1884-1886 girls outnumbered boys 4-0, 4-3 and 8-2. Jumping a few years to 1897-1899 the counts were 9-5, 7-5 and 15-3.How about 1913-1915: 9-3, 5-8, 8-7. You see that 1914 had more boys – that had happened twice before and would again in 1921 but in 1916 there were 16 girls and only 5 boys.

The widest gap of girls outnumbering boys occurred in 1940, ’41 and ’42 (except 1964 – more on that).

The branch of mathematics that helps us understand bunches of numbers is the field of statistics. That is the science that helps us gain confidence in our interpretation of bunches of numbers. My grad example violates a critical concept – sample size. To gain more confidence in any interpretation we’d need either much larger class sizes or to look at several schools.

How many more? Surprisingly, not many.

Political polls are a recent reminder of statistical science. A sample size of 1500, turns out, will give a very good representation of the whole population, within an error rate of about 3%. The most critical factor in choosing the 1500 person sample is to be representative of the whole population. If that is done right, adding 500 or so to the sample size gains very little in the confidence level. (It’s a math thing.)

I used another tool in looking at the Sutton High grads – a ten-year moving average. Mr. Excel makes this pretty easy. I tracked the average difference in number of girls versus number of boys for each ten year period from 1884-1893 through 1958-1967 (got tired by then). Using ten-year averages will smooth out “outliers” – single years with abnormal counts that mean little.

My results? Several interesting things pop out.

Turns out that the average class had 2.5 to 4.7 more girls than boys through the 1926-1935 period when the gap spiked up when those ’40-’42 years were included then settled down in the early ‘50’s to quite equitable numbers.

So what could we interpret from this mish-mash of numbers?

I’ll hypothesis, meaning I’ll devise possible explanations that might explain the numbers.

First, a likely explanation is that boys quit school early to work on the farm while girls continued their studies.

Probably a factor, but a good percentage of school age kids were town kids. Did town boys tend to quit school to work in Dad’s store or business? Did they go work on farms? A quick look at 1900 and 1910 census finds a little of that, but not enough account for the numbers. It would take more study to offer that as a bet at the bar, with confidence.

Secondly, maybe parents felt it was more important for girls to finish high school than boys.

Could be, but if so, that would go against quite a bit of “common” knowledge. If there was any gender bias in most of history it was that boys were educated, girls not so much. Would our community be different? Why?

Thirdly, maybe girls were marrying at younger ages.

Also, could be, but that would require digging into more data.

And (______ fill in your own hypothesis here.)

My point is that accepting common knowledge or an opinion should not cut it if you are interested in a rigorous study of a topic. Dig deeper.

There is another interesting thing about the picture we get from our Alumni Directory. The trend in the number of grads does not match the trend in overall population of the community during these years.

The local population peaked around 1900 to 1910 then declined steadily into the depression when it dropped more rapidly and then resumed a steady decline. The number of grads rose during those declines; the classes of 1940 and 1942 were largest classes during this whole period. There was only one class with more than 25 grads before 1921. There was only one class under 30 after 1921 (1963 with 28).

Any idea about what was going on there? Suppose mandatory school attendance tilted the graduation rate? Careful…we should look deeper.

I mentioned the class of ’64. That class demonstrates that in any set of data there can be weird data points. The class of ’64 had 31 girls and 13 boys. There were more girls in that class than all the students in ’63. That’s an “outlier.” It doesn’t mean anything necessarily. Outliers happen.

So what have we learned?

I hope that we’ve learned that there can be a lot involved when you give into an interest in the past. A casual look at the past may give a satisfactory picture but a deeper look will at least add to the picture and may very well reverse your original perception. The study of historic events and people is like so much else, the more you put into it the more you get out.

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