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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

“More Life and Less Latin”: The GEB, Model Schools, and Vocational Education

By Nancy Adgent @2012. All rights reserved by the author.

Frederick T. Gates,
   GEB Chairman
Several researchers have studied the General Education Board’s work in the rural South, yet little attention has been given to the GEB’s initiatives elsewhere. Established in 1903 by John D. Rockefeller to aid education in the U.S. "without distinction of race, sex or creed," the Board’s primary purpose was to improve the South’s agrarian economy by educating poor rural children, especially blacks; however, the GEB funded education projects and institutions countrywide. In the early 20th Century, as states mandated school tax support and attendance, student populations increased, producing a corresponding rise in expenditures, causing taxpayer outcries, and forcing states to seek private aid and ways to economize. One popular solution was to consolidate schools, particularly in rural areas. New requirements for teacher certification, building standards, and inclusion of vocational courses added to burgeoning costs. GEB records trace these shifts in philosophy and document the Board’s role in shaping contemporary education.

Tensions between ‘outsiders’ like the GEB and education administrators at local and state levels grew as debates swirled over curriculum content, building components, and costs. GEB efforts to raise awareness of problems and propose solutions caused considerably more rancor and encountered more resistance in the North than had their foray into the South’s educational and economic chasm. Southerners generally were all too happy to accept advice when it was accompanied by financial assistance for their beleaguered rural school systems, and imposition of vocational courses suited their prevailing attitudes. In all fairness, the South’s public school administration was less entrenched than the North’s; thus, the GEB’s work was viewed more as assistance in establishing educational infrastructure rather than as interference with proper methods.

“The Country School of
To-Morrow” cover    

In his 1913 pamphlet, “The Country School of To-Morrow,” GEB Chairman Frederick T. Gates described a typical rural school situation: “From November onward, for three to seven months, somewhat less than one half of the school population of the district may be found there, usually taught by a young girl, often a last year’s older pupil of this or a neighboring school.”[1] Gates planned to “train the child for the life before him . . . the child shall not be able to distinguish between the pleasures of his school work and the pleasures of his play.”[2] He proposed that classes include lessons in “every industry,” in health, science, social behavior, recreation, and appreciation of art and literature. His ideas attracted interest from state school superintendents as distant as Minnesota. One went so far as to say that educators had established a double standard in education – “a comparatively high one and practical one for the urban child and a miserable make-shift for the rural child” – that left country students about four years behind city pupils.[3]

Abraham Flexner,
GEB Secretary    
Such responses reinforced the GEB’s resolve to further explore curriculum reform. At a July 1915 Board meeting, the attendees agreed “that, though signs of modernization are evident, education is still far too much under the shadow of the past,” and the Board charged GEB Secretary Abraham Flexner with preparing a report “on the subject of a Modern School.”[4] When the resulting pamphlet was published in 1916, the preface noted that the GEB “does not endorse or promulgate any educational theory, but is interested in facilitating the trial of promising educational experiments under proper conditions” and asked for “criticism and suggestions.” Flexner’s primary arguments were that students should prepare for modern life and that recitation and drilling in classical subjects such as Latin were not relevant to most occupations. He advocated reading current literature, exploring outside the classroom (museums, zoos, libraries), and creating science activities that would bear some relationship to real life and would develop a child’s powers of observation, reasoning, and imagination. Newspaper headlines across the country reflected the ensuing controversy: “Would have More Life and Less Latin Taught in Schools”; “John D Would Banish Classics”; “Rockefeller Board Plans Odd School -- New York Favored For Trial of Experiment”; “Are We Likely to Become Like Highly Trained Ants . . . “; “Assault on Culture”; and “For Contentedly Ignorant.”[5]

“A Modern School” cover
Undeterred, the GEB sought like-minded partners among state education departments in New Hampshire, New York, and North Carolina. In September 1916 Flexner sent exploratory letters to New Hampshire’s State Superintendent, then to New York’s Commissioner of Education, John H. Finley, writing: “The General Education Board is interested in making an experiment in the direction of a thoroughly modern rural school in some community which might ultimately take the thing over and run it itself . . .. Are there any prosperous rural communities in the state of New York adapted to such an enterprise? If so, we are, as the politicians would say, in a receptive condition.”[6] Over the next few weeks, Flexner, Finley, and Thomas E. Finegan, New York Deputy Commissioner, discussed the proposed project. By mid-November, Finley had sent Flexner, “The Organization of A Model Rural School,” a proposal for a GEB grant to establish a consolidated school at Seward Station in Schoharie County that would teach the three R’s plus agriculture and home economics. [7] Selection criteria included: central location, proximity to the State Education Department, a prosperous “good agricultural area,” within walking distance for many pupils; the “progressive spirit” of local citizens, train service to the State capital, and good roads.

Finegan outlined a financial plan with a bond issue and the GEB sharing equally the building costs, and with the district bearing the full operational costs after fifteen years. He envisioned a multiple-use building for State “medical inspection and physical training,” with vocational agriculture and domestic science classrooms and laboratories for children, special courses and field work for adults, and a community center.

Consolidated School Floor Plan

Enclosing photographs of the eight one-room country schools to be replaced by the recommended building, he noted that 200 consolidated schools had been built in New York during the prior three years. He believed the proposed school’s unique curriculum would be imitated countrywide and he believed landowners in the district would be willing to pay slightly higher taxes because agriculture graduates’ knowledge would increase farm profits.[8]

In early December, Finley sent the GEB “Hannibal High School, NY: Brief description of work” – a booklet describing the Oswego County consolidated high school that had initiated vocational agriculture in 1908.[9] Finley enclosed a letter from Hannibal’s principal crediting School Board President James E. Chamberlain with supporting “the best in education and equipment even if it did cost.” As an educated businessman and Hannibal native, Chamberlain exemplified the type of influence that largely determined the caliber and progressivism of local schools. By offering subjects pertinent to students’ lives, educators hoped to increase the number of rural graduates while enticing graduates to operate farms and industries in the area rather than leaving for white collar jobs in large cities. State education officials saw retention of graduates as a way to bolster the community’s tax base. The booklet’s statistics showed that 86% of Hannibal students in 1893 lived in town; in 1908, 81% of those graduates were still urban dwellers. After offering vocational courses for six years, the 1914 figures showed an almost complete reversal of the migration trend.[10] More students were attending high school and graduating.[11] Before 1916 ended, Finegan had answered all of Flexner’s questions about the proposed plan, and Flexner advised it would be discussed at the January Board meeting.[12] Actually, the topic was not on the agenda during the next two years.

“Candle of Efficiency in
Schoolhouse Planning”    
The furor surrounding Flexner’s publication likely caused the GEB to re-evaluate its previous overtures. Notwithstanding the apparent success of the Hannibal school, Flexner commented in July 1918 that New York would not be a good place to establish demonstration schools “since the attitude of the Legislature and the Governor on rural education is so reactionary that a successful experiment wouldn’t be likely to be imitated if it cost anything.”[13] GEB records reviewed do not indicate that the GEB ever favored New York with funds for the anticipated rural consolidated school. Although Flexner’s view of the political climate gives one likely explanation, two quotes about “A Modern School” in the Boston Transcript may have contributed to his opinion. The first was from Finley: “I think that what the Rockefeller Foundation proposes to undertake is a function which the State should perform.” Next, Dr. William L. Ettinger, Associate Superintendent of New York Schools, asserted that ”any changes in our educational system should arise from the consciousness of the people and not from any group specially organized and financed with certain aims in view.”[14]

The Board continued communicating, however, with the New Hampshire Department of Public Instruction, and Flexner offered to share the New York plan with Henry C. Morrison, New Hampshire’s Superintendent. The GEB paid Morrison to conduct a new study.[15] He estimated the cost per township at $8000 for four one-teacher schools and a teacher residence. Instead of the consolidated school New York wanted, Morrison recommended smaller schools within a reasonable walking distance for students. He believed one key reason consolidated model schools failed was that the remote locations were not practical for parents or children. He suggested transporting teachers from central residences to schools.[16] Only a year after Flexner discarded New York’s request, he sent Morrison’s report to the Board for review and the topic was placed on the docket for September 1919; however, when the New Hampshire Superintendent inquired the following March about the status of his proposition, Flexner responded that no action had been taken and that GEB resources were being applied elsewhere.[17]

Where were the GEB’s interest and money directed? Beginning in 1916 and continuing through 1922, the GEB focused on a more broadly applicable project, financing a comprehensive, multi-year school building analysis by Frank Irving Cooper, a Boston architect and Chairman of the National Education Association’s Committee on Standardization of School House Planning and Construction. Cooper’s committee investigated space distribution, lighting, and fire safety, among other elements, and produced a series of papers presented at several N.E.A. conferences, a variety of architectural drawings, and “The Candle of Efficiency in Schoolhouse Planning,” a pamphlet that allocated floor area by use, e.g. administration space should be less than 12%. The study emphasized economical design and construction, and received accolades from several state and university education departments, Hartford Fire Insurance Company, and the National Board of Fire Underwriters.[18] Within the NEA Committee, economy was not the overriding goal, however. W. R. McCornack, architect for the Cleveland, Ohio Board of Education, presented a paper to the NEA in 1919 emphasizing beauty: “I would have the school building first beautiful architecturally and placed in a charming landscape setting with ample garden spaces, for the reason that one of the functions of education is to teach the love of the aesthetic. I would have the building as near perfect in workmanship and in the choice of materials as possible, because the children of the public schools are the artists and artisans of the future, and the school building in which they work day after day will be their standard . . ..”[19]

Lincoln School, New York City
Why were consolidated rural "model school" initiatives discarded? As early as mid-1916, Flexner’s correspondence reflected an emerging realization that educating rural students for modern life would not likely be achieved by erecting a building. The real problem was a lack of trained teachers and superintendents, exacerbated by incompetent teacher selection committees; the mandate that public school systems use teachers from state normal schools; and the deeply ingrained notion that Classical studies were necessary.[20] In late 1916 – while the New York and New Hampshire State Education Departments were awaiting GEB decisions, the Board contacted Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tennessee requesting a report on “progressive rural schools in operation in different parts of the country.”[21] The schools suggested by Peabody included only one in the Northeast and it was in Massachusetts.[22] That same year, the GEB funded a New York City venture – “a school as a laboratory for the working out of the problem of elementary and secondary education” to be part of Columbia University’s Teachers College. Named The Lincoln School, its intent was to “discard the theory of education known as ‘formal discipline’.” Indeed the Lincoln School was a true pioneer and their curriculum and methods became models for urban high schools countrywide.[23]

Although the GEB continued supporting state and national studies of public education, by 1919, they had retreated from directly aiding public schools and colleges. While several factors may have influenced their revised approach, a key external change had occurred. State and Federal governments had become more involved with oversight of, and standards for, facilities, teachers, and curricula. An early September 1919 GEB meeting agenda item is revealing: “The action of the Department of Agriculture in interrupting the cooperation of the Board with State Agricultural Colleges in Maine and New Hampshire.”[24] The previous June, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture D. F. Houston had advised the GEB that, if they continued to pay salaries of teachers and others who derived any portion of their income from government sources, they would be subject to fines for violating the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Act. Undoubtedly, the letter pushed the GEB to officially adhere to the strategy they “informally adopted” in April to support primarily private institutions rather than public tax-supported ones.[25] In the following years, the GEB allocated most of its funds for private colleges and universities, particularly medical and African-American institutions, while continuing to support vocational agriculture education in southern secondary schools. They persisted also in supporting one New York vocational program – Cornell University Department of Rural Education’s training of agriculture and home economics teachers.[26] Federal funds were insufficient to comply with the 1917 Smith-Hughes Act requiring states to implement vocational education programs, so Cornell used GEB monies to pay graduate school agriculture and home economics professors and to investigate rural school management and facilities.

Hannibal High School, built 1924,
Oswego County, NY
one of the consolidated rural schools
The GEB also continued supporting state-level surveys of public education because they were seen as effective tools for progress. In Maryland and Delaware, for example, such reports had resulted in increased government funding and passage of “modern school codes.” In some states, including New York, disagreements among taxpayers, school administrators, and politicians kept discussions on the subject of facilities rather than curriculum. For example, a 1917 New York law that intended to “consolidate the schools in the rural sections of the State, with a view to improving the character of the instruction and reducing the expense incident to the present system” had apparently not produced the desired savings. By the 1930s, education consumed about one-third of the New York’s budget, and the State Education Department again requested GEB assistance, generating friction once more.[27] The GEB’s 1933 grant to the Public Education Association to study “the problem of financing public education in the present emergency, and to recommend possible economies to the legislature” caused New York State Economic Council President Merwin K. Hart to question the objectivity of the P.E.A. commission appointed by New York Governor Herbert H. Lehman, saying they “represented to a large extent the point of view which had always favored very liberal spending.”[28] Dean Clark, a dissenting commission member independently published his analysis, contending that two key problems were local financing and doubling of the per pupil cost between 1919 and 1932. Clark quotes the State Budget Director’s 1932 comments: “In these days of unemployment, shrunken incomes, lower property values and increased purchasing power of the dollar, it is just silly to argue that education should make no contribution to smaller budgets and lower taxes. If instead of spending $137 per pupil, we should spend $112, we would save the $50,000,000 . . .. The notion that the cost of education in New York cannot be intelligently and appreciably curtailed without robbing our children, is just a plain, ordinary fallacy.”[29] In 1934, the New York Board of Regents asked the GEB to examine “pressing problems connected with the financing and administration of public education” in the State and the GEB allocated $494,000 for comprehensive studies.[30] The resulting report, published in 1938 as “Education for American Life,” continued to emphasize training the “masses” for industrial blue-collar jobs rather than encouraging all students to prepare for college despite nationwide recognition that more education led to economic opportunity.[31]

Between 1903 and 1940 the GEB spent millions on education across the U.S. The public education system as well as private academic institutions benefited from the GEB’s largesse and their insistence on questioning traditional practices, their funding projects that improved buildings, efficiency, and cost effectiveness. Ultimately, GEB endeavors contributed to the demise of education as the acquisition of knowledge for personal enrichment and to the ubiquity of education as merely a response to employer demands.

Nancy Adgent, an archivist at the Rockefeller Archive Center, has written many articles including entries in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History & Culture and ABC-Clio’s Women in the American Civil War Encyclopedia. She earned a Master’s in History/Public History from Middle Tennessee State University in 2003.

 [1] Frederick T. Gates, “The Country School of To-morrow,” Folder 2796, Box 270, Series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, General Education Board (GEB) Archives, RAC, 3.
[2] Gates, “Country School,” GEB Archives, RAC, 10.
[3] J. B. Arp to Frederick T. Gates, 2 Dec 1916, Folder 2796, Box 270, Series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB Archives, RAC.
[4] Abraham Flexner to GEB, January 1916, Folder 3636, Box 352, Series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB Archives, RAC.
[5] Hartford (CT) Advocate, 11 April 1916; Denver (CO) News, 3 April 1916; Savannah (GA) News, 9 April 1916, Folder 1; New York (NY) American, 4 February 1917; Manchester (CT) Herald, 22 January 1917; New York Post, 12 August 1916, Folder 6, Box 1, Series 11-Occasional Papers, GEB Archives, RAC.
[6] Flexner to John H. Finley, 12 September 1916, Folder 2797, Box 270, Series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB Archives, RAC.
[7] Finley to Flexner, 18 Nov 1916, and Thomas E. Finegan to Flexner, 29 December 1916, Folder 2797, Box 270, Series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB Archives, RAC.
[8] “The Organization of a Model Rural School,” revised, Finegan to Flexner, 29 Dec 1916, Folder 2797, Box 270, Series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB Archives, RAC.
[9] Finley to Wallace Buttrick, 5 December 1916, Folder 2797, Box 270, Series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB Archives, RAC.
[10] It is not clear from the publication whether the 1914 figures applied only to students enrolled in agriculture courses or to all male students. And the phrasing brings into question whether the 1893 percentages included female students.
[11] “Hannibal High School, NY: Brief description of work,” Finley to Buttrick, 5 December 1916, Folder 2797, Box 270, Series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB Archives, RAC.
[12] Thomas E. Finegan to Flexner, 29 Dec 1916, and Flexner to Finegan, 2 January 1917, Folder 2797, Box 270, Series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB Archives, RAC.
[13] George Vincent to Flexner, 17 July 1918, and Flexner to Vincent, 17 July 1918, Folder 2798, Box 271, Series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB Archives, RAC.
[14] Boston Transcript, 24 January 1917, Folder 1, Box 1, Series 11-Occasional Papers, GEB Archives, RAC.
[15] Flexner to Henry C. Morrison, 16 January 1917, Folder 2797, Box 270, Series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education GEB Archives, RAC.
[16] Henry C. Morrison, “Proposal for Model and Demonstration Public School Systems for Certain Townships in New Hampshire,” August 1919, Folder 2798, Box 271, Series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB Archives, RAC.
[17] Flexner to GEB Board members, 20 August 1919, and Flexner to Ernest W. Butterfield, 3 March 1920, Folder 2798, Box 271, Series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB Archives, RAC.
[18] National Education Association, Committee on Standardization of Schoolhouse Planning and Construction-Reports & Pamphlets, Folders 3165-3168, Box 303, Series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB Archives, RAC.
[19] McCornack, W. R., “School Buildings as They Are and As They Should Be,” paper read before National Education Association, 27 February 1919, Chicago, p. 7, Folders 3167, Box 303, Series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB Archives, RAC.
[20] Flexner, “A Modern School,” Folder 3636, Box 352, Series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB Archives, RAC.
[21] Flexner to William K. Tate, 14 September 1916, Folder 3647, Box 353, Series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB Archives, RAC.
[22] Flexner to Tate, 28 Dec 1916, and Tate to Flexner, 14 October 1916, Folder 3647, Box 353, Series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB Archives, RAC.
[23] James E. Russell to Otis Caldwell, 7 Dec 1927; Caldwell to Lawrence Frank, 2 May 1933; J. Wayne Wrightstone, “Outline for Members of the Advisory Committee: Studies of Newer Classroom Practices in Selected Public Schools,” 15 May 1933; Frank to Caldwell, 3 May 1934, Folder 3652, Box 354, Series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB Archives, RAC.
[24] Agenda, September 1919 Board Meeting, Vol. VII-1919 June-December, Box 14, Series 3-Minutes & Dockets, GEB Archives, RAC.
[25] Minutes, 27 April 1919 Special Board Meeting, Vol. X-September 1920-April 1921, Box 14, Series 3-Minutes & Dockets, GEB Archives, RAC.
[26] George A. Works to Bachman, 9 August 1924, and A. R. Mann to Trevor Arnett, 20 May 1930, Folder 6776, Box 649, Series 1.4-Appropriations - Northern and Western Appropriations, GEB Archives, RAC.
[27] General Education Board, Annual Report 1934-1935, p. 20 (New York: General Education Board, 1936), Series 8-Annual Reports, GEB Archives, RAC.
[28] Howard W. Nudd to Governor Herbert H. Lehman, 23 June 1933, and Merwin K. Hart to D. H. Stevens, 10 January 1934, Folder 3693, Box 358, Series 1.2- Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB Archives, RAC.
[29] Dean Clark, “Minority Report,” p. 15, Folder 3693, Box 358, Series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB Archives, RAC.
[30] GEB, Annual Report 1934-1935, p. 20.
[31] GEB, Annual Report 1938, p. 75.

Image 1: Frederick T. Gates, GEB Chairman. Source: Box 6, series 100-International, Rockefeller Foundation (RF) Photograph Collection, Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC).
Image 2: “The Country School of To-Morrow” cover. Source: Folder 2796, box 270, series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, General Education Board Archives (GEB), RAC.
Image 3: “A Modern School” cover. Source: Folder 3641, Box 353, series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB, RAC.
Image 4: Abraham Flexner, GEB Secretary. Source: Box 6, series 100-International, RF Photograph Collection, RAC.
Image 5: “Candle of Efficiency in Schoolhouse Planning” Source: Folder 3167, Box 303, series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB, RAC.
Image 6: Consolidated School Floor Plan from “School Buildings as They Are and as They Should Be” by W. R. McCornack, architect.Source: Folder 3167, Box 303, series 1.2-Appropriations, Secondary and Higher Education, GEB, RAC.
Image 7: Lincoln School, New York City Source: The Lincolnian yearbook 1926, Folder 351, Box 27, Series H-Family and Friends, Record Group 4-Nelson A. Rockefeller, Personal, Rockefeller Family Archives, RAC.
Image 8: Hannibal High School, built 1924, Oswego County, NY—one of the consolidated rural schools. Photo by author.