“Known and meritoriously recognized”: Kansas City Public Schools, 1893
Kansas City in 1893 was proud of its public schools. In his address to the first teachers’ Institute of the year in September, Superintendent J. M. Greenwood praised the innovative reputation of his schools, “known and meritoriously recognized,” he said, “among educators in two continents … Even Boston is throwing away her lead pencils and is now using pen and ink in the lowest grades. They caught it from Kansas City. Other cities all over the country will now compete with us in stability, vitality and beauty of school work.”
Kansas City, said Greenwood later in the year, “differed from other communities that regarded education as a disagreeable, but necessary, charity, and had achieved great results of permanent educational value, owing to the progressive and intelligent spirit of its citizens. The work done by the pupils of the Kansas City high school and ward schools ranks with the very best that had ever been exhibited in this country.”
The public school system in 1893 in Kansas City, Missouri, was, in some respects, surprisingly similar to today’s. The district operated about the same number of schools as it does in 2013 – 35, seven of them for “colored” students – in schools ranging in student population from Clay Elementary’s 40 to Central High School’s 1000, with a total enrollment of 16,300, not far from today’s 17,000. About 1300 students were African American, a number which the American Citizen, an African American newspaper regarded as “a very poor showing.”
An 1891 editorial in the Citizen argued that the “colored people are not sufficiently grateful for the benefits in an educational way which they are receiving” in the Kansas City, Missouri, school district. Segregated schools were, the paper held, acceptable, if only for the present, on the basis that “a people who have been doing business for themselves for centuries can with plausible reason object to a people less than thirty years old mixing with them…. we ought to accept their decision, which denies us admission and go to work to prove to them beyond question that they are loosing [sic] something worth having by not being with us.”
A Star article described students coming on horseback from as far as Independence to attend Kansas City’s schools: “young men and young women from Armourdale, Argentine and Independence think nothing at all of a little morning’s ride of ten or fifteen miles before school to settle their breakfasts. They can brag over this to their grandchildren who may grumble because the air ship from Wichita to bring them to Kansas City in the middle of the next century is late.”
Citizens took such a personal interest in schools that the names of all teachers were published in newspapers at the beginning of the school year and lengthy reports were run on school openings and closings, monthly teacher institutes, and school dedications. This didn’t mean, of course, that taxpayers were eager to pay to get the best schools for their children. The Journal ran an editorial complaining that other states were taking away Missouri’s “master workmen” among teachers because of inadequate teacher pay, leaving behind the “journeymen and apprentices.” The Superintendent of Kansas’ schools, like his successors in the twenty-first century, complained about the “great injustice worked in the majority of the school districts … under the present system of taxation,” and proposed a state and county tax law by which the tax would be distributed among school districts “upon a just and equitable basis.”
Partisan politics were perhaps more evident in matters related to schools in Kansas City, Kansas, than on the Missouri side. During their early days in power in Kansas, the Populist government of Lorenzo Lewelling had approved a free text book bill, but a few months later the city school board fired the superintendent on the grounds that he was a Populist, since he had voted for Lewelling, and appointed a new one. A great outcry came from citizens, who held an “indignation meeting.” Several veteran teachers resigned in protest. The citizens, reported the Daily Journal, do not consider politics an essential qualification for the position of city superintendent. Later in the year a committee of the Grand Army of Kansas -- Union veterans of the Civil War -- was appointed to investigate the text books in use in Kansas schools to “ascertain if they are up to the proper standard of loyalty and patriotism.” The Star disparaged any such attempt, since school texts are written to be sold in all parts of the country and therefore must “accommodate the prejudices of all sections,” a position not unfamiliar in today’s discussion of social studies texts.
In the Argentine school district across the Kaw things were so bad financially that the school board considered closing the schools down entirely due to the condition of the board’s treasury, “which is empty to the extreme, and has been for three years,” though teachers had already been selected for the upcoming school year. Kansas City, Kansas, teachers seem to have been poorly paid even relative to their low paid counterparts in Missouri; the three male teachers in Kansas City, Kansas’ high school, a racially “mixed” school, received $100 or more; the two female teachers received each $88.88. In the lower level African American schools, male teachers all received considerably more than female teachers, although all but one male teacher received less than $100, and all the female teachers less than $60.
Kansas City’s schools employed 325 teachers and 25 janitors, along with about 40 substitute teachers, a student-teacher ratio of 50:1. Today’s district employs 2,000 teachers and 2,000 staff, a student-teacher ratio of less than 10 to 1, or 12 or 13 to 1 allowing for non-classroom support staff. In 1893, secondary school teachers were rarely college graduates; L.E. Wolfe, Superintendent of Missouri Public Schools, estimated that at least three-fifths of teachers had no training “beyond that of the common district school.” [Report of the Public Schools of the State of Missouri for the School Year Ending June 30, 1893, p. 30]
Thus the monthly Teachers’ Institutes, which introduced teachers to educational theory. At one such institute, for example, a principal gave a paper on the inductive method in teaching – useful knowledge, perhaps, for teachers whose education had emphasized rote memorization. He described the purpose of education as fostering “the accumulation of personal force, the formation of good personal habits, and the acquirement of cultivated tastes.”
To receive certification as teachers, substitute teachers, or assistant teachers, aspirants took an exam set by the school board. Only seven of forty-three applicants passed a May exam: “The Board of Education finds it a hard matter to get enough suitable teachers to fill vacancies,” the Times reported, adding a suggestion by one of the Board members that “If some of the young men who are studying law and medicine would study to become school teachers it would be better for them. There is always an opening for a good teacher, while the professions I mentioned are overcrowded.” Except at the high school and university level there were few male teachers, but for women getting a teaching job was quite desirable since so few other areas of employment were open to women, especially African American women. The Citizen reprinted a story from the Sunday Sun arguing that principals were not employing enough “home talent” – meaning African American women – and showing too much favoritism in appointment of teachers: “the people mean in the future to have a word in regard to the teachers who shall have charge of their children.”
A number of African American teachers taught at the “colored” schools and could “hold their own among the aggregation,” thought the American Citizen, but when it came to the Board exam, African American applicants had an even more difficult time than their white counterparts: C.H.J. Taylor’s American Citizen reported ruefully that none had passed the September exam after two trials: “We do not like to feel that in any point or in any way we are inferior to our white brethren,” he wrote. “To ask the Board to make an exception in our case admits of our inferiority. To say we are not inferior and to claim we are just as able to pass as some of those already in the schools as teachers, that the whites can do no more than we, argue[s] nothing; the fact remains that we failed, and to our shame, be it said.” Typical of Taylor’s views, he called on black candidates to “bend every energy to a victorious end,” and “Scorn to accept that which you have not honestly earned, and do not expect by some hook or crook to get a certificate….”
Conditions at some schools, including Central High, were often described as crowded. In his December report to the education board, Superintendent Greenwood reported that Irving, Jefferson and Whittier schools were overcrowded; “the only relief he can suggest is a new school house to draw from all the crowded districts.” The school board decided to divide the high school into two classes, with each half attending half of the day. “The pupils,” commented the Journal, “would not be delayed in the work, nor would the teachers be diminished in any way. Another force of teachers will be required or some arrangement will have to be made so that the increased work can be done by the teachers already employed.”
The separate schools for African American students were, according to a Times report, even more crowded than white schools, and there were already signs of a “white flight” mentality. A Star story reported that Karnes School used to be in a white school district but would be re-designated ‘colored’ because, said the paper, “colored families have been moving into the neighborhood and the white inhabitants have been moving away. The result has been a complete change of races which enabled three teachers during the last year to easily attend to all the white children who came to the Karnes school.”
The Board of Education in May decided to close down Garrison School, an African-American school, and transfer students and teachers to Karnes, making it an institution “exclusively for the use of colored pupils.” Later, the Board apparently proposed to close down Karnes instead, but by the time school reopened in September it was decided to keep Karnes and Garrison open and open “a room for colored children… near the corner of Eighteenth and Woodland for the first and second grades.”
In a school in Kansas City, Kansas, where lower schools, though not the high school, were segregated, white parents objected to the attendance of the children from the Rhodes family at a white school, claiming the family was black. Mrs. Rhodes, “whose appearance,” according to the Star, “does not indicate that she is a negress,” argued before the Board of Education that she was “not a negro, that her husband was not and that the children had no negro blood in their veins.” Mrs. Rhodes was contradicted by relatives who said “her husband was black and that the wife also had negro blood.” The board postponed a decision pending affidavits from the relatives; if the claims of the white parents were supported, the children “would be sent to the Lincoln school, which is exclusively for negro children.”
A relatively small proportion of school age children attended district schools. According to a Journal report, there were 43,000 school-age children in the city in May 1893 -- 39,000 white and 4,000 African American -- but only 12,500 in school during the 1893 school year. While some of the others would have been studying at one or another private school, the majority of children went to school for only a few years, if at all, before going to work. Three fourths of students left school before eighth grade (Report of the Public Schools of the State of Missouri, 1893, p. 26). After that, there were few opportunities for further education. Bethany Free Night School in Kansas City, Kansas offered the rare opportunity of free classes to “boys and young men who work during the day, and in many instances are the main support of their mothers.”
The High school was simply not a destination for most young people. Entrance examinations, with questions in “arithmetic, geography, spelling, grammar and United States history,” were one way many students – no doubt particularly children of recent immigrants and African American students – were excluded from high school. In May young people were described as nervously awaiting the arrival of their examination results, those who passed coming home “as valiant heroes after a seven year mental conflict.” “Every pupil who passes from the ward schools to the High school,” said the Times, “awakens in some younger friend an ambition to follow in his footsteps. The high school is his goal, and he works toward it with an interest inspired by the feeling that it represents a wider field of activity and a larger world in which he may measure himself with his fellows.”
The idea of “measuring oneself” against others reflected a prevailing, Darwinian view of high school as a “place for contention, for struggle, for energizing thought,” as one speaker at an April teachers’ institute told the assembled teachers. Only children “who are endowed by nature for this struggle can pass through the curriculum with safety.”
On this basis, the speaker insisted, the “weak” and “undeveloped” child, the child “whose parents had well marked organic diseases should never enter into the competition of the graded school…. A marked strain of partial insanity should preclude the inscription of the names of offsprings on the rolls of the public schools. A child whose parents or grandparents on either side died at the age of 30 or 40 years, should not be submitted to the labor and restraints of school life.”
At another institute, in March, a speaker delivered a “highly scientific” lecture arguing that “precocious children were almost universally weak physically, and that teachers should not allow them to advance as rapidly as parents usually desired; that much injury was done children of this description by giving them too much mental work.”
Although female teachers outnumbered male teachers by almost 10 to 1 in Kansas City’s schools – only at the two high schools, Central and Lincoln, the latter for African American students, did male teachers outnumber female – the same speaker argued that “higher education of women tended to produce nervousness and the many diseases which follow in its wake. He said the sex did not possess the constitution necessary to undergo a long course of study.” Typically, female teachers were unmarried; those who married were subject to dismissal. At the same institute, a speaker deplored this practice, saying of the female teachers, “They are driven out of the work for which by nature they are fitted and drawn into more masculine vocations, which tend to rob them of their natural refinement.”
Superintendent Greenwood hastened to deny the theory that girls are injured by education. Kansas City boys and girls, he said, are as robust physically as any other children: “The girls carry forward their work as well as the boys, and the girls are generally the best scholars.” Circulars had been sent to pupils asking if their health had been injured by “overstudy.” Of the 800 who responded, reported Greenwood, “eighteen reported that they had been more or less injured by overstudy....” As to the claim that precocious children are weak and should even be held back to preserve their health, the Journal dismissed this odd notion: “As a rule the world’s greatest thinkers have been weak men physically, yet men of indomitable will power… there is really nothing noble in man but mind, and this is the basic fact of all life and of all philosophy.”
These conflicting views at teachers’ institutes and in the papers about who should be educated, who should educate them, and the purpose of public education point to the ferment in American education in the late nineteenth century, as massive numbers of new immigrants, most not native English speakers, arrived in the country and found work in the city’s burgeoning meat packing plants. Kansas Cityans, and Americans generally, liked to congratulate themselves on the strength of their public school system, but there were many signs of cracks in the system that would continue to widen in later years.
Kansas City’s old Central High at 11th and Locust was being modernized by the construction of a new addition, still under construction in January. Once completed, Central would be “one of the best in America….” reported the Star; “there will be nothing superior to it in the school architecture of the country.” If people knew about the virtues of Kansas City’s High school building, said the Star, “they would take strangers through it before they showed them the packing houses.”
A Times story in August, anticipating the opening of the addition in time for the beginning of the school year in September, praised the architectural design as “pure Romanesque,” with facades “so well studied that the grouping of the various points is such as to make a harmonious whole.”
The laboratories would feature “the latest and best fixtures and apparatus,” and its astronomical observatory fitted with “a twenty-inch telluric blackboard, having a brass graduated meridian,” with an imported spectroscope. It was all seen as a great advance over the present building, constructed in 1884, a “substantial but commonplace building” designed for only 350 students; the new addition would accommodate 1500 students.
The up-to-date lecture rooms and laboratories were a particular point of pride. “There was a time, not so very long ago,” the Times commented, “when the average parent would scoff at the idea of his son or daughter wasting time in the pursuit of what he would call useless knowledge of scientific subjects” such as zoology. Now the study of zoology, formerly the exclusive province of a few universities, was seen as having a value that “extends to every character and condition of mind.” Zoology study at Central High would be supported by Bausch and Lomb microscopes “at the service of every student. Large aquaria, filled with all manner of swimming things will enable the student to watch the movements of aquatic animals as well as the transformation of larva.”
Reflecting educational theories of the day, the student was required to “state the resemblances and differences between the specimens last studied and those of previous lessons, and from the statement of resemblances he forms a definition of the classes and groups into which animals are systematically divided.”
The new addition was not ready for opening by the beginning of the new school year in September. In the meantime, students inhabited the crowded classrooms of the old building through the rest of 1893, but the Times continued to trumpet the virtues of what it called “Kansas City’s University,” “a magnificent structure built after modern ideas and complete in all its equipment,” celebrating the work of the architects, bricklayers, plasterers, and carpenters who had contributed to its construction.
The latest educational technology was also to be applied in the teaching of foreign languages and arithmetic in the lower schools. The principal of the Scarritt school, J.C. Hisey, returned from the Columbia World’s Fair in Chicago with one of Thomas Edison’s newfangled phonographs after Edison wrote to educators asking for suggestions on how to use the machine in teaching. Hisey, described in a Times report as “quite an electrician,” believed the device might be used in teaching languages. Edison presented him with a recording phonograph which he proposed to use in teaching Spanish by having students imitate the “exact pronunciation of Spanish words from the cylinder as it revolves… saving the teacher undue exertion.”
A later story said that Mr. Hisey actually received two phonographs, with recording cylinders, from the inventor; the Scarritt students were reported in the Journal to be proud of the fact that “theirs is a marked school because it owns two phonographs…,” one of them used by the indefatigable Hisey in the teaching of arithmetic. Hisey’s method was to have students recite their times tables and problem solutions into the device: “The children seemed to enjoy yelling into the transmitter,” observed a Journal reporter, “but were somewhat nervous for fear of making slips of the tongue and spoiling the cylinder.” The pedagogical value of this application of technology was not explained by Principal Hisey, who claimed only that it contributed somehow to students doing “rapid and efficient work in arithmetic.” He was enthusiastically preparing to demonstrate his techniques at a meeting of the Missouri Valley Teachers’ Association.
Kansas City’s pride in its modern schools reflected a larger American belief that American public education was bringing the “very rich and the very poor… nearer together today than ever before,” as the Times put it, due to “the cheapening of the best educational privileges, so that they are within the reach of high and low alike.” Together with a free press, the public school system provided one of the “strongest barriers to the establishment of European classism in this country…. With two such friends as these the common people need have no fear of the ‘oppressor’s wrong’ or ‘the proud man’s contumely.’ Education is always on the side of the people, and the press, when it fulfills its mission at all, will be found not far from the same position.” The same view of American education as having a unique mission in the world entered into the debate over whether American literature should be taught in the schools. The Star maintained that "for purposes of fundamental training, as a means of getting the mind in a healthy, receptive condition, the English classics are invaluable," but engaged in a muted defense of writings by Missouri authors, including L.U. Reavis, who has "contributed to posterity that startling romance worthy of an Arabian night, "St. Louis, the Future Great City."
Kansas City’s School Board was proud of being the first in the country to introduce military training into its schools, to “stimulate patriotism” and contribute to “making the United States, not a war-like nation, but a nation capable of bearing arms intelligently and victoriously under all conditions.” It was this sort of quasi-“educational” innovation that a writer to the Journal objected to. In his time, he wrote, “We didn’t spend time with a drum corps to show off the martial drill of the scholars in marching around the school yard and into the house. Each one went in on his own hook and was held personally responsible for his good and quiet behavior…. schools have followed up a good many fads until they are a detriment to the interests of education.”
Kansas City’s newspaper editors liked to point out, however, that the U.S. spent much less on its army and navy than European countries, and correspondingly much more on education. One study reported in the Times found that Italy spent $96,000,000 on its army and only $4,000,000 on education: “Little wonder that the masses of Italy are uneducated, and that the land is threatened with disaster…. The United States with its small army and splendid system of education is a model for the old nations of the world.”
A Star editorial also pointed to the difference between American and European expenses on the military: the total strength of the United States army, it said, was 2,144 officers and 25,779 enlisted men, and since “Indian warfare” was deemed at an end, “any increase in the numerical force of the army would not meet with popular favor, and is not suggested by any contingency immediate or remote. In contrast to America’s small expenditure on the military is the “vast outlay of treasure” among European countries on armed forces numbering 22 million, an “enormous body of non-producers… maintained in idleness to gratify the ambition of the rulers under whom they serve.” It was all a testimonial, the editors believed, “to the strength and security of a republican form of government” where “every citizen is… an agent for the preservation of constitutional authority.”
It was because of this wasteful expenditure by the Europeans on the military, a Times editorial held, that American education was superior: “War and education, although entirely distinct, bear a relation to each other in the expense accounts of the world’s leading nations,” since maintaining large standing armies means keeping down school appropriations: “vast standing armies are something more than a very onerous burden; … they are, in fact, a menace to education” such that “the children of at least twelve European countries are being cheated out of an education that they may have war.”
The editors cite a study comparing the relative per capita amounts spent on education and the military in Europe and the U.S.: France was the leader, spending $4 on the military as against 70 cents on education, almost a 6 to 1 ratio, while the U.S. spent a mere .39 on its military and $1.35 for education, a ratio of about 3.5 to 1. “Surely,” write the editors, “a more powerful argument against war or the system of standing armies could not be framed.” Of the European countries, only Switzerland spent more on education than on war, “and Switzerland, it will be remembered, has high rank for intelligence among the nations of the earth.” Like the Swiss, said the Star, “we are a people who love and practice peace,” and the “insignificant” army the U.S. maintains in contrast to the militaries of Europe is “quite sufficient to uphold the dignity of the nation and to impress the Kingdoms of the earth with the full idea of power which this little body of soldiery represents and symbolizes.” It is worth noting that the U.S. federal government currently spends almost nine times as much on the military per capita as on education.
Progressive education in 1893 also meant excluding religion from public schools. When a priest criticized the lack of religious content at the monthly in-service institutes for teachers, Missouri’s attorney general wrote to L.E. Wolfe, Superintendent of Public Instruction, to say that the institutes must under the law be secular: “While the state spreads its protecting arm over every citizen, irrespective of his faith, and extends ample aid for the education of his children, it has in its organic law expressly forbidden the recognition of religion or form of worship.” It was a view supported by the editors of the Journal, who commented "We can tell all religious sects that henceforth the public schools are no longer cruising ground for any sect that assumes to represent religion," and by Supreme Court Justice John Harlan, three years before his famous dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson. At a speech in Washington, D.C., Harlan said that the safety of the country’s public school system lay “in the absolute non-interference with the schools by religious bodies and with the non-interference of the government with the religious schools. It is no part of the government to teach religion. The government should never pay a cent for the support of religious schools."
If there was agreement on excluding religion from public schools, there was conflict on many other aspects of public education. One issue was discipline. Superintendent Greenwood wanted to set up special schools for “two classes of boys that are difficult to deal with." One is those “who have only a short time to remain in school, and who need at least enough education to help them to read, write, spell and cast up accounts. A school that would meet such requirements ought to be established."
The other group is “the bad boys.” For them, said Greenwood, “there should be a reform school…. There are perhaps 100 boys of this class now in the city. A boy that will be dishonest with teacher and parents will usually prove to be dishonest in his business dealing later in life. A school that will take these boys in charge and work and shape them into right habits of living would be a great help to the unfortunates themselves and remove from the better children an Anarchistic element.”
The Journal editors agreed: “The schools are for obedient children, whose parents wish them to learn and to act properly, and at the same time to become proficient in the branches they study. This class of children should not be exposed to the influence and contamination of the positively vicious, unless those of that class show, by their conduct, that they are making every effort to live pure and honorable lives. Teachers and principals must stand as the guardians of the moral welfare of the children the parents commit to their care, and they must use all legitimate means to help the vicious child into a better atmosphere than his home surroundings afford.”
The matter of school discipline arose in February when a teacher at Whittier School subjected a nine year old boy to punishment resulting in a broken nose after he refused to participate in a class activity. The teacher, reported the Journal, “is small and not very strong. She does not appear to be able to inflict very severe punishment,” but the matter was investigated by Superintendent Greenwood, and the matter of corporal punishment was discussed at an Institute in October, where the sentiment was that it should be administered “at home only in exceptional cases. It was the experience of the older teachers that suspensions were much more effective.”
Greenwood was a much admired figure in Kansas City. The Times proudly reported that his invitation to deliver a lecture on “Teachers and Teaching” at the Pittsburg Teachers’ Institute, “one of the leading educational events of Pennsylvania… honors not only the gentleman himself, but the schools of Kansas City as well.” Greenwood personally administered tests to seventh grade classes in each school, deducting points for “every mistake in capitals, punctuation, spelling, omission of words, etc.” and announced the results for each school, the percentages ranging from 87 to 19. The four with the lowest scores – Phillips, Lincoln, Douglass, and Sumner -- were all African-American schools. “The same course of study is laid out for all the schools,” complained C.H.J. Taylor’s The American Citizen; “that being the case, why is we fall so short of the standard? ….Our children should be able to hold their own with the children of the same grade from any school in the city. There should be no apologies offered or accepted for the colored children of Kansas City. The effect is pernicious upon our boys and girls to apologize for their failures… They expect all through life to shield their failures behind the flimsy excuse that they did not have a white man’s chance.” The dictation results may have owed something to high illiteracy rates in the children’s families: in an attempt to justify the fact that no African Americans were serving on juries, a local judge estimated, citing no evidence, that there were no more than fifty African American men in the city who could meet the literacy requirement for jury duty among 10,000 on the jury list.
More significant, however, was the racism implicit in attitudes toward African American students and teachers on the part of white educators and administrators -- even the esteemed Greenwood. On one occasion, in 1890, all non-white teachers were summarily excluded from a teachers’ institute: “250 brain workers in attendance,” observed the Citizen, “and not one colored…. they were denied the advantages of the institute because of their color.” Greenwood, whom the paper calls “a broad-minded cultured gentleman,” refused to intervene, saying he had nothing to do with organization of the institute, and the paper generously took him at his word: “Everybody who knows him understands very well his position in this color question. He has repeatedly declared that there is no color to mind, and his actions speak louder than words.” The State Board of Education held teachers’ institutes specifically for African American teachers (Report of the Public Schools of the State of Missouri, 1894, p. 44), but some, at least, were normally present at the monthly teachers’ institute; at the December institute a prominent African-American educator, J.N. Grisham of Lincoln High School, gave a talk on “Heredity.” Though not reported on at length, his talk seemed to quietly challenge racial theories of the time that emphasized “heredity” over environment in forming “human intellect and character.”
Greenwood was an advocate of an education which, as he put it in an address dedicating the new addition to Central High, “fits the pupil for study in any of the great departments of human activity,” but also, and “of most benefit,” has “an ethical aim, the development of conscience, a high and noble purpose; second, a purely intellectual aim – to balance, quicken and give acuteness, intensity and persistency to the intellectual faculties; third, an esthetic aim, or a culture of the taste and judgment in appreciating the beautiful, and fourth, the training of the will for practical life, resulting in energetic action.” The dominant tendency of the time, he said, “was along the line of directive power…. If a man were to assume the position of higher directive power, he must learn to govern himself and make his brain do the work in controlling forces. It was clear, then, that his education must consist largely in training the will and forming correct regulative habits.”
A man of his time, however, Greenwood made no comment on the failures of the system to adequately educate all children, including African American children. Indeed, he wanted to exclude those unfitted, in his view, for education. After a visit to Mississippi, he praised the state’s education of African Americans: “I expected to find the black children steeped in ignorance, but was surprised to learn by experience that if you ask almost any pickaninny a question from geography or arithmatic [sic] he will dig his little brown toes in the mud and give you a correct answer. The negroes are as happy as can be, and there is absolutely no prejudice against them among the intelligent whites.” In social Darwinian fashion, Greenwood framed education as “a contest of brains – not of brawn…. The supremacy of the world was to be decided by brain power in the markets of the world….”
It would likely not have occurred to Greenwood, or to most whites of his time, that African American students would or could be equal competitors in this global contest, or that African American teachers should be treated equally with white teachers. African American teachers in Missouri taught at “colored schools,” and had their own State Teachers’ Association, since they were excluded from the white Teachers’ Association. Toward African American education in general there was a consistently condescending tone, exemplified in a Times editorial claiming that Missouri “has done more for the negro than most of her sister States… Through the process of schooling that he has undergone, the Missouri negro has become in the last few years a changed creature. He is more of a man and less of an animal.”
Only slightly less condescending was Robert Yeager, president of the Board of Education, in his address to the graduating class of the African American high school in May: “You have laid away all petty feeling and jealousy,” he told the class of eight girls and one boy. “It is along the line of education and thought that you must look for the upbuilding of your people. Cast your eyes back for thirty years and see what wonderful advancement you have made. Look forward and see what you may be in thirty years.”
Of the eight Lincoln High School graduates, one – the only boy – was preparing to go on to college; another was contemplating study at “some conservatory of music in the East.” The other members of the class “expect to teach.”
In contrast, when he presented diplomas during graduation ceremonies at Central, the white high school, President Yeager commented proudly on the success of its graduates in being admitted to colleges: “all the colleges except Yale and Harvard admitted students on the diplomas of the Central High School, and they hoped in a few years to break down these barriers. The High school curriculum was broadening every year. In the past young men as soon as they were out of the ward schools left for some academy or preparatory school to prepare for college. They did no longer. Parents and pupils recognized the value of the High school… the best high school in the United States.”
The fact that Yale and Harvard did not admit students from “the best high school in the United States” was one indication of curricular debates afoot in Missouri and across the country in 1893 as colleges and universities began to play an increasing role in dictating and standardizing what would be taught in secondary education. The Journal referred to “a general demand on the part of thousands of the most intelligent parents and patrons for many important changes. Those having authority in school matters should remember that these demands require satisfaction.” Among the issues requiring discussion, said the Journal, was the “poor results usually attained in the use of English.” The paper criticized the schools for emphasizing the “theory” of English over its “practical, everyday use….Technical grammar has no proper place in our ward schools. At most, it should be confined to the highest class. It is impossible for any one who has not had occasion to examine manuscripts to have any conception of the widespread inability to employ good English that prevails among even our most intelligent people.”
While Superintendent Greenwood spoke of the ethical, intellectual and esthetic aims of education, and “the training of the will,” the Journal editors maintained that the “one thing that the public school system should do for our young more than another” is to enable them to “make their mother tongue a swift and easy-going vehicle of thought.” Another Journal editorial, under the title “Too Many Studies,” commented on the “tendency to put too much into the courses of study… the disposition to unload,” and approved the principals’ decision to drop or restrict certain subjects, including calisthenics, music, and drawing. “The multiplication of studies has gone on so extensively,” the editors continue, “there is no telling when or where it will stop.”
The State superintendent of public instruction, L.E. Wolfe, had his own ideas on the curriculum, which he delivered in a City Teachers’ institute in December: “All knowledge,” said Wolfe, “comes from observation, reading and reflection.” Therefore, he wanted students to read a book on travel rather than study geography abstractly, or to study natural science in the field rather than in books. As a Times reporter pointed out, Wolfe subscribed to the current educational theory of “apperception”: “He would secure sharp perceptions, and would blend them into a related whole. He would have history and civil government taught together, and begun low down. He would teach language to quite an extent, by having pupils express orally, or in writing, clearly what they had in mind. Grammar should be an inductive study and its general principles should be developed and related, not taught by memory and deduction.”
In his annual report on Missouri public schools, Wolfe expanded at greater length on his criticisms of the current curriculum, particularly its emphasis on the abstract and theoretical, “wasting time in parsing, memorizing definitions and correct isolated sentences…. [it] lacks utility and practicality. It lies too far away from the life of the people.” (Report of the Public Schools of the State of Missouri for the School Year Ending June 30, 1893, p. 21).
He believed that the public school curriculum still reflected a time when it was “thought sufficient to educate the few”: “The design of our free school systems is to reach the masses; yet we cling to the courses of study and methods modeled after those in universities and colleges, that, from the very nature of things, can reach only the few. We must remember that the day of universal education at public expense has but fairly dawned; the sun hangs low in the eastern horizon… When free-school systems were established, their courses of study were modeled largely after those of the college. These courses of study, while professedly for the many, are really for the few.” (Report of the Public Schools of the State of Missouri for the School Year Ending June 30, 1893, p. 26). The Daily Journal offered a critique of university teaching in general that still has relevance: “instead of experienced and able professors doing the work, it is handed over to a class of young graduates who have, or are supposed to have, a little bit more of the subjects they teach than the members of the class.” The name “teaching assistant” had yet to be developed, but it is clear that professors had already hit on a clever device to avoid teaching undergraduates by passing the job on to “awkward and half-informed corporals…. [A] boy may go through a great university and receive little benefit” as a result, said the paper.
The increasing distance between undergraduate study and the higher reaches of the professoriate reflected changes in higher education which would come to affect secondary education. As an article in the Times, cribbed from the New York Evening Post, commented, specialization had become the life blood of learning: “if a man is to earn his bread, he can not learn everything within the range of more than one small branch of art or science.” The number of prescribed courses in Harvard’s system of electives, a standard for the nation, had been reduced, to allow increased time for specialization, and graduate study had assumed increasing importance: at least one-third of courses were offered primarily for graduates, according to the Post story, and in nearly every subject there were “courses of research.”
There were no colleges and universities in Kansas City, Missouri, itself in 1893, apart from a couple of business colleges (National and Spalding’s), some medical colleges (Kansas City Medical College, the Medical Department of the University of Kansas City, the Homeopathic Medical College, and Dental and Pharmacy Colleges). The “University of Kansas City” existed mainly in relation to the medical college and to a series of extension courses offered to the public each year on subjects such as “American Literature,” “Money and Monetary Problems,” and, in the previous series, “Electricity,” a lecture by Kansas University’s Lucian Blake, a pioneer in the field.
In Quindaro, outside of Kansas City Kansas, there was Western University for African American students. Open only a year, the school was modeled on Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, offering training in occupations like brickmaking, stonecutting, and, for girls, cooking and sewing. “Teach the negro a trade.” said William Vernon, the school’s principal, “and the commercial opportunity will follow. Every pupil in this school, unless ill health prevents, must put in half the time learning a trade. Maybe there's a chance for another Tuskegee here." [History of Wyandotte County, Kansas, and its People. 1911, p. 406]
There were “academies” for women, like St. Teresa’s in Kansas City, Woodland College and Kansas City Ladies’ College in Independence, and Liberty Female College in nearby Liberty. There were also church-related colleges for men, all with an essentially seminarian purpose like William Jewell College, also in Liberty, Park College in Parkville, Missouri and Redemporist College in Westport, at Thirty-Third and Broadway, “where the snorting little engine” of the Dummy streetcar line “takes a sudden turn to the south,” as the Times noted in an article on “the only place in America” where priests of the order of Redemptorist Fathers were graduated.
But none of these were the kinds of institutions that the Times was thinking of when it deplored the meager sums Missouri was allocating for its state university; Kansas, it suggested, was not much better: “We are not competing in higher education,” the Times wrote. “We are not preparing to educate our own youth. The northwest is challenging New England and we are doing nothing to achieve distinction and not enough to hold our own. Every state should have its great university. Not to minister to a spirit of provincial pride but to place its children on an equality of opportunity with those of other states.”
It was the purpose of the so-called “Committee of Ten,” commissioned by the National Educational Association and comprised mainly of educators from east of the Mississippi but including the presidents of the Universities of Missouri and Michigan, to reconcile and rationalize the various educational theories of the day and create “uniformity in school programs and in requirements for admission to college,” in the words of its influential report. The report recommended that secondary school students should follow a pre-college curriculum regardless of their backgrounds or intention to pursue higher education. As Charles Eliot, president of Harvard and chair of the Committee put it, “every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil so long as he pursues it, no matter what the probable destination of the pupil may be, or at what point his education is to cease.…” Thus high schools, in Eliot’s view, were to offer an equal opportunity for all students by requiring that they take the same set of rigorous, academic course rather than, as Greenwood favored, courses more suited to their apparent aptitude.
Greenwood’s response to the Committee’s recommendations is not recorded. Probably he would have approved of some of Eliot’s views, such as the emphasis on the autonomy of the individual classroom teacher and the increased use of textbooks and other curriculum materials. Certainly he would have agreed with Eliot’s call in an 1893 speech, “The Grammar School of the Future,” for increased funding for secondary schools to meet the demands on the system imposed by the arrival of legions of immigrant families.
But he might also have agreed with critics of the report who regarded it as proposing an elitist curriculum catering to the very few who would proceed to university. Another NEA report “Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education,” would appear in 1918 critical of the Committee of Ten’s recommendation of a college-preparatory school curriculum and recommending that students take courses suitable to their capabilities and interests. The second report swayed school curricula in a different direction so that by the 1920s most city high schools were offering several high school curricular tracks, only one with an academic focus leading to college. Over the years the number of nonacademic courses swelled; by 1961 43 percent of courses taken by high school students were non-academic.
Almost a century after the Committee of Ten’s report, the nation was deemed to be “at risk” because of a failing educational system caused, it was argued, by the decline in rigorous academic study. The 1983 “Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” manifesto reintroduced key ideas from the Committee of Ten’s report, rejected curricular differentiation, the central idea of the “Cardinal Principles” report, and recommended tightening high school graduation requirements. By 1986, as Jeffrey Mirel writes, “45 states and the District of Columbia had raised high-school graduation requirements, 42 had increased math requirements, and 34 had boosted science requirements. These changes reduced the choices that students could make in their course selections and thus marked a dramatic shift away from the policies of the previous half-century.”
In 2008, twenty-five years after the “Nation at Risk” report, the U.S. Department of Education found that “we are at even greater risk now.” The country ranked 25th out of 30 industrialized nations in mathematics, 21st out of 30 in science. The reading skills of high school seniors had declined since 1983 and the school system was particularly failing to serve African American, Hispanic and immigrant children, much as it had in 1893.
J.M. Greenwood would recognize little of Kansas City or the United States were he to return in 2013, but contemporary debates over schools and curriculum, financing, administration, textbook selection, teacher autonomy, assessment, student discipline, and parental involvement would not be unfamiliar to him. He would probably be appalled by threats to the democratic idea of the common, secular public school implicit in such schemes as “vouchers” and “school choice,” and by efforts to undermine the professionalism of teachers by relentless use of standardized testing. “To settle everything beforehand is to degrade the teacher into a mere driver of children, confined to a narrow and beaten track,” he told his teaching staff at an institute. “As a teacher, all that I ever ask was to give me the text books and whatever appliances might be had, or that I could devise, and I would be responsible for the progress of the pupils…... ”
April 22, 2013