Read an Excerpt from “The Importance of Being Urban” by David A. Gamson

August 19, 2019
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Summer days are slipping away and back-to-school season is upon us. With that in mind, we’ve put together this short excerpt from David A. Gamson’s The Importance of Being Urban: Designing the Progressive School District, 1890-1940. The book focuses on four western school systems—in Denver, Oakland, Portland, and Seattle—and their efforts to reconfigure public education. In an era of accelerated immigration, shifting economic foundations, and widespread municipal shake-ups, reformers argued that the urban school district could provide the broad blend of social, cultural, and educational services needed to prepare students for twentieth-century life. These school districts were a crucial force not only in orchestrating educational change but in delivering on the promise of democracy.

The anomalous expansion of cities, no matter how celebrated by urban boosters, nevertheless troubled educators who worried about the unique hazards that the urban environment posed to growing children. The agrarian traditions that had once anchored country life had already begun to slip away, sparking anxiety among many late nineteenth-century educators, who feared the negative consequences that might befall pupils who were reared away from the natural world. For their part, university-based researchers called for investigations into the impact that urban influences had on the mental and emotional development of young pupils.

Enter a new educational expert: the psychologist. A scientific understanding of child development, experts argued, would yield school curriculum accurately tailored to the demands of the twentieth century. G. Stanley Hall, along with other educational psychologists, warned educators that they could no longer assume that urban-bred children carried the same experiential knowledge as their peers in rural communities. Already, teachers in city schools had begun to realize, as Hall put it, “that city life is unnatural and that those who grow up without knowing the country are defrauded of that without which childhood can never be complete or normal.” While it may be difficult to truly grasp the nature of this sentiment today, it was clearly a motivating factor that held a power over many progressives.

Building on research conducted in Germany, Hall was one of the first researchers to conduct “scientific” studies of children in the United States. In 1883, Hall set out to develop “an inventory of the contents of the minds of children” as they entered elementary school. Through the examination of textbooks and curricular materials, conversations with teachers, and pilot studies with children, he created a list of items, concepts, and objects that standard school books and teachers generally expected children would know as they arrived for their first day of school. Employing experienced kindergarten teachers as interviewers and researchers, Hall asked children if they had done things such as plant a seed (only 37 percent of city children had), observe a rainbow (35 percent), or witness a watchmaker at work (32 percent).

The results of the study convinced Hall that city schools were foundering in dangerous cognitive waters. For example, 80 percent of city children did not know what a beehive was; 75.5 percent of the children could not identify what season it was when asked; 50 percent seemed to have no knowledge of frogs; and although a solid 81.5 percent said they knew what a cow was, some apparently thought that it was about the size of a mouse. Here was clear evidence of urban deprivation, Hall concluded. Yet some findings might have suggested to Hall that young children simply vary a great deal in terms of their accumulated knowledge, no matter their background. For example, while 65 percent knew what a circle was, only 8 percent could identify a triangle; although 94 percent could point to their stomach, only 8.5 percent could point to their ribs. Nonetheless, the results drove his thinking for years.

“There is next to nothing of pedagogic value,” Hall ultimately concluded, “of which it is safe to assume [children have] at the outset of school- life.” Convinced by the findings of his proto- school readiness inventories, Hall argued that, “on the whole, the material of the city is no doubt inferior in pedagogic value to country experience.” Teachers should be wary of “the danger of books and word-cram,” he said. Hall’s chief concern was that primary-school instructors would do irreparable harm to young children during their first years in school if they falsely assumed that their newest students knew more than they actually did. Teachers, he said, should begin by teaching with real-life objects for two to six months before they dared moved on to the abstractions contained in textbooks. Such was the peril of the city.

The idea of the city as a negative, if not sinister, influence on children was a theme that persisted in educational thought throughout the early decades of the century, if not longer. Reformers detailed the ills of city schools, an approach that offered a strategic advantage, for the multiple flaws of the urban environment could then serve as a foil for the self-anointed saviors of progressivism as they offered their policy salves and new visions for the future. The city “robs children of their native interest in the normal activities of the natural world” and deprives them “of their natural rights to fresh air and sunshine, the beauty of the earth and splendor of the sky,” argued art educator Henry Turner Bailey. What, he asked, could the city substitute in place of “those wholesome, fundamental, educational, character-building activities of life in the country?” He had a ready answer: “It offers early familiarity with depravity and crime . . . dancing, automobile driving, the radio, craps, cards, pool and billiards, and the salacious magazines and super-heated novels and tales of adventure sold at the newsstands.” While dancing, driving, and radios seem much less of a threat today, Bailey’s catalog of urban vice generally reflected the kinds of concerns that disturbed moral reformers of the period.

Despite the romantic portraits of rural life sometimes painted by men like Hall and Bailey, progressive critiques were not generally pastoral in attitude or narrowly moralistic in their tone. Neither were they usually overtly political, although the “politics” of urban educational progressivism is not easily characterized. Certainly, perspectives of a political or economic nature periodically popped up in their rhetoric, as when Bailey, sounding like a latter-day American William Blake, leveled a broadside at industrial capitalism. “The present social order,” he said, “allows big business to crowd mills and factories so close together that they poison the air and load it with soot to such an extent that trees and shrubs, flowers and green grass die lingering deaths and children are stunted in body and warped in mind.” Bailey’s message was less a radical call for social transformation, however, than it was a plea to recognize the educational necessity of counteracting urban despair. “Progressive education,” said Bailey, “means the determined effort to outwit these unfavorable conditions of modern life in industrial centers.” By preemptively providing progressive education, the city could compensate for its own weaknesses by presenting the best it had to offer, whether through lectures, concerts, or masterpieces of art. Schools, said Bailey, opened up children’s eyes to the cultural delights of the city: to architecture, sculpture, and painting.


David A. Gamson is associate professor of education in the Department of Education Policy Studies and the Educational Theory and Policy Program at the Pennsylvania State University.

The Importance of Being Urban is available now! Find it on our website, online at any major booksellers, or at your local bookstore.

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