Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Fads, Frills, and Basic Subjects: Special Studies and Social Conflict in Chicago in 1893

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Fads, Frills, and Basic Subjects: Special Studies and Social Conflict in Chicago in 1893

Article excerpt

Why is art often positioned as a marginal subject, rather than a central or basic part of school curricula? Historical research can offer important insights into the marginalization of art and other subjects, especially when stories about the past interpret public schooling as a site of social conflict. Historians of education have long acknowledged that different classes, cultural groups, and political parties have had different, conflicting expectations for schools in the United States (e.g., McClellan & Reese, 1988; Spring, 2001; Tyack & Cuban, 1995; Violas, 1978). Schools have never been neutral institutions based solely on subject matter or the nature of children. Nor has there ever been a consensus across American society about the socially constructed forms of knowledge or the purposes that should prevail in schools. From the 19th century to the present, conflict and cultural dominance have shaped the character of public schooling as much as social consensus.

Schooling in art has been shaped by social conflict as much as any other aspect of American education. The history presented in this article is a story of conflict over drawing, music, German, physical culture, and other subjects that occurred in Chicago in the spring of 1893. The incident is especially noteworthy because a broad spectrum of citizens across the city was involved. Working men and women, businessmen, club-- women, politicians, members of the press--all expressed an opinion, one way or the other, about the value of special subjects in Chicago's public schools. Public debates on the issues were seldom calm. Opponents of subjects such as drawing and music called them "fads" and "frills" in the school curriculum, and referred to people who supported special studies as "faddists." Attacks on special studies were so forceful that contemporary observers sometimes characterized the conflict as a "war" against fads in the schools (e.g., "War on Fads," 1893; "War on Fads To-Night," 1893; Clark, 1897). In the context of these attacks, special studies were more than an educational issue. Over the course of the "war" against fads, special studies became a political issue in municipal elections, an assault on immigrants in the city, a question about the role of women in public life, and a conflict between social classes.

Turmoil on the Board of Education

It all began over clay. At a meeting of the Chicago Board of Education on December 21, 1892, the board approved the purchase of 50 barrels of modeling clay, along with other supplies for the drawing department (Chicago Board of Education, 1893). There was nothing unusual about the procedure. As one of the newspapers later put it, the order for clay was passed by the Board of Education "in the indifferent manner in which most orders are" ("Miss Burt and the Fads," 1893, p. 1).

The situation changed, however, at a meeting of the board on January 11, 1893, when board member Alfred S. Trude called for the clay order to be sent back to the drawing committee. In urging the board to reconsider this particular item in the committee's report, Trude called the order for clay a "mud order" and referred to clay modeling as a "mud fad" in the schools. Clay modeling was a waste of taxpayers' money, he said. Only people suffering from "the delirium of fadism" would support such a study in the schools ("Opposed to Fadism," 1893, p. 1; "Won't Pay for Mud," 1893, p. 1; Chicago Board of Education, 1893).

On January 13, the Committee on Drawing met to reconsider the order for clay. Mary E. Burt, the chair of the drawing committee, presided at the meeting. Also present were Alfred S. Trude; Ella Flagg Young, then an assistant superintendent; and Josephine C. Locke, the supervisor of drawing. Young spoke to the committee about the value of drawing, paper cutting, and clay modeling. She said such studies were beneficial because they brightened students' experience at school and, in that way, helped keep students interested in other studies. …

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