Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Farmers' Schools of 1909: The Origins of Arkansas's Four Regional Universities

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Farmers' Schools of 1909: The Origins of Arkansas's Four Regional Universities

Article excerpt

ARKANSAS'S UNIVERSITIES at Jonesboro, Magnolia, Monticello, and Russellville owe their existence to the Farmers' Educational and Cooperative Union. It struggled a century ago to have the legislature establish four agricultural schools in the state. These schools took many decades to flower into universities, an evolution that occurred in several stages and was by no means assured. But without the union's uncompromising demand from 1906 to 1909 for four schools, at least two of these institutions of higher education-Arkansas State University, Arkansas Tech University, Southern Arkansas University, and the University of Arkansas at Monticello-would likely not exist today.

Agricultural education reform during the Progressive Era was part of a broader national impulse-the County Life Movement. It aimed generally to reverse the decline of rural America. Several approaches to spreading modern farming practices in a countryside still using traditional methods competed within the movement, including various models for agricultural education. In Arkansas, the views of the Farmers' Union triumphed with respect to the number, type, and management of agricultural schools. The union prevailed even against its allies-Arkansas educators, the General Education Board, and Gov. George W. Donaghey-who wanted fewer schools and different kinds of schools.

When the Arkansas legislature in 1909 passed Act 100 to establish a "State Agricultural School" in each of four districts, the state joined the front ranks of progressive reform. Such schools at the secondary level had captured the imagination and won the support of many who worried about the widening economic and social gap between urban-industrial America and the agrarian countryside. It was made worse, they believed, by the drain of able, ambitious young people from farm to city. President Theodore Roosevelt declared in 1907:

I am firmly convinced that most farmers' boys and girls should be educated through agricultural high schools and through the teaching of practical elementary agriculture in the rural common schools, so that when grown up they shall become farmers and farmers' wives. Education should be toward and not away from the farm. There must be an organized effort to restore or create the highest social condition in the country districts.1

Roosevelt favored legislation that Georgia congressmen introduced to provide federal funding for "instruction and home economics in secondary agricultural schools."2 Roosevelt's assistant secretary of agriculture, WiIlet M. Hays, confidently predicted in 1908 that soon there would be some "300 to 400 agricultural finishing schools-practically one in each country congressional district."3 The Commission on Country Life that Roosevelt established declared in 1909 that "redirected education" was of "paramount importance" and advocated three approaches: 1) the study of agriculture in "regular public school work;" 2) "specialized agricultural schools;" and 3) "extension teaching conducted by agricultural colleges by means of the printed page, face-to-face talks and demonstrations."4

A movement for agricultural schools was already underway in many states. Largely through philanthropic efforts, some agricultural and industrial schools had been built in the nineteenth century. By 1900, three states-Alabama, Minnesota, and Nebraska-had established public agricultural schools; within a decade fourteen more states had done so. The earliest agricultural schools in the South aimed their "practical" education at blacks, while the preferred educational path for whites remained a traditional liberal arts curriculum.5 Alabama, in addition to funding the Tuskegee Institute for African Americans, had, beginning in 1889, established white-only "agricultural" schools in each of its congressional districts, but these schools' curricula remained largely literary and did not emphasize agricultural training until 1908 or home economics until 1912. …

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