Vocational Education, Work Culture, and the Children of Immigrants in 1930s Bridgeport
Greenberg, Ivan, Journal of Social History
In 1917, the United States Congress passed the Smith-Hughes Act mandating federal aid for vocational education. The law became an important catalyst for the expansion of vocational schooling throughout industrial America. While in 1918 approximately 122,000 students enrolled in vocational courses nationwide, within a decade student enrollment increased almost five-fold. (1)
The literature on vocational schooling generally stresses national developments and the ideological perspective of reformers, business, and organized labor. Early writers viewed vocational schooling as democratic reform designed to expand the educational system and to provide opportunities for the working class. (2) Revisionist historians of a later period emphasized the function of these schools in aiding business to secure a trained, disciplined, and passive workforce. (3) However, very little still is known about the local history of vocational education, especially the impact of vocational schooling on the student population and working-class culture. As Daniel T. Rodgers and David B. Tyack have asked, "Who enrolled in the new vocational education courses? From what backgrounds did they come? What kinds of vocational courses did they seek out in greatest number? How much of that demand was voluntary, and how much of it coerced?" (4)
This paper addresses some of these questions by focusing on vocational schooling in Bridgeport, Ct., during the 1930s. Bridgeport, a medium-sized city with a population of about 147,000 in 1930, was known as the "Industrial Capital of Connecticut." The industrial sector included both large and small firms, employing about half the local workforce. While Bridgeport sometimes assumed the reputation of being a single industry city geared to munitions and arms production, especially during the two world wars, its industrial base was quite diverse as manufacturers produced some 5,000 different items. Overall, about 500 manufacturing establishments operated at mid-decade and the vast majority of these (89 percent) employed less than 100 workers. Only nineteen firms employed at least 500 workers. As the local city directory boasted, "There is probably no city in the United States that has a more diversified line of industries." (5) Vocational education in Bridgeport took place at what was named the State Trade School, a state-funded, free vocational high school. As we will see, the history of the school, the largest of eleven trade schools in Connecticut, provides insight into changes in craft work and craft culture, the role of business, the aspirations of working-class students, and the changing ethnic composition of the industrial workforce. Additionally, Bridgeport is an interesting setting because the Socialist Party, led by Jasper McLevy, dominated elected city government after 1933. The prominence of skilled workers in urban politics raised expectations that the working class could have a leading voice in local life as Socialists. I highlight the experience of the native-born children of the "New Immigrants," a generation that came of age during the 1930s and dominated school attendance. In New England, this group totaled 38 percent of the population and exceeded 40 percent in such states as Connecticut and Rhode Island. Bridgeport's second generation made up an impressive 45 percent of the city's residents, and much of this group was under twenty-five. (6) This "rising generation" faced changing industrial demands, which often led them to forsake immigrant family advice and spurn the artisan world of their parents in favor of organized school instruction.
The Bridgeport school was founded in 1910, a year after the Connecticut legislature became the nation's first to subsidize free vocational high schools. Initially the school offered training in seven trades, but by the 1930s expanded its instruction to fifteen: auto-repair, auto-screw, carpentry, architectural drafting, dressmaking, electrical work, foundry work, machine trades, masonry, painting, paperhanging, wood pattern making, plumbing, composition and presswork printing, and welding. …