"On the Verge of a Renaissance": Arkansas Schools, Curricula, and Teachers during the Great Depression

By Field, Sherry L.; Bauml, Michelle et al. | American Educational History Journal, Annual 2014 | Go to article overview

"On the Verge of a Renaissance": Arkansas Schools, Curricula, and Teachers during the Great Depression


Field, Sherry L., Bauml, Michelle, Bellows, M. Elizabeth, American Educational History Journal


U.S. elementary social studies teachers during the Great Depression faced both possibilities and challenges from the devastating economic crisis. Schools were adversely affected during this time mostly from citizens' inability to pay their taxes as well as massive school budget cuts. Reactions to the financial predicament included closing schools (an estimated 20,000 by 1934) and shortening school years by three to as many as six months (Tyack, Lowe, and Hansot 1984). While teachers feared losing their jobs and being able to meet their personal financial obligations, they accepted those realities as they took on the task of having to do more with fewer resources (Field and Bellows 2012; Bellows, Bauml, and Field 2013).

During and directly after World War I, innovative curriculum supported a renewed focus on patriotism and citizenship (Mehaffy 1987), and during the Great Depression, elementary social studies teachers witnessed the continuation of this effort. A prominent element coming out of the reform efforts of the Progressive Era, elementary social studies became a stand-alone subject area widely taught in schools. A more interdisciplinary approach to the teaching of social studies disciplines evolved as the National Council for the Social Studies, formed in 1921, emerged to include an elementary focus and social studies became a separate subject in schools (Halvorsen 2013). Instead of teaching social studies through traditional history and geography instruction, this meant elementary teachers had to become more creative and thorough in their teaching of social studies.

Despite the economic turmoil, social studies in elementary schools across the country witnessed the "golden years" of character education (Field and Nickell 2001; Leming 2008). At this time character education curriculum valued traits such as making good use of leisure time, being grateful for what one had, hard work, efficiency, thrift, and earning money instead of asking for a hand out. Additionally, as they faced continued hard times, students and their teachers engaged in the study of money and how to be frugal (Field and Bellows 2012). Interestingly, being thrifty was seen as an appropriate goal for character education. New nutritional guidelines were also introduced, and in some cases, meals were provided at schools for children. Despite these new guidelines, teachers were acutely aware that many of their students had no food to bring from home to be eaten during the school day. In response, administrators encouraged teachers to find creative ways to raise funds for student lunches, and to even prepare meals in the classroom.

Experiencing shortages of goods and materials naturally led teachers to recycle and repurpose everyday items to use in the classroom (Field and Bellows 2012). There were many programs put into place during World War I that were reconstructed to address an even longer period of scarcity. Elementary school lessons about conserving resources were created by teachers who found new ways to be thrifty, reuse and repurpose, and teach about banking, economics, and conservation. Teachers also sought to maintain a sense of "normalcy" by teaching routine lessons that followed the "expanding communities" approach (Hanna 1937), becoming more active in professional organizations, and engaging in professional development (Bellows, Bauml, and Field 2013). Thus, elementary social studies prevailed, and in some cases, expanded in content and scope during the period of the Great Depression.

Arkansas schools had a long history of finding themselves last or near last in school expenditures, student academic success, salaries of teachers, and per-capita expenditures when compared to the other forty-seven states. On November 15, 1929, the Honorable C. M. Hirst, State Superintendent of Schools, addressed teachers, school administrators, and teacher educators at the Arkansas Education annual meeting in this way:

We have been ridiculed and our schools have been measured by standards which are indicative but not absolute and we have been ranked lowest in the scale of educational advantages offered among the states. …

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