The Gary Plan and Technology Education: What Might Have Been?

By Volk, Kenneth S. | Journal of Technology Studies, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

The Gary Plan and Technology Education: What Might Have Been?


Volk, Kenneth S., Journal of Technology Studies


This story actually started about 100 years ago and continues today. The cast of characters remains essentially the same, with corporate interests, government, educationalists, parents, and students being involved in ideological debate about education reform. Hope, fear, coercion, intimidation, and promises of a panacea all play supporting roles-with challenges to the status quo and the questioning of tradition remaining common threads throughout this tale.

The Gary plan of "work-study-play" was the brainchild of William Wirt (1874-1938), though largely influenced by the philosophy of John Dewey (1859-1952). Introduced in 1907 to the schools of Gary, Indiana, by Superintendent of Schools Wirt, the Gary plan had organizational and curriculum features that fostered hands-on activities relating to occupations and daily life. It was considered progressive in nature, with an articulated and broad program being offered from primary through secondary grades. The increased notoriety of the plan's social and financial benefits led New York City to invite Wirt as a consultant to transform its overstretched schools. What followed were several acrimonious years of position papers, posturing, and propaganda by all sides, culminating in a swift end to the plan. The demise of the Gary plan in New York and then slowly in other locales throughout the nation that introduced it raises questions as to what might have been, especially as it accentuated manual arts and training, forerunners to today's technology education programs.

This article first presents the issues, actors, and events surrounding the Gary plan and associated reform efforts in New York City. The inclusion of manual arts and vocational education as a fundamental feature of the plan also described. On a macro level, the politics of American education is examined as to how other reform efforts have been influenced by various factions. Finally, efforts to improve and change technology education through the recent Standards for Technological Literacy (International Technology Education Association [ITEA], 2000) are examined as to their potential for success, based on the outcomes and lessons learned from the past.

New York City at the turn of the 20th century was a growing and dynamic place, full of economic and industrial energy, as well as an influx of new immigrants. According to Bonner (1978), during the first decade, over 70% of the students were classified as foreign-born, with Russian Jews, Germans, and Italians comprising two thirds of the school population. The total school population was also increasing around 5% each year, placing great pressure on the city to complete new schools. Despite being considered "one of the marvels of the world of education" (S. Cohen, 1968, p. 96), the schools were not without problems.

Dominated by Tammany Hall, the political machine of the Democratic Party, the city was noted for corruption and poor management. As the Fusion candidate, John Purroy Mitchel was elected mayor in 1913 and brought a "progressive passion for business-like efficiency" (Mohl, 1972, p. 41) to city government. Mitchel was also sympathetic to reform and progressive efforts in education, which soon became the focus of his administration.

Before Mitchel's election as mayor, Alice Barrows (later Fernandez) was heading up the Vocational Guidance Survey under the Public Education Association (PEA) of New York City. As a private organization promoting progressive educational reform, PEA often advised the Board of Education on matters (S. Cohen, 1964). Barrows studied under Dewey at Columbia University and like Wirt, was greatly influenced by Dewey's philosophy. One outcome of her review of occupations and the vocational training being offered in schools was the recommendation that all children between the ages of 14 and 16 should receive broad experiences in pre-vocational (industrial) education, so as to meet the "practical demands of industry, be consistent with democratic ideals, and be financially practical for New York City" (Barrows, 1914, p. …

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The Gary Plan and Technology Education: What Might Have Been?
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