Distance Art Education: The Federal School and Social Engineering in the United States, 1900 to 1925

By Funk, Clayton | Studies in Art Education, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Distance Art Education: The Federal School and Social Engineering in the United States, 1900 to 1925


Funk, Clayton, Studies in Art Education


The Federal School was a correspondence art school in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the early 20th century. At that time, scientific methods changed the organization and practice of commercial art training and industrial education, which included correspondence courses from the Federal School. Standards of intelligence were determined with intelligence testing, and students were tracked into vocational or professional programs depending on their scores. The Federal School contradicted itself as it promoted stereotypes in which intelligence correlated to race, ethnicity, and sex roles. The same stereotypes appeared in the curricula of the Federal School, making it a part of the larger configuration of education and mass media that socially engineered cultural production.

The Federal School was a mail-order correspondence art school in Minneapolis, Minnesota at the turn of the 20th century. It was known later as Art Instruction, Incorporated, and is known today as Art Instruction Schools. The school has remained accredited by the Distance Education Training Council, and the correspondence course provides 24 college credits (Art Instruction Schools, 2005). This article gives a history of the Federal School, the way art was taught there, and its Master Course in commercial art. It also addresses the larger context of art and industrial education in the United States that was socially engineered with intelligence testing and admissions tracking. In this way, racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes were held in place in broadly defined social policy, which influenced the Federal School.

My approach to this article emerged from an interest in early forms of distance education as correspondence courses. Though these courses opened opportunities for many who had no access to art schools, they also reinforced several racial and gender role stereotypes. My aim was to see if these issues could be positioned among the histories of art education. An examination of selected archives and histories1 revealed the structures set forth by the scientizing of education and mass media, which held institutional racism and sexism firmly in place within the technocracy of mass media educational structures in the first quarter of the 1 9th century.

The first section of this article provides a cultural orientation to the Federal School's early years. Next, the scientific orientation and the social stereotypes embedded in the Federal School Master Course are discussed as they appeared in lessons on drawing, cartooning, and lectures called "chalk talks" in which the speaker drew an illustration as he or she told a story. These activities were based on "biological methods," which echo theories of Darwinian evolution and social science (Bartholomew, 1914). From there, the discussion broadens to the hierarchical configuration of schools, vocational schools, and professional programs, which held in place racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes. Finally, the article provides a summary of the Federal School's cultural and social context that was socially engineered according to stereotypes of race, gender, and ethnicity.

Social and Cultural Lenses

Religion and science were at odds in the social and cultural issues of the United States in the early 20th century. This conflict suffused three overlapping cultural movements that built momentum over the 1 9th century: the postmillennialism of evangelical Protestants (Moorhead, 1984), the romantic idealism of Hegel and Kant (Efland, 1990; Cremin, 1988), and strains of social science in educational systems of the United States (Dennis, 1995).

Postmillennial beliefs pervaded much of Protestant Christianity in the 19th century. These Protestant groups believed that the close of the first millennium would bring Armageddon2 and the second coming of Christ. In direct and latent response to these beliefs, religious and social movements of clergy, social scientists, and high government officials took responsibility to eradicate social ills in the United States. …

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