- The Arthurdale Community School: Education and Reform in Depression-Era Appalachia by Sam F. Stack Jr
In 1934 the doors opened to the Arthurdale School, a progressive experiment located in a government-backed subsistence farming community in Appalachia in north-central West Virginia. Sam F. Stack Jr. explores the school and its curriculum. His book responds to William J. Reese's recent call for scholarly investigations of how teachers actually taught in progressive schools ("In Search of American Progressives and Teachers," History of Education, 42, no. 3 , 320-34). Indeed, much of the scholarship on progressive education examines its definitional and theoretical dimensions—save for a few well-known studies—at the expense of ground-level investigations. The Arthurdale Community School: Education and Reform in Depression-Era Appalachia addresses progressive education in practice and in an unusual setting, one that was neither urban nor private.
In Depression-era Appalachia, Arthurdale was the first federal subsistence homestead community funded by the New Deal. It was created with the belief that workers could support themselves if they moved to rural settings to grow their own food and work part-time in local factories. The school was intended to be the glue that held the village together. Elsie Ripley Clapp, a graduate student and colleague of John Dewey's, was selected by none other than Eleanor Roosevelt to serve both as school principal and as director of community affairs to coordinate communication between and among the school, families, and federal representatives. As Stack explains, while New Deal historians know well the history of the Arthurdale community experiment, they have overlooked the school and its importance.
The book, an institutional and curriculum history, is organized chronologically around an investigation of how the school came to be and how Clapp applied the principles of progressive education. Stack's narrative moves from discussing the context of Depression-era America to the origins of the back-to-the-land movement and a biographical sketch of Clapp. The second half of the book focuses on the successes and the failures of the school. During the school's first two years, progressive principles guided the curriculum, but the school soon changed to a more traditional approach beginning with Clapp's departure before its third year. The progressive school curriculum comes to life in Stack's narrative as the reader discovers that students at every level learned about local history, geography, folklore, and art. For example, during the first year, students learned about farming, visited a bank, and studied pioneer life in the region. The experiment lasted only two years. Clapp left due to declining federal funding and growing insistence by community members who wanted their children [End Page 466] to have a traditional education in order to succeed in the post-Depression economy.
Throughout the book, Stack weaves together two important themes. The first is the tension between local residents and the federal government. The Arthurdale School was challenged from the start because Clapp sought to draw on grassroots support and leadership to build a community from the ground up, all the while answering to the federal government. Another important theme is Stack's exploration of the meaning of progressive education in this context. He locates this study squarely in 1930s progressive ideals that viewed schools as tools of social reform, rather than as focusing only on the physical and emotional development of children. Concerning the concept of community as central to progressive education, Stack observes, "The community itself was a classroom and included the homes and gardens, the school kitchen, various club meetings, square dances, and any informal gatherings" (p. 81). This history of progressive teaching, curriculum, and institution building adds to our understanding of the challenges of implementing progressive education principles and the multiple constituencies that are involved in such an endeavor. It is a much-needed study of progressive education on the local level in a rural, poor region.