- The Arthurdale Community School: Education and Reform in Depression-Era Appalachia by Sam F. Stack
In the first half of the twentieth century, scholars in the United States invested their energy in examining teaching and learning. One of the popular theories of education was the Progressivist movement, led in large part by John Dewey. The Progressivists believed that students should learn practical skills and community involvement. Progressivism was utilized as a mechanism by which communities could be developed and improved through civic action. One such attempt was the Arthurdale Community School in West Virginia.
The Arthurdale Community School was one of the pet projects of Eleanor Roosevelt, and funded by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Eleanor Roosevelt worked with Elsie Ripley Clapp, a noted Progressivist activist of the time. Prior to her involvement in the Arthurdale project, Clapp chaired the National Committee on Rural Education for the Progressive Education Association. “Clapp’s intellectual philosophy and her attempt to integrate theory and practice developed over a number of years from personal and extensive experience in public and private education” (44), which made her a strong candidate to serve as the director for the new community school project.
Candidates for inclusion in the school were selected based on a variety of factors, and intentionally focused on the success of the community. Notable in the candidates was the desire to focus on character and a strong work ethic. The hope was to create a model community of citizens dedicated to the improvement of their own standing and ability.
Once the school was up and running, the high-minded goals of the organizers were quickly dashed upon the rocks of reality. The school was designed to be an independent organization, and the community was set apart. Due to political factors, Arthurdale was declared a dry town for the purposes of this experiment, leading to residents going to neighboring communities for parties and other related social activities. The community slowly fell apart, and the school experiment was canceled after two years.
Stack does an excellent job of drawing on the source material, often referring to a variety of historically significant sources for the analysis of this book. His analysis of the available source material and connection to the broader educational context of the New Deal is complete and intricate. The organization of the book is logical and uses a mostly chronological approach, drawing from the experiences of the main characters as they become relevant to [End Page 87] the Arthurdale Community Project. The text is well written, and uses careful turns of phrase to illustrate the nuances of the project.
Unfortunately, this book, much like the project that forms the main subject material, is destined for obscurity. If you are interested in the implications of interplay between Progressivism and the New Deal, then this book will scratch that itch that so few texts can reach. Stack does an excellent job of discussing how the two ideas are intertwined in the Arthurdale Community Project. If you are interested in an exploration of the integration of school and community, and the impact of outside influences on the process of school reform, this book might serve as a cautionary tale.
If Stack had focused more on the feelings and impressions of the students and community members rather than the actions and goals of the community leaders, the book might have been able to reach a broader audience, and perhaps even influenced modern discussions of education reform. It is not clear that there would have been sufficient evidence to explore the immediate and long-standing personal implications of the project; however, there are some interesting personal tidbits not fully explored in this book. “One response to a 1941 survey suggests: ‘[The high school was a] good trainer of citizens. The teachers and students seem much more understanding toward one another, thus making lessons more interesting and enjoyable. In this school there is no reason one who will not cooperate with others, just as...