Beginning in the early nineteenth century and ending only after World War II, American companies frequently engaged in industrial welfare plans that included extraordinary investments in company sponsored education. Industrial towns, with company houses, churches, recreation, and medical care, dotted the American landscape. Still, the most expensive and significant welfare programs involved company schools, which made a significant contribution to the history of education in the United States. They also helped provide a relatively smooth transition from an agrarian past to an industrial future. This entry recounts their history and assesses their impact.
Educating Good Workers
In 1913, a number of interested companies formed the National Association of Corporation Schools, an organization supporting the educational efforts of businesses as diverse as the Colorado Fuel and Iron in Colorado; Ellsworth Collieries and Cambria Steel Companies in New Jersey; Akron Iron in Buchtel, Ohio; the huge Piedmont and Pelzer textile manufacturing plants in South Carolina; and the Red Jacket Consolidated Coal and Coke Company in West Virginia. These and many other companies operated their schools to reduce absenteeism and turnover, increase workplace efficiency, defeat union organizing campaigns, and raise the moral quality of their workers. The children enjoyed what seemed to be an unalloyed benefit of free schooling, but it was often an education that also increased dependence on a single industry and failed to provide skills and knowledge that might have been taken elsewhere.
Many company schools began with a sponsored kindergarten program. Company and school officials recognized that education would be most effective if children were brought into the system at the earliest possible age, even in industrial sites such as coal mining that generally offered little work to women, who were free to stay home with their children. In addition, many industrialists recognized that their workplaces would later be more stable if the language barriers between immigrant workers could be removed. The kindergartens provided an opportunity for students, at the best possible age, to be immersed in English.
Following kindergarten, children often found themselves in company schools whose primary purpose was not general education but the teaching of the proper “habits of industry,” deference to authority, and appreciation for efficiency on the job. These attributes became more crucial as technological and managerial advances allowed for the increasing recruitment of unskilled or semiskilled workers. Tending dirty and dangerous machines, these employees engaged in often repetitive and boring hours of work, which created an immediate need for “industrial discipline.” Company officials throughout the country discovered that six or seven years in their schools could develop in children the discipline they needed to complete their work, and to do so while becoming progressively more efficient and loyal.
Seeing these advantages, hundreds of industrialists made substantial investments in company schools. They built the schools, often immediately next to the factory; set the curriculum; and hired, trained, and paid the teachers who often lived on the factory premises in boarding houses or “teacherages.” In many cases, company officials also helped to write or design books that instructed students on typical school subjects, but in the context of the industry itself. Cotton mill workers, for example, learned math—but often only by calculating answers to practice problems that foreshadowed the work they would soon face in the mills. In every instance, company officials kept a close eye on expenditures and the effect their investments were having on the transformation of their employees into efficient, loyal, and docile workers.
The quality of company education is difficult to assess. Still, evidence suggests that while company schooling was quite effective in creating workers with the proper respect for work and authority, students gained very little beyond basic literacy in most cases. The schools were often poorly maintained, and in many cases the teachers had little or no training that might prepare them for their work with the students.
The teaching staff was also completely aware of its mission, and comprehensive general education was a fortunate byproduct for a few, not a goal of the schools or the companies involved. To compound the problem, company schools often operated on an abbreviated schedule—sometimes for only three or four months a year—and children were routinely pulled out of class to assist in the mines or mills if there was a sudden demand for more labor.
Finally, many students had no opportunity to pursue an education beyond the eighth grade. Companies often did not provide schools beyond this level because they needed the children to go to work, and many officials feared that education beyond the eighth grade might prepare students for jobs other than in the sponsoring industries. When students did have a chance for further education, it tended to be some form of advanced manual or vocational training that was suited for the particular industry that provided the opportunity. The huge Parker School District in Greenville, South Carolina, for example, featured a three-story cotton mill on its campus. Students were expected to be cotton mill hands.
No discussion of industrial schooling can ignore the role of company libraries. Often reflecting the desire to “Americanize” immigrant workers, as well as ease the strain of industrial work and life, company libraries became a characteristic feature of many welfare plans. Some were small operations, while others held as many as 45,000 volumes and were operated out of the company schools. In most of these libraries, of course, the selection of books and magazines remained the prerogative of company officials, and most of the books appear to have been works of simple fiction or biographies, with a strong emphasis on “Horatio Alger” stories from which patrons learned that with the proper attitude toward work, thrift, and family, workers could rise from modest beginnings to prosperity. Naturally, of course, any literature that suggested a hint of support for organized labor or socialism was excluded, but even many other sources of ideas, such as Harper’s Weekly, often failed to pass management censorship restrictions.
While most of the old company-owned schools are now gone, even today companies continue to educate by offering on-site courses in technical trades and vocational studies, while significantly supporting local community colleges as well. Through their efforts, working-class children by the millions have learned to adapt to the new demands of industrial life and work, and scores of companies have discovered the importance of specialized education for even the youngest of children.
- Altenbaugh, R. J. (1981). “Our children are being trained like dogs and ponies”: Schooling, social control, and the working class. History of Education Quarterly, 21, 213–222.
- Brandes, S. D. (1976). American welfare capitalism, 1880–1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Cressman, L. S. (1924). The corporation school: A suggestion concerning education in industry. Social Forces, 2, 208–211.
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