William Wirt (educator)
William Albert Wirt (1874–1938) was a superintendent of schools in Gary, Indiana. Wirt developed the Gary Plan for the more efficient use of school facilities, a reform of the Progressive Movement that was widely adopted in other cities.
William Wirt was born on a farm near Markle, Indiana, in 1874. After attending school in Markle and Bluffton, Indiana, Mr. Wirt entered DePauw University and graduated with an M.A. in Political Science. He began teaching in Redkey, Indiana and assumed the post of superintendent of schools in Bluffton in 1899.
Philosophy of education
While in Bluffton, Wirt developed a philosophy of education partially based upon a set of values derived from his rural background. He viewed the self-sufficient family farm as containing all of the characteristics necessary for a student's development, particularly vocational training, physical activity, and character growth. Work and productivity characterized rural life, and Wirt believed that the rapid urbanization occurring in the early twentieth century threatened the rural values necessary for total development of children. Wirt maintained that the public schools should provide an oasis to instill the values of family, work, and productivity among urban students and produce an efficient, orderly society of solid, productive citizens. In short, Wirt believed that, "Public schools, endowed with the mission of 'the ennobling of daily and common work by making it beautiful'" could solve "the great economic and social problems of our time'“
As superintendent of education
In 1907, Wirt became superintendent of schools in Gary and began implementing his educational values in the local schools. He initiated teacher hiring standards, designed school buildings, lengthened the school day, and organized the schools according to his ideals. The core of the schools' organization in Gary centered upon the platoon or work-study-play system and Americanizing the 63.4 percent of children with parents who were immigrants. Above the primary grades, students were divided into two platoons—one platoon used the academic classrooms (which were deemphasized), while the second platoon was divided between the shops, nature studies, auditorium, gymnasium, and outdoor facilities split between girls and boys. "Girls learned cooking, sewing, and book keeping while the boys learning metal work, cabinetry, woodworking, painting, printing, shoemaking, and plumbing." In the Gary plan, all of the school equipment remained in use during the entire school day; Rather than opening up new schools for the overwhelming population of students, it was hoped that the "Gary Plan would save the city money by utilizing all rooms in existing schools by rotating children through classrooms, auditoriums, playgrounds, and gymnasiums."
The platoon system gained acceptance in Gary and received national attention during the early decades of the twentieth century. In 1914, the New York City hired Wirt as a part-time consultant to introduce the work-study-play system in the public schools. In the following three years, however, the Gary system encountered resistance from students, parents, and labor leaders concerned that the plan simply trained children to work in factories and the fact that Gary's Plan was in predominantly Jewish areas. "In January 1916, the Board of Education released a report finding students attending Gary Plan schools performed worse than those in 'non-Garyuzed schools' ." By 1917, the Gary system in New York became a political issue that after the election of an antiplatoon plan candidate [John F. Hylan] for mayor in 1918, the New York schools abandoned the work-study-play project.
Despite the failure in New York, Wirt's system continued to achieve popularity during the 1920s. In Gary, the schools grew rapidly to serve the growing population and enrollment. Buildings, staff, and funding increased with the higher demand for education in the city. Outside of Gary, over 200 cities in forty-one states experimented with the platoon system, and in 1925, the National Association for the Study of the Platoon or Work-Study-Play School Organization formed to publicize the advantages of the platoon system. Wirt not only received national recognition, but also gained worldwide fame from England to Japan.
Wirt was also responsible in the implementation of the Released time program. In the first years of Wirt's implementation, over 600 students participated in off-campus religious education.
In addition to his duties as school superintendent, Wirt became involved in several business ventures including real estate development in Dune Acres, president of Gary's National Bank of America, a partnership in a city planning firm, and owner in a Nash automobile dealership. Unfortunately, all of these projects yielded little financial gain and eventually failed with the onset of the Great Depression.
In 1927, Wirt married Mildred Harter, the general supervisor of speech in the Gary schools. From 1919 to 1926, she taught at Froebel School and became the director of speech and drama in the Gary school system in 1929. During her career, Mildred Harter Wirt developed a philosophy of the role of auditorium training in the school curriculum and wrote several articles on auditorium theory. In addition, she taught summer courses in auditorium subjects at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. In 1948, Mrs. Wirt earned a Ph.D. in education from Jefferson College in Jefferson, Texas, with a thesis entitled, "Educational Philosophy of the Gary Public Schools."
While the 1920s saw the growth and expansion of Wirt's influence and organization plan in Gary, the 1930s brought controversy and dissent among Wirt's proponents and supporters of the Gary schools. The Depression resulted in smaller budgets, program cuts, reductions in teachers' salaries, a shortened school year, and cancellation of night school and summer courses. Although these programs were restored by 1937, teacher discontent over salaries continued to appear in the late 1930s. In addition, arguments arose over the proper role of vocational training in the schools, and Gary's black community became increasingly impatient with segregation policy in the schools.
Attack against the New Deal programs
In addition to these concerns, William Wirt launched an attack upon Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs, charging that the New Deal threatened American individualism by attempting government planning of the economy. He wrote pamphlets, articles, and addresses on the economy, particularly regarding the manipulation of the dollar to solve the economic crisis. Finally, Wirt accused the New Deal of being infiltrated by communists designing the collapse of the American system. His ideas appeared in his pamphlet America Must Lose by a “Planned Economy,” the Stepping-Stone to a Regimented State (1934).
The pamphlet made him the target of a libel suit, and Wirt's charges received national attention when the school superintendent appeared before the Bulwinkle investigative committee in the United States House of Representatives in 1934. After his testimony against the Roosevelt Brain Trust, he was denounced as a reactionary by Democrats and those on the left, and defended by those on the right. Although the committee rejected Wirt's charges, the superintendent continued to write and speak on the dangers of the New Deal economic programs.
Wirt suffered a heart attack and died on March 12, 1938.
Within two years, much of the work-study-play plan fell from favor among school officials, and William Wirt's platoon system of educating the "whole child" disappeared from the Gary schools' organization. Historian Ronald D. Cohen summarized William Wirt's contributions to the Gary schools by stating, " at their worst, the Gary schools were places where bored, frightened students were endlessly herded from room to playground to auditorium; at their best they were free, exciting, creative environments, assisting and enriching the lives of rich and poor, black and white, native and immigrant children. For many, they surely promoted opportunity."
- Cohen, Ronald D. and Mohl, Raymond A. The Paradox of Progressive Education: The Gary Plan and Urban Schooling, (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press Corporation, 1979), p. 13.
- Lane, James B. City of the Century: A History of Gary, Indiana (Indiana University Press, 1978), p. 65.
- Weiner, M. F. (2010). Power, protest, and the public schools: Jewish and African-American struggles in New York City. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
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