Home / Christopher D. Green, “Slaves of Rockefeller”: Progressivism, “Scientific” Education, and the New York School Riots of 1917


Christopher D Green, Department of Psychology, York University

Nearly everyone educated in North America went to a high school in which different courses took place in different rooms: English in an ordinary classroom, science in laboratory, sports in a gymnasium, drama in an auditorium, etc. This mode of operation is so familiar to us that it is hard to imagine its being controversial. This system, however, has a history: it was invented in 1907 by the Progressivist Superintendent of Schools in Gary, Indiana, William Wirt. It is, thus, known as the “Gary Plan.” Wirt’s aim was to use limited school space more efficiently, to bring more students into regular contact with the specialized equipment needed for a modern education. Benign as its aims were, though, the Gary Plan was not always a welcome innovation. When Wirt was invited to implement it in New York City, the ultimate outcome was nearly two weeks of violent rioting by thousands of students and their (mostly) immigrant parents all over the city. They clashed with police, hundreds were arrested, and there was hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage. Although the parents had endured the indignities of working in sweatshop factories and dangerous construction sites, they were adamantly opposed to their children being subjected to what they viewed as an experiment in Taylorist “scientific management” that would result in their becoming mechanized laborers, suited mainly to the further enrichment of the tycoons who then dominated the American industrial scene. The civic disorder prompted by the Gary Plan in New York ultimately brought down the Progressive mayor who had promoted it, and returned Tammany Hall to power for another 15 years.

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