Turn-of-the-Century Progressive Education

By Marcia Faye
George Noble Carman
Photo: Courtesy of IIT Archives

When Lewis Institute—one of IIT’s predecessor schools—was incorporated in 1895, it asserted itself as a modern education leader on several levels. Guided by terms stipulated in the will of benefactor Allen Cleveland Lewis, trustees tapped several prominent education visionaries to lead the institute, including William Rainey Harper and George Noble Carman, both on staff at the University of Chicago. By offering evening courses for the working class, Lewis Institute is considered to be the forerunner of adult education in the United States; its two-year Associate in Arts degree also makes it the first junior college. And Lewis’s wishes to include a “school for respectable females” within the institute resulted in a bachelor’s degree in domestic economy, with specialized coursework in the arts, sciences, and design to not only improve homemaking skills but also to form a foundation for a career in teaching.

One such course, Household Management, determined by the Bureau of Education in Washington, D.C., to be the first of its kind in the country, was representative of the family-life education movement. Established at the turn of the twentieth century, this educational specialty arose in response to changing social conditions across the U.S. One of the movement’s leaders, Lemo Dennis Rockwood, taught courses in child development and the economic problems of the family at Lewis, and supervised a Household-Management practice house—complete with an infant from the Chicago Foundlings’ Home, the first infant rescue institution in the Midwest. “Baby George” was loaned to the practice house for one year, during which groups of two to three young women took turns living in the house and learning how to care for a baby, maintain a home, and thrive as students.

Dennis Rockwood and her students apparently excelled as practice-house foster mothers, according to an account written by Lewis Institute Professor Grace Gordon Hood in the 1926 Lewis yearbook: “Under their care George has improved both physically and mentally, and has become the best-loved person in the department of home economics.” After George, archival records indicate that there were Baby Lucille, Baby Billy, Baby Rosita, and Baby Bertram to round out the historic practice-house program. In 1959 IIT announced that the home economics program would be discontinued after its current students had completed their course of study.

More than a century after its founding, Lewis College of Human Sciences continues to provide programs in emerging areas that reflect culture and society. The program in digital humanities, for example, even examines the role of gender in technology and video gaming.