Saturday, September 01, 2012

This Week in Texas Methodist History September 2

Waco Female College Opens Kindergarten  September 8, 1884

I am sometimes asked to compare the level of instruction in 19th century Methodist educational institutions with comparable institutions in the present.  I always respond that the level of instruction varied a great deal, and the use of the word “college” in the institution’s name did not necessarily indicate post-secondary education as it does today. 

The Waco Female College, an institution of the Northwest Texas Conference, is a good example.  On September 8, 1884, they opened their doors to a class of kindergarten children, ages four through seven.  The tuition was $2.50 per month. 

All forms of education rest on an underlying philosophy of human nature, and the philosophical basis of the kindergarten was quite radical for 19th century Texas.   The kindergarten, or “child’s garden,” was a product of German romanticism.  Its basis was the idea that children were inherently good and needed to be nourished as young flowers and tended so they could “blossom” into maturity.  This view was in direct contrast to other educational thought of the era which emphasized original sin and maintained that children were like wild animals that needed taming.  As recently as 1995 my daughter secured employment in a preschool operated by another denomination.  Her teacher’s handbook read in part, “a child’s will must be broken like a horse’s. . .” . 

The kindergarten concept was introduced to the United States by German immigrants to St. Louis and spread to other German communities and in the northeastern states which had a history of educational innovation. Waco Female College was able to offer kindergarten classes because they had employed Miss Julie Van Brack from St. Louis.  In 1873 St. Louis became the first city in the United States to make kindergarten a part of the public school system.    The first public kindergarten in Texas was founded in 1893 in El Paso by Olga Bernstein Kohlberg.

The Waco Female College cannot claim the first kindergarten in Texas (I have found evidence for one in Columbus in 1873) or even in Waco. Mrs. Leland’s Seminary offered kindergarten in 1876, and the German Methodist Church at the corner of Sixth and Franklin Streets in Waco provided its facilities to Professor George Gourlay in 1878 for another.  Here is an excerpt from the Waco Examiner

The Kindergarten system of instruction recently introduced into this city by Mr. George Gourlay, is attracting attention.  The method is more generally known as object teaching, consisting of maps, charts, globes, blocks, numerical frames, and a geographic delineator. The latter is a miniature world consisting of actual land and water.

Today there are literally thousands of preschool and kindergarten age Texans attending classes in United Methodist churches, but we cannot plot a straight line between the early efforts in Waco and today.  In the Progressive Era kindergartens were popular mainly in settlement houses and other urban missions.  It was in the post World War II era that they became a common feature of Texas Methodist churches. 

The reasons for the growing popularity of kindergarten are complex.  The rise of suburban churches, the large number of Baby Boomers, psychological research demonstrating the importance of early childhood education and the availability of university training in preschool pedagogy all played their part.

The investment in facilities, staff, vans, and equipment is considerable, but few programs combine church activities as well.  Church preschools are not just educational; they also enhance evangelism and mission emphases.  It is little wonder that they have become so popular in Texas Methodist churches.  


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