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Jane Addams (1860–1935)

Founder and driving force behind Hull-House, the pioneer American settlement house, Jane Addams is best known for her contribution to urban social service; however, she was also an important and influential educator who espoused Progressive educational ideas and practice.

Born in the small northern Illinois village of Cedarville, Addams was deeply influenced by her father, John Huy Addams, a successful self-made businessman and a strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln, with a dedication to public service. Although her father was wealthy, Addams found a genuinely democratic community in Cedarville, where members of different classes mingled freely–an ideal that she would strive for in her adult career. As a child, she steeped herself in literary classics and she was a highly successful student at Rockford Seminary. Like others of this first generation of college women she was, as her biographer Allen F. Davis points out, "self consciously a feminist, not so much concerned with women's suffrage as women's role in the world" (p. 19).

Discovering her own role after graduation did not come easily. She suffered a long period of illness, partly physical and partly psychological. Her depression was exacerbated by the sudden death of her beloved father. She briefly attended medical school but dropped out because of illness. For eight years Addams searched for an appropriate career. Two trips to Europe were influential in her search. In London she was shocked by the poverty she observed and deeply impressed by Toynbee Hall, England's first settlement house. In Germany she was stunned by the tasks of working women she observed. Her new observations led her to question her own education. In her autobiography, Twenty Years at Hull-House, she referred to it as a "Snare of Preparation." The first generation of college women, she now believed, had been educated away from life; "somewhere in the process of 'being educated' they had lost that simple and almost automatic response to the human appeal, that healthful reaction resulting in activity from the mere presence of suffering or of helplessness … " (p. 44). She was convinced that an adequate education should not be "disconnected from the ultimate test of the conduct it inspired" (p.46).

This was to be the philosophy of education that inspired the rest of her career. By 1889 Addams had discovered her true role when she, with her friend Ellen Gates Starr, founded Hull-House in an impoverished section of Chicago that was home to many immigrants. Hull-House was, from its very beginning, dedicated to education. One of its first activities was a nursery school. Addams pursued not only the education of her poor neighbors; an important role of this new institution was the education of the middle-class women who resided within the house. In her influential essay, "The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements," she argues that the function of social settlements is to extend democracy beyond the political democracy envisioned by the founding fathers into a form of social democracy. Working with the poor, middle-class men and women could connect with the vitality of working people while, at the same time, sharing their knowledge and culture with others. She saw Hull-House as a place "in which young women who had been given over too exclusively to study might restore a balance of activity along traditional lines and learn of life from life itself … " (1910, p. 51). Hull-House, like other settlements, was an educational institution that protests "against a restricted view of education."

John Dewey was a trustee and a frequent visitor at Hull-House. He credited conversations with Addams as highly influential in developing his own philosophy of education. Addams and Dewey shared a vision of education as the basis for producing a democratic community. They also shared a conception of education that went well beyond formal learning in classrooms. Hull-House itself was an educational setting, furnished as a middle-class home, with fine art and fashionable furniture, because Addams believed that in a truly democratic society the poor needed to have access to a setting that enriched the lives of the upper classes. Beyond the setting, Hull-House featured art and literature classes, political discussion groups, plays by Shakespeare and Sophocles, and lectures by prominent intellectuals, including Henry Demarest Lloyd and the radical African-American leader W. E. B. Du Bois.

Agreeing with Dewey and William James, Addams believed that knowledge should not be separated from its consequences. Education's role, therefore, was to provide the knowledge that would improve the life of all of the participants in the community. Unlike the formal education provided by the public schools and the universities, this education would not be abstract and focused on future goals, but would, rather, be an effort to relate to the needs and interests of the participants, both the children and adults who came to Hull-House. Like the university, Hull-House conducted social research but unlike the university, its aim was to use this knowledge for the improvement of community life.

Among the first activities of the new settlement were clubs in which children were organized in groups rather than conventional classes. "The value of these groups," she recalled in her autobiography, "consisted almost entirely in arousing a higher imagination and in giving the children the opportunity which they could not have in the crowded schools, for initiative and for independent social relationships … " (p. 63). These clubs provided opportunities for creative activities, absent from the rigid, public schools' curriculum.

Addams was inspired by the idea that education could ameliorate the sharp divisions in the new industrial society. As a way of overcoming the split between immigrant parents and their Americanized offspring, she created the Hull-House Labor Museum in which immigrants were given the opportunity to practice the handicrafts they had learned in their home countries, demonstrating to their children the skills they retained despite the difficulties of acculturation in this strange new society.

Addams's view of education was broad, involving not only the Hull-House neighborhood, but also the larger Chicago community and eventually the world. Although she was not a radical feminist, in her neighborhood she worked to educate the women to extend their traditional duties of maintaining their households and protecting the health of their children to a broader concern for community clean-liness and hygiene. Hull-House inspired a drive, led by the Hull-House Women's Club, to improve the health of the neighborhood by securing better garbage removal and an improved sewage system, an effort that eventually led Addams to an appointment as garbage inspector for the ward.

Addams was less successful when she was appointed to the Chicago School Board in 1905 by reformer Mayor Edward F. Dunne. She was at first identified as an ally of the Chicago Teachers' Federation's dynamic leader, Margaret Haley. She supported the reformers on the board in an effort to improve tax assessments to support public education through higher teacher salaries and the construction of new schools. These efforts alienated powerful business interests and especially the Chicago Tribune. But she also isolated herself from the reformers by her willingness to compromise on the controversial issue of removing political influence from the process of teacher promotions. When the other school board reformers were removed by a new mayor, to their dismay, Addams did not resign in protest. Addams' deep belief that she could promote social harmony through dialogue and compromise resulted in a conspicuous failure.

This search for harmony and reconciliation was to meet its biggest challenge when Addams became one of the leading opponents of World War I. Her efforts to induce the combatants to confer instead of continuing to fight and, most important, her efforts to keep her own nation out of the war led to a rapid decline in her reputation and influence. Addams, who had been widely regarded as an American heroine, was reviled and denounced during these years (as were the immigrants she defended).

The rapid decline of Addams' reputation in these difficult years was a severe challenge to her philosophy. Like Dewey, Addams had a deep and abiding faith in reforming society through a new kind of education–an education related to the lives and interests of the people it served. But, as Christopher Lasch has pointed out, "The leap from the school and the settlement to the reform of the social structure as a whole was a much greater leap than the progressives imagined" (1965b, p. 201).

Addams' efforts to avoid war were integral to her constant vision of building a better, more democratic society by educating people to appreciate their common interests and participating in a broader sense of community, an effort that was more deeply appreciated in the postwar years. In 1931 she was finally awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Characteristically, she distributed the monetary reward to the Women's International League for Peace and her Hull-House neighbors.


ADDAMS, JANE. 1910. Twenty Years at Hull-House, with Autobiographical Notes. New York: Macmillan.

ADDAMS, JANE. 1930. The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House: September 1909 to September 1929 with a Record of Growing Consciousness. New York: Macmillan.

DAVIS, ALLEN F. 1973. American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams. New York: Oxford University Press.

ELSHTAIN, JEAN BETHKE. 2002. Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy: A Life. New York: Basic Books.

LASCH, CHRISTOPHER. 1965a. The New Radicalism in America. New York: Vintage.

LASCH, CHRISTOPHER, ed. 1965b. The Social Thought of Jane Addams. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.


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Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia: AACSB International - Program to Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987)