Susan Blow (1843–1916)
A defender of Friedrich Froebel's original German methods, Susan Blow was an influential educator who helped start public kindergartens in St. Louis and trained many younger kindergarten directors. She was the daughter of a wealthy St. Louis businessman and Republican politician, Henry Taylor Blow, who served two terms as a U.S. Congressman and as minister to Brazil. Her mother, Minerva Grimsley, from an affluent St. Louis family, was a devout Presbyterian, as was Blow's father. Educated at home by private tutors until she was sixteen, Blow then attended Henrietta Haines's private girls' school in New York City. Blow led the faction of the American kindergarten movement that interpreted Froebel's pedagogy symbolically and resisted Progressives' attempts to make kindergarten practice more child-centered and psychologically based.
Blow was particularly attracted to philosophical and spiritual aspects of Froebel's ideas, which she encountered while traveling in Europe with her family in 1870. When she returned to St. Louis in 1871, she met with William Torrey Harris, the superintendent of the St. Louis schools, who was a Hegelian and already a kindergarten supporter. While substitute teaching in St. Louis, Blow began experimenting with Froebel's methods. With Harris's encouragement, she went to New York City in 1872 to study under Maria Kraus Boelte, one of the German kindergarten experts who had brought the movement to the United States. Blow immersed herself in the specificities of Froebel's carefully prescribed "gifts" and "occupations," the series of blocks and other educational materials and handwork activities, which formed the core of his pedagogy. When she returned, she convinced Harris to pay for a teacher and provide space for a kindergarten class, which opened in the Des Peres School in 1873. Other than a short-lived experiment in Boston in 1870, this was the first public kindergarten in the United States.
In 1874, Blow started a kindergarten training school, which soon became a center for the diffusion of Froebelian methods. Numerous kindergarten directors and leaders, including Elizabeth Harrison and Laura Fisher, trained under Blow, who visited Germany again in 1876 to learn more from German kindergarten educators. A charismatic public speaker, Blow began a series of popular lectures for mothers and others interested in kindergartens. Her fame spread. By 1877, her classes, which she expanded to include other educational and philosophical topics, attracted more than 200 participants.
Under the influence of William Torrey Harris, with whom she collaborated closely for many years, Blow became deeply interested in Hegelian philosophy and its application to education. Like Harris, Blow was committed to the kindergarten more for its intellectual and academic benefits than for its potential as a means of Progressive educational and social reform. This tension within American education generally, between promoting school achievement and promoting schools as agents of social change, fractured the kindergarten movement. Blow and Harris saw the kindergarten as a mentally stimulating rather than emotionally nurturing environment. Younger kindergarten teachers began challenging Blow, especially Alice Putnam in Chicago, and Anna Bryan in Louisville, who adapted symbolic kindergarten activities to the realities of urban children's daily lives, and encouraged open-ended free play over teacher-directed replication of Froebel's stylized forms.
In the later part of her career, Blow became an increasingly dogmatic adherent to Froebelianism. Because of mental and physical health problems, she withdrew from direct kindergarten work in 1884, and in 1889, moved to Cazenovia, New York. She entered into a long period of treatment with the Boston neurologist James Jackson Putnam, with whom she corresponded extensively. In 1894, she began writing five volumes on the kindergarten, published under the auspices of her mentor, William Torrey Harris. These books, which included a translation of Froebel's Mother Play, a book of songs and games for use by parents and kindergarten teachers, propounded Blow's abstract interpretation of Froebel's work. She was a lecturer at Columbia University's Teachers College from 1905 to 1909, where she taught a kindergarten course. Obstinately orthodox and rather abstruse, her lectures were not a success, and Blow was eventually replaced by Patty Smith Hill, the leader of the Progressive wing of the kindergarten movement.
In the twentieth century, the merging of Progressive education and the new science of child psychology widened the division between didactic, teacher-directed kindergarten pedagogy and more developmental, child-centered approaches. Blow was a member of the International Kindergarten Union's Committee of Nineteen, which attempted to mediate these differences that had become highly contentious. The divide proved irreconcilable. Blow authored the conservative report, which, along with a moderate and progressive report, was published in 1913 in The Kindergarten. Although Blow's personal dynamism and determination delayed the decline of traditionalist orthodoxy in the face of changing educational views, she was unable to sustain Froebelianism. The loss of Froebel's aesthetically sophisticated symbol system, which some are trying to revive in the early twenty-first century, should be balanced against the increased attention to socioemotional well-being and individual creativity, which are the hallmarks of modern early childhood education. Susan Blow was a firm advocate for the more formalistic vision of preschool education. Her force of character and intellect helped bring kindergarten philosophy into the mainstream of educational thought, and into the consciousness of the American public.
BLOW, SUSAN E. 1894. Symbolic Education. New York: D. Appleton and Company.
BLOW, SUSAN E. 1895. The Mottoes and Commentaries of Friedrich Froebel's Mother Play. New York: D. Appleton and Company.
BLOW, SUSAN E. 1899. Letters to a Mother on the Philosophy of Froebel. New York: D. Appleton and Company.
BLOW, SUSAN E. 1908. Educational Issues in the Kindergarten. New York: D. Appleton and Company.
BEATTY, BARBARA. 1995. Preschool Education in America: The Culture of Young Children from the Colonial Era to the Present. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
BROSTERMAN, NORMAN. 1997. Inventing Kindergarten. New York: Abrams.
SHAPIRO, MICHAEL STEVEN. 1983. Child's Garden: The Kindergarten Movement from Froebel to Dewey. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
TROEN, SELWYN K. 1975. The Public and the Schools: Shaping the St. Louis School System, 1838–1920. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
WEBER, EVELYN. 1969. The Kindergarten: Its Encounter with Educational Thought in America. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.
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