“Nothing could offer higher promise for the future of our country than an intelligent interest in the best ideals of citizenship, its privileges and duties among the students of our common schools.".
The idea of students governing themselves had been a topic discussed by educators from time to time, but the widespread establishment of student government began at the end of the nineteenth century. A limited experiment was set up in New York in 1894, but the full development of the concept, and its...
The idea of students governing themselves had been a topic discussed by educators from time to time, but the widespread establishment of student government began at the end of the nineteenth century. A limited experiment was set up in New York in 1894, but the full development of the concept, and its widespread implementation, was the work of Wilson L. Gill.
Gill was interested in patriotic and civic training. In 1889 and 1890 he assisted in the organization of the Sons of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the American Revolution, and thus came in contact with others of similar purposes who in 1891 assisted him in the organization of the Patriotic League. These colleagues included William McKinley, Gen. O. O. Howard, Edward Everett Hale, and John Jay, among others. This league organized local chapters and conducted classes for the study of citizenship. After carrying on this work for a while, Gill became convinced that the place where citizenship could best be taught was in the public schools, and that the best method of teaching citizenship was by the actual practice of it. An opportunity to put these ideas into practice came in the winter of 1896-7.
Gill initiated the program that came to be called “The School City”, which organized pupils into a self-governing body with a student council, executive, and even judges. The students elected their own officers, made their own laws and governed themselves. The teachers were not members of the civic organization, but were present to give instruction and advice when needed. When this was accomplished in the first schools, the students were delighted with the responsibility, and the program was very popular. Gill and others saw the civic value of this innovation, and he next organized The School City in more than 30 Philadelphia schools. It was successful, and was then introduced wherever opportunity was offered throughout the country.
Civic-minded people all over the country endorsed the new program, seeing it as preparing students for future participation in the city, the state, and the nation, as an informed body of citizens trained in the practice of their duties, and imbued with the interests and purposes of a true public spirit. One of those persons was President Theodore Roosevelt.
Typed letter signed, on White House letterhead, Washington, May 27, 1904, to William W. Justice, a Philadelphia businessman and reformer active in the charitable and educational sectors virtually, defining citizenship. “I hear with satisfaction that an earnest movement is well advanced in Philadelphia to establish in the schools of that city the teaching of civics by the admirable plan originated by Wilson L. Gill in the School City as a form of student government. I know of the work of Mr. Gill, both in this country and in Cuba, where Mr. Gill inaugurated this form of instruction upon the invitation of General Wood. Nothing could offer higher promise for the future of our country than an intelligent interest in the best ideals of citizenship, its privileges and duties among the students of our common schools. I wish for your efforts in this direction the utmost success.”
Thus, TR both made an important statement about citizenship in this letter, but praised the first organized program to bring it to the nation’s schools.
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