In May I made a trip to Helen Parkhurst’s Archives in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. The collection represents an eclectic combination of personal mementoes, awards, publications, mixed with personal writings and memorabilia such as diaries and scrapbooks. There are copies of the Education on the Dalton Plan, in several languages, as well as notebooks and manuscripts for future projects. The archives found their way to Stevens Point as a gift of Parkhurst’s brother, Alden. Wisconsin was her birthplace and she taught in the Stevens Point Normal School from 1912 – 1915 before she left to go to California to work with Maria Montessori, where her gifts as an educator soon brought her to the position of Director of Maria Montessori’s schools in the United States.
In coming to the archives, I had hoped to discover communications between Parkhurst and some of the early art faculty that would help shed light on the role she wanted the arts to play within the Dalton program. However, nothing I found shed new light on this specific subject. What did became clear, was a view of Helen Parkhurst herself. Here was a woman who completely committed her life and energy to exploring the way children learn, evolving educational practices to encourage developmental, intellectual and cultural growth in young people and the dissemination of her ideas. Her independent travels around the world were striking for a woman in those early years of the 20th Century. She was the first woman educator to be welcomed to China in 1924 and throughout the world, spoke publicly to learned groups of academics and politicians, met with government ministers, royalty, and leading educators in an array of countries. The archives give evidence through newspaper clippings, letters, awards, and translated publications that the world was excited by her ideas and that she was honored as a thinker and an educational activist. There were personal sacrifices in evidence as well. In one letter she expresses her decision not to have her own children in order to serve the greater cause of education, and in another, is revealed the deeply upsetting rift with her mentor, when Montessori openly rejects her Dalton Plan as divergent from Montessori’s own vision, after receiving a review copy, unable to give support for Parkhurst’s vision. In all of this, Helen’s boldness, even to the firm style of her handwriting, and her intensity, come to life.
Right : Helen Parkhurst's Japanese Journal, July 1924
Left: Education on the Dalton Plan by Helen Parkhurst, Japanese edition
From the Helen Parkhurst Papers, University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point
There were a few personal papers, and journals along with a trove of various awards that Parkhurst collected during her lifetime. These included a Radio – Television Critics Award for her 1948-49 ABC radio show Child’s World where Parkhurst began her broadcast career. In each program she took on a different topic, discussing pertinent subjects with a small group of middle school aged students. Parkhurst desire was to investigate how children view and process information. Each week she would select a different theme for her program and the subjects ranged from the serious such things as lying, jealousy, and death, to more typically age appropriate concerns like imaginary friends, heroes, and ambitions. Her direct and frank questions to these children gives the impression that she always treated them with respect, putting each child at ease while masterfully drawing out their personal thoughts and ideas. The show was quite popular, and it aired on 215 ABC affiliate stations. Parkhurst managed to do quite well in the ratings too, and pulled a 4.5 in the Hooper Ratings opposite her competition, Jack Benny.
There are medals from various countries; especially notable among them is the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Orange - Nassau bestowed upon Parkhurst by the Queen of the Netherlands in January of 1957 for her contributions to education. The Dutch appreciated the Dalton Laboratory plan early on, and it is still widely practiced there today.
Oranje - Nassau Medal and Proclamation awarded to Helen Parkhurst, May 14th, 1957, Helen Parkhurst Papers, University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point
Perhaps one of the most fascinating discoveries found in the archives was an unpublished manuscript Parkhurst had written in 1937 titled The Children’s Japan. This long abandoned project was in poor shape with brittle, crumbling pages and missing photographs. The staff of the archives agreed to scan the fragile pages and digitally preserved the book, so that there would be a more stable record of this unusual document. It reflects Parkhurst’s love of the Japanese land, culture and people and the work is profusely illustrated with extraordinary black and white photographs of the places she traveled while exploring the daily life of children. A photographer, she identified only as “Mr. Hamilton,” accompanied her, and produced illustrative images to tell her story. The project never progressed past this hand typed and picture pasted volume. One can only speculate on why it was never published, but as world events began to grow more sinister and Japan’s aggression continued to escalate, it seemed the wrong time to publish such a book. What is evident was Helen’s passion and commitment for this project, for learning about the impact of cultural contexts on children. It also expresses Parkhurst’s sensitivity and character as the teacher, always wanting to share and educate.
From Helen’s illustrated work The Children’s Japan, she certainly saw the importance of the photographic image as a teaching tool. To her the picture could be worth a thousand words. This concept once again becomes evident in another photographic document produced for Dalton in 1941. It is a photo essay on the school itself, containing a few carefully chosen words to accompany over 50 images of the students, teachers, classrooms, and activities found on a daily basis when Dalton was a school of 545 students with 85 teachers housed in 10 floors of the brick building at 108 East 89th Street. It is an accurate portrait of a progressive school at the height of Parkhurst’s career. Photographer Barbara Morgan captures the range of activities happening in this small community with crystal clarity. Morgan was a gifted photographer, who was producing some of her most important photographic work with dance pioneer, Martha Graham and her company. In the Dalton essay, Morgan captures children in their daily activities from playtime on the roof to dissecting frogs in the science lab. One is struck by the active quality of the school and the energy and excitement of children in action. Many images represent the arts - dance, theatre, music, painting and sculpture. They help shed light on what was to be a hallmark of a Dalton education, the integration and appreciation of the arts. In one of the Morgan photographs taken in the art studio we find Dalton senior Constance (Heiman) Feinson, class of 1941, posed with her sculpture of a flamingo with it’s long neck looped around to rest on the birds right wing. Behind her stands her sculpture teacher, Alexander Archipenko. Though only at the school for this brief time, we can see the Archipenko influence on this young woman’s work. The bird is a series of sympathetic arcs from the small details of its feather to the neck’s curve and finally to the sculpture’s curvilinear wings revealing the bird’s torso. The bird is a composite of realism and abstraction that contains both solid and void, color and detail. Though the more junior artist doesn’t yet command the medium, she has learned and processed much from her artist teacher. Vividly this one picture captures the influence of Archipenko as teacher, and Dalton as learning environment.