SSA Tour: Edith Abbott
Edith Abbott was recruited to the School in 1908, just prior to its incarnation as the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. Her work paved the way for the School's merger into the University of Chicago, and in 1924, she became its Dean--the first female dean of any graduate school in the United States. Edith Abbott served as dean until 1942. During this time, she and the School emphasized the importance of formal education in social work and the need to include field experience as part of that training.
These years were also a time when SSA was intimately connected to federal legislation in such areas as child welfare, the labor movement, and immigration issues. Edith's sister, Grace Abbott served as chief of the U.S. Children's Bureau in Washington D.C. She ensured that legislative policy-making in these areas incorporated the research being done at SSA, and helped to provide federal support for this kind of research and social statistics at the School and elsewhere. Edith Abbott retired in 1942.
The following was printed in the December 1957 Edith Abbott Memorial Issue of the SSA Alumni newsletter
Edith Abbott was the daughter of pioneers, born not far from the famous
Overland Trail and brought up on stories of the building of a new state
out of a prairie wilderness. Her father had come as a young soldier from
Lincoln's armies to the western plains and had been the lieutenant-governor
of the infant state of Nebraska. Her mother never forgot the beauty of
the hills of northwestern Illinois from which she had come and sometimes
mournfully referred to her little family as "poor benighted prairie
children." But the children felt no sense of privation, and Edith
in particular always spoke with loving pride of her prairie origin.
Though she loved the prairies and has written movingly of the beauty she found everywhere on the Great Plains, her deepest attachment to the spirit of pioneers. She knew that only men and women of character could put virginsoil to plow and lay the economic and social foundations of a new commonwealth.
Again and again among her papers are found references to the courage, the daring, and the persistece of the pioneers and their capacity to face crisis without flinching.
"We of the West," she would often say, "are not afraid
of crossing the frontiers." The outlook of the pioneers was her outlook.
Their spirit influenced the choices she made in life.
One of her early choices, made in the year 1908, was a forecast of the criteria she would use throughout life in selecting among possible courses of action. Having taken her Ph.D. degree in economics at the University of Chicago in 1905 and having studied subsequently at the London School of Economics, she had returned in 1907 to teach at Wellesley. Undoubtedly she could have stayed on indefinitely in the secure and serene environment of that well-known institution. But she was offered an opportunity to become assistant director of the research department of the School of Civics and Philanthropy in Chicago. The School itself was a new venture of which it could quite literally bbe said that its chief resources were faith and hope.
In 1907 the Russell Sage Foundation had made grants to four schools of
philanthropy then in existence for the specific purpose of organizing
departmentsof social investigation. Even in those days, the continuity
of foundation grants was unpredictable--and the Russell Sage Grant was
the sole resource of the new department of social research in Chicago.
Yet Edith Abbott quickly accepted the offer. With her background and outlook
this choice was inevitable. Here was a new frontier to cross. Here was
a task that would require daring, imagination, resourcefullness, and courage.
Here in short, was a task worthy of a pioneer.
It was a decision that changed the course of contemporary educational history. For, in Chicago, Edith Abbott found a challenge commensurate with her spirit and her talents, and here she, more than any one person, transformed apprenticeship training for a craft into university education for a profession. The dedicated environment in which she found herself strengthened her opportunity. Graham Taylor was the director of the School of Civics and Philanthropy, and Miss[Sophonisba] Breckinridge was head of its research department. At Hull House,were the new faculty member went to live, she was associated with a remarkable galaxy of women--Jane Addams, Alice Hamilton, Florence Kelley, Julia Lathrop, and her own dynamic sister, Grace Abbott--a group Paul Kellogg once called the "Great Ladies of Halsted Street." Surrounded both at the School and at Hull House by minds and spirits such as these, Edith Abbott began to move toward the position of educational leadership for which her talents so admirably fitted her.
From the outset she insisted that education for social work should be conducted under university auspices and should be at the graduate level. These views, both of which are now so widely accepted, were at that time considered idealistic and impractical, if not actually subversive. Could the universities be trusted to teach what the agencies believed was important? Would they give graduate credit for field work? Was it not safer to leave the training in the hands of the agencies, where the apprentices would almost certainly learn something about casework? Tosuch questions as these Edith Abbott gave characteristically forthright answers:
"Social work will never become a profession--except through the professional schools," she said. "A good professional school of social welfare not only needs a close connection with a good university but the modern university also needs such a school." "Students should learn in an educational institution, as they cannot learn as office apprentices, something more than the processes of a single agency and a single field of work."
She saw with equal clarity that social work must assume the full responsibility for its own educational process. In the early days of uncertainty some of the universities added a few social work courses to the curriculum of one of the older departments of social science and fancied that they were in this way meeting the needs of the field. This was an unhappy marriage that proved unsatisfactory to both of the contracting parties. Miss Breckinridge used to say, in speaking of our older marriage laws: "Marriage made them one, and he was that one." Thus it was the case of social science and social work: Marriage made them one, but social science was that one. Certainly nothing creative resulted from the union. Only when social work took its place as a full-fledged professional school was it able to build curriculum,to institute research, to publish, and to make its own peculiar and appropriate contribution to the scholarly objectives of the university and to the professional development of the field of practice. In seeing from the outset that social work could develop its intellectual potential only by establishing its own professional schools, Edith Abbott gave proof that she possessed wisdom beyond her time.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of Miss Abbott's contribution to curriculum-building. When she entered the field . . . most people thought that a good grounding in casework was all that was needed for the intelligent practice of social work. But she saw that the social work student of today might be an administrator of a great public social service tomorrow and that, in addition to casework, he needed to understand legal concepts, to be aware of the social implications of medical problems, and to know the fields of the public social service, social research, and social administration. As a result such courses as "The Child and the State," "Social Work and the Courts," and "Methods of Social Investigation" were offered at the Chicago School long before they were introduced elsewhere . . ..
The astonishing thing about her contribution to curriculum- building is that she not only identified the fields essential to a good education for social work but, in addition, produced a substantial part of the literature required to teach these subjects in the classroom. Every alumnus of the early days will remember the bulky mimeographed tomes she distributed in the beginning of each quarter. Here were gathered together documents collected in her wide range of explorations of original source materlals--the British Blue Books, Hansard's Debates, decisions of the Supreme Court, memorials to Congress, reports of the Bureau of the Census, of the Labor Department, of state and federal commissions--all conveniently at hand for analysis by the student.
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Under the early system of apprenticeship, methodology received the major and sometimes, the exclusive emphasis. Some of those who were reluctant to abandon the old system feared that in a university- oriented curriculum casework would be relegated to a minor role. Because she envisaged a curriculum in which substantive knowledge was stressed as it had never been before, Miss Abbott was sometimes suspected of having little or no interest in casework. Even a cursory examination of her papers reveals that this suspicion was unfounded. She insisted that students must know casework, but she wanted casework practice to be in the hands of social workers who were equipped to respond to the challenge of social statesmanship. It is now evident that, in pursuing these objectives, she herself added a new perspective on casework. The importance of this contribution has been pointed outby Charlotte Towle in these words: "She made the means test, legal settlement, relative support laws, and similar restrictive statutory and administrative practices come alive for me in terms of what they were doing to people psychologically. This theme, which I developed in Common Human Needs, I owe to a new dimension in my thinking derived from Miss Abbott rather than from my training as a psychiatric social worker."
In the early days field work was the great roadblock that threatened to halt the development of a genuinely professional education for social work. Most of the agencies were quite certain that actual experience in the field was an indispensible part of training for social work, and some thought that it was the only really important part. Many doubted whether there was any way in which it could be effectively administered in universities.
Edith Abbott agreed that good field work was essential. In fact, no one has stated its importance more clearly than she. As long ago as 1915 she wrote: "Students can learn how to do only by doing under expert supervision." In support of her position she cited Abraham Flexner's famous dictum on medical education: "The student of medicine cannot effectively know unless he knows how.
But she knew that field work was not the only important element in a professional education. Moreover, she saw that field work and classroom work should be related to one another, and for that reason she believed that the two experiences should be concurrent.
* * *
Edith Abbott was a great teacher--and perhaps that is the finest tribute one can pay to any man or woman. When Miss Abbott was a young student in London, Mrs. Sidney Webb, who was then as always deeply immersed in social research andpublication, said to her: "I sometimes break appointments with others, but never with students; for students are really important." Miss Abbott liked to quote these words of Mrs. Webb, for she too believed that students are really important. A woman who was a student of hers thirty years ago remarked in my presence recently: "We worked so hard in her courses, because she expected it of us."
Another student, in speaking of Miss Abbott's classes in the history
of philanthropy, once said: "The material unrolled before me like
a great drama, and my mind was opened to ideas that have influenced my
She was, of course, a hard driver, but her compulsiveness never seemed to arouse the resentment of her students--probably because they understood and respected her motivations. I remember the young woman student who was being married and was leaving the following day on a wedding trip. Miss Abbott handed her a lofty stack of statistical schedules. "Here," she said, "you can tabulate these while youare on your vacation." I do not remember just how that episode terminated, but it isentirely possible that the young bridegroom spent part of his honeymoon functioningas an assistant statistical clerk.
It is difficult to enumerate the qualifications of a great teacher, but certainly one of them is the capacity to arouse in students a thirst for truth and knowledge. Edith Abbott possessed that qualification. Most of those who took their degrees underher tutelage have continued to build upon the foundation she gave them, and manyhave become the leaders of this generation. Some have engaged in research, some have published, and some have risen to positions of leadership in professional education and in the supervision and administration of the social services. The quality of their contributions is an evidence of the intellectual standards which she inspired them to sustain.
Someone has said that our earliest background largely determines the distance anddirection of our advance in life. With her pioneer background and Quaker ancestry, it was doubtless inevitable that Edith Abbott would devote her talents to the sterner pursuits of life. but her gifts were not exclusively intellectual. She had dramatic and literary talents as well. I have always thought she could have become one of the great dramatic actresses of her day. Her sense of the dramatic wasevident in the way in which she organized and presented her material in the classroom. She could evoke drama, even from the columns of a statistical table.
Or she could have devoted herself to creative writing. With her forthrightness, her penetrating insights, her breadth of interest, and her capacity for historical research, she could have succeeded, I believe, in a variety of areas, ranging all the way from the political philippic to the historical novel. All for which is to say that she had the capacity for creative writing of high quality.
* * *
In all the artistic and intellectual walks of life there are degrees
of greatness. Agreat teacher makes an impact upon his own generation and
upon at least the ensuing generation. The influence of the greatest of
the teachers endures indefinitely. Their names and their works are remembered
long after most of the diplomats and the generals of their day have been
Edith Abbott's impact upon her own and the ensuing generation is manifest. Some of us believe that history will include her name among the handful of leaders who made enduring contributions to the field of education. Social work has now taken its place as an established profession, both here and abroad. She, more than any other one-person, gave substance and direction to the education required for that profession. Her educational principles and her creative ideas underlie the entire structure of the schools of social work in this country and have had great influence in shaping many of those in foreign countries. Those of us who knew and loved Miss Abbott are perhaps not entirely unbiased, but a great many others who did not know her as we did nevertheless share our conviction that posterity will not forget achievements such as these.