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John Ward Studebaker (1887–1989), a native of Iowa, worked his way through college as a bricklayer. After graduating from Leander Clark College in 1910, he was a public school principal and an assistant superintendent of schools in Des Moines. At the outbreak of WWI, he took a hiatus from education to serve as Assistant Director of the Junior Red Cross and to earn a master’s degree at Columbia University. In 1920, he was named Superintendent of Schools in Des Moines where he initiated special education programs and reorganized the school system.

In 1934, Studebaker was appointed U.S. Commissioner of Education by Franklin D. Roosevelt and served 14 years—the longest tenure of any education commissioner. He held his post through the end of the depression, during preparations for WWII, during the war itself, and during social and economic readjustment after the war. He confronted challenges stemming from the onset of the baby boom and poor school facilities resulting from maintenance and construction deferral during the war. His thoughtful determination and innovative plans left many lasting effects on American education.

Early in his federal career, Studebaker focused on access to information. He chaired the Federal Radio Education committee, leading the way for early technology-based reform. He believed that radio could become one of the most powerful educational forces if people would develop truly educational programs. He also spearheaded efforts to improve the quality of American libraries, especially in rural areas. In an address to the American Farm Bureau Federation in 1940, he stated, “When people are burning books in other parts of the world, we ought to be distributing them with greater vigor; for books are among our best allies in the fight to make democracy work.”

Studebaker focused his energy on curricular innovations to thwart ideological threats to the nation’s youth. In the mid-1930s, advisors suggested that the United States establish youth programs to teach the values of democracy since many countries had developed programs to instill ideology. Studebaker warned that idle youth can become open to impulses that lead to crime and dishonest rackets, and that undereducated and unskilled youth could easily succumb to communist pressures. Studebaker proposed a national community youth program that would help students stay in school, create jobs, and forge productive citizens.

In June 1935, the president issued an executive order creating the National Youth Administration. By 1940, a five-year program was in place in which 12 million Americans were trained for military industries. During WWII, Studebaker created the High School Victory Corps, which further urged adjustments to high school curricula, including the creation of new courses and modifying existing ones so that more attention was given to vocational education or the practical applications of science, mathematics, and manual arts.

After WWII, Studebaker called for the consolidation of high schools so that they could offer broader curricula. Starting with research that indicated that 60 percent of the nation’s high school students were neither preparing for college nor taking vocational training leading to a specific occupation, Studebaker led a movement to prepare youth for the labor force. His office identified the rigid curriculum as a major impetus for students dropping out. He detailed the manner in which schools could reallocate existing funds in an effective and efficient manner to match education with the job market. This effort established a commission on life adjustment education for youth, composed of representatives of major national professional organizations. He also advised states to establish junior colleges as “higher high schools” to provide economic opportunities to the post-war labor force.

Studebaker also advocated that high schools adopt a four-year course of study to include American history, world geography, economics, and sociology. This became a high priority national program to strengthen American democracy through the classrooms and alert students to the perceived dangers of communism. He vowed to help schools and colleges initiate courses designed to plant indelibly the ideals and benefits of democracy and to reveal the character of totalitarianism.

Studebaker also attempted to boost education’s vitality as a distinct, professional field. In 1939, when the Office of Education was moved from the Department of Interior to a newly created Federal Security Agency (FSA), he vehemently opposed plans to merge his office’s library with that of the FSA. He also addressed the relationship between teacher salaries and the post-war teacher shortage. He urged the public to note the considerable disparity that existed between teachers’ income and that of other professional workers with comparable qualifications. Studebaker was a key member of the committee that created the GI Bill. He also fought honorably to enhance wages for all Office of Education positions except his own.

He tendered his resignation in 1948 saying he could no longer afford to remain in a position that paid such a meager salary. Upon leaving, Studebaker wrote that he had accomplished three major results for the Office of Education:

After resigning from the Office of Education, Studebaker became Vice President and Chairman of the editorial board of Scholastic Magazines, where he supervised the English and social studies curricula for junior and senior high schools. Studebaker retired from Scholastic in 1968.

Contributed by Keith M. Sturges, The University of Texas at Austin

Fine, B. 1947. Studebaker urges drastic reforms to improve high school education. New York Times, November 21.

Studebaker, J. W. 1943. War spurs change in high schools; greater attention now paid to vocational training and social studies. New York Times, August 29.

Studebaker, J. W. 1947. U.S. commissioner discusses major questions that confront American schools. New York Times, August 31.

Studebaker, J. W. 1948. J.W. Studebaker resigns as head of U.S. Education for editor’s post. New York Times, June 30.

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