The following story appears in the Fall 2017 edition of In Common magazine. It was written by Richard C. Lindberg, author of “Northeastern Illinois University: The First 150 Years.”
Northeastern Illinois University has come a long way from its modest beginnings in the little schoolhouse out on the prairie 150 years ago.
In its earliest incarnation, Northeastern served the residents of Cook County as a normal school, conceived as a teacher’s training college and tasked with supplying Chicago’s public schools and the outlying villages with qualified elementary school teachers. Inside eight rented classrooms of the Whittier School on Vermont Avenue in Blue Island (a remote pastoral setting 16 miles south of Chicago), 62 hopeful students gathered together on the first day of class, September 2, 1867, to commence a rigorous course of study. The county guaranteed them free tuition in return for a pledge to sign an agreement to enter the teaching profession upon completion of their program.
Sprung from the theoretical concepts of Horace Mann, the progressive New England politician and educator who believed education should be universal and available to all, the remarkable evolution of our alma mater from Normal School to a university crossing international borders unfolds in the sesquicentennial volume I have authored, “Northeastern Illinois University: The First 150 Years.” This special commemorative edition will be published in September, when Northeastern will launch a year-round celebration of this milestone anniversary beginning with NEIU Weekend on September 15 and 16. The festivities will continue throughout the academic year with special programming and celebratory events.
The history of Northeastern is one of excellence, innovation and adversity overcome. Such a story can hardly be told over a few pages of In Common magazine, but I certainly can give you a taste of what is in the book.
The Cook County Normal School, conceived in a politically charged climate of intrigue and stern opposition to the ideals of innovation and progressive education set forth and championed by its second principal, Francis Wayland Parker, broke loose from the shackles of pedagogical tradition. In early 19th century America, students of all ages were thrown together in overcrowded classroom settings and taught their “Three R’s” through rote memorization and oral recital, minus a fundamental understanding or appreciation for the meaning of the printed words read aloud. Conceptual thinking and free expression were seen as heretical notions until Horace Mann and his disciple, Francis Parker, shifted the focus of pedagogy.
Francis Parker directed the Normal School from 1883 until 1899—16 remarkable and trendsetting years. It was also a time of fiscal struggle. Threatened with extinction in 1896 after the Cook County Board teetered on the precipice of insolvency, the Chicago Board of Education pulled the county’s chestnuts out of the fire by acquiring the college (situated at 68th Street and Stewart Avenue in Englewood beginning in September 1870), and changing its name to the Chicago Normal School.
Distinguished educators including Ella Flagg Young, the Normal School’s most famous alumnus and a popular and gifted administrator, led the institution from 1905 to 1909. In 1900, Young earned a Ph.D. at age 55 under the mentorship of John Dewey. In an age when policymakers were mostly white males of Anglo-Saxon descent, Ella Flagg Young illuminated the pathway for a generation of young women previously barred from advancing into the higher ranks of school administration because of institutional “glass ceiling” opposition. In July 1909, the Board of Education moved quickly to appoint Young to head the Chicago Board of Education, marking the first time a woman occupied the post of Superintendent of Education in Chicago, or for that matter in any other U.S. metropolis.
The Depression years and the economic calamity befalling the nation hit the Englewood campus hard. A proposal to close the Normal School went before a full session of the School Board on December 9, 1931. Through the darkest, most discouraging months of 1931 and 1932, the doors of the Normal School remained open and campus activities continued. The college weathered the crisis, although fewer teachers found employment in city schools, and those that did were paid in nearly worthless scrip owing to the hard times everyone in that generation faced.
May 25, 1938, marked another critical turning point in school history. After months of deliberation and careful planning, the Board of Education approved a proposal to convert the Chicago Normal School into a four-year college empowered to award Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Education degrees. The granting of the three-year certificate was discontinued and the old and venerable school name scrapped. It meant that the Chicago Normal School would become Chicago Teachers College (CTC), inclusive of four buildings (the “Dome,” Parker High School, Parker Elementary and Wilson Junior College), all situated within the sprawling 18-acre Englewood campus.
Beginning in 1950, CTC opened the first of several satellite extensions in various North Side schools for the ease and convenience of enrolled students living north of Madison Street. The sharing arrangements with Chicago Public Schools continued until just after Labor Day in 1961. On September 6 of that year the new Chicago Teachers College North opened its doors to the first 1,764 students at Bryn Mawr and St. Louis avenues in what was then known as the Hollywood Park neighborhood of Chicago. The media nicknamed it the “Space Age College” because of its technology and progressive curriculum. It was at this critical juncture that two separate and distinct colleges, each forming their own unique social and cultural identity, emerged—the future Northeastern Illinois University and Chicago State University. One pointed north and the other south.
The original names of the sister colleges changed and evolved over time from CTC North and CTC South, but the spirit and fundamental mission to educate and prepare mostly urban, working-class commuter students for their future roles in society remains even as the normal school movement vanished in America. Nearly all of the original, publicly funded normal schools in the United States conceived as teacher training colleges in the 19th century had already made the transition to full university status by the mid-1970s.
The legacy of Francis Parker and Ella Flagg Young would live on as Northeastern built upon their groundbreaking theories of educational innovation by launching early experimental programs including University Without Walls, and the Program for Interdisciplinary Education. Northeastern established field centers in Uptown and West Town, with two additional Chicago locations that flourish today—El Centro in the Avondale neighborhood and the Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies in the Bronzeville neighborhood.
This sesquicentennial volume celebrates the divergent history of Northeastern and its predecessor from the standpoint of curriculum development and academic disciplines; campus planning; faculty and administrative profiles; memorable moments; political imbroglios with city and state governments; student protests (and yes, there were more than a few of these over the years); athletics; the reflections of former students in their own words; a lavish appendix that includes a timeline from 1866 through 2017; plus a listing of notable and distinguished alumni. Photographs and illustrations help bring the story to life throughout the volume.
I am sure you will enjoy reading the commemorative history edition five years in the making, from conception to publication. I hope you will plan to join us during NEIU Weekend and throughout the academic year as we celebrate Northeatern’s rich and resonant past with activities and special events to unite alumni with the diverse and dynamic institution it is today.