From 1880 to 1920, Elizabeth Harrison (1849-1927), the founder of the institution that today is known as National Louis University, was a central figure in Chicago and, increasingly, nationally in the field of early childhood education. Born in Kentucky, raised in Iowa — a move necessitated by her father's lack of success in business — and denied a college education after a stellar performance in high school — again due to her family's financial difficulties as well as her poor health (chronic asthma and periodic bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia) — Harrison devoted much of her early adulthood to caring for her younger siblings, nieces and nephews.
Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852)
In its early years, the kindergarten movement in the U.S. was guided by the philosophy and practice developed by the German Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) in the 1830s. Froebel's Kindergarten — "Children's Garden" — merged the private (home) and public (school) worlds in an environment that would educate both children and their mothers through purposeful play with "gifts" (cloth balls, wooden blocks, etc.) and application of "occupations" (writing, drawing, painting, working with clay, etc.). Ironically, the first American kindergarten was begun in Wisconsin by a German immigrant, Margarethe Schurz, in 1855 — four years after kindergartens were banned in Germany. As interpreted by his early adherents in the U.S., Froebel's educational philosophy emphasized the special qualifications of women, especially mothers, to be kindergarten teachers.
Elizabeth Harrison in the 1890s
The kindergarten, initially, was conceived as autonomous, separate from the public school system and, thus, free from supervision by men. Marriage and motherhood, in fact, were an advantage in early childhood education, not the hindrance they were perceived to be (by men) to the effectiveness of (female) public school teachers. During the 19th century, the view of early childhood education in the U.S. was transformed from that of necessary moral and religious discipline by parents to the nurturing of individuals' qualities by professional educators. By the end of the century the kindergarten movement was at the center of debates over this "new education."
It was into this educational ferment that the 30-year-old Elizabeth Harrison stepped in 1879. At the urging of a childhood friend, Harrison visited Chicago and enrolled in the Kindergarten Training School run by Alice H. Putnam, who opened the first (private) kindergarten in Chicago in 1874, and in nine months Harrison received both a diploma and a certificate to train kindergarten teachers. In the following few years, Harrison attended Susan Blow's Kindergarten School in St. Louis, the first public school kindergarten in the country (opened in 1873), and traveled to New York to study with Maria Boelte — who had lived and studied with the widow of Froebel — and with John Kraus, both of whom had also taught Susan Blow and Alice Putnam. Thus, within a few years of her introduction to the kindergarten, Harrison had studied with the pioneers of the movement in the U.S.
Upon her return to Chicago in 1883, Harrison cultivated her potential audience of teachers and mothers by organizing (with Alice Putnam) the Chicago Kindergarten Club and three years later opened Miss Harrison's Training Class for young teachers and mothers, which attracted more than 700 students. It is to this Training Class that National Louis University traces its origins.
When Harrison arrived in Chicago in 1879, there were a handful of kindergartens in the city, either private or affiliated with churches. In 1887, when Harrison opened the Chicago Kindergarten Training School, there were nearly 50 kindergartens (private, church, settlement house and the first one in a public school) in the Chicago area. Five years later, in 1893, that number had again doubled, with Harrison's students supervising instruction in half of them. Her partner was Rumah Crouse, wife of a prominent Chicago dentist, who managed the school's finances, publicity, student recruitment, facilities and fundraising. Especially after Harrison's 1890 visit to the Schrader Training School in Germany — directed by a niece of Froebel, where Harrison observed a regimented and repetitive application of Froebel's principles — she and Crouse expanded the curriculum to include such social and cultural subjects as the sciences, literature, art, music, sociology and psychology. Reflecting this broad curricular program, the Kindergarten Club and the Training School sponsored annual literary schools, focusing on historical literary figures (followed in later years by a series of psychology schools focusing on topics of contemporary interest in the field of psychology), and the local press spread word of Harrison's activities to a broader audience.
National Kindergarten and Elementary College Senior Class, 1918
In 1891, the Chicago Kindergarten Training School reorganized as the Chicago Kindergarten College, with the added requirement of a high school education for admission, and the following year it added a one-year postgraduate course. In subsequent years the school reorganized and changed its name several times: In 1906 it incorporated as a non-profit institution with a board of directors; in 1912, it affiliated with the National Kindergarten Association and became the National Kindergarten College; in 1917, it became the National Kindergarten and Elementary College, accredited to award bachelor's degrees, which it remained until 1930, when the school adopted a four-year undergraduate curriculum and its name was changed to National College of Education. In 1990, with the articulation of separate colleges of Arts and Sciences and Management and Business, in addition to the National College of Education, the name was changed to National Louis University.
Harrison also was a founding member of the International Kindergarten Union in 1892 and remained an influential member until her death in 1927. As the IKU evolved, Harrison assumed leadership of the moderate faction, situated between the conservative adherents of a strict Froebelian method, represented by Susan Blow, and the younger liberals, who allied themselves with the educational philosophy of John Dewey.
The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago featured a kindergarten exhibition much expanded over that at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, including a demonstration kindergarten and other programs overseen by Harrison's Training School and Kindergarten Club. The school also began publishing the Kindergarten Magazine, which contributed to Harrison's growing international reputation.
In 1894, Harrison convened the first national Mothers' Convention (forerunner of the Parent Teachers Association), which drew 1,200 attendees to Chicago. By 1900, there were more than 5,000 public school kindergartens in the U.S. and more than 200 kindergarten training schools. By the beginning of the 20th century, Chicago Kindergarten College alumnae were represented on the faculty of normal schools around the country, which were beginning to take the idea of the kindergarten seriously. Largely through Harrison's efforts, the kindergarten became more widely viewed as a legitimate contribution to early childhood education rather than merely a form of child's play, daycare for the children of the wealthy or immigrants and the poor. At the same time, Harrison never lost sight of the social reform potential of childhood education because many kindergartens were located in settlement houses and other institutions that served immigrants and other underprivileged members of the population.
Elizabeth Harrison and Edna Dean Baker, 1918
In 1912, Harrison visited Rome to observe Maria Montessori's school and, after publication of her report in 1914 by the U.S. Bureau of Education, the college began to offer courses in Montessori's method. Further, a Demonstration School for kindergarten and elementary school students opened in 1917-18 under the supervision of Clara Belle Baker (1885-1961), the sister of Edna Dean Baker (1883-1956), a 1913 graduate of the college and Harrison's chosen successor. In 1920, following a heart attack, Harrison resigned the presidency of the college and was succeeded by Edna Baker. She spent the remaining years of her life in the southern U.S. until her death in San Antonio Texas, in 1927. The author of some 20 books on childhood and education, Harrison worked on her autobiography, "Sketches Along Life's Road," until her death, but it was published only posthumously in 1930.