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The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62
Chapter XVII: The Present

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[This information is from pp. 197-208 of The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62 by Jeanette G. Neisuler (Schenectady: Board of Education, City School District, 1964), and is reproduced here with the permission of the author. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 370.9747 N41, and copies are also available for borrowing.]

The care of the Schenectady school system passed next to the present Superintendent, Dr. Robert E. Murray. Dr. Murray was born January 12, 1911, and is himself a product of the local schools. After being graduated from the Schenectady High School, he attended Union College, receiving, in 1933, the degree of A.B. Two years later he had earned an M.A. from the New York State College for Teachers at Albany, and went on to do graduate work both at the Teachers' College and at Cornell University. In 1958, he was awarded an honorary degree of LL.D. from Union College. Dr. Murray's interests were not confined to intellectual spheres. A superior athlete, he starred in football, lacrosse, baseball and basketball at college. He also held the light-heavyweight title at Union College in 1932. In 1958, he was awarded the Sports Illustrated "Silver Anniversary All America" honor. Dr. Murray's advance within the school system has been impressive. After serving as instructor and assistant coach for football at Union College in 1933-34, and teaching at Ravena High School in Ravena, New York, he entered the Schenectady system as a science teacher at Washington Irving Junior High School. In 1945, he became principal of the Pleasant Valley Elementary School. Half a dozen years later he was made an assistant to the Superintendent and Director of Instruction for the city schools. In 1954, he was appointed Acting Assistant Superintendent, and the following year he assumed the office of Superintendent. Within the system and outside of it, Dr. Murray is recognized as a man who possesses a singularly fine blend of far-sightedness and level-headedness. His unusual discernment and judgment concerning people have stood him in good stead. The system he directs is visited by educational observers from far and near who come to inspect and go home to imitate.

Linton High School Opens

One of the city's educational aspirations which came to fruition fairly early in the Murray administration aroused immediate and nationwide interest. It was the Linton High School, which was opened in 1958. And almost at the same time that Schenectady welcomed its latest school, it said farewell to one of its earliest. With the demolition of the elderly aristocratic 1892 Union School building (impressed during its twilight years as a Veterans' Housing Project), the site which had held Schenectady's first public school — West College — would revert to its original state — a naked lot. For the first time in over a century and a half, the corner where Union and College Streets meet would be unadorned by a school.

The destruction of Union School and the erection of Linton High School balanced each other out and left the total number of city schools at twenty-five. More than 13,000 children attended these schools (another 3,500 Schenectady children were enrolled in nine parochial schools and one private school) and 10-12,000 adults were members of evening classes.

Everything seemed to be on the way up. In 1914 more than half the children in city schools had been foreigners, either by birth or orientation; now the native-born and Americanized accounted for over 80 per cent of the total school population. The percentage of male teachers was noticeably higher, and within a few years would go higher still to reach 33 per cent. The number of children clinging to school through the elementary grades was growing at a rapid rate, too: in 1913, there were less than 25 per cent as many in the eighth grade as in the first grade; in 1919, there were 52 per cent as many; and in 1957, 88 per cent of the children who entered grade school were promoted into high school. The city population had increased over the past fifty years from 77,000 to 96,000, and the per capita income (nationally) had increased from a little over $200 to $1,770. School expenses had in just the last ten to fifteen years, jumped 25 per cent for books, 40 per cent for typewriters, 50 per cent for pencils, and as much as 300 per cent for paper. And the school budget, shoved by soaring costs and enlightened ambitions, had passed the $5,500,000 mark.

Despite these financial pressures, most conscientious Schenectadians believed that the philosophy expressed by Mr. J. J. Marlette seventy-five years before was still valid. Mr. Marlette, editor and publisher of the Schenectady Evening Star had said in his capacity as president of the School Board, "It is becoming well understood now-a-days by the best and most enterprising business men, as well as by all philanthropists that it pays a people financially to be heavily taxed for the support of good schools." (1)

Good schools were what Schenectadians of the late 1950's were still striving for, and there was considerable evidence, inside and out, of their earnest attempts to improve. New school architecture was more functional, surrounding space more extensive, and school furniture better adapted to serve the activity of each period. The relationship between teacher and pupil was, in the main, moving toward a better mutual understanding. Individual problems were receiving more personal attention from a larger and abler guidance department. Where, formerly, only one counselor had been assigned to work with two thousand secondary school students, there were now four counselors for every twelve hundred students.

Libraries and Laboratories Improved

Library facilities were improved, and science laboratory equipment, which substituted experience for observation, had been installed in junior highs and improved in high schools. The physical education program had been strengthened, advanced placement had been adopted in the subjects of mathematics, English and science, and the almost inconceivable potential of educational television had been tapped. Both in the realm of quality, where the curriculum could be enlivened and enriched, and in the realm of quantity, where teachers of special subjects might be made locally available, this last bonanza, ETV, promised to be of incalculable service. With all this activity, the school system, whatever its alleged shortcomings, could never be accused of indifference or sloth.

Such a spirit of enterprise has come to characterize any healthy school system. Almost ninety years ago, the President of the School Board pointed out in an Annual Report that for thirty or forty years before that, the minds of the best educators had been on the alert to discover and adopt new and improved methods of instruction. "Many methods have been tried and abandoned as useless or obsolete," he admitted, "but only to be superseded by others of tried and proved utility." (2) Luckily for Schenectady, a goodly proportion of the city's school boards and educators, before and since, have been of like mind.

Modern Educational Ideal Difficult to Achieve

Despite a similarity in attitude however, it cannot be denied that the school system of which Dr. Murray is today in charge bears as little other resemblance to the City's earliest school systems as the space age bears to the horse-and-buggy era. Similarly, the ideal teacher of today is as different from the schoolmaster of old as sculptor is from a stone crusher. Early education — impersonal, routine and uninspired — worked with the few but taught them en masse. Present-day education — flexible, functional and idealistic — aims at the masses but tries to reach each individual.

This is no simple objective. The law stipulates that, regardless of economic, social or cultural background, regardless of ability or lack of it, each child must be kept in school until he reaches the age of sixteen. The law implies, and the public frequently assumes, that all children given equal opportunity will emerge from their years in school with equal "education." But mere opportunity produces neither the capacity nor the desire for learning. The task with which the schools are presented becomes, then, to accept each youngster just as he is, with his own particular accumulation of needs, inclinations, problems and personality traits, and by probing, prodding, motivating and inspiring, to propel him towards his greatest personal potential.

Fad and Frills Names for Unwanted Subjects

In seeking to accomplish this, the school starts with one principle as an absolute essential: each child must be equipped with a good working knowledge of the basic subjects. Curiously, even the interpretation of what constitutes a "basic subject" has been the cause of many a heated and continuing argument. Through the years, various subjects — not excluding methematics, science, geography, spelling and drawing — have been attacked as unnecessary, or worse. The specific course that happened to offend has changed periodically with fluctuations of public viewpoint or the economic requirements of the community. In fact, the only constant element connected with the curriculum seems to have been the use of the derogatory terms "fads" and "frills" which, as far back as 1890 and even earlier, have been unfailingly used to describe unwanted courses.

Subjects which are acknowledged as basic by educators and the general public today are being stressed in the Schenectady School System. In addition, studies have been made about how people learn and how they develop, and these are helping teachers make the basic subjects ever more meaningful and useful. Modern educators, however, prefer not to consider basic subjects the end of education, but rather, the beginning. They believe that education touches all phases of a child's being — his physical well-being, his emotional growth and control and his social adjustment, his abilities, attitudes, habits and values, his vocation and his avocations. And they believe that the school must share with the home and community the responsibility of developing and safeguarding all these aspects.

Education System Created by People

Whatever commentary is made about a school system may well be applied, also, to the city that sponsors it. A history of the schools spills over into a history of the city and a history of the city encompasses a history of its schools. The most rewarding reason for probing into either is the fascinating portrait of people which is brought to light. The educational attempts of earlier Schenectadians are stitched through and through with their personal ideals, their courage, their fears and their prejudices.

Some Ideas — And Problems — Not So "Modern"

Prying out dates, arranging events in neat sequence, piecing together educational fragments to make a unified whole — such activities are likely to arouse in Schenectadians of today a variety of emotions. The quaint and often blundering experiments of the old days may awaken feelings of amused condescension; the discovery that certain praiseworthy accomplishments matter-of-factly credited to the present day were really started 50, l00 or 150 years ago, may induce surprised humility; and the inescapable admission that some problems, hoary with age, are to this day still unsolved, may evoke feelings of downright embarrassment. Yet, reflecting upon the enterprise, sincerity, and vision of the many Schenectadians who donated their best efforts toward the furtherance of education in this city, even knowing that at times it would mean subjecting themselves to attack, one emotion overshadows all the rest: unashamed pride.

Step by laborious step, as generation followed generation, our forerunners discovered what is today so blithely taken for granted — that the very young, the very poor, the foreign, the mentally handicapped, the physically handicapped, girls and adults were all capable of being educated. Each experiment they undertook served as an educational augur. Having discovered that neither age, sex, financial status nor physical disability need be a bar to learning, educators became dissatisfied with merely cramming masses of facts into masses of youngsters, and sought to develop the whole child. Somewhere along the line, they arrived at the conclusion that each person was valuable as an individual. The acceptance of the individual's importance led, in turn, to the realization that he mattered not only to himself, but to society. For the betterment of both, he was encouraged to develop initiative, to respect authority, and to shoulder responsibility. He was encouraged to take an interest in the world around him, to make decisions based on fact rather than opinion, and above all, to respect and appreciate the gift of liberty and freedom.

Not all the school's ambitions have yet been realized. Perhaps they never will be since, no sooner is one problem solved, than at least one more appears. But Schenectadians are both idealistic and determined. With Mr. H. H. Van Cott, Principal of the high school in 1923, they believe that "A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and a community is no stronger than the weakest thing it stands for." This year, 1962, the city is celebrating its tercentenary. On another anniversary celebration, one hundred years after the start of the Revolutionary War, the President of Schenectady's School Board said:

This is our great centennial year. Let us remember, if we would honor the memory of our fathers, perpetuate the blessings we enjoy, and move forward in our career as a nation with safety, we must see to it that our means for a thorough education of the masses keep pace with our material advancement. If we would carry out the purpose of the noble men who 100 years ago put the great machinery of our complex system of government into operation, we must be an educated people. Universal education should be the aim of every patriot, and the motto inscribed on our system of legislature, and over the door of every school house. We hope to see the day when this sentiment shall pervade every class and shade of society, when every man and woman will be so imbued with the spirit that there shall be but one wish, one thought, one hope, one desire, a universal desire for universal education. It is the only hope of our success in the future, neglect it and self-government is a failure. (3)

From the beginning of old Dorp's history, there have been many praiseworthy individuals who were products of the city's schools. Ultimately, such people are the best of all possible ambassadors. They prove to the world better than any words can that Schenectady has always, and will always take its schools to heart.

Notes for Chapter XVII

  1. Annual Report of the Board, 1875, p. 12 (Schenectady City School District, Schenectady, N.Y.).
  2. Ibid., p. 14.
  3. Ibid., 1873, p. 41.

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