Printer and Educator
J. Foster was elected to The Educators' Hall of Fame in September
Photo from "A Century, PLUS - Independent Study in the American
Article by Dr. Von Pittman
Reprinted by permission from Sally R. Welch of the Distance Education
and Training Council (DETC) and Dr. Von Pittman
"The press is the best instrument for enlightening the mind of
man, and improving him as a rational, moral, and social being."
- Thomas Jefferson
the late part of the 1880's in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, Thomas J. Foster
had worked his way up to the moderate circumstances of editor at the small
daily newspaper. He had taught school, been a storekeeper and then a printer.
Now as editor he served the rural mining community. But tragedy would
thrust him into service of literally millions on a national basis.
A very close friend of Foster, a banker and coal company official was
missing on an inspection tour of a mine. The miners at that mine had become
seriously ill while working there and the prevailing superstition among
the workers was that the place was haunted. A rescue attempt stalled when
the miners refused to enter.
Foster took charge and ordered the air pumps started. He then had himself
lowered in to the depths of the deep dark pit. Using torches the rescue
party worked their way through the tunnels until they found the bodies
of Foster's friend and others.
What had killed the officials? The killer was unknown to the miners. Foster
knew the answer. It was a noiseless, tasteless and odorless gas. The workers
killed previously had all been men of little prominence. Accidents like
this had been going on for years, now it struck close to home.
In shame and sadness the editor went back to his office to write a scathing
editorial on the event. He indicted ignorance and society for allowing
this and the preceding deaths. To think that mine foremen without proper
training and scientific knowledge would be allowed to lead men down to
their deaths was unthinkable. Other editorials followed and eventually
a law was passed that required mine foremen to pass an exam in technical
knowledge that would make their work safer.
Many of the undereducated miners could not pass the exam and what set
out to make their lives better now created considerable hardship and bitterness.
Foster was singled out as the political whipping boy. A group assembled
in his office to protest. Instead of rising to his own defense he proposed
a plan. The former teacher offered to tutor them to help them pass the
examination. The offer was accepted.
The newspaper office was turned into a night school. Math was especially
difficult, but Foster created easy lessons and printed them for them to
take home. Because of the distance some mailed their answers in to be
checked. Foster wrote a special education column for miners in the paper.
Foster's students successfully applied what they learned on the job and
word got around. The lessons grew and the students increased. Soon the
lessons were being used all over Pennsylvania and West Virginia and Ohio.
At this time, this was unique. Learning about your work while you worked
and through the mail at that! No one had successfully taught a vocational
subject by mail before. It was expected that the apprentice would work
at the elbow of the master. Perhaps it was the presentation or the style
of writing or just maybe the time was right. At any rate the newspaper's
business became education. The course offerings grew into over 200 separate
areas. Businesses and government encouraged their employees to enroll.
At it's height of success the printing plant turning out the textbooks
and lessons for Foster's students was rivaled only by the United States
Government Printing Office in size.
Possibly with today's proliferation of vocational-technical education the
accomplishment of Thomas J. Foster seems minor. In the days of limited
transportation and educational opportunities Foster's courses brought
advancement and training to even the most remote R.F.D. box holder. With
in fifteen years he had enrolled over a million students. In a months
time his schools were enrolling more students than Harvard, Yale, Princeton
and Dartmouth combined in a year. At the turn of the century one American
adult out of 27 had taken his course.
Vocational education and industrialization in America owes much to the
work of one man: Thomas J. Foster - printer and teacher, and the founder
of the International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Information for this column was found in Olympians
Vol. II of the Selected Writings of Elbert Hubbard.
Copyright © 1997 by Frank Granger of Graphic Comm Central