The National Educators' Hall of Fame Inductees
Thurgood Marshall | Thomas J. Foster | William Rainey Harper | Dr. Charles Wedemeyer

Thomas J. Foster
Printer and Educator

Thomas J. Foster was elected to The Educators' Hall of Fame in September 2001

Photo from "A Century, PLUS - Independent Study in the American University"
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

In 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