From its inception in 1902 to its demise in 1918, the Summer School of the South was a major instrument of regional educational improvement, instructing some thirty-two thousand teachers in the art of education. The Summer School was born from the desire of its founder, University of Tennessee President Charles W. Dabney, to change the then lamentable state of southern learning. To Dabney regional educators were little better than “makeshift teachers,” whose pupils received “only 3 years of schooling.” For the region to advance, southern education had to improve.
With the 1902 arrival in Knoxville of Philander P. Claxton, agent of the Southern Education Board, Dabney found the man to change this situation. Using money raised locally and nationally, Dabney hired Claxton to create a summer school for teachers–the Summer School of the South–an independent institution that would be located on the University of Tennessee campus. The dual goals of the Summer School were to improve southern education by improving southern educators and to turn the region’s teachers into agitators for more educational resources. In sum, the school was to be a cross between a summer college and a propaganda rally.
Immediately, Claxton set to work. In two months he toured some ten southern states, where he addressed state educational assemblies, enlisted the support of local school superintendents, and talked to scores of individual teachers. To buttress these personal appeals, Claxton flooded the mails with over one hundred thousand posters and brochures announcing the school’s first session.
Results surpassed even optimistic projections. When the school opened, more than nineteen hundred teachers were in attendance, and a distinguished faculty had been assembled to instruct them. Of the fifty-one faculty members, eight were present or former university presidents. Further gracing the faculty were the prominent southern writer Walter Hines Page and U.S. Commissioner of Education William T. Harris. Later sessions would also attract such noted instructors as John Dewey, Richard T. Ely, and U. B. Phillips.
The Summer School faculty offered teachers a wide variety of subjects to study. “Courses may be had in anything from that post graduate work of the nursery, ‘Patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man,'” T. S. Stribling wrote in his 1903 prize essay on the Summer School, “to Pre-Shakespearian Drama, from Belles Lettres to a course on Agriculture.” (1) Supplementing formal instruction were cultural activities. For example, Charles Coburn and his al fresco players regularly appeared to perform classical plays. Among other such artists who performed on campus were the violinist Maude Powell and the conductor Leopold Stokowski and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
While under Claxton the Summer School was quite a success. After Claxton’s departure in 1911 to be U.S. commissioner of education, however, the school came under direct University of Tennessee control and swiftly declined. In just seven years attendance dropped more than 60 percent. University bureaucracy, competition from newer summer schools, and dislocations from World War I impeded further progress. After the 1918 session the university closed the school, ending an important epoch in southern education.