By AMANDA BEAM
NEW ALBANY —
Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com
In turn of the century America, when most schools taught old-fashioned classics and a language no longer spoken, Dr. Charles A. Prosser had a vision.
High school education needed to focus on skills that would give students better lives through gainful employment. While the courses at that time benefited those going to college, many enrolled in high schools would receive no further schooling after graduation. Slipping through the current cracks, these teenagers needed training for their future livelihoods as well.
“The biggest, most difficult, and most important job in the world,” Prosser once said, “is the job of living.”
Starting as a teacher in New Albany, Prosser would dedicate his life to ensuring overlooked students received the training they deserved. From designing effective occupational programs throughout the U.S. to advocating for laws that would fund the new wave of studies, the “Father of Vocational Education” passionately fought for increased learning opportunities for all students.
Born Sept. 20, 1871, in New Albany, Prosser graduated with honors from New Albany High School in 1889. The following fall, the renowned orator entered DePauw University but left the college before graduation in the spring of 1893 due to financial difficulties.
Determined to get his degree, Prosser returned to New Albany and became the principal at Market Street Grammar School. A new laboratory attracted him to NAHS in 1895 where he taught science and history for five years. During this time, he also gave lectures to different organizations including churches in Southern Indiana on topics of science and morality.
In an April 18, 1967 letter found in a collection of Prosser documents at the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library, Prosser’s former student at NAHS William E. Gadell described his young instructor.
“In [Prosser’s and another teacher’s] classes, we were taught ti[syc] think, to know the reasons for what was going on, and the general feeling was that you got more good from one week in their classes than from a whole year under the other teachers,” he said.
Always the resolute learner, Prosser, while working full-time in New Albany, attended summer school at DePauw University and Indiana University for two years each and obtained his degree from the former in 1897. Under the same strict schedule, he received a Masters from DePauw University in 1906 as well as a law degree from the University of Louisville several years earlier.
Law didn’t have the same appeal to Prosser as teaching. Serving as a juvenile judge in Floyd County, though, did have an effect on his later views. Through his life, working with students that had behavioral problems introduced him to how to help these children. Employing them in jobs where they “used their hands” could remedy many of their behavioral issues.
Despite his law background, Prosser remained predominantly in education, becoming superintendent of the local school system in 1900. Here, his philosophies on learning began to take shape.
According to the Nov. 9, 1969 program from the Charles A Prosser Vocational Center dedication, he streamlined the old instruction system in New Albany, upgraded teacher qualifications, helped the city obtain a new library and instituted the community’s first night-school program.
“When I recall the crude, antiquated educational set-up that was ours at the turn of the century, and then realize how wonderfully up-dated [sic] and modernized it appeared in just a few short years, under Charles Prosser’s guiding hand, I believe we can take a little pride in the fact that we allowed him to use us as a workshop in which to begin to develope [sic] his abilities,” Gadell said.
After requesting a leave of absences from the school system, Prosser journeyed to Columbia University where he received his Ph.D. in 1915. He would never return to live in New Albany.
Around this time, people began to notice Prosser and his ideas of promoting vocational education. He became superintendent of the Children’s Aid Society in New York City followed by stints as the Deputy Commissioner of Industrial Education for Massachusetts as well as the secretary of the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education.
Perhaps, at least on a national level, Prosser’s greatest accomplishment came when legislation he advocated and helped to write was passed by Congress. The Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act of 1917 allowed for funding of vocational education in public high schools. The same year, Prosser became the first executive director of the newly formed Federal Board for Vocational Education, a position he held for two years.
For the greater part of his career, the teacher from New Albany directed Dunwoody Vocational Institute in Minneapolis until his retirement in 1945.
Prosser’s work didn’t end after his retirement. On the horizon was a new educational directive in which he dubbed “life adjustment training”. This type of schooling would reach, by his estimates, the 60 percent of students the vocational and college courses left out. At an educational conference in 1945, the Prosser Resolution was passed. In “The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980,” author Diane Ravitch provided a quote from Prosser expressing his satisfaction.
“Never was there such a meeting where people were so sincere in their belief that this was the golden opportunity to do something that would give to all American youth their educational heritage so long denied,” Prosser said. “What you have planned is worth fighting for — it is worth dying for ... I am proud to have lived long enough to see my fellow schoolmen design a plan which will aid in achieving for every youth an education truly adjusted to life.”
Leaving an amazing legacy, Prosser died in 1952. Charles Allen Prosser School of Technology in New Albany and Prosser Career Academy in Chicago are both named in his honor.
“He sparked and encouraged hundreds of men and women in education and industry to pursue courses in Vocational Education,” read a page from the 1969 dedication program. “Many of the past and present leaders in Vocational and Industrial education throughout the United States derived their inspiration for this vital work from their association with Prosser and his dynamic approach and practical philosophy.”