George Mather Forbes.

Lessons learned in Rochester with reference to civic and social center development; online

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LC 233
.R6 F6
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Serial No. 464; General Series, No. 301



The University of Wisconsin

General Information and Welfare


Civic and Social Center Development

Address delivered before The First National Confer-
ence on Civic and Social Center Development, at Madi-
son, Wis., October 26, 1911, by George M. Forbes, LL.D.



Published by the University
November, 1911

Entered as second class matter, June 10, 1898, at the post-office at Madison,
Wisconsin, under the Act of July 16, 1894,




One or more courses are offered in each of the following-
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Teachers' Eeviews
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be mailed to any address on request.

A bulletin descriptive of lectures and lecture courses will
be mailed to any address on request.

Bulletins descriptive of this department, including Munic-
ipal Reference, Civic and Social Center, and Vocational
Institute work, mailed on request.

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tions will be mailed on request without charge to citi-
zens of the state. Copies will be mailed to addresses,
outside the state upon receipt of list price.




^fte ?Hnibersitj» of Wi&ton^in


Department of General Information and Welfare

Madison, Wis.

Charles Richard Van Hise, Ph. D., LL. D,

President of the University

Lotus E. Reber, M. S., Sc. D.
Dean, University Extension Division

Edward J. Ward, M. A.
Adviser, Bureau of Civic and Social Center Development


Address delivered by George M. Forbes, LL. D., Professor of Edu-
cation in the University of BocJiester, President of the Bochester
Board of Education, and President of the New York State Teachers^
Association, before The First National Conference on Civic and So-
cial Center Development, at Madison, Wis., October 26, 1911.

The movement for the wider use of school building's in
Rochester was from the very beginning consciously and
deliberately planned, as Governor Hughes expressed it, to

buttress the foundations of democracy." It was, therefore,
in the very broadest sense, educational and yet without
any suggestion of the organization pr atmosphere of a
school. It was educational in the sense that where there
is human aspiration and joint effort for better things —
there is education.


The Foundation of the Social Center Movement

The very foundation of the movement was built upon
the underlying assumption of democracy that the spirit of
good-will is in the average man, and that this spirit may
become dominant; that this spirit is ethical and has two
aspects; one is the consciousness of the essential equality
of men as persons. Upon this is founded the sense of
justice. The other is the consciousness of the essen-
tial }<oUdarity of men so that they must realize
the true good together. Upon this is founded the spirit of

Democracy assumes that the average man will take this
ethical attitude when rightly appealed to and when he is
free to act, that is, it assumes that you can trust the final
issues of human well-being to the sense of justice and the
sense of brotherhood of the average man. This means
that the average man is ethical in the very roots of his
being, and capable of such ethical development as makes
liim worthy to be a member of the linal court of appeal
for justice and brotherhood. What is overlooked in this
assumption is the established fact that absolutely no in-
born endowment of a human being develops except in
response to its appropriate stimulus, and that the selfish
instinct, equally innate, may be so stimulated as to re-
press the ethical nature and leave it to atrophy and
perish altogether. It is, therefore, an absolutely essen-
tial condition of democracy that the ethical spirit shall
be aroused in the average citizen by appropriate stimula-
tion. This can not be left to haphazard influences. The
existing dominant influences are those which appeal to
selfish instincts. Modern individualism with its rule of
each for himself, has abnormally stimulated the spirit of
unscrupulous competition on the one hand or monopolis-
tic greed, on the other. It has repressed and atrophied
the sense of brotherhood and developed to an inordinate


extent the selfish impulses. Under these circumstancea
the faith in democracy is futile unless there is a syste-
matic appeal to the ethical spirit, the deliberate provision
of a soil in which it can grow. .

An Institution of Democracy Necessary

We are accustomed to say that social evolution has
reached the conscious stage, that we are advancing with
increasing momentum because w^e are intelligently shap-
ing social progress and not leaving it to the slow proces-
ses of nature, but what institutions are we shaping? Are
they those which will guarantee the systematic develop-
ment of the communal spirit? Rather we are now intensely
occupied in forging the tools of democracy — the direct
primary, the initiative, the referendum, the recall, the
short ballot, commission government. But in our enthu-
siasm we do not seem to be aware that these tools will be
worthless unless they are used by those who are impelled
by a sense of brotherhood. If the action of a democracy
is to be but the resultant of a clash of selfish interests, it
is hardly worth battling for. It can give at best, but a
negative good. The truth is that we have developed
everj^ kind of institution and every form of education
except the one fundamental kind of institution and form
of education upon which the very existence of democracy
depends. Every institution within the state, except the
public school, is more or less exclusive. The family, the
church, the political party, the social classes, the endless
social groups and organizations — commercial, industrial,
fraternal, narrowly social, — all are exclusive and have ex-
clusive interests. They can never develop the ethical spirit
as a commumty spirit, a spirit that transcends all
such bounds and feels that its supreme membership is iil
the whole community and that the greatest good is that
which may ba shared by every human being in the com-


The Present Public School Insufficient

The public elementary school, our only non-exclusive
institution, can not adequately meet the ethical demands
of democracy. Its limitations are too o-reat. One serious
limitation is the fact that it is confined to very immature
minds, with very narrow and very simple experience.
Another is that all school work is by necessity artificial,
isolated from life, even from the life of the family and so
abstract. The school, as such is not an ethical
community. It is not a democracy. It is an abso-
lute monarchy. It is an institution framed to furnish
every child witli some mastery of the fundamental tools
of civilized life, reading, writing, and the elements of
number and measure. Hence, no matter how excellent
the teaching- of the elementary school, it is utterly inade-
quate to develop the ethical attitude of the mature citi-
zen to the problems of the whole community. It is utterly
unable to fortify the child against the selfish appeals of
real life.

Democracy must have its distinctive institution for the
stimulation and development of the community spirit.
This institution must be free from limitations; it must ap-
peal to relatively mature minds dealing with the actual ex-
periences of community life. Furthermore it must be in
itself a realization of democracy, not merely non -exclu-
sive, but positively all inclusive, the one civic and social
institution co-extensive with the state which takes in
everybody solely by virtue of his living in the commun-
ity. The relation of this institution to the community
life as a whole must not be artificial or abstract, but vital,
exercising real initiative, dealing with actual problems
with a view to real betterment of community life. This
is the institution of the Social Center.


Movement Consciously Democratic

If Rochester has any lesson to teach regarding: the com-
munity use of school building's it is because the movement
in Rochester was from the very beginning consciously and
deliberately founded upon these principles, and its supreme
aim was to arouse and develop the ethical spirit of the
whole community. The movement was, therefore, in the
Ibroadest and most fundamental sense educational^ but it
was in no sense the establishing of a school or the exten-
sion of existing schools.

The most vital education, and preeminently the ethical
education, essential for citizenship can never be achieved
in the artificial atmosphere of a school. Hence the very
deepest purpose of the movement was to make each neigh-
borhood conscious of its civic functions and power, it was
to make real democracy conscious and bring it into action.
The idea was to establish in each community an institu-
tion having a direct and vital relation to the welfare of
the neighborhood, ward or district and also to the city as
a whole.

Neighborhood Civic Club Results

What was called the neighborhood civic club, composed
of adult citizens, of all classes, parties and shades of opin-
ion, was the very foundation stone of the whole move-
ment, and the first great lesson of the movement is that
such organizations became actualities, held their meetings
in school buildings, have had continuous existence for four
years; that they did actually develop the community spirit
in a most remarkable degree; and that they proved to be
capable of discussing in the spirit of fairness and good
will questions involving the most extreme and radical dif-
ferences of opinion; they proved not only willing but eager

and insistent to hear both sides of the questions consid-


ered, and that they did not ' lose their heads" nor were
they "carried away" by radical utterances and appeals so
as to take any hasty or ill-considered action. Not a sin-
gle instance of such action can be cited in the history of
some twenty civic clubs in as manj^ different neighborhood
school building's. On the contrary, on their initiative
notable contributions to the welfare of the neighborhoods
and to the whole city have been made. It was this spirit
which profoundly inspired Governor Hughes and led him
to say, on the occasion of the second anniversary of the
first civic club, I am more interested in what you are do-
ing here than in anything else in the world. You are
buttressing the foundations of eiemocracy." There are a
multitude of lesser witnesses who will testify that the
atmosphere of these clubs and their associated activities
gave them a wholly new revelation of community spirit,
that here they felt for the first time the wonderful thrill
of human brotherhood actually realized. The intensity of
this feeling was illustrated by a prominent visitor from
Buifalo who remarked as he came out of a meeting, * I
feel as if I had been in a religious revival."

Free Discussion Modifies Radical Opinion

As the movement developed certain very significant
phases appeared. One of the most interesting was the in-
fluence of free and fair discussion upon radical opinion.
One of the most extreme socialists in the city publicly
stated that his views had been seriously modified by the
discussions in the civic clubs. Many others gave similar
testimony. This result is the more surprising because it
was feared by many that tfeese free centers of public dis-
cussion would be seized upon and controlled by radicals
and extremists, and because radical opinion was freely
expressed, opponents of the movement charged that they
were so controlled, but no action of Siuy civic club ever


gave the sligfhtest foundation for such a charge. On the
contrary, the net result of the movement was to modify
extreme opinion and bring it into line with rational prog-

The movement vindicated the opinion that the average
man is a conservative or moderate progressive, and will
take only one step at a time in the path of progress.

Another most interesting side-light was the fact that
the most congested quarter of the city, with a large foreign
element in the population, and judged by conventional
standards, lacking in education, culture and material well-
being, proved to be thoroughly responsive to the civic
spirit and it was a common remark of the ablest speak-
ers at civic clubs that they did not find in the Twelfth
Ward with its wealth and culture and large number of so-
called "best citizens" anything like the civic spirit and
breadth of view that was found in District No. 9 whieK
was the most congested quarter of the city.

All Classes of Citizens Get Together

Several of these Clubs had such border line locations
that they gave a practical demonstration of the fact that-
all classes of the citizenship could work together with-
out a trace of class distinction.

There was nothing in the experience of these clubs which
so impressively brought home the lesson of real democracy,
as the appearance of public officials in response to their-
invitations to explain their policies, their acts and the
methods of operation of their departments. There was
such fall opportunitj^ for questions and answers as resulted
in illuminating for the average man the whole field of their
work, and made him a much more intelligent and sympa-
thetic critic of public officials. It vitalized for both official
and citizen the theory that the officials were reallj^
servants and not masters and exploiters of the people.


Non-Partisan Political Headquarters

Equally effective in a different way was the method by
which these clubs niade use of a political campaign. They
invited able representatives of the various parties to pre-
sent on different occasions to a non-partisan body in a
calm and dispassionate way, their reasons for their politi-
cal faith. Nothing could more effectively emancipate the
average man from a blind and narrow partisanship born
of tradition and prejudice.

The Distinctive Mark of the Rochester Movement

I dwell thus upon the life and functions of the neigh-
borhood civic club because it is the corner stone of all
that is distinctive in the Rochester movement. It means
that our public school buildings, consecrated to educa-
tion, may become the instruments of that deepest and
most fundamental education upon which the very existence
of democracy depends. This use gives depth, seriousness,
purpose, and unity to every subordinate use. All other
olubs, the special women's clubs, the young men's clubs,
the girls' and the boys' clubs are inspired and shaioed by the
spirit and ideals of the neighborhood civic club, and for
this reason they too become schools of the community
spirit. They are recreational and educational in many
other respects as well, but the civic spirit gives unity and
purpose to the whole. This gives all its real initiative
and power to the movement because it takes it up into the
very life and purpose of democracy.

Other Uses of Social Center Valuable

I do not wish to be misunderstood. Without the civic
■club the Social Center is well worth while. Its possibility
of certain kinds of good to the community is inestimable.
Apart from the civic club every school building should be


a neighborhood club house. No one could possibly esti-
mate too highly the need in every neighborhood for a pub-
lic place of wholesome recreation, social intercourse, phy-
isical development, and the opportunity to combat the aw-
ful ignorance of the j)roper conditions of wholesome living
and social well-being through lectures by competent per-
,sons. These ends are amply sufficient to justify this con-
vention, and support an increasing and widening agitation
till every school building in this country is suitably
•equipped and open for this purpose w^ithout any other
paj^ment by tbose who wish to use it than the public taxes
to which all self-supporting persons necessarily contribute
•directly or indirectly through the cost of living. I have
seen a neighborhood of working people, characterized by
vicious moral standards, chiellj" because its young work-
ing men and women were driven to the streets and dance
halls for recreation, undergoing complete transformation
because the young men and women were permitted to use
the school building under wise, friendlj^ supervision and
thus provided the wholesome recreation and the powerful
moral impulse they sorely needed.

But Citizens' Organization Essential for

I only insist that while the Social Center may be an
inestimable good, it makes no necessary contribution to the
problem of democracy unless it is also a civic center de-
veloping the consciousness of communal responsibility
and power. The Social Center may be an inestimable good
granted to the people or provided for them, but it
may not mean anything done by the people. New York
'City does a great deal for the people in its recreation
■centers, but there is practically nothing done by
the people. If New York City had real neighborhood
<3ivic clubs in every school building, a new charter would


not be wepared V)y a handful of men and then pre-
sented to the legislature Avithout even saying by-your-leave
to the people who were to live under it.

What I wish to insist upon is that the neighborhood
civic club as embodying the spirit of real democracy is in
my judgment Rochester's great contribution to the prob-
lem of the use of school buildings by the people. If
Rochester's Social Centers have had a unique enthusiasm,
and vitality, if they have gotten a unique hold upon the-
community, as I believe they have, it is because they have
been also genuine civic centers inspired fundamentally by
the civic spirit. No Social Center can meet the present
crisis in the history of democracy without an organiza-
tion open to all voters of the neighborhood, and feeling
the ultimate responsibility of citizenship for the securing:
of the common welfare. An organization in which every
narrower interest of sect or partj" or class is swallowed up-
in the consciousness that the interests of the whole com-
munity are supreme, and that the effort to realize them in
the spirit of brotherhood is the supreme function and the
supreme satisfaction of citizenship.

The Rise of Opposition

These experiences gave the movement an increasing holdl
upon the steadily growing number of people who came
within its influence. The best possible test of this 'hold""
was its power to meet and resist opposition. This oppo-
sition was intelligently focused upon the very nerve of the-
movement, the free discussion of the civic club. It de-
veloped early and took various forms. One form was the
quiet effort of political forces to take possession of civic
clubs in their very beginning by dominating the initial
citizens' meeting. Another was the sensational exploita-
tion in the newspapers of the one or two cases of hasty or

ill-considered remarks of speakers, and the exaggeration.


and distortion of any unusual incident, however innocent
or trivial, in a way to excite prejudice and g-ive an unfa-
vorable impression. Another was the charge that the So-
cial Centers were centers of socialistic propaganda because
socialists were given equal opportunity with others to pre-
sent their side of questions under consideration. All these
methods of attack were unavailing except as thej^ aroused
the prejudices of many who did not know the facts.

Opposition Strikes at Appropriation

The last resort was to strike at the appropriation and
attempt to influence the authorities to cut it out of the an-
nual budget before the movement should gather irresisti-
ble headway. A crisis came regarding the third annual
appropriation, and a determined effort was made to defeat
it; but the movement was already so deeply rooted and the
authorities were so flooded with petitions, committees, res-
olutions, and protests from those who had felt the power
and who saw the significance of Social Centers that the
officials were obliged to yield and make provision for an-
other year. The amount appropriated, however, was not
enough to pay the salaries of the force of directors, club
organizers, librarians and gymnasium instructors for the
full season. When the Board of Education announced to
this staff of workers that through shortage in the appro-
priation the season would be shortened, every man and
woman engaged in this public service offered to, and
actually did, give without compensation this work for the
city, so that the Social Centers might be kept open and
running, to the end of the regular season.

Such enthusiasm on the part of the staff of supervisors
and directors backed by such a flood of popular approval
in the communities in which Social Centers had developed,
would seem irresistible and resort was had to a shifting
of accounts in the tax budget. The approi>riation for


the wider use of the school plant had been made as a sep-
arate fund put into the hands of the School Board and en-
tirely distinct from the regular educational fund. Now
this fund was simply merged with those for other pur-
poses so that it was not known till too late that the ap-
propriation for social centers had been cut down.

Success in restoring the appropriation must depend
wholly upon the initiative and leadership of the federated
civic clubs and the public sentiment they are able to
bring to bear upon the present administration.

Social Center Rallying Word of Community

Meantime the energy and persistence of the civic spirit
which centers in this movement is the greatest hope for
the future in our community. It is the one rallying point
for the democratic spirit which is bound sooner or later to
triumph in its determination to restore power to the
people. I do not know vrhether the particular form of
organization which I have described as a neighborhood
civic club will prove to be permanent in our own or any
other community, but I am profoundly convinced that
unless this or something like this can be given the per-
manence of a settled institution, democracj^ as a perma-
nent and effective form of government will be but the end
of the rainbow of humanity's great hope and age-long:
effort, ever receding as we advance.

Faith in Democracy Increased

In any case the movement in Rochester has increased

our faith in the common man; it has demonstrated that if

he seems selfish, it is because he lives under conditions

which bring no incentive but to look out for himself. It

has shown most strikingly that the ethical-social spirit


within him springs to life and power in response to the
quickening influence of the community challenge, and fin-
ally that he finds his greatest satisfaction in the expres-
sion of that spirit in action and is, in association with his
fellows, our only hope of a trustworthy, final court of
appeal for the realization of justice and progress in human



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Online LibraryGeorge Mather ForbesLessons learned in Rochester with reference to civic and social center development; → online text (page 1 of 1)