The story of the evolution of progressive education owes its debts to a woman from Vermont, who embodied the type of education that she later championed.
Evalyn Cora Bates was born in Williamstown, Vermont in 1916 to Vermont subsistence farmers, was the middle-born of five children, and grew up on a farm which is now the site of the East Hill Theater in East Calais, Vermont.
In the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, her family was devastated by the loss of their eldest child, a son, followed two years later by the loss of their second son to spinal meningitis. The three remaining children—all girls—helped with the farm work, but they were never expected to take over the family farm as the male children were.
Evalyn was identified early on by her teachers as exceptional, graduated a year early from East Calais Elementary School and attended the Montpelier Seminary as a boarding student, with her tuition paid by produce and milk from the family farm, graduating in 1933.
In 1936, she graduated from Goddard Junior College, which Goddard’s founding president Royce “Tim” Pitkin ran as a division of Goddard Seminary in Barre. While there, she worked as secretary to Pitkin.
In 1938, against the backdrop of profoundly troubling attacks on democracy in Europe, Tim Pitkin described the challenges facing the nation, the world and our educational system when he said, “We are in need of a more intelligent thinking citizenry. What are we going to do about it?”
As we now know, Goddard College was his answer.
And later that year, Goddard became a four-year college, founded on the former Greatwood Farm – one of Plainfield’s largest farms in the 19th century – soil that has been the ground of so many experiments in living and learning as the traditional homeland of the Abenaki People. And it was here that Evalyn Bates joined a small group of people who directed their vision, creativity and energy toward getting that new four year college enterprise off the ground.
In 1943, Evalyn became one of the first two graduates of Goddard College.
Evalyn graduated from a four-year college during wartime, at a time when the roles of American women shifted briefly but radically, and dramatically, to become central figures in the maintenance and functioning of our national economy. Line operators, decision-makers, mechanics, laborers, healers, nurturers. Their work ultimately changed the landscape around which American women defined themselves decades later.
How had her education at this moment in American history informed the questions driving her academic work?
Like all Goddard students, she was challenged to answer fundamental questions about her life and her experience. Her response had a resounding effect–upon Goddard as we know it today, upon American education itself. Evalyn envisioned the model of Adult learning- The Adult Degree Program.
Given the current crisis in American education and the challenges we face as a nation, Goddard brings a perspective on education that is needed, now more than ever. We hear it all the time: Our system of education is broken.
As a nation, we have become more concerned with teaching than we are with learning. We teach to the test and celebrate learning the right answers rather creating learning environments in which people figure out how to ask good questions. We continue to revere canons of what to know instead of paying attention to how people actually learn.
Years ago, Evalyn Bates came to understand what is wrong with this model. And it was her understanding that defined a new learning model, one that changed the landscape of American education. She created a place – Goddard College – where people come to be uprooted and transformed, not simply educated, a space and a place that invites people to grow and learn in partnership with the local communities in which they live and work.
Her story defines the Goddard story of progressive education in its fullness.
During his 1943 Commencement speech Tim Pitkin said that Evalyn’s senior study on adult education took her “into the community and resulted in a removal of the barriers that ordinarily separate the school from real life. In a very real sense the social environment has been her laboratory, and she has set a standard for achievement that is worthy of emulation by the long line of students that we hope will succeed her.”
And in the arc of Evalyn’s story, her 1957 graduate thesis was the first clear articulation of a low-residency, adult education program. In 1963 the nation’s first Adult Degree Program was founded here at Goddard as a result of both her vision and model of learning that was relevant to her own experience, a model that asked her – as it does of all Goddard students – what it was that she most wanted to know. This model that has since been adopted by higher education institutions nationwide.
In Evalyn’s own words, “Goddard was one of the few places that took seriously the idea that adult college students could make their own minds up about what they wanted to do.”
This is what students have always had the freedom to do at Goddard.
We honor the vision and scholarship of Evalyn Bates, and the indelible mark she left that defines us as a life-long learning college and community.
Evalyn Bates was awarded a posthumous degree of Doctorate of Humane Letters, honoris causa in 2013. The diploma is a visible symbol of Evalyn Bates’s membership in Goddard’s esteemed society of scholars, entitling Evalyn Bates to all its rights and privileges.
This article has been adapted from a speech given by former Goddard president Dr. Barbara Vacarr at the award ceremony for Evalyn Bates in October 2012.