Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ella Flagg Young: Portrait of a Leader

Copyright © 2002 José Cossa

A Book Review of Smith, J. K.  (1979).  Ella Flagg Young: Portrait of a Leader.  Ames, IA:  Iowa State University Research Foundation/Educational Studies Press.  This work was also reviewed in Journal of American History, American Historical Review, Educational Studies, Texas Tech Journal of Education, Chicago History, and Chicago Tribune.

The book is a biographical portrait of a woman leader in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century Chicago public school system.  Smith narrates the heroic story of Ella Flagg Young, a young lady born in Buffalo, New York, in 1845.  In terms of literary devices, the biography takes the form of an epic.  The narrative unfolds in an inverted “u-shape” in which the hero ascends to a position of high reputation through a series of struggles and accomplishments from her childhood to her adulthood and, after a period of success as superintendent and pioneer of a new movement in scholarship and educational reform, the hero faces political obstacles to her dreams and an ailment that would bring about an end to her career and progressive success.

The story presents the reader with moments of joy and sadness.  Ella was the youngest of three children and described as a ‘delicate sickly child’ with a high intelligence and motivation for learning.  Shortly after she turned 13 years-of-age, Ella and her family moved to Chicago and she was faced with new challenges in her educational experience such as entering high school, graduate studies, and simultaneously her professional odyssey.  Through a series of battles with the system, her innate ability to work with people, a humble persistence, and a high-level intelligence, Ella reached the position of the first woman Superindent of the public schools, in the history of Chicago.

Smith clearly, and emphatically, states her opinion of Mrs. Young in the preface of the biography by including that, “She [Ella] earned her own way through every step of the journey.” (p. xi).  In the preface Smith makes a strong appeal to her intended outcome – To convince the reader that Ella Flagg Young was a remarkable woman, educator, and leader.  In order to do ‘justice’ to this book, any critic must analyze it with this compulsion in mind!

When reading various historical sources, e.g., Encyclopedias, articles, and reports on Ella, one can easily agree with Smith’s emphasis on Ella’s qualities and role in the transformation of the Chicago public school system.  Smith makes no excuse for believing in the nobility of Ella’s qualities; however, such overemphasis on her gender may lead gender-sensitive readers to think of Smith as a promoter of feminist ideas or some sort of lobbying on behalf of women.  Such accusation would be sustained by Smith’s inclusion of the closing statement in the epilogue “There would be still another time in which to honor this lady who ‘had she been a man … would have directed a great corporation, managed a railroad, served as governor of a state, or commanded an army’.”  Although the statement is not originally Smith’s (see Smith, 1979, endnote 32, p. 263), it does authenticate and serve Smith’s purpose for writing this book.

Looking at Smith’s writing as feminist, or as siding with a similar movement, is not a light issue deriving from this biography.  It is evident from the book that Smith found little information about Ella mentioned in history books on American education and Smith posits that such lack of writings on Ella is evidence of the fact that educational historiography was male oriented.  However, Smith’s statement that historiography was male oriented, although it may be true, poses a problem of authenticity of Smith’s report, particularly because she negates to have premeditated knowledge of the outcome of her investigation when stating the following:

Because so little information was available, I could not guess when I began my own two-and-half year search through newspapers, minutes, annals, proceedings, and archives what I would think of Ella Flagg Young when I had concluded.  (p. xiii)

This review in no way would support the accusers of Smith as a feminist without further evidence.  Although her current staff as Dean of the College of Education at the University of Oklahoma is made of women, all that the reviewer knows about Smith is what is published in her online curriculum vitae (see and some of her published work, which seems profoundly academic.  It is possible that Smith’s emphasis on Ella’s womanhood and heroic achievements were simply a result of her (Smith’s) own experiences in education as a woman and the reality of the battles that most women undergo to reach a high rank in institutional leadership.  Unfortunately, by closing the book with an emotionally loaded statement on behalf of women, Smith makes herself vulnerable to critics of feminism and of all similar causes.

As a biography, the book presents a very good flow of events, which are in accord with Smith’s interest.  The structure and narrative are rather impressive to a first time reader, in particular.  Only those who have studied extensively about Ella’s life and achievements would be able to see the breaches in the biography.  There is accurate description of the time Ella lived and the events surrounding Ella, which served as her inspiration to fight her battles with zeal and commitment.  Ella’s encounter with male arrogance, a male dominated system of government and politics, and a world where the rendering of power and influence are based on gender and monetary income become evidently the driving force for Ella’s persistence to improve the conditions of education in the public school system.  The author highlights the fact that Ella gained reputation through hard work and faith in the course of history.  Ella’s humble and teachable attitudes were of great importance and Smith does infer such attributes of her heroine when briefly describing her relation with John Dewey and Harper (pp. 62-71).

Smith is only interested in the educational career of Ella and places great emphasis on her heroine’s achievements and leadership traits such as bravery, persistence, interpersonal relations, intellectual ability, integrity, a hunger for justice or equity, trust, a followers attitude, etc..  Although acknowledging that Smith does her best with the literature gathered for the biography, this review, however, would call for some questions of reflection to be asked of Ella’s participation in the politics of the time, particularly those related to the equitable integration of blacks and native Americans, in the Chicago public schools.  Considering that black people and native Americans (i.e., men, women, and children), more than white women, were under great exploitation and abuse, it would be more reasonable for a leader concerned with social and political equity to notice and act on behalf of such people, at least in regards to their integration in the public school system.

Some reviewers, e.g., Christie (1980) and Clifford (1980), have criticized Smith’s writing on the grounds that it lacks a realistic reflection of Ella.  Both Christie and Clifford accuse Smith of writing a biography that is poor in grammar quality and style.  Clifford (1980) stated the following about Smith’s work:

This is a conventional biography – innocent of revisionist or psycho biographical cant. It is awkwardly written, however, in slangy style with bothersome grammar. It adds little biographical detail to John T. McManis’s 1916 study of Young. Important personal information is lacking. We learn little more of her five-year marriage to William Young – an ailing, older family friend who soon went west, alone, and died there… Nonetheless this biography contributes to the historiography of education in the Progressive Era. Young emerges in heroic proportion, but her critics are heard from. She was severe, dominating, shrewd, stubborn, jealous of her power – traits not prized as feminine virtues in late Victorian America, but appropriate to a leader.  (Clifford, p. 727)

And, Christie (1980) posited the following:

Especially because Young’s papers are scanty and uninformative, the book needs more critical discussion of sources. A flatfoot style is marked by imprecise choice of words and by such jolting constructions… (Christie, p. 173)

The above reviewers seem to overlook the aim of the book.  However, they point out some aspects essential to a good biography.  Both reviewers acknowledge that the book would contribute to the historiography of American education and that the book would bring awareness to the person and role of Ella Flagg Young, a person often neglected in American education history (particularly in regards to the Chicago public schools).  In this regard, this review would agree with the abovementioned reviewers – We cannot overlook the outstanding contribution of Smith to the body of knowledge about a woman of courage and zeal, whose primary aim in life was to advance quality in the public school system.  Although after many years, and by the time when the biography was written in 1979, only one-sixth of school administrators were women (Christie, 1980, p. 173).  Smith does not mention the details of the impact of Ella’s influence in the number of women administrators perhaps because she is not concerned with statistics of women in Chicago school leadership over the years as she is interested in portraying and promoting the heroine in the fight against a male oriented historiography.

One intriguing fact in the book is that Smith presented Ella as some kind of super woman.  Smith stresses little emotional portrait of the heroine that would justify her being human.  It would be helpful to engage in describing her family relationship.  But, one may understand the fact that most records were lost in the great Chicago fire, which may have included insightful information about Ella’s response to the death of her loved-ones as well as other useful information for the biography.  This review suggests that, as a biographer, Smith’s duty was to present the person of Ella Flagg Young and to let the reader draw conclusions as to what lessons to learn, as well as to let the text speak to the reader without the author suggesting response of any sort.

Christie, J.  (June, 1980).  Ella Flagg Young: Portrait of a Leader [Review of the Book Ella Flagg Young: Portrait of a Leader].  Journal of American History, Volume 67, Issue 1, pp. 173-174.
Clifford, G. J.  (June, 1980).  Ella Flagg Young: Portrait of a Leader [Review of the Book Ella Flagg Young: Portrait of a Leader].  Journal of American History, Volume 85, Issue 3, p. 727.
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