Adapted from Educating Illinois: Illinois State University 1857-2007 by John Freed, Professor Emeritus ®
The mission of the College of Education at Illinois State reflects the words of the University’s second president, Richard Edwards, the second president of Illinois State (1862-76), who declared the preparation of teachers to be “the grandest of enterprises.”
In 1857, Illinois State Normal University (ISNU) was founded as a “normal” school for the purpose of training teachers to work in Illinois schools. The institution later evolved into a teachers' college and finally into the liberal arts university it is today.
When classes began on October 5, the University enrolled 43 students from all over the state. The school was temporarily housed in a modest structure described by its first principal, Charles Hovey, as “a tumble-down hall, tumbled-up on the top of a grocery house, at an out of the way corner, in the city of Bloomington.”
While a proper building was being built for ISNU, Hovey created one of the University’s two laboratory schools to serve as “living laboratories” for future teachers. The elementary school was named Thomas Metcalf School in 1912 after one of the most influential faculty members of ISNU. Five years later, University High School was established to serve students in grades nine through 12.
ISNU acquired a unique status in the 19th century, and in 1873, it was the largest such institution in the country. It was also the only public school in Illinois where students, especially women, could obtain a free liberal arts education; and unlike most normal schools, ISNU continued to attract men.
Many graduates of ISNU went on to become well-known educational leaders. For example, alumnus Charles DeGarmo, for whom the main College of Education building is named, went on to study the pedagogical theories of Johann Friedrich Herbart in Germany after graduating from ISNU in 1873. DeGarmo is credited with bringing revolutionary educational practices to elementary education; instead of the rote memorization that was popular at the time,
In the early 1900s, ISNU President David Felmley (1900–1930) recognized that most U.S. high school curriculums were focused solely on college-preparatory studies, and neglected the needs of students who could benefit from vocational curriculums. Under his leadership, the University began to train industrial arts, business, and agricultural teachers.
Felmley also advocated for ISNU to become a liberal arts college, and where appropriate, educate secondary school teachers seeking a bachelor’s degree in education. In 1907, ISNU became one of the first normal schools in the nation to offer a collegiate education.
Illinois State continued to lead the fight in the 20th century for greater educational opportunities. In spite of great opposition from the University of Illinois and little support from the other teachers colleges, ISNU, under the leadership of President Raymond Fairchild (1933–1955), became in 1944 the first institution in Illinois to offer graduate-level work for teachers. Later that year, ISNU also became the first school in the state to offer courses in special education, an area where the University has gained a national reputation for excellence.
Today, the College of Education has more than 40,000 living alumni and 24,000 graduates who are teaching in classrooms nationwide, making Illinois State one of the largest preparers of educators in the nation.
The mission and vision of our institution’s early leaders—Edwards, DeGarmo, Felmley, and Fairchild—may not have anticipated the footprints left by these kind of numbers. But surely, they knew the work of preparing educators was a grand enterprise.