Jane Addams & Hull House

Jane Addams & Hull House: A Landmark in Citizenship & English as an Additional Language Education

Portrait of Jane Addams

Jane Addams

Unlike the heroes seen earlier with the Bristol Schools; the Port Royal Experiment and the Moonlight Schools of Kentucky, Jane Addams and Hull House are still well known names. Not only was Jane Addams a leader in citizenship and EAL, but she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her life’s work with immigrants and her courageous efforts to mediate peace between the Allies and Germany during WW I.  A less known fact, she later stood (virtually alone) against the peace treaty that was forced on Germany in 1919. She insisted, “it was so humiliating that it would lead to a German war of revenge.”

But, at heart Jane Addams was an EAL practitioner–and a superb one. She was the founder of Hull House, perhaps the most famous of the Settlement Houses, during the national movement that sought to help the thousands of immigrants flooding into America in the late 19th and early 20th century. Her writing and speeches challenged a great many 19th century conventions, including challenges to the prevailing racism and prejudices towards immigrants and those living in poverty.

How Did She Come To Work With Immigrants & EAL?

Addams was born into a very wealthy family (Diliberto, 1999). In fact, her parents were friends with President Lincoln and many of the most influential families in America. She attended the Rockford Seminary near her family home in Northern Illinois and was encouraged by her teachers to follow a life of service to the poor. She read extensively and came to favor the “ideal of mingled learning, piety, and physical labor, more exemplified by the Port Royalists than by any others” (Ferris, 1943, pp. 198-199).

 Miss Bell and a Hull House citizenship class

She had had a sheltered upbringing, but when she went on an educational tour of Europe with other wealthy young ladies, she was shocked to see urban squalor and poverty first-hand in London’s East End, South Italy and parts of Austria. She ultimately rented a house in what was then the worst slum in Chicago–an area where immigrants lived in destitute poverty. Joined by her lifelong friend, Brenda Starr Gates, Addams took up residence in Hull House on September 18, 1889–a house belonging to the Hull family. The Hull House charter they created and hung over the door read: “To provide a center for a higher civic and social life; to institute and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises, and to investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago” (Linn, 1935, p. 110). Addams and Gates were joined by other dedicated women, including Julia Lathrop and Florence Kelley (Linn, 1935).

How to Begin?  “Why Not with Shakespeare?”

Just try to imagine this small group of wealthy, highly educated young women finding themselves in appalling living conditions—in an area with no city garbage pick up, no law enforcement what so ever, a place where children played with rats as pets, and where entire families were dying of diseases brought on by squalor.

So “Roll up our sleeves”…but where to start? Incredibly, perhaps, they chose to begin with discussions and reading groups for young women. They offered courses on Dante and Browning. They encouraged “other residents [to lead] Shakespeare and Plato clubs” (Bryan, Bair, De Angury, 2003, p. 549). The earlier blog installments in this series pointed to morality, salvation and “social uplift” as the underling purposes for literacy education. But, for Hull House, the initial objective was to spread “cultural literacy” with the liberal arts.

Interestingly, these wealthy young ladies were connected with some of Chicago’s wealthiest families. So, they decided to expose the conditions of the area to the wider public. They invited philanthropists, intellectuals, artists and politicians to visit Hull House. They started a Working People’s Social Science Club and had speakers such as John Dewey and Susan B. Anthony visit. They created a lending library of books and loaned framed photographs of master paintings, often delivering them to the tenement houses. They held a biannual exhibit of works of art while encouraging the “Chicago matrons . . . to loan artwork from their private collections” (Bryan, Bair, De Angury, p. 550).  Imagine the public awareness created when some “50,000 people . . .came to the House” the first year and “the second year the number increased to 2,000 per week” (Linn, p. 115). Part of this public interest was undoubtedly public “voyeurism,” but, nothing changed. Slowly, the  women of Hull House  turned to more immediate, pragmatic actions.

EAL through Life Skills & Vocational Training

Miss Bell and a Hull House citizenship class

EAL teacher Miss Bell and a Hull House citizenship class

In what might be called, “Phase Two,” art classes were transformed into craft-making courses. A book bindery workshop was attempted.  Dressmaking courses and millinery courses were established. A Boy’s Club was opened with shops to teach “wood work,  iron, and brass,…copper and tin work.” They added classes in “commercial photography, printing, telegraphy, and electrical construction” (Lagemann,1985, p. 179). A public kitchen to teach cooking American meals was opened (but it failed because the immigrants simply didn’t like American food).

Learning English and citizenship moved from culture literacy to English for everyday survival. The Hull House women helped with everything from birthing to helping wash and prepare the dead for burial. But  these efforts too came to be seen as inadequate to the task.  And this is where their story diverges from so many of history’s—and today’s—many individualistic approaches towards to EAL and adult literacy education.  The women of Hull House turned to social reform.

 Citizenship through Social Reform

Addams and her colleagues came to see how power rested in the hands of a small number of Chicago’s wealthiest. At that time in Chicago, the very suggestion of a “mere” eight-hour work day for adults and children “was connected in the minds of many employers not only with laziness but directly with anarchy, the blackest word in the vocabulary of the governing minority” (Linn, 1935, p. 101). Children of all ages worked as labourers. “Days off” and holidays were rare. Wages were what the “captains of industry” decided they should be. Brenda Starr Gates and Addams began demonstrating for union rights. Addams later fought for women’s suffrage and went on to become the first woman president of the National Conference on Social Work. She became the founder and first president of the National Federation of (Immigrant) Settlements and then on to become National Chair of the Women’s Peace Party. Then on to become the president and co-founder of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Addams and Hull House are actually credited with helping initiate the original Factory Acts so the youth of America would no longer be exploited. The introduction of social services in North America is often credited to Jane Addams and Hull House. As Davis (1973) has stated: “Jane Addams never became a radical in religion, in economics or in politics, but she did become a social reformer, a defender of organized labor, and she did come to believe that her main task was to eliminate poverty rather than to comfort the poor [emphasis added]” (p. 74).

Jane Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her life’s work and for her courageous stand against World War II and her fight against what she saw as an unjust peace agreement with Germany.

She died in Chicago at age 74 following a heart attack. One of the greatest champions of the poor and oppressed in America’s history, Jane Addams devoted her life to creating  greater equality for all; but the consistent tool she advocated for and employed throughout her life’s work was English as an Additional Language.

What is the Relevance of this Story Today?

There are many points we could pursue, but two come immediately to mind:

  1. The Role of Women: Sadly, it is often overlooked that the allied fields of English as an Additional Language, adult literacy, and adult basic education have a long history of women teachers and administrators. Women have not only taken leadership roles but, quite literally, have been the mainstay of this field for over a century. In fact, had the countless women–including Jane Addams, her colleagues, and women such as Cora Wilson Stewart–not stepped forward, the shockingly high numbers of adults and children we see today with inadequate literacy skills across North America would be much, much higher (Luttrell, 1996; Quigley, 1997).
  1. EAL & Literacy for What Purpose? The story of Hull house continues to raise the question of what the underlying purpose of adult literacy and EAL “should be”?  The debate goes on in the literature, at conferences, and in daily practice (Quigley 1997; 2007); but there are clear themes in our history. These matter if we are to understand where we came from and where we are going. In the 19th century, the prevailing values of morality and the economy were explicitly reflected in the Bristol School Movement. In the early 20th century, we saw how Cora Wilson Stewart built the hugely influential Moonlight School movement around normative values of good-citizenship and, morality. By philosophical contrast, Rev. Richardson with the Port Royal Experiment, which was conducted during the civil war in the U.S., was about equality and justice for the freed slaves and about trying to educate Northerners that the Freedmen could in fact learn. And with the “three philosophical phases” seen with Jane Addams and the women of Hull House; from a pedagogy of liberal/cultural education, to a vocational and life skills approach, to a struggle for social reform and human rights, we see three distinctly different approaches to what we do today across North America.

Evelyn Battel, writing in the B.C. action research study, Hardwired for Hope, framed this on-going “purposes debate” saying adult literacy educators are of two types: “nurturers” or “political activists.” Perhaps, but the Hull House story would argue that there is a third approach; a “Vocational & Life Skills” approach.

I have written elsewhere on the “competing philosophies” of adult literacy education (Quigley, 1997) but will end with a question—one that continually comes to mind as I look back on my own career and the history of our field: “Why aren’t our learners’ voices more central to our pedagogical decisions?” Do researchers, curriculum writers, administrators, policy-makers and funding agencies really know what’s best for our adult learners? The mainstream adult education literature has long argued for andragogy—whereby adult learners are encouraged to be partners in deciding what they “should” learn and how they should learn it (Knowles, 1980).

What do you think the purpose of adult literacy should be, and who should decide what for whom? An interesting point for discussion…

Stay tuned..


Bryan, Bair, De Angury (2003). The selected papers of Jane Addams, Vol. 1. Chicago: University Press.

Davis, A.F. (1973). American heroine: The life and legend of Jane Addams. New York: Oxford University Press.

Diliberto, G. (1999). A useful woman: The early life of Jane Addams. New York: Scribner.

Ferris, H. (1943). When I was a girl: The stories of five famous women told by themselves. New York: The Macmillan Co.

Knowles, M. (1980). The modern practice of adult education. New York: Cambridge.

Lagemann, E. C. (Ed.). (1985). Jane Addams on education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Linn, J. W. (1935). Jane Addams: A biography. New York: D. Appleton-Century Co.

Luttrell, W. (1996). Becoming somebody in and against school: Toward a Psychocultural theory of gender and self making. In B. Levinson, D. Foley, D. Holland (Eds.). The cultural production of the educated person. New York: State University of New York Press.

Quigley, B. A. (1997). Rethinking adult education: The critical need for practice-based change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Diliberto, G. (1999). A useful woman: The early life of Jane Addams. New York: Scribner.

Ferris, H. (1943). When I was a girl: The stories of five famous women told by themselves. New York: The Macmillan Co.

Lagemann, E. C. (Ed.). (1985). Jane Addams on education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Linn, J. W. (1935). Jane Addams: A biography. New York: D. Appleton-Century Co.

Quigley, B. A. (2006). Building professional pride in literacy. Malabar FL: Krieger Press.

Quigley, B. A. (1997). Rethinking adult education: The critical need for practice-based change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Next Month Is Frontier College

The April blog vignette takes us to a very different approach to adult literacy—an approach where learners are not expected to come to our classrooms according to our institution’s scheduled times. Instead, Frontier College reached out to adult workers across Canada’s frontiers. And still does today. So tune in next month as we look at our nation’s oldest, award-winning and probably best known adult literacy organization.  

Make a difference.

Dr. Allan Quigley & the SARN Team

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