Culture Clash and Accommodation
Frederick S. Buchanan

A Centennial Perspective

[p.286]Public schools mirror the societies that maintain them, however much we would wish otherwise. Although reformers have over the years tried to make schools shape the “good society,” their efforts have been frustrated by the inescapable fact that schools tend to follow, rather than precede, social and cultural change. Consequently, when Salt Lake City harbored a relatively hegemonic Mormon society, the schools tended to reflect that community Even if the textbooks were essentially the same as those used throughout the nation (e.g., the McGuffey Readers), the fact that almost all students and teachers were Mormons shaped the climate of the district schools and gave them the appearance, if not always the content, of Mormon parochial schools. As closely tied as these schools were to their environment, the changes that occurred in Mormonism during the last two decades of the nineteenth century (making it more mainstream in its perspectives on marriage, politics, and economics) were also reflected in the kind of schools that served the Mormon communities. As John S. McCormick has observed: “Salt Lake became less and less isolated, and its population became more and more diverse, subjecting the kingdom to increasing stresses and strains. The inevitable conflicts intensified, until towards the end of the century, the Mormons were forced to accommodate themselves at last to the realities of mainstream America.”1

One of those “realities”—a veritable touchstone of “true Americanism”—was the notion of free, tax-supported public schools. The Mormon church opposed the establishment of these schools initially because they saw them as a threat to Church dominance. And in a very real sense, the non-Mormons supported them for the same reason: with public schools functioning throughout Utah, or so the rhetoric held, Mormonism’s grip on its people would be weakened. Public schools would, it was believed, accomplish what years of Protestant missionary work had failed to do. This was a typical American perspective on the power of schools to correct what ails society; in this case America would be “cured” of Mormonism by having Mormon children attend public schools.

For almost three decades following the establishment of public schools in Salt Lake City (1890-1920) there was a clash between those who demanded a free secular school system, with no formal church influence, and those who believed that if Salt Lake City were to have public schools they should serve and be shaped by the Mormon community In this clash the Free Masons played a prominent role and perceived themselves as duty-bound to keep the public schools from becoming an extension of the Mormon church. Within this volatile context, [p.287]the superintendents kept the schools on an even keel. Each was a capable executive officer; three of them were “outsiders” and not members of the dominant faith: Jesse F. Millspaugh, Frank B. Cooper and Ernest A. Smith. The lone Mormon during this period was D. H. Christensen. He and Millspaugh, a Congregationalist, were perhaps most responsible, by virtue of their long tenure, political savvy, and high degree of professionalism, for keeping the schools from being completely submerged in the heavy swell of politics that surrounded every school board election. Smith was apparently inundated by it.

As McCormick notes, the Latter-day Saints were “forced to accommodate” themselves to the new realities. But in doing so they effectively blunted the school as an instrument of change and sought to turn it to their own purposes as an instrument of reproducing the community that supported it. An obvious way to do this was to hire only locally trained teachers—the very opposite of the policy followed in the 1890s when “outsiders” outnumbered “insiders.” This strategy succeeded so well that by 1914 a national survey team criticized the elementary school teacher corps as being too inbred. Nowhere was the intent of having Mormon teachers dominate the schools more clearly stated than by David O. McKay, LDS Commissioner of Education, when he proposed to the Church Board of Education the active recruitment of Mormon teachers for Utah’s public school as a counter to the influence of non-Mormon teachers: “Now is the time to step right in and get teachers into these public high schools and eliminate the spirit which dominates the schools now.”2

Sometime in the 1920s a “gentlemen’s agreement” emerged between the Masons and Mormons. The Masons were assured control of district finances while the Mormons were assured the superintendency. Indeed, from the 1890s until the 1950s the Masons had a firm grip on the district’s finances through the office of the Clerk-Treasurer and from 1920 until 1973 all five superintendents (George N. Child, L. John Nuttall, Jr., Howard S. McDonald, M. Lynn Bennion, and Arthur C. Wiscombe) were members of the LDS church. During this period there was very little public wrangling over church-school entanglements. These appointments fulfilled, as far as the superintendency was concerned, what David O. McKay wanted for the public schools serving the Mormon community.

However, a larger set of educational interests transcended the local Mormon or Masonic communities. Salt Lake City’s schools became more mainstream than might have been expected. While certainly not bastions of radical progressivism (few American school districts were), the schools of Salt Lake City under the leadership of a variety of Mormon superintendents, with their roots deep in Utah’s religious culture, remained aware of the ebb and flow of national educational reforms. For example, in 1918 the National Education Association’s “Cardinal Principles of Education” helped shift the public school curriculum away from the traditional academic emphasis toward a more social-centered emphasis. [p.288]Within two years that shift began to be reflected in the Salt Lake District—at least in the published reports. When educational efficiency became the watchword in the late 1920s, George Child promoted it even to the point of reducing the years spent in school from twelve to eleven. Somewhat paradoxically, this “successful” reform was abandoned in the 1940s partly to recoup the loss of larger and heavier twelfth graders, which had put the city’s football teams at a disadvantage when they competed with non-city teams. Again, community values shaped the schools.

When the depression of the 1930s took the nation to the edge of despair, L. John Nuttall, Jr., modified school programs to provide young people with hope and opportunity. Eventually, a Vocational Center and Evening High School were established at West High providing a direct link between students and local businesses. The public schools’ responses to new social, economic, and political situations reinforces the idea that schools have almost no choice but to mirror their communities.

Demographic changes also place new demands on schools—some positive and some negative. For example, for M. Lynn Bennion the increase in a highly homogeneous population and the economic expansion after World War II made for an exciting and exhilarating professional experience. The system expanded and the perceived needs of the “cold war” funnelled additional funds and ideas into the schools. On the other hand, in the late 1960s and early 1970s Bennion’s successor, Arthur Wiscombe, felt nothing but uncertainty and pain when he faced a declining school population, a steady loss in school revenues, and consequent closure of schools as the city took on some of the characteristics of large urban centers. Wiscombe’s appeal to the historic Mormon sense of community led nowhere as he struggled to resolve the district’s social and economic problems.

Salt Lake City’s schools in the twentieth century were not avant garde, but neither were they in the backwater of public schooling. Given the conservative nature of the community, the schools were relatively progressive. In the 1970s M. Donald Thomas’s interpretation of “shared governance” (the idea of maximizing community involvement in the schools) put the district in the national spotlight as a model of shared governance. Ironically, although Thomas was the fourth non-Mormon to be superintendent, his success with shared governance was attributed by some observers to the way in which his leadership style dovetailed with the expectations of Mormon school patrons: although much local initiative was promoted, he was ultimately in charge. Nevertheless, there was widespread satisfaction with the increased community involvement in school governance during Thomas’s tenure.

As the Salt Lake City schools approached their centennial during the administration of John W. Bennion, they underwent as divisive and convulsive an event as they had ever experienced the combined closing of South High School and the related realignment of the boundaries of the other high schools: West, East and Highland. Nothing in the schools’ history came close to being as potentially divisive: not the election of a usually non-Mormon majority to the board from [p.289]1890 to 1940; not the small pox vaccination fracas of 1900; not the released-time seminary issue of 1943 or the ouster of Superintendent Arthur Wiscombe in 1973. Like six of his predecessors, Superintendent John Bennion was an active member of the Mormon community, but Salt Lake City had changed and his religious affiliation was irrelevant to the situation. New realities crowded in on the schools—the realities of a significant number of minority students; social class division; plummeting test scores among “at risk” students; the perception of weak programs; the pressure of state mandates in the efficient use of school buildings. The board was badly split on the issues, but no one ever mentioned religion as a factor: there were, in fact, committed Mormons on both sides. The ability and willingness of an earlier generation to accommodate to new legal and economic realities was replaced by a need to accommodate to the urbanization of “Mormon Country,” with all that implied for equality of opportunity and access to the American dream for an increasingly at risk school population of urban children.

Ironically, it was a similar aim which some of the early non-Mormon advocates of public schools had in mind in the 1880s as they struggled to establish public schooling in Utah. They then perceived Mormon children as being depraved by their exposure to the “evils” of Mormonism and therefore severely deprived of the opportunity to participate as citizens in the American Republic. In a century the aim had come full circle, with people of all persuasions now challenged to come to grips with the issues of poverty, urbanization, and ethnic diversity.

The motto adopted by Salt Lake City in its successful 1995 campaign to gain the Winter Olympics for the year 2002 was “The World is Welcome Here.” That notion is light years away from the fortress mentality of an earlier generation of Utahns, which saw its quasi-public schools as a bulwark against the “world.” Once again schools as the mirror image of society comes to mind. The society that lies ahead, for all the promise of technological sophistication, will not be less complex than the past, nor will its schools. In their second century, Salt Lake’s schools will be called upon to meet the challenges that the “world” will bring to the valley, a world in which the city now has a recognized place.

Hopefully Salt Lake City’s schools will meet these challenges with the same spirit of creative accommodation that led an earlier generation to accept the idea of free public schooling for all children, even though it meant giving up the use of schools to promote strictly Mormon aims. The public school cannot, of course, be a panacea for all society’s ills; but it still is called upon to help society at least address the problems of gangs, drugs, teen pregnancy, illiteracy, racism, and bigotry, as well as promote higher order thinking in all students across the curriculum. Given the nature of a pluralistic society, consensus on issues is difficult to achieve. In this sense “accommodation” is a necessary feature of a public school system that serves diverse interests, but whose parents, teachers, and administrators have the courage, energy, and vision to work together for the greater good and for the sake of the schools’ most important clients: children. John S. Welch, a Salt Lake teacher and administrator in the first decade of the twentieth [p.290]century, eloquently expressed the ideal of public service for children when he said:

At the altar of childhood where the eternities meet to sum up the past and preface the future I kneel in humble though blind adoration. I dedicate whatever of energy and strength; of insight and intellect; of integrity and fidelity of purpose, I may possess. To it I sacrifice personal ambition, social prestige, bodily welfare. In so doing I know that every thought through every deed is sown into some soul for seed.3

However faintly this ideal may be achieved in the real world of the schools, it is still at the heart of the public school idea and is still the credo which committed educators try to teach and live by. The need for such ideals is unlikely to diminish during the Salt lake District’s second century.


[p.286]1. John S. McCormick, Salt Lake City: The Gathering Place (Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, 1980), 31.

[p.287]2. General Board of Education of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Minutes, 3 Mar. 1920. Cited in James R. Clark, “Church and State Relationships in Education in Utah,” Ed.D diss., Utah State University, 1958, 269.

[p.290]3. Welch’s statement, entitled “My Creed,” was included in a memorial tribute paid to him by D. H. Christensen in 1910. See Twentieth Annual Report, 1910-11, 126.