SALEM, Ohio — When the Smith-Hughes Act passed in 1917, about 70 percent of the U.S. population lived in rural areas and a typical farmer was able to feed only four other people.
Schools were boring, they taught Latin and things that students couldn’t apply to their rural lifestyle, said Dr. Gary Moore, professor emeritus at North Carolina State University and agricultural education historian.
“Students dropped out after elementary school because they didn’t see the value,” he said.
Smith and Hughes
Two men from Georgia changed this for the better. U.S. Sen. Hoke Smith and Rep. Dudley Hughes and others worked together to put a bill before Congress to federally fund and nationally organize vocational education.
Many community leaders supported the bill.
“We need to abandon the cut and dried formula of a period when a man was ‘educated’ only when he knew Greek or Latin,” said Henry Wallace, editor of Wallace’s Farmer in 1905.
School officials agreed.
“Along with the study of the kangaroo, the bamboo and the cockatoo, why not study the animals of the farm?” said O.J. Kern in 1904, the superintendent of schools in Winnebago County, Illinois.
The act was officially signed into law Feb. 23, 1917.
It created a federal board for vocational education, employing national supervisors. The act funded teacher training and, in some states, paid teacher salaries.
“Before 1917, there were a handful of agricultural programs in each state, but this was the first federal level funding to bring funds to the local level,” said Kevin Keith, National FFA Organization team leader of local program success.
More than agriculture fits under this heading, he added. If Smith-Hughes didn’t exist, technology programs, family and consumer science and business classes wouldn’t exist either.
The act allowed schooling to be interesting and applied, and, in return, more students graduated high school, said Moore
“This upward trend in secondary education increased worker productivity and fueled American economic growth,” he added.
Today, 93 percent of high school students are exposed to CTE education, according to a Association for Career and Technical Education fact sheet.
Nationally, more than 650,000 students are enrolled in agricultural education and the average farmer feeds 155 people.
“One could logically say the Smith-Hughes Act was responsible for creating the FFA,” said Moore, explaining the act was responsible for hiring federal supervisors and they were instrumental in creating the FFA.
At the time the legislation was approved, many believed the federal government should not mingle in the states’ education standards, said Moore, who taught agricultural education at the secondary and post secondary level for 47 years.
“If this view had prevailed and the Smith-Hughes Act had not been enacted, then it is logical that other federal education legislation like Title IX and other such legislation wouldn’t exist today,” he said.
Ohio State centennial
Ohio State University’s Department of Agricultural Communication, Education, and Leadership was founded in 1917 after the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act, to train the teachers for these vocational agriculture programs.
Beyond its original focus on agriculture teacher preparation, the department has expanded its mission to include Extension education, agricultural communication and community leadership.
National celebration. At the 2016 National FFA Convention, the Smith-Hughes anniversary celebration launched with a presentation of a gavel, made from wood from the Dudley Hughes plantation, to the national FFA president by a Georgia delegate.
This presentation mimicked an annual presentation, from 1930-1940, which took place at the convention.
At this year’s National FFA Convention and Expo, a gavel with again be presented and a video shown on the significance of the act.
The act was first replaced in 1963 by the Vocational Education Act and more recently, by the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006.
The Perkins Act provides around $1.3 billion in federal support for career and technical education programs, including support for career pathway type programs.
“An antiquated view of agriculture still exists; people think ‘dumb farmers,’” Moore said. “I love to share, yes it (agricultural education) does still exists, alive and well, and we are planning for the future.”
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