In modern schools, teachers prepare students for success in the job market and their roles in the economy. But the approach was a bit different at the Depression-era Arthurdale Community School.

That approach, which focused on the student’s future role in democracy, is the subject of a new book by Sam Stack, an education historian at WVU.

“They were told to work for the benefit of the common good, not just the benefit of myself,” said Stack. 

That approach was developed by Eleanor Roosevelt and several leading educators as a way to combat the “survival of the fittest” mentality and alienation that occurred in Depression-era coal camps. The school itself served as the core of Arthurdale, the nation’s first New Deal community. 

“Through the community school, and the development of the community itself, we could fight that alienation, and one way we could do it is by helping these people understand who they are,” said Stack. 

Though the Arthurdale school is now defunct, historians argue some of its contributions still exist in schools around the country. Students at the Arthurdale School learned by doing, not by reading text books and taking tests. 

“Most people learn what they are really interested in,” said Jeanne Goodman, executive director of Arthurdale Heritage Inc. “So, ‘OK, what are you really interested in? The school will teach you that.’ Then, of course, you learn all this other stuff sideways, unaware that you’re actually learning at a much greater depth.”

The progressive education experiment in Arthurdale was short-lived. The school joined the Preston County School District just three year’s after it was founded.

But Stack believes educators throughout the state should still consider the school’s unique approach when planning their curricula. 

“I do think we can create and devise curriculum that connects better with kids, so they understand why they’re there and what you’re trying to teach them,” said Stack. “I think good teachers understand that.”

The book is available for purchase at the Arthurdale Heritage Museum.