The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1972, Volume 18, Number 2
James E Moss, Editor

By Peter Mehren

Images from the Article

In San Diego, as in other American cities during the Depression of the 1930s, there were unemployed artists, craftspeople, writters, researchers, and other “White collar” workers. In many cities they were assigned to the WPA Federal Arts Projects. In San Diego, however, a few imaginative and progressive educators drew upon these talented, unemployed people to meet new demands on the public school system. Their wages paid by the “New Deal” WPA, these artists, writers, clerical workers and others were the City Schools Curriculum Project, a WPA unit entirely separate from the Federal Arts Project Writer’s Project, or any other WPA project. This project not merely employed dozens of workers, it also gave San Diego’s schools many valuable audio-visual instructional aids; and it helped create and strengthen an attitude towards teaching which has benefited San Diego public school students and teachers to the present day.

The project helped implement “the new education” which holds that the object of education is to train children to meet successfully the life of today, not life as it was when school texts were formed and solidified into the type that finally brought on the golden age of post-war youths’ rebellion.1

Educational systems within the United States seem unable to evolve, to adapt steadily and progressively. Instead they jerk forward traumatically, then settle until conditions demand another drastic change. That is one of the reasons that over-cautious businesses fade and are swallowed by their progressive competitors. Because there are no competitors for most public schools — except truancy — the systems feel less strongly the necessity to adapt to social and intellectual changes.

In 1934, however, conditions throughout the United States were such that a few San Diego educators were able to convince people to let them try innovations. San Diego’s educational system, which would produce the citizens, the new members of the labor force, could not defend the status quo in the face of potential revolution. These teachers and administrators helped create a project which related the curricula in San Diego’s public schools to the “here and now” needs, demands, and problems of the students.

In 1934 Dr. Jay D. Conner was the director of elementary education in the San Diego city school system. He told the story of the specific incident which stimulated him to begin the creation of this project: He was visiting the buildings under construction for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition. Walking with a contractor, he saw, carrying a hod, a man who was famous as a magazine writer. Conner asked the contractor if the worker was in fact the author, and his friend verified it, noting the pity of the skilled writer having to do manual labor, but asking “what else is there for him to do in these depression days?” Conner later recalled:

The sight of that brilliant writer toiling at unaccustomed labor in Balboa Park set me to wondering how many other craftsmen of his type were jobless in San Diego. A survey revealed that we had enough writers, sculptors, painters, natural scientists, and other
craftsmen to try an educational experiment — the production of authentic material about San Diego and its environs.

Conner took his idea to Will C. Crawford, superintendent of San Diego schools, and received enthusiastic agreement. Obviously the personnel was available, and certainly these potential educational workers would be anxious to return to the tasks for which they had trained, the creative labors which they loved. The main task, then, was to find financial backing. Conner and Crawford presented their ideas to the California State Emergency Relief Administration, “with the result that within six months, the project was in actual operation.”

“For years we in the San Diego school system had been vainly searching for some means of making practical the modern philosophy of the ‘here and now’ as the proper starting point for all educative experience.” Now, with Martha Farnum, a San Diego teacher, as director of the project, and Martha K. McIntosh, another San Diego teacher, as co-ordinator between the project and the schools, Conner was able to determine and present to the students — and to their teachers — the “here and now” of education in San Diego.2

Dr. Robert Burgert, who retired in the summer of 1971 as director of the media section of the San Diego school system, was a teacher in a San Diego elementary school when the project was developing. Looking back at it he said that its most important contribution was not any specific product, but was the multi-media concept, and the idea of approaching an educational goal with as many instructional aids, as many different tools, as was necesary or possible. Most “audio-visual centers” were little more than film libraries; and in most school systems there existed “an invisible diaphragm between libraries and audio-visual centers.” The San Diego project broke with both of these patterns, creating a rich variety of instructional aids and closely integrating the use of the printed word with other educational tools. Recognizing that the new tools, the new techniques, even some of the new subjects being presented, would quite possibly be unfamiliar to the system’s teachers, the project created guides to help the teachers, and eventually was influential in the creation of summer workshops at which teachers could work together to develop new tools and methods, and to evaluate and refine old ones. Other school systems in the United States and abroad saw San Diego’s new approaches and successes, and adopted and adapted the San Diego project to fill their own needs. “Horizontally” and “vertically” — in other places at the same time and in San Diego since the WPA days — the Curriculum Project was of major importance in suiting public education to the actual needs of the citizens — students, teachers, and the general public — and of breaking educational techniques out of out-dated patterns.3

One of the earliest newspaper articles about the project, on 5 November 1934, noted that “a visual and manual education project, to teach school children industrial and civic facts concerning San Diego, will be undertaken in city schools this week by the SERA and the board of education.” Mrs. Emma Spade, SERA director in charge of the project’s personnel, noted that “work of this type has been undertaken successfully in Los Angeles schools . . .” The project administrators expected to employ “about 70 persons, artists, sculptors, model makers, photographers, authors and research workers” most of whom, according to Mrs. Spade, “are physicaly unfit for hard manual labor and are untrained in any but their special fields.” Instead of field trips, “the children will be shown models, pictures, drawings, diagrams and will be given pamphlets. Selection of subjects for the project will be determined by their importance in the life of the community.”4 As in the Los Angeles work cited by Mrs. Spade, San Diego teachers had created supplementary materials for their classes. The Curriculum Project, however, was the first governmentally-sponsored program in the United States with the specific purpose of producing a variety of instructional aids for an entire school system.

The SERA and later the WPA provided wages for the personnel; provision of housing, equipment, materials and direction came from the local sponsors, the board of education. The board provided space in Lincoln School where most of the work was done. Some of the research was done elsewhere, including trips by researchers, writers, artists and photographers to other sources of information, including libraries, farms, museums, factories, the harbor and other areas which would help them produce materials.

The Lincoln School location was particularly advantageous, as it was across the street from the school system’s central library and visual aids center. Mrs. Helen Bess, who later married project writer James Mitchell Clarke, replaced Martha Farnum as director of the project later in 1935. She emphasized how important it was to the project workers, many of whom had lost their self-confidence, to see their products carried across the street, indexed, and loaded on trucks for shipment to classrooms, for immediate use. They were making a difference; they were helping students and teachers. This helped their morale.5

“The research done on this project,” Mrs. Helen Bess (Clarke) noted, “goes immediately into books that are filling a definite need now.”6 Over 60 books which filled definite needs, and which recognized the individuality of each student, were produced by the project as its “occupational surveys.”7 Many of these were written and edited by Edward Sievers, who refined his ability to write with clarity and precision through his work on the project, through his contact with James Mitchell Clarke and with the exceptionally fine editor Leslie W. Quirk. Each of them understood that the most important consideration for the writers — and for the artists and craftspeople — on the project was the audience at which each work was aimed, and the objective sought through each work. A person could maintain his or her own “style” of presentation, so long as those two factors were kept foremost in their minds.8 As do the Clarkes, Sievers believes that one of the benefits of the project for the workers was the training it gave in writing or otherwise creating for a specific audience, whatever its level.9 In the occupational surveys Sievers and the others had to gather information on a specific job or industry, and transliterate the information into booklets which would help students in their career planning.

Career planning! In the depths of the Depression there must have been a touch of irony to that thought, when most people would be content to have any paying job. But it was both useful and important to tell students what sorts of jobs are available, if only theoretically; and what sorts of skills, training, and aptitudes were required for the jobs. So among the first booklets issued by the project were occupational surveys and monogrpahs. In 1937 the project issued Your job, how to get it and how to hold it. The occupations which were treated included those demanding high levels of academic training, those requiring vocational courses available in San Diego high schools and “continuation schools”, jobs requiring specialized training, and jobs which might be entered with or without special formal training, depending upon the interests of the individual. Thus every student seriously interested in being employed would be able to learn what was required by a variety of jobs. Many of these jobs were “modern,” based upon new developments in economics and technology, while others were as old as civilization. They were researched and produced by studying conditions in San Diego as well as materials from across the nation. The workers tried to determine the future possibilities of each job in order not to lead students into economic “dead ends.”

A similar “here and now” activity of the project was the preparation of “industrial work sheets” and instruction sheets.10

These occupational surveys and materials for use in shop classes had to be written clearly to avoid misinterpretation. This, of course, was important for all of the written materials, and was one reason for strict checking of each work by outside experts — from colleges, institutes, governmental agencies, and other local sources of verification — as well as by project editors and by the concerned curriculum committees from the city schools. Other checks were also used: “The Lewerenz technic is utilized for determining vocabulary difficulty and diversity and the Gray-Leary Technic for interest.” These professional methods of content analysis were also applied by project workers to commercially-produced aids which the school
board was considering purchasing.11

This illustrates one of the main reasons for creating the project; to supplement commercially-available material. San Diego, with its natural and social history, with its own
physical and economic conditions, needed materials which met four tenents of modern education:

First, all the products are designed directly for the pupil, rather than for the teacher, with the purpose of stimulating a desire for learning.

Second, they meet the demands of progressive educational philosophy that the child’s intimate world of today is the proper starting point for all educational experience and interpretation.

Third, they are prepared, not on the initiative of the Project as possible curricular additions or substitutions, but in response to carefully evaluated requests from the schools themselves for material in specific fields.

Fourth, they are inclusive rather than restrictive in their informational content or appeal, in accordance with the modern integrated program which for lack of a better name is called ‘social science.’12

At the peak of the project 104 workers were participating.” Many were clerical workers, and about half were writers and researchers.

More than 20 project workers [might] cooperate in the making of each mimeographed booklet: Director, Co-ordinator, Editor, Author, Research workers, Artists, Cover Designer, Map and Design Draftsman, Linoleum Block Etcher, Typist, Stencil-Cutter, Proof Readers, Bibliography Compilers, Mimeograph Operators, Collators, Staplers, Binders, Lewerenz Chart Analysts. Five thousand sheets of paper go through the mimeograph machine each day to produce booklets.14

After all of the checking and rewriting, and after “field testing” the manuscripts in
selected classrooms — often with the writer sitting in to get at first-hand the responses
of students and teachers to the material15 — the project produced over 250 “booklets” and several hardbound printed books on a variety of subjects and aiming at a variety
of levels. They also gave clerical assistance in the production of materials by teachers and others not actually on the project but producing materials for San Diego city schools.16

Mimeographing was the best way to produce most of the written products of the project, for several reasons: Economy and speed of production; the ability to produce roughly 500 copies of each work, which would provide several complete “class sets” and allow for normal depreciation, but which would be too small a quantity to be practical for regular printing; and the economic freedom to remove an edition which had become out-dated or subject to revision.17

Among the artists and craftspeople there were easel painters, using oil paints, water colors, tempera, pen and ink, and other techniques; and there were photographers.18
In addition to the obvious uses of illustration, for charts, maps, and pictures of materials being studied, project artists painted several murals in schools and other educational buildings;19 and through murals, easel works, and photographs, some of the project’s artists “documented the whole landscape as it was at this particular time” including urban as well as rural “landscapes.” This is a kind of “recreative” rather than creative art, but since they were artists they were able effectively to combine education and esthetics.20

Craftspeople created wood carvings, plaster casts, clay models, dolls of national and historical character types, specimen collections of local flora and fauna, models of boats and models illustrating principles of science and the evolution of tools, and other instructional aids used to verify Quirk’s belief that if you “let a child see an object . . . he will learn more about it in a few minutes than if he spent hours reading a description in a text book.” He believed that this was particularly true of the three-dimensional models of interior and exterior scenes called dioramas, which the project’s skillful, patient, and studious craftsmen made.21 Helen Bess (Clarke) described “a diorama containing wood carvings of eighty-four people, fifty-five animals, fifteen buildings and conveyances and one hundred and thirty-five miscellaneous articles.”22 They required up to 500 hours of work before being completed,23 and would be accompanied, when checked out by teachers for classroom use, by written explanations of the scenes which they illustrated.24

A journalist, visiting the project workrooms, commented upon the variety of personal and professional backgrounds, and nationalities, represented among the workers. He suggested that this variety enriched the project, introducing a variety of skills and interests.25

Among the craftspeople working with a “here and now” philosophy were “two piano players … secured through the WPA Curriculum Project to play for teachers interested in creative and interpretive rhythms.26 This activity gave children opportunities to develop their expressive abilities and their coordination, as individuals responding to stories, poems or ideas as opposed to group marching and carefully choreographed “folk dancing.” A new experiment, it was so successful that during 1937 the Federal Music Project’s San Diego unit incorporated it among their activities.27

Since much of what was being produced by the project was new, project workers created curriculum monographs, unit monographs, and teacher background books, “making available to teachers in a monograph form the research which people had done.”28 They also visited local libraries and prepared annotated bibliographies, often arranged by grades using the material, on a variety of topics. When such analysis had been done, these bibliographies, which were regularly revised, would note each book’s vocabulary difficulty and diversity, and would give a value judgment about the level of interest which the book would provide to a suitable user. Teachers also benefited from the project’s illustrated “poetry supplements” prepared specifically to accompany many of the curriculum monographs. The curriculum committees worked closely with the project in developing these.29

Allen J. Stover made botanical maps of the areas around each school in San Diego to help teachers during “nature walks” and other studies of plant life.30

The project made a “complete list of materials” covering the period from November 1934 to November 1938. Unfortunately it did not make a final list, partly because the project faded away rather than terminating abruptly, and partly because the creation of instructional aids within the school system continued on a diminished level during World War II so there was never a clear feeling that the exercise was completed. The War helped the economy of San Diego, enabling many of the project’s workers to find jobs in the commercial world. It also changed the orientation of the project:

By the end of the 1940-41 school year, the Curriculum Project was devoting 100% of its energy to the preparation of national defense materials, with major emphasis on materials for the Vocational School and for classes at nearby military posts.31

The project affected educational systems within the United States and abroad. “San Diego was one of eight schools [systems] throughout the country selected as most representative of progressive-curriculum development . . .”32 Books and other curriculum aids developed by the project were displayed at national educational conventions, at the world’s fair in San Francisco, at WPA headquarters in Washington, and elsewhere.33 Projects similar to, and based upon, that of San Diego were established in such widely separated locations as Hawaii and Michigan; and requests for information about the projects came from schools in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Montana, Colorado, and other states. Representatives of foreign governments requested copies of the materials, and permission to copy and translate them.34

The activities and output of the project also influenced the San Diego system, and led directly to the creation of their outstanding “supermarket style” instructional aids center, in which materials drawing from a rich variety of styles and media are readily available to teachers, and through them to the students.35 This new center replaced the library and audio-visual center which burned in February 1952, destroying many of the materials created by the Curriculum Project.36

The creators and administrators of the project took advantage of the “propitious” combination in San Diego of dissatisfied students, teachers and parents, unemployed skilled workers, and potential governmental support. Dr. Conner expressed the feelings of many of the project members, concluding that

the project was the creature of circumstances which I hope will never be duplicated in this or any other society. It was purely improvisational from start to finish, arising from the human misery of talented people without the means of existence, it offered to them a means of contributing to the improvement of their society whilst meeting their physical needs of survival, and it therefore enlisted a degree of enthusiasm and cooperation the like of which I have never experienced before or since. It was a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, for which I am grateful for having been an instrument in its creation and direction and operation.37


1. “WPA Education Project Success in City Schools,” San Diego Union, 8 November 1936. 4:1.

2. Virgil Wyatt, “San Diego Curriculum Project Began With Unusual Meeting”, The Christian Science Monitor, 25 February 1939. Education Page.

3. Statement made to the author by Dr. Burgert, 21 May 1971.

4. “SERA To Teach Children About S.D. Industries”, San Diego Union, 5 November 1934. 10:7.

5. Statement made to the author by Mr. and Mrs. Clarke, 23 August 1971.

6. “WPA Education Projects Success . . .” Op. cit.

7. Complete List of Materials, San Diego City Schools Curriculum Project, 1938 (?). 59 pages.

8. Statement made to the author by James Mitchell Clarke, 26 July 1971.

9. Statement made to the author by Edward Sievers, 12 October 1971.

10. Complete List of Materials, op. cit.

11. Annual Report 1936-1937 of San Diego City Schools San Diego: Board of Education, 1937. Page 12.

12. Leslie W. Quirk, “Desire To Learn Stimulated By New Type Of Textbook Prepared For S.D. Classes”, San Diego Union, 29 August 1937. II 1:1-8.

13. Transcript of interview of Helen Bess Clarke and James Mitchell Clarke, by Betty Lochrie Hoag, for the Archives of American Art, 24 June 1964, San Diego.

14. What They Do, Compiled by WPA (San Diego) County Library Extension Service, 1937. Page 109.

15. Clarke, Archives of American Art transcript.

16. Accession Record, San Diego City Schools Professional Library.

17. Statement made to the author by Mr. and Mrs. Clarke, 26 July 1971.

18. Complete List of Materials, op. cit.

19. Ibid.

20. Clarke, Archives of American Art transcript.

21. Edward T. Austin, “Teaching Supplanted By Learning Is Aim Of New Curriculum System”, San Diego Union, 7 June 1936. 11 1:4.

22. Clarke, Archives of American Art transcript.

23. Statement made to the author by Dr. Burgert, 21 May 1971.

24. Statement made to the author by project member Mrs. Edith Osborne Thompson, 23 July 1971.

25. Willis Werner, “Fact-O-Graph”, San Diego Sun. (No date) found as a clipping in a scrapbook.

26. Annual Report of San Diego City Schools 1935-36, San Diego: City Board of Education, 1936. Page 16.

27. Annual Report 1936-1937…, op. cit., page 13.

28. Clarke, Archives of American Art transcript.

29. Complete List of Materials, op. cit.

30. Statement made to the author by the Clarkes, 26 July 1971.

31. Our Schools in a National Emergency, Annual Report 1940-1941. San Diego: Board of Education, 1941. Page 17.

32. “City Schools To Take Part In Ohio Exhibit”, San Diego Union, 26 February 1939. A 8:3.

33. Letter to the author from Dr. Jay D. Conner, 31 August 1971; and statements made to the author by Mr. and Mrs. Clarke, 26 July 1971.

34. Virgil Wyatt, op. cit.

35. Charles Davis, “Supermarket’ Instructional Aid Center Is Opened”, San Diego Union, 14 September 1965. 162:2-3; and statement made to the author by Dr. Burgert, 21 May 1971.

36. James Montgomery, “$150,000 Downtown Blaze Destroys S.D. School Unit,” San Diego Union, 18 February 1952. 1:7-8. 37. Conner, letter to the author, 31 August 1971.

Before moving to San Diego two years ago, Peter Mehren spent two and one half years with his wife, Kay, in the Peace Corps in Kenya, followed by a seven months journey through Europe and Asia. They were accompanied by their Kenya-born son, Matthew. Mr. Mehren received his A.B. degree in History from the University of California at Davis, for which he is now writing his Master’s thesis on the WPA Federal Arts Projects in San Diego. The article published here is part of his thesis, and won an award at the San Diego History Center Institute of History in December, 1971. Mr. Mehren student-taught at a San Diego high school to earn his credential. Presently he is a consulting editor for an educational research and development laboratory in Berkeley. His wife, a native San Diegan, is an amateur editor.