Aimee Isgrig Horton
Written by Norma Nerstrom and Sue Himplemann based on interviews with Aimee
Aimee Isgrig Horton was born in 1922 and from a very early age exhibited an avid interest in social change. She and her brother attended a non-traditional lab school at a teacher's college in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The instructors had been educated in the John Dewey methods and every student was encouraged to take an interest in the hard issues of the world. These issues were openly discussed and Aimee realized early on that solutions could be forthcoming through group interaction. This environment was conducive to healthy social growth and Aimee quickly embraced the notion that the society in which she lived was in need of improvement. It was a challenge she was eager to take on.
Aimee's high school experience was much more traditional and much less satisfactory. She attended a private prep school as a scholarship student where there was no interest at all in social change. These years were much more stifling and stressful for Aimee but this experience provided her with an alternative perspective from which to view the world.
Aimee chose to attend Rockford College in Rockford, Illinois to do her undergraduate work in history. She felt certain that historical knowledge would help her better understand social change; and Rockford at that time being a very "liberal" liberal arts college for women only, would give her the necessary tools to instill that change. Jane Addams had also attended Rockford and Aimee was pleased again to be challenged in an environment that stimulated her interests. Aimee, like Jane Addams, had a very "do something" attitude and wished to impact the world in a positive manner. While at Rockford Aimee attended classes in a Quaker Training Program and this experience proved to be a catalyst for continuing her passion in social improvements.
Because of her experience in the Quaker Training Program Aimee was invited, along with other students, to go abroad with the United Nations and work with displaced persons in a refugee camp. This experience was a totally new world for her. As she interacted with the refugees she was somewhat surprised by the fact that they recognized their own needs and could also provide ideas for the solutions. Rather than being an "educator" to the refugees Aimee had become part of their support system and viewed herself as the "student." This may have been her first true insight as to what Adult Education is honestly about: the process of lifelong learning. She had begun to impact social change and without a formal program structured specifically for that purpose.
Aimee continued her education at the University of Wisconsin where she completed a masters degree in Adult Education. Returning to Illinois she considered working in the field of welfare and attended the University of Chicago to pursue a doctorate in preparation for doing casework. Aimee went on to complete her doctorate work, with the exception of writing her dissertation. She delayed this requirement after investigating the opportunities in welfare and questioning if casework was the path that would allow her to impact social change.
Aimee left the University of Chicago and accepted a position as the Director of the Illinois Commission on Human Relations. Although this organization did not serve the purpose of social change she sensed that it could be a vehicle of opportunity for social improvement. In her responsibilities in the early 1960s as Director, Aimee traveled to various communities within Illinois to speak on general topics and, just as she thought, one of these speaking engagements developed into a meaningful opportunity for social improvement.
She visited Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and was disconcerted to find that Black students were often not admitted to barber shops or other businesses. Aimee took the opportunity to speak to the students about their rights based on a law that had been enacted in the 1890s. The law, in part, stated that "all public accommodations will be open to all people."
Although the administration at Southern Illinois University was content with the status quo, the students were now interested in change. Due to the fact that a law was in existence, Aimee sensed there was already a solid foundation in place on which to base the change. The student's first inclination was to stage a protest but Aimee suggested that perhaps a letter writing campaign would be more beneficial. The students listened intently and took her advice. As Aimee supposed, change came quickly. Some of these students continued to practice their ideals in ongoing activities within the Civil Rights Movement. For the second time, she had made a social change without being involved in an educational program designed for that purpose.
Aimee continued to involve herself in the improvements of humankind in the early 1960s when she attended a convention in Colorado hosted by the American Education Association. The purpose of this convention was to bring together people who were interested in social change. Guests attended from around the country and it was here that Aimee Isgrig met Myles Horton, founder of the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee.
The Highlander Folk School, established in 1932, had been modeled after Danish folk schools. Aimee was interested in learning everything she could about Highlander since its purpose was to meet and "plan" for change. Until this time Aimee had not experienced change that had been "planned." Myles invited her to visit Highlander for a weekend in the winter of 1961 and that was the beginning of another important influence in Aimee's life. In less than 1 year Aimee and Myles were married and worked together at Highlander towards more social improvements.
Highlander was intriguing to Aimee. She encountered instructors teaching without credentials - assisted only by volunteers. She observed classes in literacy being conducted very successfully by a high school drop out. She was amazed by the motivation of the adult learners at Highlander and attributed it to the idea that the "students" could see themselves changing for the better. One very successful program at Highlander was known as the Citizenship Schools.
The name Citizenship School came from the students themselves. It conveyed that the students intended to become first class citizens--not the second class citizens they had been relegated to in past years. Citizenship Schools were located anywhere from inside a church to the back of a store and the instructors themselves were not "trained" educators. They had, however, completed a three-month course at Highlander to prepare them to teach. There were only three requirements for teachers at Highlander: they had to be motivated to teach people how to read, they had to be able to write legibly on the blackboard, and they had to have a positive attitude about the program! Bernice Robinson, whose philosophy was "We'll learn together" was the first Citizenship School teacher. While at Highlander she changed the lives of many people although she had no formal teaching credentials. (Horton, M. p.105).
The success rate at the Citizenship Schools was high which Aimee attributed to the motivation of students in the hopes that they themselves would become part of the changes in the South. The students were focused on the right to vote along with the other struggles for their rights. Aimee felt strongly that people must be motivated to learn in order to succeed. The success of the Citizenship Schools showed the commitment of the people attending Highlander.
Aimee's role at Highlander was mainly as a report writer, fund raiser and observer of workshops and field activities. In the fall of 1961 Highlander's charter was revoked by the state of Tennessee and it's property confiscated in an "unprecedented action." After being at Highlander for only six months, Aimee returned to Illinois. (Highlander was later reopened in Knoxville, Tennessee under the new name of Highlander Research and Education Center.) The Citizenship Schools, and in fact, all programs instituted by Highlander, subscribe to the theory as described by Tom Heaney in When Adult Education Stood for Democracy. "First, such education must be grounded in the real and realizable struggles of people for democratic control over their lives." And, "Second, it never simply reaffirms present experience, goals and concerns, but always challenges participants to move forward, to experience in new ways, rethink goals and concerns."
The goals and programs that Aimee had been involved in at Highlander weren't as relevant to the North as they had been in the South. However, in the North, Aimee began to see a need for programs that improved language skills for people that did not have English as their primary language. She felt this type of program would enable people to improve their job skills, as well as, help break the cycle of illiteracy. She knew that as mothers learned to read they would become empowered to read to their children. Aimee participated in a Chicago program that emphasized this idea. It allowed the mothers to learn along with their children. While the children were occupied with pre-school type activities the mothers were being taught how to read.
After gaining valuable work experience Aimee returned to the University of Chicago to complete her doctorate dissertation with a grant given to her by the American Association of University Women. Her intent was to publish a definitive history of Highlander and the AAUW supported her in this goal. Interestingly, the AAUW lost Southern members because of this action but stood firm in their support of Aimee. Carlson Publishing published her dissertation in 1971.
To Aimee's surprise, she found that at first, it was not adult educators who were reading her account about Highlander, but it was people that were interested in the history of the South. This was because her dissertation was a history of the South, as well as, a history of the Highlander. Later, as her work became known," (it)... has served as a critical resource for most subsequent research...".(Heaney, p. 2).
Highlander and Myles Horton's ideals have had a significant effect on Aimee and it's easy to see the influence they've had on her subsequent projects in adult education. She strongly believes in the tremendous power that comes from combining education with social change. This belief was borne out in 1983 with the creation of the Lindeman Center in Chicago, Illinois, that she co-founded with Tom Heaney.
The Lindeman Center started with a grant from the Chicago Community Trust and support from Northern Illinois University. It is currently located at 4945 S. Dorchester in Chicago where office space is rented from a neighborhood church.
The purpose of the Center in the 90's is "to give new form to Lindeman's, Horton's, and Freire's education for democratic social change by nurturing "grass roots" educational initiatives and facilitating access to resources which promote and strengthen local struggles to solve community problems." (Lindeman Center Brochure).
Aimee was actively involved in a 1999 Chicago event "Building on the Legacy of Paulo Friere" that honored the purpose of the Lindeman Center. This seminar was co-sponsored by the University of Illinois and the American Friends Service Committee where over 100 people with an interest in social change and adult education came together to network, attend small group sessions and view George Stoney's current film-in-progress about Paulo Friere. The benefit of seminars such as this is that attendees and educators are renewed with new ideas to apply to their daily lives. In so doing they effect change, which is the foundation of adult education. The renewal of ideas causes a chain-reaction of positive influences as each person continues to share with others what they have learned. As the Lindeman Center continued to support and strengthen groups working for change it continued to build on the legacy of Paulo Friere, Eduard Lindeman, and Myles Horton.
In addition to being instrumental to the success of the Lindeman Center, Aimee was an active educator and participant in the doctoral program at National-Louis University. According to Aimee it's important to shape a program with the common concerns of the people in mind. She admited, however, that often in adult education the educators still tend to say, "we know what people need to know." These two opposing ideas tend to form a never-ending paradox and must be constantly monitored
Aimee Horton was an inspiration to adult educators who strive to hold to these ideals and was a great example of adult education in action. Aimee died on November 15th at St. Paul’s House, 3800 North California in Chicago.