Butler University is represented twice in the Indiana State Museum’s new exhibition Indiana in 200 Objects, a celebration of the state’s 200th birthday, which will be on view through January 29, 2017.
The first is recognition of the Sigma Gamma Rho, a sorority emphasizing “sisterhood, scholarship, and service” that was founded at Butler in 1922. Sigma Gamma Rho is the only predominantly black sorority not founded at a historically black college, and the only sorority or fraternity founded at Butler University.
The other Butler artifact foretells the founding of the College of Education. It’s Froebel Gift Blocks, wooden toy blocks used by kindergarten pioneer Eliza Blaker and loaned to the State Museum from the University archives. A description card with the blocks says:
Early education has a huge impact on small children. As head of the free kindergarten movement in Indianapolis, Eliza Blaker (1854-1926) was in the forefront of education reform. The groundbreaking theories Blaker promoted in her classroom and the Teachers College of Indianapolis—that children learn through play, should be encouraged to discover the world for themselves, and shouldn’t be beaten for making mistakes—are common knowledge today.
In 1930, Butler University bought Blaker’s college and merged it with Butler’s then-new College of Education. Her portrait still hangs outside the College of Education offices.
“Eliza is one of the people most Hoosiers don’t know about but are impacted by every day,” said Ena Shelley, Dean of Butler’s College of Education. “Every day you take a child to kindergarten, you can thank Eliza Blaker for that.”
Blaker was brought to Indiana from Pennsylvania by a group of society women to start a kindergarten program for their children. Blaker agreed to come, but only if all children could attend her kindergartens. When she arrived, she discovered that she didn’t have the workforce she needed.
“So now she had to create kindergarten programs and train teachers,” Shelley said.
That spurred her to start her teacher-training school, which opened in 1892.
The idea was risky on multiple levels, Shelley said. Blaker had to raise money to fund her school and had to find the right students to train to be teachers.
“We owe her,” Shelley said. “She started the whole idea of parent education – teaching families the importance of nutrition, the importance of talking to your child, the importance of reading to your child. We take that for granted now, but that was saying to parents, ‘This is what you should be doing. That was leading edge at that time.’”
Blaker demanded that all students have access to kindergarten—highly unusual in the early 1900s—and had rigorous standards for who could become a teacher. She cared about her students, but she was strict with them.
She was far ahead of her time, and she wasn’t afraid to be far ahead, Shelley said. “She wrote a letter to the legislature more than 102 years ago telling them why they should invest in early childhood education. If she were alive today, she’d say, ‘You’re still talking about that?’”
Starting in 1922, Teachers College of Indianapolis and Butler began talking about a merger. Blaker died in 1926, and the merger took place in time for the 1930-1931 school year. Butler incurred some debt, but that was “part of our vision of who we were to be in the community,” Shelley said.
Being trained at the Teachers College of Indianapolis was considered extremely prestigious. “And I’m proud to say that today, when our students say that they graduated from Butler, people have the same reaction,” Shelley said. “I think Eliza would be proud of that.”