Henry Ford, Educator


HENRY FORD is known the world over as the automobile genius of history. There is no passable road in the world that is not traversed by his cars. His planes are in the air. He has developed a vertical organization extending from the raw ore in the depths of the earth over a railroad transportation system and ending in millions of throbbing automobiles. Yet all this great network of industry is a single unified mechanism. It is not so often realized that he has been making a significant experiment in the field of education.

I was fortunate in having a chance to talk with Henry Ford, the educator, recently. We were sitting in one corner of his Dearborn plant in the midst of thousands of moving machines and workers. Curiously enough, we were watching a class of fifty children learn the old-fashioned square dances. It was all part of Henry Ford’s scheme of education, which we were discussing. ‘The only way to really learn is by doing,’ said Mr. Ford. ‘The trouble with much so-called modern education is that it ignores the physical basis of life. We are training children to inhabit a paper world. We teach them to assume that ink is preferable to action.'

Mr. Ford went on to tell me of his plan to do experimental pioneering in the educational field. He is beginning to purchase school buildings for children and to train their bodies as well as their brains. Mr. Ford expresses it in this way: ‘Hand work and brain work have been put at opposite poles, when as a truth of life there is neither one without the other. The trouble with the world is too much brain work without the normalizing balance of hand work.’

His experiment in the factory has grown to vast proportions. Actually he already has more students in just one department, that of the Trade School, than are enrolled in all Yale College. Altogether he has over forty-five hundred students and one hundred and sixty full-time instructors. His educational work is being conducted along lines so radically different from the average school that in many ways Henry Ford may be revolutionizing education as he once revolutionized transportation. Briefly, his plan may be called the ‘project method.’ The student learns by doing as well as by reading. No theoretical knowledge is given until the absolute necessity of it is brought home through a life experience. In other words, Henry Ford believes that we live our way into our thinking much more than we think our way into our living. Under the Ford plan the student spends two weeks in the factory, actually producing useful articles, to one in the classroom, and the work is so planned that each type supplements the other. The amazing thing is that such a keen interest is developed by the practical shop work that a student actually learns more in one week in the classroom than the average high-school pupil does in three. How different are the common standardized methods of scholasticism!

Instead of a driving, passionate interest there is often an active, inhibiting, blind resistance to all intellectual pursuits. The social pressure of the ordinary school is dead set against the ‘scholastic grind’ or even the intellectually curious. American educators have been sorely puzzled to know just what is wrong. Some scientific experts tell us that part of the difficulty is due to the unreality of abstract studies in contrast to the absorbing fascination of outside activities. On the one side there exists the realm of scholarship, of intellectual pursuits administered for the most part by the faculty. This scholastic world is often tolerated by the student body as a necessary evil accompanying the real benefits of the other side of school — the world of athletics, fraternities, moving pictures, and social events. Nearly all of these exist primarily for the pleasure of the students; most of them are created, administered, and conducted by them. This is ‘the real school life’ for the average undergraduate. He is immersed in it during the major portion of each waking day. It is in this world that the student thinks, acts, and lives. He breathes it in as naturally as a waiter accepts our tips.

How can we bridge the gap between the seeming unreality of the scholastic world — the realm of classrooms, of books, of papers — and the actualities in the world outside? How can we break the dualism which shackles the student mind? There is no problem involved in making a boy accept the reality of student activities; he acts these out in his daily experience, in his way of life. On the other hand, the things which he reads about in his assigned work, what he listens to in the classroom, are essentially unreal. In other words, the realm of student activities is real, it is vital, it is experimentally verifiable; but how unreal, how remote from his life, how impossible to verify in his experience, are so many of the facts that he reads about or listens to in the classroom!

Henry Ford has made a pioneer experiment in uniting theoretical book learning with practical applied adventure in the factory. A foreigner, having come to the United States, studied here, and been rewarded with an American graduate degree, was finally returning to his native country to teach his people. On the way he visited the Ford Trade School. It made a tremendous impression on the brilliant young man, who, as he was leaving, said regretfully, ‘My education began in words and ended in words, and when I go back to my country I shall have nothing to offer my people.’ In some respects he was like a phonograph. His brain could reproduce the words engraved thereon, but was incapable of originality, and his upkeep cost was high.

Before describing the fascinating picture of the school at work, let us briefly review its various phases. There might be said to be five departments in the Ford ‘university.’ Most important of these is the Henry Ford Trade School for boys from twelve to eighteen years of age, which is incorporated to operate without profit. It attempts to train boys so that they can earn their own living, and directs their energy toward work and not away from it. The school enrolls eighteen hundred, which may soon be increased to five thousand. It accepts those who have no chance to help themselves, those who are so handicapped by environment and other forces that without this opportunity they would not even have a chance to learn a trade, much less go to school. One hundred and eighty of the boys are orphans. Seven hundred and fifty are widows’ sons. Four hundred are the children of Ford employees. Each boy receives at the start seven dollars and twenty cents a week, but his rate is being constantly increased according to his ability. Besides this, he receives two dollars a month for a savings account and a daily hot luncheon which, in the aggregate, costs the company one hundred thousand dollars annually. With the addition of the funds used for scholarships and thrift, the total expenditure is over a million. Including the various holidays, there are approximately five weeks of vacation with pay every year.

Many American colleges have to turn away students, but the applicants do not usually continue to seek admission indefinitely. The number of those on the permanent waiting list in the Henry Ford School totals over five thousand — striking testimony to its popularity.

Besides the Trade School there is the Ford Apprentice School for men from eighteen to thirty. At present this is training some twelve hundred workers to become toolmakers. The rate of pay is from six dollars to seven dollars and sixty cents a day, and the course takes three years.

Third, there is the Ford Service School, a two-year course of training for service in the foreign field. At the present time there are over three hundred and fifty enrolled from thirty different countries, including Chinese, Hindus, Mexicans, Turks, Persians, Frenchmen, Italians, Filipinos, Czechoslovakians, Porto Ricans, and Russians. The men are placed in a few manufacturing departments, but they spend most of their time in the assembly and repair divisions, and receive six dollars each working day.

Fourth, there are fifteen hundred and twenty-five special students who attend classes in metallurgy, metallography, electricity, mechanical drawing, and mathematics.

Fifth, Henry Ford has welcomed a research group of Yale men during the summer vacation. They are drawn from the scientific school, law school, divinity school, and college. The students are shifted from place to place, so that in the course of a summer they get some idea, although often an inadequate one, of the practical problems of industry. Over two hundred other college students arc accepted, who spend equal periods at their college and in the Ford plant.


The Trade School is perhaps the most interesting of the experiments which are being conducted. It is restricted to boys who enter between the ages of twelve and fifteen.

No one can catch the spirit of the school without seeing it at first hand. On entering the classrooms the casual visitor might notice no striking differences between this school and any other. Here are hundreds of typical boys studying such subjects as English, mechanical drawing, mathematics, — including shop arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, — civics, auto mechanics, and science, including general physics, chemistry (qualitative analysis and quantitative analysis), metallurgy, and metallography. Further observation leads one to notice a striking fact — the boys are intensely interested in what they are studying and they know its practical value. For the entire Ford Plant, both at Highland Park and at Fordson, is a textbook and a laboratory. Chemistry and physics mean knowing how to analyze steel crank shafts. The necessity of metallurgy is brought home when the boys discover, to their amazement, that the heat treatment of a metal is in many ways more important than its composition. All the latest photomicroscopic instruments are available to the students. They make pictures of minute cross-sections of steel invisible to the human eye. The results show irregularities and imperfections, if they exist. Geography is made vivid by a description of the Ford sales and distributive organization throughout the world.

Each subject lives in the consciousness of the boy because he has to make a practical application of it two thirds of his time. Shop arithmetic, geometry, and trigonometry, instead of being abstract subjects, are necessary tools for the next two weeks of adventure. The classroom work becomes almost as exciting as learning signals in football practice. Furthermore, each boy realizes that he is being paid while he learns, yet is earning his own way and owes no one anything. At the end of the first year he would normally receive twentyfour cents an hour, by the close of the second year thirty-two cents an hour, and at the end of the third year forty cents an hour. When he is seventeen years of age a student should be earning forty-five cents. It must be remembered that he is also getting extras in the way of money for savings, lunches, and vacations. The school estimates that the boy produces one thousand dollars a year in useful material. This covers the upkeep of the school, but does not pay any interest on the enormous investment in buildings, machinery, and other equipment.

We pass from the classroom to the shop. Here the boys are even more alert. We see them making Ford tools. Indeed, so expert do they become that they turn out precision gauges which must have an accuracy of approximately 1/100,000 of an inch. Nearly all the cut-away motors used for demonstration purposes in the salesrooms are produced here. A large chart shows exactly the time which the boys take for a given process over skilled tool mechanics. In 1924 the students were using forty per cent more time. In 1925 this had been cut to thirty per cent. By September 1926 it was down to thirteen per cent. It must be remembered, however, that on the average each new boy starts by taking sixty per cent more time than the mechanical expert. The boys also spoil four per cent of their material. In the old days it used to cost thousands of dollars to paint the machines in the school department. To-day the boys put on all the surface coats. They handle all pump repairs and all of the smaller broken instruments. Formerly when tools had become badly worn they were scrapped. Now the Trade School repairs or rebuilds them and turns back fifty thousand dollars’ worth of tools each month.

One can hardly appreciate what it means to maintain a school which is applying its theoretical knowledge unless one spends a day in the laboratory. The Trade School alone covers one hundred and twenty-two thousand square feet of space, with an additional thirty thousand square feet for classrooms. The equipment alone cost over a million dollars. Every bit of it is in constant use, turning out practical things. Here is one of the key differences between the Ford plan and the ordinary trade school. Mr. Ford insists that everything which is produced shall have a practical value. There is nothing done which the students might feel is useless. The result is that there is a creative joy in the work. On the other hand, to give experience to boys many tasks have to be provided which might not be necessary otherwise or which could be done differently. For example, worn-out automobiles are taken apart and rebuilt, although the cost is somewhat greater than to produce a new car.

In other words, the jobs are fitted to the needs of the boys, not the boys to the needs of the machines. Fundamental in the principle of the school is the idea that, so far as possible, the boy is to be given a sense of responsibility by being trained on articles which are to be actually used. A careful record is kept of every boy’s grade in each of his theoretical subjects, and of his industry in the classroom and in the shop.

It must not be thought that the boys do nothing but work. In the past they have had football and other forms of sport. Recently all forms of athletics have been discontinued at Mr. Ford’s specific request. He feels the boys get exercise while at work. They also publish their own school paper, which maintains a higher standard of literary excellence than most of our newspapers.


Besides making a trip through the Trade School one should study concrete cases. A boy of fourteen started in 1923 at a wage of eighteen cents an hour. Two months later he had advanced to nineteen cents, and in another two months he went to twenty. Then for five successive months his pay was increased until at a year from the time he entered he was receiving twenty-seven cents. A year later he was receiving thirty-seven cents, and at the end of two years and ten months he was getting fortyfive cents an hour. During that time he had thoroughly learned nearly all the important processes in making car parts, grinders, gauges, and sheet metal, and had been initiated into the intricacies of bench work, which includes filing, stamping, drilling, tapping, and hand reaming, also lathe work and machine construction. Thus at seventeen years of age he was already an expert mechanic and would be in a position to rise high in the Ford plant. He had, moreover, been drilled in the following basic school ideals: cleanliness, safety, accuracy, speed, and ingenuity. The student is taught that if he is satisfied with what the instructor can show him he can never know the satisfaction of helping to produce something better.

There is no insistence that all the boys shall become expert technicians. They have the opportunity of entering other occupational lines, according to their inclination and ability. Ten per cent of the boys go to night school. Two are now at the University of Michigan; one is at Annapolis. Eleven go to high school during the day and work in the afternoon shift.

So carefully have the boys been safeguarded that the only serious accident in the entire history of the school was the loss of one eye. Considering the number of serious if not fatal accidents in high-school football alone, and the fact that the ordinary school shelters students from all contact with our machine world, this is a remarkable record. Thirty per cent of those who finish the Ford School stay with the company, but there is no pressure brought to bear upon them. They have paid their own way, and they can go wherever they desire.

Some of the more brilliant boys have made discoveries which have resulted in vast economics for the company. Perhaps the most remarkable was an invention which saved a pound of copper for each car, thus effecting a saving of one thousand dollars a day.

Although there has been little time since the school was started in 1916 for boys to advance to positions of responsibility and leadership, one boy is already sales manager for a million-dollar business. Many are getting ten dollars a day.

There is little need for discipline, quite in contrast to the ordinary high school. It must be remembered also that the management has accepted boys from poor homes and an unfavorable environment. One hundred came even with the handicap of a juvenile court record. One of the instructors, who happens to be a graduate of a university, emphasized the fact that there are more boys in this school who have had bad heredity than perhaps in all the public schools of Detroit put together, and they have all had bad environments, yet the school pulls them through. The combination of learning and earning does the trick.

Such punishments as are used are novel. A boy may be required to take a shower bath every day for ten days straight. The worst sentence is sitting in the office for eight hours instead of working in the shop. No boy can stand that long.

There is no distinction of race, nationality, or creed. All are on an equality. Here is a Polish boy named Mauszewski. His father is dead, but he has a mother and two sisters. He came at fourteen, just three years ago. To-day nearly all his grades are A’s.

Another boy, Ernest Blank, comes from a foreign family. In the days before prohibition his father was in the back room of a saloon, drinking. Brooding for a while at a table, he was heard to remark, ‘What is life? Life is nothing more than a puff of smoke.’ No one noticed him leave the room, but the quick report of a gun outside soon told the tragic story of suicide. Ernest was left with three sisters. As a result of his work at the Ford Trade School he is now getting over four hundred dollars a month, although only just twenty-two years of age. He told the Superintendent, ‘In my first year in the school one boy wanted me to quit and get twenty-five dollars a week, which was more than I was getting at the time, but I would not do it. Now that boy is running an elevator for me, and is still getting the twenty-five dollars a week. He is just as bright as I am, too, only he did n’t use his time right.’

A colored boy, one of the fourteen children of a man in the Ford employ, had been brought up in such a fanatical religious environment that his father for a long time refused to have the boy’s hair cut. He feared that, just as Samson suffered harm, so would his boy. As a preliminary requirement for entrance into the Ford School, the boy had to be taken to the barber shop. To-day nearly half his grades are A — a remarkable achievement.

Another boy was the son of a man who came to his wife’s funeral so drunk that he would have dumped the mother’s body out of the coffin if it had not been for the officers. The son was taught by his father that stealing was good, but that getting caught was bad. As long as he had personal supervision in the Ford School he was exemplary, but the temptations of other employment were too great and he finally ended up in the penitentiary.

On my last visit to Detroit I talked with the man in charge of the experimental tool room, and found that he was a product of the school. When he was in grammer school, his father died, leaving three children. He had not only carried his work at the Trade School, but had used his evenings to finish a course at Detroit University. He now owns his own home and is supporting his brother and sister in school.

Perhaps the greatest satisfaction to Mr. Ford is to see the success of his boys, and thousands of them are going out over the country into positions of responsibility.

One especially interesting case is that of a Filipino who ran away from the Islands in order to come to the school. The police brought him to the plant when he was only fourteen. The usual physical examination before employment showed that he needed an operation for hernia. The company advanced him the necessary money, he finished the course at the school, and to-day he is going through the University of Michigan.

When one considers that the average grammar and high school in America do not give a boy an adequate training for an economic position, one realizes how far Mr. Ford has gone in transferring old educational habits into new channels. Just a short while ago one of the ablest college presidents in America visited the Henry Ford School. On his return he wrote: ‘You will be interested to know that in each of the four departments of the college I told the story of our journey through your Trade School and the academic classes. I have also gathered the men of our Industrial Arts Department and talked with them about the college education that I had received in a day in Detroit, and asked them to remember in their instruction the things which you teach — safety, cleanliness, accuracy, speed, and so forth. I told them in great detail of the Trade School. You did a fine piece of missionary work the day we went with you through your wonderful school.’

It is conceivable that this experiment will eventually be adopted, with modifications, in all our cities. At any rate, it deserves careful study by all who are interested in education.