How Henry Ford Changed Education in Michigan

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 was the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States, with 27,000 square miles covered with 30 feet of water. Many Afro-Americans evacuated their homes along the Lower Mississippi River and started a large migration north to Detroit. In 1892, Ellis Island immigrant receiving station opened in New York where 70 percent of all immigrants came to America, many of them settling in Detroit. Henry Ford was paying five dollars a day for an eight hour shift at the Ford Motor Company, giving their families a middle class standard of living.

Ford had difficulties getting the Model T off the assembly line with workers walking off the line in search of better wages. Expensive turnover, downtime of the production line, training costs, and recruitment of new employees in a growing industrial city gave Ford a better idea.   It would be more cost effective to pay a worker more money to stay, rather than constantly training a new work force.

Ford established a Sociological Department with a system of rules and behavior for Ford employees to qualify for the five dollar a day pay rate. The Sociological Department supervised employees at home and on the job. Investigators made unexpected visits to employee’s homes, checked with school attendance offices to determine if children were attending school, assessed the cleanliness of the home, and bank records to verify that employees made regular deposits.

An adjunct to the Sociological Department was the Ford English School which addressed the problem of communicating with non-English speaking workers, and safety threats that this posed. Worker safety was rarely considered in most factories; however, Ford Motor Company officials took great pains to guarantee that the factory was safe. English classes were taught by Ford employees to foreign employees: students were required to attend classes before or after their work shifts.

Ford English School was so successful that other companies and social organizations patterned their programs after it. A Ford English School diploma was considered so respected that an immigrant seeking naturalization used it to meet the requirements needed before taking the final citizenship exam.

Students dressed in costumes reminiscent of their native countries stepped into a massive stage-prop cauldron that had a banner across the front identifying it as the AMERICAN MELTING POT. Seconds later, after a quick change out of sight of the audience, students appeared wearing “American” suits and hats, waving American flags, leaving a new 100% American.

The result of the migration and immigration, English taught at the factory, and parameters for Ford employees were a demand for colleges for their children to attend. Michigan met that challenge and has over one hundred and fifty colleges and universities, community colleges and technical schools.  Of the eighty three counties, only one does not have an institution of higher learning.

The result of Henry Ford’s insistence on English and school attendance made Detroit the finest school system in America in 1950.

What happened?


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