John W. Studebaker (1887-1989)

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John Ward Studebaker was U.S. Commissioner of Education from 1934 to 1948 and chairman of the Federal Radio Education Commission, ca. 1936-1941, a body formed to investigate “more direct use of radio facilities for teaching purposes” [1].

Studebaker was born on June 10, 1887, in McGregor, Iowa, to Thomas and Mary Studebaker [2]. He earned degrees at Leander Clark College and Columbia University, worked for the Red Cross during World War I, and became superintendant of schools in Des Moines, Iowa, a position he held from 1920 to 1934 [3].

As superintendant, Studebaker created innovative programs, such as improvements to student health and special classes for students who had difficulty learning, and the Des Moines school system became a national model [4]. In 1933, he received a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to start an experiment in adult civic education. With this money, Studebaker created a system of public forums in Des Moines for citizens to gather together and discuss important topics. The public forums “got so popular that in 1934 F.D.R. appointed Studebaker the U.S. Commissioner of Education and, with the eventual help of Eleanor Roosevelt, the program became a part of the New Deal, and received federal funding” [5]. 

Studebaker felt strongly that the best way to counter extremism and the seductive aspects of authoritarianism was through education, enlightenment, and citizen participation in problem-solving. Regarding nations that had turned towards brutal forms of government, Studebaker and a colleague argued: “It is clear that these nations were driven into dictatorial control of government and restriction of thought because they had failed to build through education the firm foundation of understanding and the necessary habits involved in the concept and practice of democracy” [6].

In 1936, with funding from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Studebaker set-up the Federal Forum Project (FFP) to educate citizens and facilitate discussion. Over the course of the next five years, the FFP would serve hundreds of communities across America. Before it ended in 1941, the FFP had conducted thousands of forums for millions of Americans [7].

In addition to public forums, Studebaker saw radio as a tool for improved citizen education. Around 1936, he became chair of the Federal Radio Education Commission and began exploring ways to make better use of the air waves. Studebaker’s Office of Education—once again with WPA assistance—would ultimately use radio to broadcast regular programs on “the virtues of democracy, the good neighbor policy with Latin America, an understanding of the world around us through popular science,” and many other topics [8]. 

When America entered World War II, the FFP ended. However, Studebaker remained interested in the forum concept and thought it would help contribute to both the war and post-war efforts. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he described a new program: “Through the nation-wide School and College Civilian Morale Service, citizens will be brought together in study and discussion groups… to attack our pressing policy problems in the democratic way” [9]. Studebaker also worked on the G.I. Bill and, after the war, as the Cold War hardened, he still maintained his belief in the power of civics and the need for high schools to place more emphasis on social studies [10].

Studebaker resigned from the Office of Education in 1948 and spent the remainder of his career in the private sector. He died on July 26, 1989, at the age of 102 [11].


(1) “First Government-Operated Radio Studio, Equipped at Cost of $100,000, Soon to Be Opened,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), August 21, 1938, p. 13. Also see, Federal Radio Education Committee, “Classification of Educational Radio Research,” 1941 (Hathitrust, accessed March 4, 2021).  (2) “Notable Nativities,” The Courier-News (Bridgewater, New Jersey), June 10, 1937, p. 6; “Mrs. Mary Studebaker Dies,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), December 20, 1937, p. 14; “John Ward Studebaker,” Find A Grave (accessed March 4, 2021).  (3) “John W. Studebaker, 102, Dies,” Washington Post, July 29, 1989 (accessed March 4, 2021).  (4) “Head of Education Assumes Duties,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), October 25, 1934, p. 47, and “John Ward Studebaker Will Succeed Dr. George F. Zook As Education Commissioner,” Associated Press, in the Wausau Daily Herald (Wausau, Wisconsin), May 18, 1934, p. 1.  (5) Jill Lepore, “The Last Time Democracy Almost Died,” The New Yorker, February 3, 2020 (accessed March 4, 2021).  (6) William M. Keith, Democracy as Discussion: Civic Education and the American Forum Movement, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007, p. 266, citing John W. Studebaker and Charles S. Williams, Safeguarding Democracy through Adult Civic Education, United States Department of the Interior, Office of Education Bulletin 1936 (Misc. No. 6, 1936): 14.  (7) For more information on the FFP, see our summary here (to be hyperlinked).  (8) See note 1, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  (9) “Education Will Help U.S. Win Both War and Peace,” The Pittsburgh Press, December 26, 1941, p. 8.  (10) “American Education Should Take Active Part in Thwarting Communism,” The Salt Lake Tribune, December 6, 1947, p. 12. (11) See note 3.

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