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George Pliny Brown, 1879-1885

President Brown






Strengthening the Beginning

Sandwiched between the administrations of the first Indiana State president, William A. Jones, founder whose spirit seemed to dominate the institution for almost a half-century, and the third chief executive, William W. Parsons, who led the institution for an eventful thirty-five years, was the presidency of George Pliny Brown. Perhaps this simple fact of historical relativism best explains the general neglect of Mr. Brown and the absence of any tangible recognition of him on the campus of Indiana State University today. No academic building, no dormitory, nothing bears his name. He is, indeed Indiana State’s forgotten president---a man whose six-year tenure in office (1879-85) has been relegated to obscurity.

Why and how did this happen? Apparently it occurred because Mr. Brown came to be regarded as an interloper who, the faculty was convinced, threatened to undo the great work of his predecessor. For a majority of the faculty, which included William W. Parsons, Jones was Caesar and Brown his Brutus. Consequently, for many years after Mr. Brown’s presidency, his name was rarely mentioned in a favorable light.

Was President Brown’s virtual banishment from the history of the University deserved? In retrospect, the maligning of his name both during his presidency and after seems to have no substantial foundation or justification. George Pliny Brown was an able, experienced educator who presided over the Indiana State Normal School with competence and considerable success. The institution was beyond question better, more stable, and more prosperous when he left it in 1885. Time has largely vindicated his general educational policies.

Born in Lenox, Ohio, November 10, 1836. George Pliny Brown received a “common school” education in the public schools of Ashtabula County before graduation from the Grand River Institute in Austinburg, Ohio. This basic academic preparation, the approximated equivalent of a high school diploma, was the extent of his formal education. Like most of the talented educational leaders of his day, he was essentially a self-educated man. He began teaching at age 16 and 1855 to 1860 was in charge of the Waynesville, Ohio public schools. Married to Mary Louise Seymour in 1855, he had four sons, all of whom were grown when he became president of the Indiana State Normal School.

In 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, the family moved to Richmond, Indiana where Mr. Brown served for seven years (1860-65 and 1867-69) as superintendent of schools. For a single year (1866-67) he was superintendent of the New Albany schools. In 1869 he temporarily left educational administration to try his hand at several new endeavors. His most successful venture, the one in which he was to spend the last twenty-five years of his life, was publishing. His first attempt was a six-month stint in 1869, in partnership with A. C. Shortridge, superintendent of the Indianapolis schools, as publisher of The Indiana Teacher. In 1872, the two men launched The Educational which lasted for two years. Both publications were ultimately merged into the Indiana School Journal. But Brown’s appetite for writing, editing, and publishing had been whetted. For the rest of life he contributed regularly to a wide range of educational journals.

It was during these “foot-loose” years that Brown served as the fist mathematics instructor at the new State Normal School in Terre Haute for a single term in the spring of 1870. For a short time during this period, he also practiced law in the Indianapolis area. In 1872, he returned to the field of educational administration as principal of the Indianapolis High School, and two years later in 1874 he was promoted to the superintendent of that system. During these years he served as secretary of the powerful State Board of Education and was elected president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. After serving four years as Indianapolis, superintendent, he resigned in 1878 to serve as a representative to the D. Appleton Company. A distinguished publishing house.

Mr. Brown was thus a veteran educational administrator when he was invited to assume the presidency of the Indiana State Normal School in 1879. After almost two years of illness and fatigue, President Jones had resigned. For almost a decade, Jones had led the infant normal school through a period of almost constant trial and tribulation. In the process he left an impressive heritage of faculty loyalty and commitment to his educational ideals and policies. Jones had done a masterful job of indoctrinating his faculty with his own basis educational theories. He had apparently done so with logic, open discussions at faculty meetings, and the compelling power of his won personality and leadership rather than by forcing his will upon his coworkers. He was remarkably successful in establishing at Indiana State Normal what might be viewed as a somewhat rigid application of a Hegelian educational ethos, not typical of teacher education at the time. The result was an almost cultish loyalty and dedication to the “vision” of Jones.

Under Jones, the Indiana State Normal School had been successful in establishing itself as the most reputable professional teacher training institution in the state. In an era of large normal school enrollments when private normal schools were sprouting all over Indiana, Indiana State Normal, the only state normal school, remained the “cream of the crop” monopolizing the training of principals, superintendents and the state’s most successful public school teachers. To Jones’ mind, the age-old quantity v. quality argument must always be resolved in favor of the latter.

Jones’ faculty had worked closely with him laying the foundations of the institution. During the president’s frequent absences for reasons of health in his last two years, his faculty had been called upon to make many procedural administrative decisions for themselves.

It was into this “lion’s den” that George Pliny Brown descended in 1879. Only a short time passed before the faculty “lions” began to sharpen their teeth. Try as he might, President Brown could do nothing to assuage them. Simply put, he was not President Jones. As Indiana State Normal president, Brown expanded the course of study in a few modest ways, but none of these changes significantly altered the school’s direction. He suggested, apparently without much success, a slightly less exhaustive treatment of the “common school” subjects. Better publicity brought increased enrollments, but the increase was not sufficient to alter the school’s operation or approaches. Brown was convinced that the Indiana Normal School could not afford the luxury of a theoretical response to its educational mission such as the one set forth by his predecessor. He was persuaded that the institution must be receptive and adaptable to ever changing educational currents.

The faculty remained unconvinced.  In June 1881, five senior members of the faculty made the ultimate protest--a mass resignation.  Charging in a lengthy letter that President Brown had sought to “lower the standards of scholarship” and had acted “arbitrarily and independently”, they took their case to the Board of Trustees.  The Terre Haute Evening Gazette refused to print their letter referring to it as an “ill-tempered manifesto designed to injure the school”.  The response of the Board of Trustees was firm and unequivocal.  The Board found nothing censurable in President Brown’s conduct considered the faculty’s case “too forcibly put”, reminded them of the president’s authority, and invited them to resign if they could not work in harmony with him.

The subsequent resignation of the five protesters presented President Brown with a rare opportunity to select a new faculty more receptive to his own educational theories and approaches.  It is rather ironical and surprising that he did not do so.  Almost without exception, replacements were Indiana State Normal graduates who shared the fundamental assumptions and attitudes of those who had resigned.  Even President Brown later admitted his culpability in an article in his Public School Journal devoted to reflections on his experiences in Terre Haute:

In the process of time the old order came to ‘move on’ and the old faculty, who thought they saw the destruction of their ‘beautiful world’ in the execution of this order, withdrew.  This was the first conflict of ideas in the history of the school.  In the reorganization of the faculty there was a change of persons, but as it proved, no real change of idea.  The new faculty was chosen from the alumni of the institution.  It was the old wine in old bottle.  The new spirit that was injected from without worked a little modification, which greatly increased the attendance at the school but effaced no real change in the idea, spirit or method of it.  The new administration [his own] had attempted the impossible and soon withdrew, leaving formalism as strong as before as

After the mass resignation, open hostility to the president ended but tensions continued to exist just below the surface.  Meanwhile the school continued to grow.  Enrollments almost doubled during the Brown years averaging about 400 each term.  Since education was virtually the only profession then open to women, they were in a majority on both enrollment and graduation lists.  Students tended to be several years older than college students today.  Many taught in the “common schools” during the regular public school year and then returned to swell the spring term enrollment figures, which were nearly twice as large as the fall and winter enrollments.  Because of its low pay, teaching was a very mobile profession with a turnover rate of about 25 percent annually.  For little more than $50, a parsimonious student could attend Indiana State Normal for an entire term.  However, despite the general deflation of the period, the modest room and board charges that averaged about $2 per week, and the fact that there were no tuition charges, students often found it impossible to attend more than one or two terms before leaving to renew their financial reserves.

Students of the 1880s entered a stiff, formalized, sometimes pedantic atmosphere at Indiana State Normal.  The highly disciplined approach to education had more in common with a closed high school campus than a modern university.  The school day opened with fifteen-minute chapel exercises normally addressed by the president.  There were no organized sports, no sororities or fraternities; both were expressly forbidden.

After four years of smoldering faculty resentments, President Brown once again found himself under attack in Spring of 1885.  Two years earlier, the president had surrendered the headship of the Department of Didactics.  One might infer from this a further distancing of himself from his faculty colleagues.  Whatever the reason, it did not improve his status with the faculty.  Apparently faculty members had been especially alienated by Brown’s alleged leniency toward students.  Many faculty had been embarrassed and angered when the president explicitly countermanded their own disciplinary actions.  To them, the president seemed to side consistently with the students in altercations with the faculty.

The final crisis of George P. Brown’s presidency came when Vice President William Wood Parsons, one of the first graduates of the normal school and a protégé of former President Jones, was offered by another presidential reprieve.  After Parsons had disciplined two young ladies who had been suspended from a colleague’s class, Brown revoked Parsons’ action and reinstated the two girls.  Parsons strongly protested the reversal of his decision and brought to Brown’s attention the general faculty resentment surrounding similar episodes in the past.

Brown, who was reportedly surprised by Parsons’ recitation of the grievances against him, took the occasion to tender his resignation giving as his principal reason a desire to engage in another kind of work.  He contended that his decision to resign had simply been hastened by most recent problems with his faculty.  If there were other reasons for Brown’s resignation, the historical record does not reveal them.  A modest, non-combative gentleman, Brown simply had no stomach for continued confrontation.  In June 1885 the Board of Trustees accepted his resignation and elevated Vice President Parsons to the presidency.

Following his resignation, Brown located in Topeka, Kansas where he served briefly as agent for A. S. Barnes and Company.  He then moved to Chicago where he was involved for a short time in the school supply business.  Shortly thereafter, he moved to Bloomington, Illinois where he spent the remainder of his life. In 1886, he bought and edited the Illinois School Journal, which later became the Public School Journal.  He was organizer and president of the Public school Publishing Company, a Bloomington-based firm.  After twenty-five years as a publisher, editor and writer, he died in 1910.

Like most leading educational administrators of the late nineteenth century, Mr. Brown was a gifted teacher, writer and speaker with a remarkable breadth of talent.  Normal school presidents and principals were expected to excel in all “common school” subjects.  Brown wrote a profusion of books, articles and educational columns covering widely divergent fields of knowledge in the quarter century after his resignation from Indiana State Normal.  Some of his books suggest the extent of this diversity:

  • Religious Instruction in State Schools (1891)
  • Elements of English Grammar (1899)
  • The Story of Our English Grandfathers (1903) 
  • The King and His Wonderful Castle (1904)
  • Physiology and Psychology of Education (1908) 
  • In Memoriam: William Torrey Harris (1910)

George P. Brown, a mild-mannered, adaptable Hoosier educator, had been unable in six years to break or even significantly alter the grip of his predecessor, William A. Jones, on the minds and  hearts of “formalities”.  Eight years after his resignation, he provided some insights into his problems  with the educational notions identified with President Jones:

This school [Indiana State Normal] has always been peculiar.  It was organized upon the belief that education as it existed at the time had little to commend it, and that a thorough reconstruction was necessary.  This reconstruction was attempted, and the conviction prevailed in the faculty that if the school did not meet the wants of the state, so much worse for the state….A great deal was said about ‘rational freedom,’ and the description of the process of realizing it was boiled down into the phrase, ‘The fact in thing; the law in the mind; the method in both.”

Implicit in the remainder of Brown’s article is his conviction that the education approach he was forced to contend with at Terre Haute was too dogmatic, too indifferent to the needs of the state, and too heavy-laden with stifling formalism and regimentation.

Time was to vindicate most to Mr. Brown’s policies.  No better summary of his contributions has been made than that offered by his successor, William Wood Parsons, on the occasion of Indiana State’s fiftieth anniversary celebration in 1920:

Under President Brown’s direction the school made several important advances.  The courses of study were broadened and extended, larger appropriations were secured for maintenance, fuller account was taken of and more credit given for the work of the high schools which had greatly multiplied by this time, and more was done to popularize the school and to bring its work to the attention of the people of the state.  Moreover, to a considerable extent and somewhat abstract terminology adopted and employed in the early days of the school was abandoned to give place to the language more current in educational and literary circles.  These and other changes greatly increased the attendance and gave the work of the school a wider and more general approval.  President Brown was a man of keen educational insight and of extended, varied and successful experience in all kinds of public school work.   This intimate knowledge of the schools enabled him to bring the work of the Normal School into closer harmony with the schools of the state and in this way he rendered a very great service during the six years of his presidency”.


Prepared for ISU alumni magazine by Herbert Rissler.
Dr. Rissler is the former chairman of ISU's History Department.