“The Flame of Living Genius”: The Ohio School of the Air

Elementary students at Belpre School in Belpre, Ohio, ca. 1935. Via the Ohio Guide Collection on Ohio Memory.

On November 2, 1920, KDKA Radio in Pittsburgh launched the first radio broadcast in the country, announcing the returns of the Harding-Cox presidential election (which you can listen to here). Soon after, radio purchases exploded; from 1923-1930, approximately 60% of American families purchased radios. Radio broadcasting expanded in this decade, as well, and by the end of the decade programs included westerns, soap operas and other dramas, comedies, broadcasting for children, as well as news reporting. Radios, and radio broadcasting, ushered in a new era when “a custom where families gathered around a glowing box for night-time entertainment took root, forever changing American culture.

Ohio School of the Air workbook cover, via the State Library of Ohio on Ohio Memory.

In 1924, Sears, Roebuck and Company of Chicago funded the Little Red Schoolhouse of the Air, with Benjamin “Uncle Ben” Darrow as its schoolmaster. Darrow “foresaw that radio had created the possibility of a global village” (Bianchi, 2008). “The central and dominant aim of education by radio,” he said, “is to bring the world to the classroom, to make universally available the services of the finest teachers, the inspiration of the greatest leaders and unfolding events which through the radio may come as a vibrant and challenging textbook of the air.”

With the experience he gained in Chicago, Darrow traveled to Ohio in 1928 and made contact with the Ohio Department of Education. The following year, on January 7, 1929, the Ohio School of the Air was founded. By November of that year, at the first Ohio School of the Air conference, Darrow predicted that, with the help of educational broadcasting, “the minds of boys and girls will be dipped directly into the flame of living genius with its correspondingly greater inspirational and ambition-arousing possibilities” (Darrow, 1929).

The Ohio School of the Air continued for eight years, attracting teaching talent from around the state of Ohio. Lessons focused on the social sciences (history, government, geography), on the arts, on current events… nearly all of the subjects we see today, with the exception of math, were represented. In a survey conducted during the 1933-1934 school year and sent to 475 schools, 182 schools of the 270 surveys returned reported using Ohio School of the Air lessons, or 38% of schools and 67% of respondents. Unfortunately, the Ohio Department of Education ceased funding of the School of the Air in 1937, ending its run.

Ohio School of the Air program schedule, October 14, 1935, through February 1, 1936.

Ohio Memory would like to share with you materials from the Ohio School of the Air, which continued to educate Ohio’s students until a lack of funding caused its demise. Former State Librarian Paul A.T. Noon contributed lessons to the school, primarily on literature and history, and in this collection you can view transcripts for those lessons, complete with his notes and edits. You can also view the proceedings from the first Ohio School of the Air conference, as well as the annual report from the 1933-1934 school year and the final annual report from 1935-1936.


Thank you to Shannon Kupfer, Digital Initiatives Librarian at the State Library of Ohio, for this week’s post!

Sources used for this piece:

Radio: Ohio History Central (http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Radio)
Radio History: Mortal Journey (http://www.mortaljourney.com/2011/04/1920-trends/radio-history)
Bianchi, William. (2008). Education by radio: America’s School of the Air. Tech Trends, 52 (2).

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