Advocating Outdoor Classrooms

Daniela Blei:

In 1905, when tuberculosis plagued the United States, and Americans lived in deadly fear of the disease, a New York City health official addressed the American Academy of Medicine, pleading for changes at the nation’s schools. “To remove all possible causes which might render a child susceptible to the invasion of tuberculosis during school life, we must appeal to school boards, superintendents teachers, and school physicians to do all in their power.” Alarmed, the speaker noted that windows in American classrooms only opened halfway, and should be immediately replaced with French-style windows to “permit twice the amount of foul air to go out, and of good air to come in.” Every school must have a large playground, he continued, and classroom ventilation “of the most improved kind.” Schoolrooms were to be washed daily, and a “judicious curriculum” was to include “as much outdoor instruction as possible.”

The speaker was S. Adolphus Knopf, a German-born expert on tuberculosis and the founder of the National Tuberculosis Association, which became the American Lung Association. Like many leading minds of his generation, Knopf took an approach to science that was informed by the racist tenets of eugenics. For Knopf, slowing the spread of tuberculosis—an infectious disease second only to influenza in its deadliness—required investing in healthy, young bodies to prevent racial, national and even military decline. By 1915, Knopf argued that “open-air schools and as much open-air instruction as possible in kindergarten, school and college should be the rule.”