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Profiles in Citizenship

Saturday, March 1, 1997

Peter Cooper had a simple idea: to build an institution that would enable working-class men and women "to acquire useful knowledge," he once wrote, "and to find and fill that place in the community where their capacity and talents can be usefully employed with the greatest advantage to themselves and the community in which they live." The result was a landmark in the history of American education: a private institution offering free instruction in practical knowledge and technological skills to the general public-the 19th-century prototype of continuing adult education and job training.

Born in 1791, the son of a Revolutionary War officer, Cooper had almost no formal education and was barely literate, yet he had a knack for gadgets and inventions. As an apprentice at age 17, he invented a machine for attaching the hubs of carriage wheels. (During his career, he also invented a washing machine, a compressed air engine, and clarified gelatin, or jello.) Then he went into the business of manufacturing machines to shear cloth. A few years later, he switched to the rapidly growing industry of gluemaking, and was able to capture almost the entire domestic market. In 1828, Cooper established the Canton Iron Works in Baltimore, and the following year built the first steam locomotive in America. With the growth of the railroads, he shifted his wealth into some of the largest iron mills in the country. He later served as the president of the North American Telegraph Co.

Cooper was an early advocate of the idea that wealth is a public trust: "The duty and pleasure of every rich man is to do something in a public way for the education and uplifting of the common man." He knew first-hand the importance of up-to-date job skills and the flexibility to apply those skills to new opportunities. He also realized America's rapid industrialization had two side effects: the collapse of the apprenticeship system of training and huge retraining expenses facing workers shifting to new jobs and industries. This left many American workers (and potential entrepreneurs) unprepared for the ever-changing labor market.

Cooper's answer to these problems was the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, which opened in New York City in 1859. The core program was a free night school (since most of its students worked during the day) for general science and the mechanical arts, offering courses such as mathematics, chemistry, architecture, and mechanical drawing. As soon as the school opened, every class was filled. In its first year, it accepted 2,000 pupils (mostly men ages 16 to 59), of whom two-thirds finished the program. Within five years, 25 percent of the students had not only completed the program but had passed voluntary tests to receive a "certificate of proficiency" in their field.

To better the condition of working women, Cooper also started a free vocational School of Design and provided funding for a scholarship program to reward women of "heroic virtues." Initial day courses focused on art: drawing, lithography, etching, painting. No advocate for women's rights, Cooper wanted to prevent women from resorting to menial labor, bad marriages, or prostitution to support themselves.

A public reading room and library were open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. to all who were not "unclean, intoxicated, or disorderly"; the facilities were well-stocked with newspapers, magazines, and books to draw the public away from "less desirable places of resort." In 1864, at least 4,000 visitors a week used the library-more than all the other libraries in New York City combined. Cooper Union also offered public lectures on government, political economy, and American history. The Lecture Hall soon became the most prestigious forum on the East Coast, drawing 1,500 attendees on Saturday nights as well as many famous speakers, including Susan B. Anthony, Horace Greeley, Mark Twain, Henry Ward Beecher, and Abraham Lincoln, whose address there all but assured his presidential nomination in 1860.

Cooper's educational programs were always very practical. With the coming of "new technologies," he added courses such as telegraphy (in conjunction with Western Union) and typewriting, and later started an "Inventor's Institute" to encourage new ideas and innovations. Every year, each department was asked to report instances in which students increased their wages due to the added knowledge or skill acquired in class.

Cooper's life's work was an inspiration to later education philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie, Matthew Vassar, and Ezra Cornell. In 1883, the year of his death, the night school housed 36 teachers and 3,200 students and gave out 955 certificates of completion; prospective students were waiting a year to get into the design school. Today, the Cooper Union is a fully accredited, free-tuition private college made up of three schools (art, architecture, and engineering) offering nine degrees to 900 enrolled students. "While I have always recognized that the object of business is to make money in an honorable manner," Cooper wrote, "I have endeavored to remember that the object of life is to do good."