Ask Alma's Owl: Social Work History

Originally published Nov. 28, 2011

Dear Alma,

What are the origins of the School of Social Work?

—Budding Philanthropist


Ask Alma's Owl
Dear Budding:
Some of the worst living conditions in the world could be found in New York City in the 1890s, where newly arrived immigrant families lived in overcrowded tenements and waged daily battles against crime, unemployment, hunger, poor sanitation and vermin. The effort to cure those and other ills across the nation sparked the Progressive Movement and created a generation of social reformers, many from families of great wealth and social status.
"Melting Pot," gelatin silver print, by unknown photographer, 1910
Melting Pot, gelatin silver print, by unknown photographer, 1910

There was no obvious path for those with a social conscience—except for digging into their purses—but interest in social reform sparked a movement in higher education. In 1894, sociology students at Columbia College could do six hours of field work with the Charity Organization Society. Two Columbia professors chaired the society’s committee on statistics, and their students helped work on studies on homelessness, unemployment and the state of children.

In 1898, the Society launched a free six-week long summer program in “practical philanthropic work.” The 27 men and women who attended came from 14 colleges and universities, and either had some experience in philanthropy or were recommended by their college instructors. The curriculum included classes in childcare, charity organization and visits to hospitals, jails and homes. With the success of the summer program, attendees began paying a $10 fee, and in 1904 the newly named New York School of Philanthropy offered a full-time, eight-month program.

The next year, students at Columbia and what was by then called the New York School of Philanthropy could attend classes at either institution. Columbia later made it possible to earn its master’s degrees and Ph.D’s through coursework at the philanthropy school. This relationship became official in 1940 when the University formally affiliated itself with the school, granting master’s of science degrees in social work and, later, doctorates. Two more name changes created the Columbia School of Social Work, which celebrated its centennial in 1998.

—Bridget O'Brian


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