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History of Social Work Education and the Profession’s Structure

The History of Social Work Education and the Profession’s Structure

By Harris Chaiklin, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland School Of Social Work

An examination of the profession’s history, especially the development of education can help in understanding current issues related to its unity and what is the most appropriate role for the social worker. It won’t solve them, that will take a strong resolve by the current profession. Shoemaker and Leighninger have made important contributions toward this understanding (Leighninger 1986, Shoemaker 1998).

Shoemaker focuses on three early schools. The first is what became the New York School of Social Work. The second is what became the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. And the third is what became the Boston University School of Social Work.

In 1896-1897 Philip A. Ayres assistant Secretary of the New York Charity Organization Society gave a six week course called “Summer School in Philanthropic Work.” This was an intensive experience culminating in the requirement that a publishable article be submitted.

Ayers had been a student in the Department of Local Government and Public Administration at Johns Hopkins University. (Gilman 1894)Before coming to New York he had headed the Baltimore COS executive committee and was president of the Baltimore City Department of Charities and Corrections. He headed the Associated Charities in Cincinnati and Chicago. In 1904 the New York COS initiated a year program under the direction of Edward Devine called the New York School of Philanthropy.

In 1903 Graham Taylor founded The Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. He was a social gospel minister who directed the Chicago Commons Settlement House. In 1904 Harvard University and Simmons Female College along with Robert Woods head of the Boston Associated Charities founded the Boston School for Training Social Workers. It was directed by Jeffrey Brackett. He was another student in the Hopkins program in local government and public administration and had been an active volunteer in the COS. He was a believer in the scientific approach. Brackett became head of the Boston School for Training Social Workers which later became the Simmons College School of Social Work.

All these schools started about the same time. Initially there was little formal course structure and students were exposed to a wide variety of opinions about every aspect of practice and policy. Each of the three schools engaged in a different conflict over the nature of social work education and the profession. Shoemaker highlights this with a discussion of three issues about what social work education and practice would be like.

The first is that in 1912 Samuel McCuan Lindsay resigned from the New York School directorship over disagreements about social work’s knowledge base and tension between advocates of university based and agency based education. Lindsay was a proponent of strong social science and policy based courses. John Glenn the director of the Russell Sage Foundation questioned that orientation saying that what workers needed was skill in working with people. He probably had the support or encouragement of Mary Richmond at that time was director of Sage’s Charity Organization Department at that time had expressed strong reservations about university academic affiliation even though she wanted high practice standards. After this the New York School, led chiefly by Porter Lee, focused on client oriented casework. Lindsay saw the explanation of social problems as located in the social structure, Lee in the individual. The dispute over these orientations continues in social work (Costin 1983).

The second issue is that after 12 years of affiliation in 1916 Harvard withdrew from the Boston School in a dispute over the proper role for women in social work. Some of this was related to the academic apprenticeship dispute. Another and major issue was that Simmons and the Boston Associated Charities saw social work as a natural extension of women’s traditional roles. It was something men were not seen as suited for. Harvard wanted no part of this and Simmons became a traditional casework school.

Another element is this is that Cabot, a physician, then established a social work department at McClean. He also headed a department of Social Ethics which prepared male Harvard students to be researchers, reformers and agency executives. Tension over gender roles persist within the profession.

And the third is that in 1920 Edith Abbott and Sophinisba Breckenridge got control of the Chicago School away from Graham Taylor and affiliated with the University of Chicago in what was now the School of Social Service Administration. Abbott and Breckenridge wanted social workers to be administrators and policy leaders. Neither could get a job in the University of Chicago sociology department so they built their own school and thus helped ensure that the conflict about the social worker role would continue to this day. Even though they developed a casework curriculum their focus was still on the social structure and changing it as a way to ameliorate problems.

Leighninger in her analysis of the differences between Abbot and Reynolds says that the profession still has not come to peace with a definition of the social work role that unifies it. Abbott had a PhD in economics and was an excellent researcher. She saw social change as coming through research and knowing how to influence policy. Leighninger (p.112) says, “This image of professionalism followed the traditional models of medicine and law. It stressed a scientific base for practice, restrictive standards for entry into the profession, and a consultative role in the development of social policy”

Reynolds was equally intellectually able but she followed a psychologically oriented casework track spending many years at Smith College School for Social Work. What makes a comparison between Abbott and Reynolds interesting is that as her career moved on she adopted a radical politics that saw change as necessary in the social structure. She never abandoned casework. She wanted to reconcile Marx and Freud. At the same time she regularly attended church all her life. Her politics led to her being forced to leave Smith. She had difficulty locating a job. The Red Cross turned her down. Eventually she started a casework service at the National Maritime Union and did this until WWII ended.

It is difficult to pin one label on Reynolds. She agreed with Abbott that the profession she be based on scientific knowledge and that the whole profession should be involved in restructuring society. They also agreed that women had a tough time finding appropriate professional positions. She differed from Abbott in that she was a strong supporter of unions and wanted a broad profession that included people without a lot of professional education. The science they focused on differed. Abbott was concerned with designing and delivering social services. Reynolds stayed concerned with human development and her radical politics were directed toward this end. One thing about Reynolds is that because of her politics the community organization wing of the profession has tended to honor her and forget her emphasis on casework. Leighninger (p. 116) sums this up by saying, “The differences between Abbott and Reynolds’ version of a science for social work can be viewed as reflecting the split between policy analyst and direct practitioner. Each chose the science appropriate to her practice.”

Their differing politics helps clarify the differences between Abbott and Reynolds. Abbott was a Republican. She wanted to build a scientific professional public welfare within our existing social system. While she felt social workers should work for change she did not think partisan politics was the way to go and was against professional associations supporting political parties. Reynolds on the other hand saw social work and people engaged in a struggle for survival and wanted social workers to take action through the labor movement. These issues are still not resolved within the profession.


Costin, L. B. (1983). “Edith Abbott and the Chicago influence on social work.” Social Service Review 57(1): 94-111.

Gilman, D. C. (1894). A panorama of charitable work in many lands: being a review of the papers submitted to the International Congress in Chicago, June, 1893. Being a report of the Sixth Section of the International Conference of Charities, Corrections and Philanthropy, June 1893. D. C. Gilman. Baltmore, The Johns Jopkins Press: viii-xviii.

Leighninger, L. (1986). “Bertha Reynolds and Edith Abbott: contrasting images of professionalism in social work ” Smith College Studies In Social Work in Social Work 56(2): 111-121.

Shoemaker, L. M. (1998). “Early conflicts in social work education.” Social Service Review 72(2): 182-191.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Chaiklin, H. (2013). The history of social work education and the profession’s structure. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from

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