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Northwest Iowa Normal


In the geographic center of the state of Illinois, there is a town called Normal. Do you suppose that everyone living there is? Friends may pool their resources for a one-way bus ticket, hoping that Normal would work its magic and make me normal, too, though I think there’s little chance of normalization at this point in my life. So save your money.

Normal takes its name from a state institution there, a teacher-training school that not only gives its name to the city, but also to an entire species of higher education. I was surprised to learn that it derives from French higher education, the École Normale, that fulfilled a similar function in their culture. Like Minnesota State University Moorhead (a.k.a. Moorhead State) which was founded as the Moorhead Normal School, North Dakota created several in response to our settlement patterns—east to west—establishing Mayville and Valley City as “normal” schools, and then Minot and Dickinson as the center of state population shifted westward at the time of the First World War.


Given Agincourt’s date of settlement and incorporation (1853 and 1857) and its growth through the late 19th and into the early 20th centuries, it seemed natural — normal, even — to imagine that it, too, enjoyed the presence of a teacher-training school, Northwest Iowa Normal School (a.k.a. NIN). Somewhere, here in this blog or elsewhere in the Agincourt project files, there’s a piece that our friend Howard Tabor wrote about the origins of the school: that a closed 19th century county-run orphanage (these were quite common across the Midwest) found a second life as a teacher-training institute created by the legislature in Des Moines in response to a delegation of community leaders. What better argument than a recently disused building which might be put to better purpose! So far, so good, until last week’s issue of the High Plains Reader, Fargo-Moorhead’s alternate press.

Educational Fads

I wrote a few entries ago about a rumor afoot in architectural education: that graduation from an accredited program in architecture will be the equivalent of professional licensure. Who is promoting this notion and what their motivation might be aren’t clear. But the implication is obvious: education will inevitably teach to the test. Whether administered by the school itself or the state licensing agency, what reason could there possibly be to do reach beyond what is traditionally covered by the A.R.E. (Architectural Registration Examination)? There’s the remote possibility, I suppose, that the exam itself could become more speculative, more expansive. Let’s hope.

M. Wayne Alexander, an HPR contributor and faculty member at MSUM, wrote a column recently about educational fads, many of which we’ve seen at NDSU in the last forty years. I recall our own department’s response to the initiative several years ago called “the extended day,” the notion being that an adult out-of-school population might be lured back to classrooms by extending university class offerings to nine or ten o’clock. The Business College still does—probably always did—but why not the rest of the campus?

Our spin on the “extended day” wasn’t well received.

If the rationale was better use of the physical plant (classrooms, laboratories, libraries, etc.), why not the extended year? At that point we were on the quarter system—fall, winter, and spring—but there was still that pesky Summer Session. Get it? Semester—semester—semester—session. Why not treat the summer as a full-blown, legitimate semester, ten weeks in length like the “other” three? The implications for an architecture curriculum were frightening. Students could choose which of the four semesters would be their “vacation”. In theory, they could continue non-stop throughout the year and finish the five-year program in four years. Faculty would also achieve some flexibility in “time off”. Of course, the “regularity” of course offerings would be sketchy, at best, but it seemed worth the exploration. Well, you can imagine how quickly that was shot down.

Now comes a proposal that sounds too much like “No architecture student left behind” and, frankly, I don’t want anything to do with it. But it did cause me to wonder about the future of higher education. Are we, indeed, bifurcating schools into two tracks, let’s call them Training and Education? One oriented toward pragmatism; the other engaged in loftier thoughts.Might they ultimately produce Eloi and Morlocks? I’ve been in Higher Ed long enough to have seen some writing on the wall. But all this time I thought it was a dirty limerick. “There was a young man from Bucyrus….”

Northwest Iowa Normal

So today’s bottom line is a question about the history of Northwest Iowa Normal. The place should be getting ready for its centennial. How has it fared, do you suppose? What educational fads have come and gone and come round again in slightly altered form?

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