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The Other Powell: An Advocate for Geography Education

The thirty-three founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group.  They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo.  In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 125th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.

By Mark Collins Jenkins

William Bramwell Powell, an educator, was born in Castyle, New York, on December 22, 1836. The younger brother of John Wesley Powell, William Powell spent much of his life in Illinois, where their father, a traveling Methodist minister, was living for a time. William was educated in the public schools and at Wheaton College. He further received an A.M. from Lombard University in Illinois.

He would remain on the Illinois prairie for a number of years more, but as a school administrator. For two years he was principal of schools in Hennepin; for 8 years he was school superintendent in Peru, and for 16 years he was the same in Aurora, where he was described as a man “of extraordinary executive ability.” Bram, as he was known to family and friends, may not have had the colorful exuberance of his more famous brother, but he was not by any means a timid man. On the contrary, he was a passionate and fierce–at times outspoken–critic of public and secondary school education. His reformist zeal prompted him to make sweeping changes in outmoded teaching methods and curricula, and this garnered him so much attention that in 1885 he was appointed superintendent of schools in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.

With renewed vigor he pursued educational reform: outdoor nature study, new reading and writing methods, improved training for teachers. He promulgated a simplified and rational grammar of English, opposed standardized examinations and overly rigid discipline–after all, schools should “make learning delightful.” This liberal philosophy of education stimulated strong opposition, and Powell was ultimately hounded from office after 15 tumultuous years. He then went to the Philippines in 1901, investigating school and textbook needs in the new American colony.

In January, 1888, however, he joined his brother, brother-in-law, and nephew in helping found the National Geographic Society. He even served on the Board of Managers from the beginning to 1899. He was a vice president in 1894 and chairman of the prize committee in 1899. His particular legacy to the Society, it seems, is this early and insistent emphasis on the importance of education, including geography education, in America’s classrooms–and thus the importance of schools in general to the organization’s mission.

William Powell had married Minnie Paul in May of 1865. He was the author of How to See, How to Talk, and How to Write (all 1880); of the History of the United States for Beginners (1900); of the Rational Grammar of the English Language (1900), and was joint author of the Series of Normal Readers (1887).

The circle of his life finally closed near where it began, for he was living in Mt. Vernon, New York, when he suddenly died while reading his morning paper in 1904.