Nellie Cornish Embraced New Ideas For Education

Detail of a portrait of Nellie Cornish. Photo: Richard Erickson.

Nellie Cornish Embraced New Ideas For Education

In the documentary Cornish: Crossroads & Catalyst, Nellie Cornish's adoption of new ideas for teaching turned into a magnet that drew artists from across the country to work at Cornish. The idea of a school devoted to creating citizens and innovators as much as practicing artists heralded a new way of thinking about arts education.

When Nellie Cornish began working toward establishing a school of her own, she wanted something different. The early 20th century method of teaching music, or any art, was learning by rote. For the self-educated Cornish, this didn't work. "I kept asking myself, 'What exactly am I contributing to the education of my pupils?' Yes there was development in technical ability, improved scales, and tone. Parents seemed satisfied. but I wasn't. Sometimes I saw myself just as a trainer of performing animals..." she wrote later.

Casting about for new ideas on how to teach music, she found the writings of music educator, Calvin Brainerd Cady, who had a long association with progressive lion John Dewey. The principles Cady and Dewey shared—such as respecting each student as an individual, resisting systemization, encouraging experimentation and collaboration, fostering creativity and thought—resonated deeply with her. After studying with Cady in Los Angeles and enlisting his advice, she returned to Seattle to start the Cornish School in 1914.

As seen in the documentary Cornish: Crossroads & Catalyst, Nellie Cornish would quickly apply the same ideas to other arts. A Dance department would be established in 1916/17, followed by Theater in 1918/19. Top artists of the day would come to Seattle, drawn by Cornish's promise that they could teach in the new, collaborative way. A student body eager to experiment in multiple fields helped attract top teachers.

As the school expanded, the idea of education first proposed by Cady and Dewey, and so ably championed by Nellie Cornish, became the underlying principle of Cornish College of the Arts and its mission to educate its students to become artists, citizens, and innovators.

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For more on Nellie Cornish's long-lasting influence on her adopted city, check KUOW's City of Dreamers series and "How one woman staked a claim for art in Seattle" by Marcie Sillman.