Frank Parsons

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Frank Parsons

Frank Parsons (1854-1908) was an American educator and reformer whose grasp of problems of public ownership and municipal affairs made him influential among reformers and administrators.

Frank Parsons was born on Nov. 14, 1854, in Mount Holly, N.J., of Scotch-Irish and English parents. A brilliant student, he entered Cornell University at the age of 15, graduating first in his class 3 years later with a degree in civil engineering. After working with a railroad that went bankrupt, he taught school at Southbridge, Mass. He decided that he needed a law degree and completed 3 years of study in a year, passing the bar examination in 1881. The effort damaged his health; he spent 3 years in New Mexico for renewal.

Persons entered law practice in Boston but found it unsatisfying. He joined a publisher, for whom he prepared legal textbooks. While formulating a social philosophy which would result in a spectacular outpouring of writings and social efforts, he developed habits of reading and social contacts that affected his later career. Thus his lectures on English literature, given over several years at Boston's Young Men's Christian Association, became his successful The World's Best Books (1889). In 1892 he assumed a lectureship at Boston University, which he held until 1905.

In Our Country's Need (1894) Parsons formulated his views of "mutualism, " which attempted to reconcile individual liberty and socialism. Influenced by England's Herbert Spencer and by America's Edward Bellamy and "Christian socialism, " Parsons sought to devise ways of controlling such basic institutions as the telegraph and the railroad, while honoring private industry and individual initiative. He combined radicalism and conservatism. Rational Money (1898), The Telegraph Monopoly (1899), The City for the People (1899), and Direct Legislation (1900) established him as an earnest and competent social critic.

From 1897 to 1899, while maintaining his Boston connections, Parsons was also a professor at Kansas State Agricultural College, radicalized by the Populist party's success in that state. When a change in administration cost him and his associates their positions, they founded Ruskin College of Social Science at Trenton, Mo., with Parsons as a dean and professor. After this idealistic venture failed, Parsons returned to Boston. He became deeply involved in numerous reform causes and traveled across country and to Europe. He advised the progressive owner of Filene's Department Store in Boston on adding cooperative features to his personnel policies, and he was involved in building the Civic Service Home, a settlement aiding immigrant groups. In 1905 he helped organize the Breadwinner's Institute, which offered education and a diploma to the poor.

Parsons' The Story of New Zealand (1904), The Trusts, the Railroads, and the People (1906), The Heart of the Railroad Problem (1906), and his constant flow of articles made him an outstanding academic voice for progressivism, but contributed to the debilitation which caused his death on Sept. 26, 1908. Published posthumously were his Choosing a Vocation (1909), a pioneer work in the vocational field, and Legal Doctrine and Social Progress (1911).

Further Reading

Howard V. Davis, Frank Parsons (1969), emphasizes Parsons' role as the founder of vocational guidance. Arthur Mann, Yankee Reformers in the Urban Age (1954), devotes a chapter to him. □