Iowa 4-H Foundation

Posted on March 8, 2012 at 5:00 PM by Global Reach

ISU President William Beardshear’s Place in 4-H’s Past

photos courtesy of Iowa State University Special Collections
When teachers began organizing meetings, contests and clubs for Iowa youth to learn practical skills such as baking and corn growing, they did not call these activities “4-H.” Years President Beardshear, courtesy of Iowa State University Special Collectionspassed before people commonly used the term “4-H.” However, many educators had heard the ideas of “foursquare education” or “the three H’s instead of the three R’s.” In other words, many educators wanted to educate the head, heart, hands and health, and some of them started 4-H as one way to do that.
William Beardshear, president of Iowa State College from 1891-1902, believed in these educational principles. In fact, Beardshear was one of the earliest Iowans to use the words “the three H’s,” and his beliefs about education shaped the early Extension Service through his actions and the actions of those he influenced.
Weeks before his death in 1902, Beardshear wrote a speech about “the three H’s.” He quoted French educator M. Buisson who in 1893 urged educators to “build up the character of the child…not by means of the three R’s but rather by means of the three H’s—Head, Heart, and Hand—and make him fit for self-government, self-control, self-help; a living, thinking being.”[1] Beardshear embraced these ideas. He wrote, “The three H’s…aim is to make an intelligent being still more intelligent,” a phrase which parallels the 4-H motto, “To make the best better.”[2] He criticized three-R’s education for only being concerned with the head.
President BeardshearIn the same speech, Beardshear mentioned a new higher education opportunity for Americans, the Rhodes Scholarship. Winners received scholarships to study at Oxford in England. Beardshear hoped this would be an effort “to foster learning for learning’s sake” along the lines of three-H education.[3] To win the Rhodes prize, college student applicants competed in four areas: educational, moral, fellowship and physical. Without using the words “head, heart, hands, and health,” Rhodes emphasized four areas of development matching the four H’s.
O.H. Benson, who later had the idea for the clover emblem, was principal of schools in Goldfield, Iowa, when he read about the first American Rhodes scholars.[4] He wrote, “I endeavored to plan more definitely than ever before all my educational programs on the 4-point or 4-H basis” (emphasis added).[5] The year was 1904. Benson had probably already adopted the idea of the three H’s and heard of the Rhodes scholarship because he had read Beardshear’s 1902 speech. A 1912 circular co-written by Benson brought the ideas together. Benson wrote, “[4-H] work represents a 'four-Square' training of the members of the 'Four-Square' needs of citizenship and home- life. The four H's represent the equal training of the head, heart, hands, and health of every child.”[6]
Beardshear believed in, and spread the word about, a new kind of education. Like Buisson and Rhodes, he believed in educating the whole person. Beardshear was a charismatic speaker and leader. During his years as president, he brought Perry Holden to Iowa State to implement this new kind of education among adult farmers, and corn clubs for boys soon followed. Benson and other educators picked up on the idea of educating the whole person and developed the meetings, contests, and clubs that later became known as “4-H.”



[1] Buisson, representing the French Ministry of Education, spoke at the International Congress of Education at Chicago on July 26, 1893. W.M. Beardshear, “The Three H’s in Education,” Journal of Proceedings of the Forty-First Annual Meeting of the National Educational Association, Minneapolis, Minn., July 8-11, 1902: 55. William Miller Beardshear Papers, RS 2/05, Box 3, Folder 16, University Archives, Iowa State University Library.
[2] Beardshear, 56.
[3] Beardshear, 65.
[4] Benson writes in the Hoard’s Dairyman piece that it was a 1904 Des Moines Register Leader front page article titled “Cecil Rhodes, Diamond King, Dead.” Since Rhodes died in 1902 Benson may have meant this article on the front of the Sunday second section: “Iowa and the Rhodes Scholarships: Four College Men who seek the Honor,” Des Moines Register and Leader (May 9, 1904): 13. Microfilm, Iowa State University Library.
[5] O.H. Benson, “The Origin, History, and Use of the 4-H Club Emblem,” Hoard’s Dairyman (1927): 582-583. National 4-H Program Files, 1900’s-1990’s, Record Group 33; Box 1a “Early 4-H Developments,” Folder “4-H Emblem,” National Archives II, College Park, MD.
[6] O.H. Benson and O.B. Martin (1912), quoted in 4-H Hall of Fame PDF Listing, 2002, <> (27 Sept 2006), National Association of Extension 4-H Agents (NAE4-HA).


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