Ford Scholars Oral History Project

Between 1951 and 1957, an experimental scholarship program brought some of the brightest high school students from across the country to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Many of them would go on to be successful doctors, scientists, and academics.

(Left to Right) Paul Friedman, Mary Ross, Charles Holbrow, and Hillel Gershenson. Photo courtesy of Charles Holbrow

The Pre-Induction Scholarship Experiment was created as a result of the United States’ entry into the Korean War. A revision of the military draft lowered the age of draft eligible men to eighteen-and-a-half in order to supply the armed forces with more soldiers. College administrators, however, worried that the returning soldiers would have little interest in attending their universities.

At a 1951 meeting of the Association of American Colleges, officials from Columbia, Yale, the University of Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin came up with an experiment. If they admitted the best and brightest students two years early, the officials reasoned, they would be more likely to return to college after fulfilling their military duties. Furthermore, they would be providing the armed forces with a crop of educated young men who could take on roles that require technical skills and intelligence.

The financial backing of the Ford Foundation, whose foundation head, Robert Hutchins, was an educational philosopher and activist, helped to make the idea a reality. In its first year, the UW took on fifty-two students aged 16 or younger. They were the first class of students who would go on to be known as the Ford Scholars.

Herbert and Evelyn Howe
Herbert and Evelyn Howe (S04358)

Almost immediately, the Ford Scholars Program became so popular that it tripled the amount of participating colleges from four schools to twelve, and would soon grow to include high school girls in the program.

Once they arrived in Madison, the Ford Boys and Ford Girls were mentored by Professors Evelyn and Herbert Howe of Integrated Liberal Studies. The Howes found apartments for the Ford Scholars, many of them hailing from out of state, and would often host dinners at their home to ensure the young scholars remained fed. In the year 2000, a group of Ford Scholars funded the Herbert and Evelyn Howe Bascom Professorship Fund, which is given to faculty who make contributions to UW-Madison’s Integrated Liberal Studies department.

The Ford Scholars Program ended unceremoniously in 1957. The Korean War had ended in 1953, Robert Hutchins left the education wing of the Ford Foundation in 1954, and high schools were becoming reluctant to let their brightest students leave early. But many Ford Scholars recall their time in Madison fondly. In the interviews below, common topics of discussion are the Howes, the Integrated Liberal Studies department, McCarthyism and the political climate on campus in the 1950s, and life as a sixteen-year-old on a major university’s campus.

Ford Scholars – Oral History Project Interviews

Holbrow, Charles (Interview #1465)

Israel, John (Interview #1447)

Miller, Albert (Interview #1479)

Stanley, David (Interview #1470)

Schoenbaum, David (Interview #1560)

Note: There are two  oral histories in our general collection where the narrators discuss the Ford Scholars program. They are Louise Trubek (Interview #1375) and Henry Wortis (Interview #1371). 

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