The Education of Walt Disney

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

My nephew is graduating high school this month and, of course, we have been going through the process of applying to various colleges. He has received some acceptances already but not yet to the two top schools where he really wants to go.

It got me to thinking about Walt Disney, who never graduated high school but is considered a genius and who people who worked with him at the Disney Studio always referred to him as the smartest man they ever met.

Some of that was the fact that Walt was a passionate reader on all sorts of topics and loved sitting with people and having them explain to him how they did what they did while he asked questions to clarify things.

Even scientist Werhner Von Braun told the press at one point that the smartest man he ever met was Walt Disney because he couldn't use fancy words to hide behind with his concepts but had to explain to Walt theories in concrete terms using examples he could understand.

Walt was not impressed with college graduates who he suspected may have had some exposure to theories, but little hands-on experience to the real world or other disciplines but he always held teachers and education in high regards.

Walt was home schooled by his mother Flora until he was seven years old and old enough to take his younger sister Ruth to school with him to Park Elementary in Marceline. They later attended Benton Grammar School in Kansas City, Missouri from 1911 to 1917. That year his family moved to Chicago, Illinois where Walt began his freshman year (and only year) at McKinley High School.

Walt and his younger sister, Ruth, both graduated from Benton Grammar School on June 8, 1917. It was the only graduation Walt had from any school.

Walt Disney attended the Benton Grammar School.

Walt graduated from seventh grade, and he surprised his parents by delivering a patriotic speech to the graduates. In later years, his sister remembered the speech was "something about national or international affairs."

During the graduation ceremonies, Walt drew cartoons in his fellow students' yearbooks. Even then, he was well known as the boy who was going to grow up to be a cartoonist. The principal quipped to Walt's fellow students, "He will draw you if you like." Along with the diploma, the principal gave young Walt a seven dollar award for a comic character he had drawn.

Benton Grammar School became D.A. Holmes in 1953. Named after local civil rights leader and Paseo Baptist Church pastor Reverend Daniel Arthur Holmes, the D.A. Holmes School converted to a segregated all-Black school the same year and closed in 1997.

It was purchased from the Kansas City Missouri School District in 2002 and redeveloped into a senior living community.

In May 1963, Walt received a Distinguished Alumnus Award from the Kansas City Art Institute from which he had never graduated. He had taken only a few Saturday morning children's art classes there. He had also received an honorary high school diploma from the Marceline School Board three years earlier in 1960, since he had only attended one year of high school.

"Gosh. This goes along with my honorary high school diploma. I had honorary degrees from Yale, Harvard and [University of] Southern California before word got out that I didn't have a high school diploma. Now I have six high school diplomas," Walt said with a laugh in 1963 at the ceremony.

Walt received honorary degrees from both Yale and Harvard Universities on successive days in June 1938. Neither degree was a doctorate. They were both Masters of Arts.

After the Harvard ceremony, Walt told reporters, "I'll always wish I'd had the chance to go through college in the regular way and earn a plain Bachelor of Arts like the thousands of kids nobody ever heard of who are being graduated today."

While Walt is rightly respected as an effective educator, he had a very limited formal public school education. When the Disney family lived in Marceline, Missouri, Walt's dad, Elias, decided that Walt could not attend school until his younger sister, Ruth, was old enough to go as well, because it seemed to be the most practical thing to do. In that way, Walt could take his little sister and they could share the same classes.

Walt's mother, Flora, was a former grammar school teacher who had taught in the Central Florida area. She home schooled the children in the subjects of basic arithmetic, reading and writing. She was a good, patient teacher, and Walt loved being home schooled by her.

At age seven, Walt was enrolled in the two-story red brick Park Elementary School that held close to two hundred children. It was a standard basic education from McGuffey Eclectic Reader. The Reader series taught students to learn how to pronounce a word by "sounding it out" which may be why later in life, Walt's lips moved when he was reading something. Walt was not an attentive student and was always finding other things that captured his interest, especially cartooning.

His teacher, Miss Brown, arranged the children's seats according to their achievement in class. Walt was placed in a chair near the back door, and the teacher labeled him the "second dumbest" in the class because he wouldn't pay attention. Miss Brown complained repeatedly, "He was always drawing pictures and not paying enough attention to his studies."

When the Disney family moved to Kansas City, Walt was enrolled at Benton Grammar School. He had to repeat second grade since the teachers felt he hadn't been provided a sufficient education in Marceline. This, of course, meant Walt was almost two years older than most of the other children in his class.

Walt's subjects included grammar, arithmetic, geography, history, natural science, hygiene, writing, drawing, and music. Walt was known to be a voracious reader, especially enjoying the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Horatio Alger (who was famous for his many stories of young men who rose from rags-to-riches by hard work and honesty), Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain.

Supposedly, Walt read everything that Mark Twain wrote. Walt also enjoyed Shakespeare, but only the parts with battles and duels he later told an interviewer. He also loved the adventures of Tom Swift, a young boy who loved science and technology, and who first appeared in print in 1910.

However, for the most part, Walt was a mediocre student. His worst subject reportedly was algebra. In Walt's defense, he didn't have much time to study or sleep at home since he was also handling a newspaper route that required him to get up at three in the morning each day to deliver the morning newspapers, and to rush home after school to deliver the afternoon edition. So, he sometimes caught up on his sleep in class.

One time, during a geography lesson, Principal Cottingham discovered Walt not paying attention to the class lesson but instead hiding behind a big geography book drawing cartoons. In front of the entire class, the principal reprimanded Walt with the stern prediction: "Young man, you'll never amount to anything."

In fourth grade, Walt's teacher, Artena Olson, assigned the class to draw a bowl of flowers. Being very imaginative and creative, Walt drew human faces on the flowers, and he gave the flora hands and arms instead of leaves. He was reprimanded by his teacher that flowers do not have faces and hands and the assignment was to draw a still life. Walt won the first Academy Award ever given for an animated short cartoon, Flowers and Trees (1932) that featured flowers with faces.

Young Walt Disney

In fifth grade, on Abraham Lincoln's birthday, Walt dressed up as the former President, complete with homemade stovepipe hat, crepe hair whiskers and his father's frock coat, and came to school having memorized the Gettysburg Address.

"He made this stovepipe hat out of cardboard and shoe polish," remembered his classmate and friend Walt Pfeiffer. "He purchased a beard from a place that sold theatrical things. He did this all on his own. Walt got up in front of the class and the kids thought this was terrific so Cottingham took him to each one of the classes in the school. Walt loved that."

After graduation, Walt enrolled in Chicago's McKinley High School in the fall of 1917. He would attend high school for only a year before volunteering as a Red Cross ambulance driver in France. Instead of continuing high school upon his return, Walt started his first animation studio, Laugh-O-Grams, and his formal public school education was at an end.

The first elementary school in the United States to be named after Walt Disney was in 1956 at Tullytown, Pennsylvania (now called Levittown). The second was in Anaheim, California in the spring of 1958 and Walt caused a commotion at the dedication when without warning, he spontaneously declared that school was out for the day and had buses take all the children to Disneyland.

The third was built in Marceline, Missouri in 1960 to replace the Park Elementary School that Walt attended as a child. The fourth Walt Disney Elementary School was in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1969.

I compiled a book of quotations of Walt Disney on a variety of subjects called Walt's Words and for each quote I included the original source and the date so that future historians might better understand the context and when something was said.

Here are a few excerpts from that book:

"I didn't do well in school. If they'd made me see that education could help me make a living, or that arithmetic might be useful in figuring my income tax some day…but they didn't."

LOOK magazine July 26, 1955

"I didn't have a formal education to speak of. But the way to get an education is to do something. You get yourself into a problem, and you'll do the research to solve it. I have a feeling that's what's missing in our schools — the tackling of the hard job, then the series of 'Ahh…I see now where I was off.' That's how you learn."

"Still Attacking His Ancient Enemy – Conformity" by Edith Efron from TV Guide magazine July 17, 1965

"More education doesn't mean more common sense."

"Still Attacking His Ancient Enemy – Conformity" by Edith Efron from TV Guide magazine July 17, 1965

"(My Seventh Grade teacher at Benton Grammar School Daisy Beck) gave me the first inkling that learning could be enjoyable - even schoolbook learning. And that is a great moment in a kid's life. She had the knack of making things I had thought dull and useless seem interesting and exciting. I never forgot that lesson.

"Getting through the seventh grade was one of the toughest trials of my whole limited span of schooling. I had little inclination toward book learning and very little time to study. When I was nine, my brother Roy and I had a newspaper route for the Kansas City Star, delivering papers in a residence area every morning and evening of the year, rain, shine or snow. Often I dozed at my desk, and my report card told the story.

"The outstanding teacher of my youth instilled in us a permanent sense of wanting-to-do rather than having-to-do.

"Miss Beck saw what she regarded as potential talents and did everything she could to bring them out. The point is, she tried to understand all of us as individuals. But she never favored or pampered any of us. She managed somehow to promote our personal inclinations without neglecting the formal grade requirements.

"She never slacked what she considered her teacher responsibilities. I think I must have been a special challenge to her patience. She never scolded. And I don't believe she ever shamed any of us youngsters with discouragements."

"Walt Disney, Showman and Educator, Remembers Daisy" The California Teacher Association Journal December 1955

"Animated films are the most versatile and stimulating of all teaching facilities. The job of the animated film is not to take the place of the teacher but to help the teacher."

"Walt Disney's Last Great Gift to Our Children" by Melisande Meade Lady's Circle magazine April 1967

"For a child, encouragement from a grown-up can be a thrilling thing with lasting consequence. It can help fix his objectives, give him confidence to drive unswervingly toward his goal, spell the difference between failure and success."

"I'll Always Remember a Country Doctor" by Walt Disney Parade magazine September 23, 1956

Walt Disney received an honorary Master's degree from Harvard University on June 23, 1938.

"Get me right, boys. I'm grateful for these honorary degrees and the distinction they confer. But I'll always wish I'd had the chance to go through college in the regular way and earn a plain Bachelor of Arts like the thousands of kids nobody ever heard of, who are being graduated today."

The Hearst newspaper The American June 23, 1938

"Don't call the things 'educational'. That word's poison to kids. Nobody wants to be educated. They want to be entertained while they're being informed."

"80 Million a Year from Fantasy" by Frank Rasky (Toronto) Star Weekly November 14, 1964

"I was good at arithmetic and a champ at spelldowns! Most of the time, though, I'd be dreaming, wandering all over the place but I could bluff it on almost anything but grammar. I was nominated for class president but the teacher decided my grades didn't warrant such an exalted position, so I had to settle for sergeant-at-arms."

"The Wonderful World of Walt Disney" by Bill Balantine from Vista II magazine Winter 1966-67

"I'm just very curious – got to find out what makes things tick – and I've always liked working with my hands. Since my outlook and attitudes are ingrained throughout our organization, all our people have this curiosity. It keeps us moving forward, exploring, experimenting, opening new doors."

"The Wonderful World of Walt Disney" by Bill Balantine from Vista II magazine Winter 1966-67

"(The Mickey Mouse Club television show) will be entertaining but every day we'll try to have something that will stimulate the kids and make them more interested in life and the world around them."

Tucson Daily Citizen February 19, 1955

"I don't regret having worked like I worked. I can't even remember that it ever bothered me. I mean I have no recollection of ever being unhappy in my life. I look back and I worked from way back there and I was happy all the time. I was excited. I was doing things. And I think that I got a greater education by doing that then you can ever jam into anybody by going through this methodical business of going to school every day."

Interview with Pete Martin for Saturday Evening Post June/July 1956

"We are trying to regiment people into education. Everybody does not fit into that pattern. There's other ways that people get educated. These square pegs trying to fit in these round holes in universities and things. I say that we've got too many restrictions on young people today. I did things when I was fifteen that today you wouldn't have a chance to do if you were twenty."

Interview with Pete Martin for Saturday Evening Post June/July 1956

"My dad was always for anything educational. If I wanted to go see a show at night, the only way I could go was to tell my dad it was an educational picture on there that I wanted to see. My dad wanted his children to get fully educated."

Interview with Pete Martin for Saturday Evening Post June/July 1956

"I don't like to call it educational, but the informative type of film. That's an exciting thing because this era we're in is one that people have no idea of what is actually going on today."

Interview with Pete Martin for Saturday Evening Post June/July 1956

"If I don't know anything, I'm not afraid to go and ask somebody."

Interview with Pete Martin for Saturday Evening Post June/July 1956

"I'm a restless person. If I read a book on something, I can hardly finish reading the book to get down and want to try it out."

Interview with Pete Martin for Saturday Evening Post June/July 1956