Schools and Society: Progressive Education

Originally published in Who Built America? From the Great War of 1914 to the Dawn of the Atomic Age in 1946, a multimedia CD-ROM, Worth Publishers, 2001.

When pediatrician Joseph Mayer Rice toured the nation’s elementary and secondary schools in the early 1890s, he discovered rampant political corruption, poorly trained teachers, and dilapidated buildings. Most depressing, he found uninspired students bored by the mechanistic approach of their instructors. “In no single exercise,” he reported of New York City’s curriculum, “is a child permitted to think.” Rice’s published findings, which earned a wide audience, stunned the public and enraged many teachers and school administrators.

The philosopher and social critic John Dewey probably welcomed the report. In the 1890s, Dewey had begun to develop a pedagogic creed that was to occupy a central place in twentieth-century educational reform. Dewey’s 1913 article “Education from a Social Perspective” gives a sense of his new approach. In it, Dewey explains that traditional American schooling offered the middle class learning that disconnected practical, everyday experience from knowledge, while consigning the working classes to a mechanical, utilitarian schooling that discouraged the development of critical thinking skills. Instead, Dewey argues, educators must adopt a “social perspective” that promised to democratize knowledge and to equip all students for the challenges of industrial society.

As muckraking reporters like Rice and scholarly critics like Dewey sounded the call for a pedagogical “revolution,” they could look approvingly at an educational reform campaign in many respects already underway. For in the first decades of the twentieth century, an impressive array of intellectuals, social critics, and grass-roots activists came together to launch a progressive education movement that sought broad-based changes in American educational practice. At the heart of the progressive program lay a pedagogy that emphasized flexible, critical thinking, coupled with a reconsideration of the role of the school. The progressive educators insisted that schools establish organic relationships with their communities, that curricula confront broad social issues, and that public-school administrators provide educational opportunities for all children. Thoroughly infused with the reformist sensibilities of Progressive-era politics, progressive education essentially looked to the school for the political and social regeneration of the nation.

After World War I, the educational reform movement gained force. The founding of the Progressive Education Association (PEA) in 1919 accompanied the growing prestige of leading educational theorists at Teachers College, Columbia University. And experimental schools like the Lincoln School, proposed in an essay by Abraham Flexner on “A Modern School,” earned respect and influence. Increasingly, however, progressive education became preoccupied with methodology and, specifically, with the controversial “child-centered” approach. Imbued with Freudianism and child psychology, the child-centered method asked teachers to focus activities around the interests of the pupil, to position the child, in other words, at the center of the learning process. Perhaps no one better articulated this new creed than William H. Kilpatrick, a professor at Teachers College. Outlining an approach that celebrated “wholehearted purposeful activity” by the child as thepinnacleof postwar progressive education, Kilpatrick’s “The Project Method” suggests important changes in the rapidly developing movement.

John Dewey was deeply suspicious of these developments. In Dewey’s address to the PEA’s eighth annual meeting in March 1928, the widely acknowledged founder of the progressive education movement worries that its leaders, in their zeal to replace the traditional curricular approach, had stigmatized the teaching of organized subject matter. Merely exhausting the child’s whims with a series of ill-conceived, disconnected activities, he complained, did not encourage learning: “bare doing, no matter how active, is not enough.” Dewey argued that teachers needed to suggest relevant questions, to develop complex projects, and to pursue individual responses with creative vigor. In his view, “self-educative activity,” the heart of progressive learning, inevitably must be guided by “trained and acute observation.”

While the mild-mannered Dewey articulated the theoretical problems of child-centeredness, more virulent critics lambasted progressive education for ostensibly betraying its original goals. George Counts’s 1932 address to the PEA convention argues that progressive education had lost its moral vitality. Counts exhorts educators to revive the idealism that initially sparked their movement, and insists that reforming schools and teachers become more responsive to the social and economic problems of industrial capitalism. Stunned by this impassioned and unexpected indictment, Counts’s PEA audience fell silent, then suspended all other convention business to consider his plea. “More than any other speech ever given at an educational convention,” observes historian Lawrence Cremin, “this one stirred the minds of educators.”

The militant tone of Counts’s speech was indicative of the ideological in-fighting that plagued the PEA in the 1930s. By this time, the educational reform movement clearly lacked a unifying sense of purpose, and parochialism dominated where innovation and dynamic experimentation had once flourished. As a result, progressive education was unable to respond to outside critics, like Ann L. Crockett, the author of a 1940 Saturday Evening Post article entitled “Lollypops vs. Learning,” who charges the movement with abandoning rigorous standards and surrendering authority to children. After its membership peaked in 1938 at a little more than ten thousand, the PEA steadily lost political influence; in 1955 the association formally folded.

The successes of progressive education, of course, were among the many sources of its demise. Despite the conservative counterattacks, the revolution in education resulted in a more open, flexible curriculum attentive to the needs of individual children, and particularly to the needs of immigrants, who were increasingly transforming America’s schools into heterogeneous institutions. The progressive reform movement sparked certification and training programs, which yielded better-prepared teachers and administrators, and helped expand the school mission to include concern for health, vocation, and cultural life; clubs and activities, gymnasiums, assembly rooms, and athletic fields all appeared in response to the progressive notion of the school as a miniature community. Few aspects of twentieth-century schooling were left untouched by progressive education, a legacy perhaps not equaled by any other educational reform movement in American history.