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William C. Bagley (1874–1946)

Early Career, Teachers College

Professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University (1917–1940), William C. Bagley is commonly referred to as the founder of essentialist educational theory. Bagley was born in Detroit, Michigan, and after his family relocated to the east coast, he attended elementary school in Weymouth, Massachusetts. When his family moved back to Detroit in 1887, Bagley attended high school there and graduated from Detroit's Capitol High School in 1891 at the age of seventeen. Bagley entered Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University), with the intention of preparing himself to become a farmer. Upon graduation in the spring of 1895, Bagley had no land and no money to begin farming. After a fruitless search for employment, he soon decided to teach, a decision that influenced the rest of his life. He accepted a teaching position in a rural one-room schoolhouse near Garth and Rapid River, Michigan.

Early Career

Bagley taught in Michigan for two years, during which time he dedicated his professional life to the improvement of teaching. He attended the University of Chicago in the summer of 1896, and then transferred to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Working under Joseph Jastrow, he earned his master's degree in psychology, in the spring of 1898. Upon completion of this degree, he accepted a Sage Fellowship at Cornell University to study with well-known psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener. For four years, Bagley worked under Titchener and learned the structuralist psychology of his mentor. Bagley completed his Ph.D. in 1900 and spent the following academic year as an assistant in Titchener's laboratory. Still committed to the improvement of good teaching, Bagley accepted a position, beginning in the fall of 1901, as principal of Meramec Elementary School in St. Louis, Missouri. He worked in St. Louis for only one year, after which he accepted his first professorship as director of the Teacher Practice School and professor of psychology and pedagogy at the Montana State Normal School in Dillon, Montana. While in Montana, Bagley became active throughout the state by speaking at teachers institutes, by delivering commencement speeches, and by creating the first journal in the Rocky Mountain region dedicated specifically to education, The Intermountain Educator.

While working in Montana Bagley wrote his first major book, the Educative Process (1905). As a comprehensive portrayal of an early "science of education," the work became a popular textbook throughout the United States for courses on the introduction to educational psychology. The Educative Process was well received by professors as well as by the general public. With this book, Bagley's name received national, and even international, prominence.

Bagley received an offer to return to New York State to work at Oswego State Normal School in Oswego, New York. In the fall of 1906 he began his appointment there as superintendent of the Teacher Training Department. He also served as principal of the practice school and taught courses on educational methods. After only two short years he left Oswego to accept his first position at a state university, the University of Illinois.

At Illinois, Bagley helped to develop the Department of Education to the point that it became one of the most well known in the nation. In the nine years he was on the Illinois faculty, Bagley attracted to Illinois such prominent educational scholars as Guy M. Whipple, Lewis Flint Anderson, Lotus D. Coffman, and Charles H. Johnston. He also worked with several of his colleagues in 1910 to create the Journal of Educational Psychology, a scholarly publication that has remained significant for almost 100 years. Moreover, during this time, he helped to found Kappa Delta Pi, an honor society in education that has since opened chapters internationally.

As a professor at the University of Illinois, Bagley worked diligently to create a School of Education that was to differ remarkably from the Department of Education that he inherited. This transition ultimately required three main ingredients: an additional number of education faculty members, the construction of a building to house the school, and the creation of a program that permitted the School of Education to enroll its own students. Bagley had to prevail against the view, held by many professors of liberal arts, that future teachers needed no special preparation beyond a sound liberal arts education. Bagley certainly agreed that a sound liberal arts education was essential for future teachers. He also, however, believed that for people who planned to be teachers, a liberal arts curriculum should be accompanied by an equally sound sequence of professional education courses. Bagley eventually founded the University of Illinois' School of Education, although the construction of the building was not completed until 1918, one year after he left Illinois.

Teachers College

In the fall of 1917 Bagley began his final academic appointment at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he joined a stellar education faculty that included such prominent scholars as John Dewey, Edward L. Thorndike, William Heard Kilpatrick, and George D. Strayer. Bagley's official position was professor of normal school administration. This role allowed him to use his many years as a normal school professor, to work toward the improvement of normal school education across the nation–in effect becoming for more than twenty years the nation's dean of normal schools, or dean of teacher education.

While at Teachers College, Bagley entered into some of the most heated educational discussions of his career. Sometimes with, and often against, his colleague Kilpatrick, Bagley engaged in debates about the relative weight that should be given in educational theory to academic subject matter, on the one hand, and to the interests and needs of students on the other. Bagley never denied the importance of designing a curriculum that met the interests and needs of students. He often argued, however, that the emphasis that theorists such as Kilpatrick placed on the individual needs of students often eclipsed the necessity for academic subject matter in the curriculum. Importantly, Bagley sought a reasonable view of professional education that balanced the needs of students with a rigorous academic curriculum.

While at Teachers College in the 1920s, Bagley also entered into educational discussions about the role of intelligence testing in the schools. In Determinism in Education: A Series of Papers on the Relative Influence of Inherited and Acquired Traits, Bagley argued against the determinist viewpoint, held by people such as Thorndike, that education played little or no role in the improvement of a person's intelligence. Instead, Bagley asserted that the recently created intelligence tests actually measured the educational opportunity experienced by students rather than their innate ability.

In 1934 Bagley published what he believed to be his most significant contribution to educational theory. In Education and Emergent Man: A Theory of Education With Particular Application to Public Education in the United States, Bagley applied Gestalt psychology to teaching, arguing against what he called mechanistic psychology, represented most prominently by Thorndike and what might be termed extreme pragmatism, advocated by Kilpatrick. This final book of Bagley's, however, received little attention from his colleagues. This lack of recognition likely played into the final major event of Bagley's career, the founding of essentialism in 1938.

In that year, Bagley joined with some of his colleagues to create an organization that would counteract some of the extreme tendencies of Progressive education. In the Essentialist's Platform, which Bagley published in April 1938, the essentialists offered several basic educational principles. First, they recognized the right of an immature student to the guidance of a well-educated, caring, and cultured teacher. Second, they proposed that an effective democracy demanded a democratic culture in which teachers impart the ideals of community to each succeeding generation of children. Third, they called for a specific program of studies that required thoroughness, accuracy, persistence, and good workmanship on the part of pupils. Bagley's basic point with his role in the founding of essentialism was that the currently dominant theories of education were feeble and insufficient. He wanted these dominant theories complemented, and perhaps replaced, with a philosophy that was strong, virile, and positive. He did not, however, want to destroy completely the dominant theories that he was critiquing. Throughout his life, he supported both the academic disciplines and certain basic tenets of Progressive education.

Soon after the founding of essentialism, Bagley retired from Teachers College. During retirement and until his death on July 1, 1946, in New York City, he served as editor of School and Society. He died while completing editorial work for this journal. Bagley can be remembered as an untiring fighter for professional education, a supporter of the academic disciplines, and both a critic and a supporter of different aspects of the complex movement known as Progressive education.


BAGLEY, WILLIAM C. 1905. The Educative Process. New York: Macmillan.

BAGLEY, WILLIAM C. 1925. Determinism in Education: A Series of Papers on the Relative Influence of Inherited and Acquired Traits. Baltimore: Warwick and York.

BAGLEY, WILLIAM C. 1934. Education and Emergent Man: A Theory of Education With Particular Application to Public Education in the United States. New York: Nelson.

BAGLEY, WILLIAM C. 1938. "An Essentialist's Platform for the Advancement of American Education," Educational Administration and Super-vision 24 (April):241–256.

JOHANNINGMEIER, ERWIN V. 1967. "A Study of William Chandler Bagley's Educational Doctrines and His Program For Teacher Preparation." Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois.

KANDEL, I. L. 1961. William Chandler Bagley: Stalwart Educator. New York: Kappa Delta Pi and Teachers College, Columbia University.

NULL, JAMES WESLEY. 2001. "A Disciplined Progressive Educator: The Life and Career of William Chandler Bagley, 1874–1946." Ph.D. diss., The University of Texas at Austin.


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Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia: AACSB International - Program to Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987)