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Agnes De Lima (1887–1974)

Journalist, educator, and activist, Agnes de Lima wrote significant books and articles about Progressive education. She was born in Holywood, New Jersey, and grew up in Larchmont, New York, and New York City in a prosperous, conservative banking family that had emigrated from Curacao. De Lima attended private school and entered Vassar College in 1904 at the age of seventeen. At Vassar, de Lima received an excellent liberal education and majored in English. Through such teachers as feminist Lucy Salmon she encountered some of the liberal reformist thinking of the Progressive period. She worked with the College Settlement Association and was active in a campus organization that tried to improve the pay and working conditions of college maids. Her Vassar experience led her away from her family's conservative values, and she became active in socialist, feminist, labor, educational, and other reform movements.

After graduating from Vassar in 1908, de Lima moved to New York City, where she lived in a settlement house and worked as a writer for the Russell Sage Foundation and the Bureau of Municipal Research. She continued her education at the New York School of Social Work from which she received a master's degree in 1912. In 1917 there was a major political struggle over the efforts of reformist mayor John Mitchel to begin a "platoon school" innovation in New York City. In these schools students moved through a variety of workshops, assemblies, and libraries in platoons or groups, rather than remaining in one classroom. Willard Wirt, who had created a platoon system in Gary, Indiana, was hired to develop the program in New York. De Lima worked with Randolph Bourne and other young activists to promote the innovation, which was dropped in 1918 after voters rejected the reformist mayor.

These activities led to de Lima's more intense involvement with education and liberal journalism. Randolph Bourne had been the major education writer for the New Republic after the founding of that journal in 1914. Following his death in 1918, de Lima became the leading writer on education both for that journal and for the Nation, the other influential liberal periodical. She wrote for these journals a series of articles on Progressive education, which she then collected into a 1924 book titled Our Enemy the Child. This was one of the earliest books to describe and interpret what was actually happening in Progressive classrooms, and it has since been widely cited by scholars in educational history. It was the first study to identify clearly the three figures of Progressive education that Lawrence Cremin, in his influential 1960s book The Transformation of the School, labeled "scientists, sentimentalists, and radicals." De Lima's parallel groups were the "technicians," who focused on testing and methods; the "child-centered" educators; and the "visionaries," who hoped to reform society through the schools. De Lima was particularly supportive of the child-centered educators, believing that the best learning began with the needs and interests of children. She was most critical of the behaviorist "technicians" whom she described as "socializers, habit makers, and standardizers." As a socially concerned reformer, she encouraged the extension of successful Progressive experiments from private to public schools.

De Lima's brief marriage to Arthur McFarlane in the 1920s ended in divorce. During the 1930s de Lima continued her career as an education writer, publishing articles and reviews in the Nation, the New Republic, Progressive Education, the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, and other periodicals. She also wrote publicity materials for Progressive schools, including the Lincoln School and the Bank Street School.

De Lima's own teaching career was brief, but the experience of running her own small Progressive school helped her to understand and write about education and related social issues from the perspective of teachers. De Lima worked effectively with Progressive school faculties to help them report on and evaluate their work. She and the elementary teachers of the Lincoln School produced A School for the World of Tomorrow in 1939. With the secondary faculty of the same school two years later she wrote Democracy's High School. In 1942, with the same group of high school teachers, she published South of the Rio Grande: An Experiment in International Understanding. That same year she published The Little Red Schoolhouse, written in collaboration with the faculty of the school by that name. John Dewey, the leading figure in Progressive education, wrote an enthusiastic introduction to the book.

From 1940 to 1960, de Lima was director of public relations for the New School for Social Research in New York City. The New School, led by economist Alvin Johnson, was one of America's leading Progressive experiments in higher education, and de Lima contributed to its success and reputation by publicizing its innovative programs and activities. De Lima retired from the New School in 1960 and lived quietly in Greenwich Village until her death in 1974. De Lima is remembered chiefly for her role in describing and interpreting Progressive education and for promoting it as an essential element in broader movements of social and political reform.


DE LIMA, AGNES A. 1925. Our Enemy the Child. New York: New Republic.

DE LIMA, AGNES A. 1939. A School for the World of Tomorrow. New York: Lincoln School of Teachers College.

DE LIMA, AGNES A. 1941. Democracy's High School. New York: Lincoln School of Teachers College.

DE LIMA, AGNES A. 1942. The Little Red Schoolhouse. New York: Macmillan.

WALLACE, JAMES M. 1991. Liberal Journalism and American Education, 1914–1941. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.


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Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comEducation Encyclopedia: Education Reform - OVERVIEW to Correspondence course