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Lincoln School

The Lincoln School (1917–1940) of Teachers College, Columbia University, was a university laboratory school set up to test and develop and ultimately to promulgate nationwide curriculum materials reflecting the most progressive teaching methods and ideas of the time. Originally located at 646 Park Avenue in New York, one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the city, the Lincoln School was also a training ground for New York City's elite, including the sons of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who provided the funding for the school. Among the school's chief architects were Charles W. Eliot, a former president of Harvard University and an influential member of the New England Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools; his protégé Abraham Flexner, a member of the controversial Rockefeller philanthropy, the General Education Board; Otis W. Caldwell, a professor of science education at Teachers College and the school's first director; and the dean of Teachers College, James E. Russell.

In the 1920s and 1930s the Lincoln School was the most closely watched experimental school in the educational world, making solid contributions in the work of laboratory schools. It provided a select number of Teachers College students with clinical teaching experience, engaged in curriculum design and development, and provided an observation and demonstration site for teachers from around the United States and abroad. Its own experimental research institute promoted staff development and student teaching, and it distributed its printed materials in national journals and in mass mailings to schools throughout the United States.

Caldwell and his staff constructed an interactive or "experience" curriculum designed to relate classroom materials to the realities of everyday urban-industrial as well as agricultural life. Science and mathematics courses emphasized the practical application of these subjects to life in the contemporary world. Students learned through nonacademic community resources–the fire department, markets, churches, transportation and communication facilities–that were used as models for the reorganization of school life, and through music, language, art, and social studies where students imbibed principles that, in the language of the school's literature, were "foundational to effective and upright living."

Experiences were rarely spontaneous, however, in classrooms where carefully planned experiments guided every phase of the work and where teachers used modern laboratory methods of collection, organization, and interpretation of data. In keeping with the dual purpose of the school–experimental curriculum development and character training in new forms of social responsibility–children were led through a sequence of avowedly "modern" courses. "Modern" meant practical and useful, with a direct bearing upon the everyday work of the world in finance, industry, agriculture, government and the arts. It also meant a great deal more science and mathematics instruction than one found in the traditional curriculum. Science teaching, according to Caldwell, a biologist, and Harold Rugg, his colleague in mathematics, was valuable because it taught good citizenship defined as "the increased respect which the citizen should have for the expert." This was in an age which had become "amazingly complicated [and] incalculably difficult to understand" and in which the salient feature was "the political and economic ignorance and indifference of the common man."

The classical defenders of liberal culture found much to hate in the program of the Lincoln School, which they regarded as devoid of emotion, imagination, poetry, beauty, and art. Critics also worried about the involvement of the General Education Board and the powerful industrial statesmen who headed it, pointing to the ambiguous position of the charitable trust in a democratic society.

What kind of a school was it, historians still want to know, that could combine cultural epoch theory, the doctrine of interest, and parvenu notions of social efficiency with the relatively remote, patrician sensibilities of founders and supporters like Eliot and the Rockefellers? What kind of a school was it that would teach vocational math and science to its upper and upper-middle class students, but not Greek and Latin, the traditional foundations of elite culture? The School itself could never quite decide what it was: An experiment in progressive practices? A hedge against those practices when they shifted dangerously toward bureaucratic centralism? Or the harbinger of something entirely new and novel and distinctly modern? This last possibility was allowed to die early, a sacrifice to child-centeredness, to subject-matter fetishism, and to an experimental tradition that controlled for these factors but otherwise ignored them for larger, correlative and integrative purposes. In 1940 the Lincoln School collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. A Special Committee of the Board of Trustees of Teachers College in the interest of both intellectual and practical economy recommended its amalgamation with the larger and less research-intensive Horace Mann School.


CALDWELL, OTIS W. 1921. "Contributions of Biological Sciences to Universal Secondary Education." School Science and Mathematics 21:103–115.

ELIOT, CHARLES W. 1918. "The Modern School." Education 38:662–663.

FLEXNER, ABRAHAM. 1917. The Modern School. New York: General Education Board.

HEFFRON, JOHN M. 1999. "The Lincoln School of Teachers College: Elitism and Educational Democracy." In Schools of Tomorrow, Schools of Today: What Happened to Progressive Education? ed. Susan F. Semel and Alan R. Sadovnik New York: Peter Lang.

HOPKINS, L. THOMAS. 1937. Integration: Its Meaning and Application. New York: D. Appleton-Century.

KRUG, EDWARD A. 1961. Charles W. Eliot and Popular Education. New York: Teachers College Bureau of Publications.

RUGG, HAROLD. 1925. "Curriculum Making: The Lincoln School Experiment in the Social Sciences." Lincoln School of Teachers College Publications 1:1–24.

RUSSELL, JAMES E. 1925. "To the General Education Board." James E. Russell Papers. Teachers College, Columbia University.

SHOREY, PAUL. 1917. The Assault on Humanism. Boston: Atlantic Monthly.


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