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Charles McMurry (1857–1929)

The principal disseminator of Herbartian pedagogical ideas in the United States, Charles Alexander McMurry formulated the concept of interdisciplinary curriculum. He grew up in rural Illinois and took the classical high school course in the training school of the Illinois State Normal University (ISNU), followed by two years of classical study at the University of Michigan. He then taught in Illinois country schools for two years and in Colorado for two years. He returned to Illinois and in 1882 was persuaded by a colleague to go to Halle, Germany, to study Christian theology. Through conversations with Charles De Garmo, he became interested in the pedagogical ideas being disseminated by the German Herbartians, who believed that the development of moral character in the elementary school was achieved by a structured academic curriculum. McMurry returned to Halle in 1886, accompanied by his younger brother Frank, who was also interested in finding a theoretical grounding for teaching. After completing his Ph.D. in 1887, Charles joined his brother in the newly established Herbartian pedagogical seminar of Professor Wilhelm Rein at the University of Jena. There, teacher preparation and practice teaching were carried out according to a full interpretation of Herbartian psychology and pedagogy. It was this experience with the integration of theory and practice that led the brothers to launch American Herbartianism in the 1890s.

Convinced of the potential value of the Herbartian approach for American teachers, by the time McMurry arrived home in 1888 he had a complete ten-year writing plan to bring those ideas to teachers, and he began testing them in practice as a principal in Evanston, Illinois, and then as head of the training school at the Winona State Normal School in Minnesota in 1889. He and Frank published a translation from Wilhelm Rein's work as The Method of the Recitation in 1890. In 1892 Charles published The Elements of General Method Based on the Principles of Herbart, the same year that he returned to Illinois to become assistant in the training school at ISNU. He soon became its director and over the next seven years produced the first volumes in his series of special methods books that carried Herbartian ideas into normal schools all over the country. In spring of 1892 the McMurry brothers and Charles De Garmo spearheaded the formation of a National Herbart Club, modeled on the German Verein der wissenschaftliche Pädagogik, which disseminated Herbartian ideas through local discussion clubs.

Through the interest of such national figures as Francis W. Parker, the Herbartian notion of correlated curriculum gained sufficient attention to prompt calls in the National Education Association's Committee of Ten report for more correlation, and the establishment of a special subcommittee to report on the efficacy of correlation as a guiding principle for elementary school curriculum. That 1895 report, written by U.S. Commissioner of Education William Torrey Harris, in effect ignored the Herbartian notion, provoking vociferous objections and prompting the McMurrys, De Garmo, and others to found and publicize the National Herbart Society for the Scientific Study of Education (NHS) in 1895 as a forum for open discussion of new educational ideas. McMurry served as its secretary and yearbook editor for eight years, carrying it through its transition to the National Society for the Study of Education (NSSE) in 1902 and actively recruiting members for local clubs. Harris's resistance to Herbartianism on philosophical grounds was overridden; most educators believed in the pedagogical utility of Herbartian ideas and in particular by the semiscientific nature of their expression. McMurry disseminated Herbartianism through book production and through summer school teaching at the universities of Minnesota, Chicago, Illinois, Columbia, and Cornell, and through his work as secretary of both the NHS and the Illinois Society for Child Study.

In 1899 McMurry established the teacher education program at the new Northern Illinois State Normal School at De Kalb along Herbartian lines. In 1906 to 1907 he served as acting president of the California State Normal School of Pennsylvania. He returned to DeKalb to begin a process of integrating the city schools into the teacher education program, becoming superintendent in 1911. During this period he wrote extensively, revising his special methods books in history, geography, literature, arithmetic, natural science, and language, and reworked his translation and adaptation of the Herbartian eight-year course of study. He gave particular emphasis to the development of "type studies," units that examined a "typical" phenomenon (such as a forest community) in depth in order to develop a thorough understanding of principles that could then be applied to the study of other phenomena. In 1915 he became professor of elementary education at the newly reorganized Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University. He died in 1929, remembered by his colleagues and students as a master teacher at all levels.


MCMURRY, CHARLES A. 1903. Special Method in History; A Complete Outline of a Course of Study in History for the Grades below the High School. New York: Macmillan.

MCMURRY, CHARLES A. 1904a. The Elements of General Method Based on the Principles of Herbart. New York: Macmillan.

MCMURRY, CHARLES A. 1904b. Type Studies from the Geography of the United States. New York: Macmillan.

MCMURRY, CHARLES A. 1906. Course of Study in the Eight Grades. New York: Macmillan.

MCMURRY, FRANK, and MCMURRY, CHARLES A. 1890. How to Conduct the Recitation, and the Principles Underlying Methods of Teaching in Classes. New York: Kellogg.

TYLER, KENNETH. 1982. "The Educational Life and Work of Charles A. McMurry: 1872–1929." Ph.D. diss., Northern Illinois University.


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