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Progressive Education

Philosophical Foundations, Pedagogical Progressivism, Administrative Progressivism, Life-Adjustment Progressivism

Historians have debated whether a unified progressive reform movement existed during the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. While some scholars have doubted the development of a cohesive progressive project, others have argued that while Progressive Era reformers did not march in lockstep, they did draw from a common reform discourse that connected their separate agendas in spirit, if not in kind. Despite these scholarly debates, historians of education have reached a consensus on the central importance of the Progressive Era and the educational reformers who shaped it during the early twentieth century. This is not to say that historians of education do not disagree–in fact, they disagree intensely–on the legacy of Progressive educational experiments. What they do agree on is that during the Progressive Era (1890–1919) the philosophical, pedagogical, and administrative underpinnings of what is, in the early twenty-first century, associated with modern schooling, coalesced and transformed, for better or worse, the trajectory of twentieth-century American education.

Philosophical Foundations

The Progressive education movement was an integral part of the early twentieth-century reform impulse directed toward the reconstruction of American democracy through social, as well as cultural, uplift. When done correctly, these reformers contended, education promised to ease the tensions created by the immense social, economic, and political turmoil wrought by the forces of modernity characteristic of fin-de-siècle America. In short, the altered landscape of American life, Progressive reformers believed, provided the school with a new opportunity–indeed, a new responsibility–to play a leading role in preparing American citizens for active civic participation in a democratic society.

John Dewey (1859–1952), who would later be remembered as the "father of Progressive education," was the most eloquent and arguably most influential figure in educational Progressivism. A noted philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, Dewey graduated from the University of Vermont in 1879, taught high school briefly, and then earned his doctorate in philosophy at the newly formed Johns Hopkins University in 1884. Dewey taught at the University of Michigan from 1884 to 1888, the University of Minnesota from 1888 to 1889, again at Michigan from 1889 to 1894, then at the University of Chicago from 1894 to 1904, and, finally, at Columbia University from 1904 until his retirement in 1931.

During his long and distinguished career, Dewey generated over 1,000 books and articles on topics ranging from politics to art. For all his scholarly eclecticism, however, none of his work ever strayed too far from his primary intellectual interest: education. Through such works as The School and Society (1899), The Child and the Curriculum (1902), and Democracy and Education (1916), Dewey articulated a unique, indeed revolutionary, reformulation of educational theory and practice based upon the core relationship he believed existed between democratic life and education. Namely, Dewey's vision for the school was inextricably tied to his larger vision of the good society, wherein education–as a deliberately conducted practice of investigation, of problem solving, and of both personal and community growth–was the wellspring of democracy itself. Because each classroom represented a microcosm of the human relationships that constituted the larger community, Dewey believed that the school, as a "little democracy," could create a "more lovely society."

Dewey's emphasis on the importance of democratic relationships in the classroom setting necessarily shifted the focus of educational theory from the institution of the school to the needs of the school's students. This dramatic change in American pedagogy, however, was not alone the work of John Dewey. To be sure, Dewey's attraction to child-centered educational practices was shared by other Progressive educators and researchers–such as Ella Flagg Young (1845–1918), Dewey's colleague and kindred spirit at the University of Chicago, and Granville Stanley Hall (1844–1924), the iconoclastic Clark University psychologist and avowed leader of the child study movement–who collectively derived their understanding of child-centeredness from reading and studying a diverse array of nineteenth and twentieth-century European and American philosophical schools. In general, the received philosophical traditions employed by Dewey and his fellow Progressives at once deified childhood and advanced ideas of social and intellectual interdependence. First, in their writings about childhood, Frenchman Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) emphasized its organic and natural dimensions; while English literary romantics such as William Wordsworth (1770–1850) and William Blake (1757–1827) celebrated its innate purity and piety, a characterization later shared by American transcendentalist philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862). For these thinkers, childhood was a period of innocence, goodness, and piety that was in every way morally superior to the polluted lives led by most adults. It was the very sanctity of childhood that convinced the romantics and transcendentalists that the idea of childhood should be preserved and cultivated through educational instruction.

Second, and more important, Dewey and his fellow educational Progressives drew from the work of the German philosopher Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852) and Swiss educator Johann Pestalozzi (1746–1827). Froebel and Pestalozzi were among the first to articulate the process of educating the "whole child," wherein learning moved beyond the subject matter and ultimately rested upon the needs and interests of the child. Tending to both the pupil's head and heart, they believed, was the real business of schooling, and they searched for an empirical and rational science of education that would incorporate these foundational principles. Froebel drew upon the garden metaphor of cultivating young children toward maturity, and he provided the European foundations for the late-nineteenth-century kindergarten movement in the United States. Similarly, Pestalozzi popularized the pedagogical method of object teaching, wherein a teacher began with an object related to the child's world in order to initiate the child into the world of the educator.

Finally, Dewey drew inspiration from the ideas of philosopher and psychologist William James (1842–1910). Dewey's interpretation of James's philosophical pragmatism, which was similar to the ideas underpinning Pestalozzi's object teaching, joined thinking and doing as two seamlessly connected halves of the learning process. By focusing on the relationship between thinking and doing, Dewey believed his educational philosophy could equip each child with the problem-solving skills required to overcome obstacles between a given and desired set of circumstances. According to Dewey, education was not simply a means to a future life, but instead represented a full life unto itself.

Taken together, then, these European and American philosophical traditions helped Progressives connect childhood and democracy with education: Children, if taught to understand the relationship between thinking and doing, would be fully equipped for active participation in a democratic society. It was for these reasons that the Progressive education movement broke from pedagogical traditionalists organized around the seemingly outmoded and antidemocratic ideas of drill, discipline, and didactic exercises.

Pedagogical Progressivism

The pedagogical Progressives who embraced this child-centered pedagogy favored education built upon an experience-based curriculum developed by both students and teachers. Teachers played a special role in the Progressive formulation for education as they merged their deep knowledge of, and affection for, children with the intellectual demands of the subject matter. Contrary to his detractors, then and now, Dewey, while admittedly antiauthoritarian, did not take child-centered curriculum and pedagogy to mean the complete abandonment of traditional subject matter or instructional guidance and control. In fact, Dewey criticized derivations of those theories that treated education as a mere source of amusement or as a justification for rotevocationalism. Rather, stirred by his desire to reaffirm American democracy, Dewey's time- and resource-exhaustive educational program depended on close student–teacher interactions that, Dewey argued, required nothing less than the utter reorganization of traditional subject matter.

Although the practice of pure Deweyism was rare, his educational ideas were implemented in private and public school systems alike. During his time as head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago (which also included the fields of psychology and pedagogy), Dewey and his wife Alice established a University Laboratory School. An institutional center for educational experimentation, the Lab School sought to make experience and hands-on learning the heart of the educational enterprise, and Dewey carved out a special place for teachers. Dewey was interested in obtaining psychological insight into the child's individual capacities and interests. Education was ultimately about growth, Dewey argued, and the school played a crucial role in creating an environment that was responsive to the child's interests and needs, and would allow the child to flourish.

Similarly, Colonel Francis W. Parker, a contemporary of Dewey and devout Emersonian, embraced an abiding respect for the beauty and wonder of nature, privileged the happiness of the individual over all else, and linked education and experience in pedagogical practice. During his time as superintendent of schools in Quincy, Massachusetts, and later as the head of the Cook Country Normal School in Chicago, Parker rejected discipline, authority, regimentation, and traditional pedagogical techniques and emphasized warmth, spontaneity, and the joy of learning. Both Dewey and Parker believed in learning by doing, arguing that genuine delight, rather than drudgery, should be the by-product of manual work. By linking the home and school, and viewing both as integral parts of a larger community, Progressive educators sought to create an educational environment wherein children could see that the hands-on work they did had some bearing on society.

While Progressive education has most often been associated with private independent schools such as Dewey's Laboratory School, Margaret Naumberg's Walden School, and Lincoln School of Teacher's College, Progressive ideas were also implemented in large school systems, the most well known being those in Winnetka, Illinois, and Gary, Indiana. Located some twenty miles north of Chicago on its affluent North Shore, the Winnetka schools, under the leadership of superintendent Carleton Washburne, rejected traditional classroom practice in favor of individualized instruction that let children learn at their own pace. Washburne and his staff in the Winnetka schools believed that all children had a right to be happy and live natural and full lives, and they yoked the needs of the individual to those of the community. They used the child's natural curiosity as the point of departure in the classroom and developed a teacher education program at the Graduate Teachers College of Winnetka to train teachers in this philosophy; in short, the Winnetka schools balanced Progressive ideals with basic skills and academic rigor.

Like the Winnetka schools, the Gary school system was another Progressive school system, led by superintendent William A. Wirt, who studied with Dewey at the University of Chicago. The Gary school system attracted national attention for its platoon and work-study-play systems, which increased the capacity of the schools at the same time that they allowed children to spend considerable time doing hands-on work in laboratories, shops, and on the playground. The schools also stayed open well into the evening hours and offered community-based adult education courses. In short, by focusing on learning-by-doing and adopting an educational program that focused on larger social and community needs, the Winnetka and Gary schools closely mirrored Dewey's own Progressive educational theories.

Administrative Progressivism

While Dewey was the most well known and influential Progressive educator and philosopher, he by no means represented all that Progressive education ultimately became. In the whirlwind of turn-of-the-century educational reform, the idea of educational Progressivism took on multiple, and often contradictory, definitions. Thus, at the same time that Dewey and his followers rejected traditional methods of instruction and developed a "new education" based on the interests and needs of the child, a new cadre of professionally trained school administrators likewise justified their own reforms in the name of Progressive education.

Administrative Progressives shared Dewey's distaste for nineteenth-century education, but they differed markedly with Dewey in their prescription for its reform: administrative Progressives wanted to overthrow "bookish" and rigid schooling by creating what they believed to be more useful, efficient, and centralized systems of public education based on vertically integrated bureaucracies, curricular differentiation, and mass testing.

Professional school administrators relied on managerial expertise in order to efficiently supervise increasingly large public school systems. Significantly, the new administrators, borrowing the language and practice of efficiency experts like Frederick W. Taylor, attempted to rationalize disparate school districts within one hierarchically arranged system of primary, middle, and high school institutions. Powerful school boards–often comprising elite business and civic leaders–hired professionally trained school superintendents to implement policies and to oversee the day-to-day operations of these vast educational systems. The superintendent, often a male, distanced himself from the mostly female corps of teachers, not to mention the students the school was intended to serve. In the name of efficiency, superintendents relied on "scientific," if often sterile, personnel management techniques, which had been developed by and for private industry and imported to the school setting by way of business-friendly school boards and through graduate training at the newly developed schools of education.

The school's turn toward bureaucratic efficiency directly shaped curricular construction. In particular, the idea of differentiation became a new watchword in administrative Progressive circles, reflecting the burgeoning economic and status markers signified by the attainment of educational credentials. By differentiating the curriculum along academic and vocational tracks, school administrators sought to meet the needs of different classes and calibers of students, and to more tightly couple educational training with educational outcomes. While administrators justified this curricular innovation (which was most often used in the high schools) on the basis of equal opportunity for all students based on ability, it reflected a larger, more significant shift in the basic aims and objectives of American education. Where the school once provided intellectual and moral training, in the face of an increasingly diverse student population, Progressive administrators took their chief professional administrative responsibility to be the preparation of students for their future lives as workers in the American labor force.

For many contemporary observers, however, curricular differentiation was little more than a euphemism for "social control," which critics suggested curtailed liberal education in order to meet the labor demands of America's budding industrial society. While this is a cynical view of the Progressive administrative drive, there is much justification for it. Founded in 1906 by a committee of educators and business and industrial leaders, the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education (NSPIE) helped organize vocational education programs in high schools around the country during the first several decades of the twentieth century. Vocational education, which critics conveniently, if incorrectly, linked to Progressive education, was expressly designed to train students for immediate employment following, and often in lieu of, graduation.

On the other hand, administrative Progressives justified the rise of vocational tracks by pointing to the relatively miniscule college-going population and by proclaiming it as an effective means of assimilating newly arrived immigrants into American life and institutions. That these students' high school education was essentially terminated before it ever started was of little concern, for in the face of rapid social upheaval, which reformers believed eroded the traditional institutions of church and family, the school was the last best hope to inculcate immigrants with American values, while simultaneously providing industry with a consistent influx of trained workers.

The interest in the efficient management of bureaucratic school systems and students was strengthened further by developments in educational psychology and intelligence testing. Among the twentieth century's prominent educational psychologists, E. L. Thorndike (1874–1949)–who studied under William James at Harvard, and taught at Columbia University's Teachers College during Dewey's tenure–was undoubtedly the most influential. Presaging the rise of post–World War I mass intelligence testing by relying on intelligence tests in his own studies as early as 1903, Thorndike's research advanced a narrowly focused stimulus-response definition of intelligence that justified the spread of worker training through vocational education at the same time that his mechanistic conception of intelligence corrupted Dewey's own ideas about the organic connection between thinking and doing. Thorndike, relying on data gathered from his study of 8,564 high school students in the early 1920s, labeled his theory of intelligence psychological connectionism. Thorndike likened the mind to a "switchboard" where neural bonds (or connections) were created between stimuli and responses. He believed that students of higher intellect formed more and better bonds more quickly than students of lower intellect.

For the administrative Progressives, Thorn-dike's findings were nothing short of revolutionary: By emphasizing the preponderant role of native intelligence through the statistical analysis of mass-administered intelligence tests, Thorndike and his fellow testers–H. H. Goodard, Lewis H. Terman, and Robert M. Yerkes, among them–provided school officials and policymakers with scientifically incontrovertible evidence in favor of increased psychometric testing and pupil sorting. In comparison with Dewey's more human and material-intensive approach to education, which required individualized student attention and creative pedagogy, Thorndike's conception helped reify separate curricula and perpetuate patterns of unequal access. Precisely (if paradoxically) because of the malleability of the idea of Progressive educational reform, it was possible for both pedagogical and administrative Progressives to advance their radically different agendas in the name of democracy during the first several decades of the twentieth century.

Life-Adjustment Progressivism

Yet the internal contradictions and ideological inconsistencies of the pedagogical and administrative Progressives in many ways forecast the demise of the Progressive education movement. A system of education that championed both child-centeredness and individuated attention on the one hand, and explicit curricular differentiation through intelligence testing on the other, was perhaps destined to collapse; and with the introduction of life-adjustment education during the 1940s and 1950s, the Progressive education movement did just that.

Life-adjustment education emerged on the scene during the 1940s and witnessed its heyday during the early days of the cold war. The cause of life-adjustment education was advanced by leaders of the vocational education movement like Charles Prosser, who helped pass the monumental 1917 Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act, who believed that the school's main function should be to prepare students for the work world. To this end, the life adjusters borrowed generously from the pedagogical and administrative Progressive lexicon by advocating that schools should test and track students at the same time that they should improve students' physical and emotional well-being. Ultimately, the United States Office of Education's Commission on Life Adjustment Education for Youth coopted the mantel of Progressive education. Using commission reports published in 1951 and 1954 as its blueprint for action, the life adjustment movement succeeded in instituting its therapeutic curricula–geared toward the development of personal hygiene, sociability and personality, and industrious habits of mind–at thousands of schools around the country.

Critics denounced the public school's shift toward an overtly custodial function as both anti-American, anti-intellectual, and, ironically, antidemocratic. In the shadow of Joseph McCarthy's communist witch hunt, the Progressive's sponsorship of international understanding through education, the perceived penchant for feel-good classroom instruction, and the alleged liberal political orientation of Progressive educators cut against the grain of 1950s conservative America. The alleged anti-intellectualism of adjustment pedagogy, however, fueled even more criticism. Among others, the historian Arthur Bestor led the charge against life adjustment's anti-intellectualism. In his Educational Wastelands (1953) and The Restoration of Learning (1955), Bestor argued that life adjustment's emphasis on vocational instruction and life management skills marginalized the place of traditional core subjects. According to Bestor, it was impossible to be a fully educated person in the absence of at least some exposure to traditional liberal studies.

In this traditional view, most similar to the nineteenth century concept of education as mental discipline, Bestor was joined by other neotraditionalist educational luminaries, including Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago and advocate of the great books curriculum, and James Bryant Conant, the highly respected and influential president of Harvard University. All three men agreed on the fundamental aimlessness and futility of life adjustment education in particular, and American high school education in general. Thanks to these men's efforts, the tenor of the national conversation on education changed dramatically, as more educators and public officials came to believe that it was once again time to think anew about the direction of American education.

Not surprisingly, in the midst of intense neotraditionalist scrutiny and growing public dissatisfaction with life-adjustment education, the Progressive Education Association, the principal administrative organ of the Progressive education movement, closed its doors in 1955; two years later, following the Soviet Union's successful launch of Sputnik I, the general orientation of American education shunned life adjustment pedagogy and embraced traditional academic studies in the liberal arts, mathematics, and the hard sciences. With the communist threat looming ever larger, the neotraditionalists believed the future of American democracy depended on a return to traditional academic studies.

Progressive education did not entirely disappear, however. The fundamental tenants of Progressive education's pedagogical and administrative functions continue to inform contemporary educational debates. What is the relationship between education and democratic citizenship, between teachers and students? Are school districts too large? To what extent is the school responsible for the emotional as well as intellectual development of its pupils? Do achievement tests provide valid and reliable measures of student learning? Is the core curriculum sacrosanct or amenable to change? These are just some of the questions Progressive educators attempted to ask and answer, and they are questions that educators still wrestle with at the beginning of the twenty-first century.


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