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Harold Taylor (1914–1993)

Philosopher of education, college president, and social activist, Harold Taylor was a recognized spokesperson for Progressive education at the postsecondary level. Taylor was born in Toronto and, upon completion of the B.A. and M.A. degrees at the University of Toronto, received a fellowship to study philosophy at Cambridge University. Shortly after his arrival he questioned the social significance of analytical philosophy and, ultimately, transferred to a doctoral program at University of London. Upon completion of the Ph.D. in philosophy in 1938, Taylor accepted a faculty position at the University of Wisconsin, where he served for six years. In 1945, at age thirty, Taylor assumed the presidency of Sarah Lawrence College, a highly progressive, experimental school outside of New York City. Taylor held this position for fourteen years, during which time he became a national leader for Progressive education, the liberal arts curriculum, international education, and the arts in the United States. While at Sarah Lawrence he worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson as a consultant on human rights. Taylor left the presidency of Sarah Lawrence in 1959 and proceeded to establish a career as public intellectual, independent writer and lecturer, and adjunct faculty at the New School for Social Research and the City University of New York. In addition, he served as president of the Agnes de Mille Dance Theatre, vice-chair of the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, and president of the American Ballet Theatre. Taylor also maintained a lifelong friendship with Duke Ellington and was instrumental in arranging for the preservation of the John Dewey professional papers.

By assuming the presidency of Sarah Lawrence College at the young age of thirty, Taylor was immediately thrown into a national spotlight and compared to Robert M. Hutchins of the University of Chicago, another former "boy president." During Taylor's years at Sarah Lawrence College, one of the first Progressive, experimental colleges in the United States, he fostered a setting where there were no formal departments or academic ranks. Everyone on the faculty was considered a teacher and a member of a community of equals, each of whom was responsible for assisting students in creating their own course of study. No examinations or grades were given; students learned to judge the quality of their own work with the help of their teachers and fellow students. Since there were no required courses, the curriculum was built by a series of conscious choices made by the student. Theater, dance, music, painting, sculpture, design, and graphics were central to the overall-all curriculum and integrated with the humanities and sciences course of study. Within the context of this "open curriculum" Taylor sought opportunities to bring to the Sarah Lawrence campus cultural figures with provocative ideological, social activist, liberal, and radical views. This led anticommunist Senator Joseph McCarthy to identify Sarah Lawrence College as a target for attack during the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

While Taylor became a leading spokesperson for peace education, academic freedom, and world education, a main theme throughout his academic career was the crucial role of students as active learners where they would be involved in making college policy and in running their own lives. In Students without Teachers (1969), considered by many as a blueprint for radical change, Taylor condemned colleges and universities for being out of touch with their students and with the surrounding intellectual community. He objected to the trend of colleges turning from dynamic cultural centers devoted to intellectual freedom and democracy to large bureaucracies that trained students and were managed by "corporate faculty." In essence, Taylor foresaw the impending "moral collapse" of the university (as noted in the 1990s) and sought to encourage student and university political activism at the national level. Taylor's call for postsecondary reform reoriented the learning—teaching system so that students collaborated with professors in the instruction of courses and were actively involved with the selection and organization of the curriculum. Running throughout this point of view was a strong Progressive education ideology, guided by the writings of John Dewey, as Taylor emphasized the importance of democracy and experience. Taylor questioned the traditional liberal arts curriculum with its concentration upon knowledge independent of the student's experience, and he argued for a curriculum embodying personal development, social and cultural activism (social agency), and the unity of intellect and emotions in the educational process. Taylor's position adopted a more tangible form in How to Change Colleges: Notes on Radical Reform (1971) which, in essence, constituted a manifesto-manual for postsecondary reform. Taylor advocated reconstructing the college departmental system as learning centers, abolishing the lecture system, required courses, and tests. Implicit within these and other recommendations was Taylor's belief in the importance of bringing the arts into the mainstream of American education and students' life.

While Taylor addressed many administrative and instructional issues at the postsecondary level, he was also active in the area of teacher education. The World as Teacher (1969) represents a three-year study of teacher education and combined Taylor's interests in the development in the early 1960s of the World College program and the International Baccalaureate. Taylor charged that teachers must understand the world, and their education must not be composed of mere courses in foreign cultures. Instead, he recommended ways for teachers to participate in international service learning projects and other educational experiences that would initiate broader, cultural perspectives. As the universities transformed in the 1950s and 1960s into corporate, multiversity conglomerates, Harold Taylor was one of the few university spokespeople who maintained a Progressive education perspective for postsecondary school reform and who championed the university as the most appropriate venue for discussion and debate of pressing societal and cultural problems.


TAYLOR, HAROLD. 1969. Students without Teachers: The Crisis in the University. New York: McGraw-Hill.

TAYLOR, HAROLD. 1969. The World as Teacher. New York: Doubleday.

TAYLOR, HAROLD. 1971. How to Change Colleges: Notes on Radical Reform. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

TAYLOR, HAROLD. 1988. "Meiklejohn and Dewey in the 1950s." Teaching Education 2 (1):20–29.


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