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V. T. Thayer (1886–1979)

Teacher and Progressive education administrator, V. T. Thayer was the author of many books on American education. In his outlook and work, Thayer remained an articulate and persuasive advocate of Progressive education, philosophic naturalism, and secular humanism.

V. T. Thayer received his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin in 1922. While studying for that degree he was an instructor in the subject (1919–1922) and additionally acquired wide experience as a teacher and superintendent of schools in Wisconsin. From 1924 to 1928 he held the position of professor of education at Ohio State University and was managing editor of the American Review (1923–1927).

Although associated primarily with the philosophy of John Dewey, Thayer was receptive to the educational ideas of Felix Adler and the Ethical Culture Society. In 1928 he was invited to become education director of the Ethical Culture Schools, a position he held until 1948. He was also one of the leaders in the society.

Throughout his life Thayer was frequently in demand as a lecturer and taught at many universities, among them Harvard University; Teachers College, Columbia University; Dartmouth College; the University of Hawaii; the University of Virginia; Johns Hopkins University; the University of Maryland; and Fisk University. He was a member of the Progressive Education Association, the National Education Association, the Advisory Council for Academic Freedom Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Public Education Association, and the Institute on the Separation of Church and State. He was named Pioneer Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association in 1964. In 1969 he received the Award for Distinguished Service to Education from the John Dewey Society.

In the early 1930s while serving on the Board of Directors of the Progressive Education Association, Thayer was active in two commissions founded by the association. The first was concerned with liberalizing college admissions procedures. By a special arrangement made between some 100 colleges and a select group of secondary schools (known as the "thirty schools") the latter were able to experiment with curricular revisions without jeopardizing the admission of their students to college. The arrangement was the basis of what has been called the Eight-Year Study. The work of this commission soon revealed the need for a fundamental study of the secondary school curriculum. Accordingly the association formed a second commission with Thayer as chairman, titled the Commission on the Secondary School Curriculum. A group of committees was established in which school and college teachers, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians, and social workers participated. The primary purpose was to stimulate research and suggest materials and methods helpful in curricular experimentation on school and college levels, and to develop guidelines for this experimentation relevant to the needs of young people in contemporary society. Thayer reported on this commission in Reorganizing Secondary Education (1939). Fieldston was one of the "thirty schools," and Thayer's activity in both of the commissions stimulated wide interest in the Ethical Culture Schools.

During his directorship Thayer was responsible for several major innovations in the administration and curriculum of the Ethical Culture Schools. He had often emphasized the importance of guidance, with a special concern for individual and social aspects of needs and growth, in contrast to traditional views of a curriculum of discipline and fixed standards. With the cooperation of Caroline B. Zachry, Thayer established a Department of Guidance consisting of professionally trained counselors. This recognition of the role of "needs" in the personal and social formation of an adolescent's life and relationships requiring "guidance" was regarded critically by some educators as giving undue attention to the idiosyncrasies of individual students. Thus in his history of the Ethical Society, Howard Radest charges that in emphasizing the importance of individual student needs, Thayer subverted the teachings of Felix Adler, who held that the goal of the school is to serve "the needs of civilization." However, Radest fails to consider what Adler and Thayer really meant by "needs." Furthermore, Thayer's humanistic conception of individual student needs was not advanced to replace Adler's ideals, nor were their views ever entirely antithetical.

Thayer also initiated an extensive reorganization of the administrative structure of the Ethical Culture Schools. Each functional group in each of the several schools–faculty, parents, alumni–would participate in the formulation of policies through representation in an integrated ascending order of committees. Each school had its executive committee, consisting of faculty representatives, principal, and the director. These committees were in turn represented in one administrative council. Students, parents, and faculty were also represented by membership on the board of governors. Thayer called this organizational structure "functional democratic administration." As a model it was a contribution to educational administration.

A further novel addition to the school curriculum was the development of ways by which the school could contribute to the community. Programs of community service were designed to involve each student in the upper high school (junior and senior grades) in some form of community service. A notable extension of this effort was the development of Junior Work Camps, managed primarily by members of the Fieldston staff and administered by a board of directors of which Thayer was the chairperson. The camps included students of other schools as well as those of Fieldston. Their purpose was to provide young persons of high school age with an opportunity to engage in meaningful and constructive work (i.e., participation in the harvesting of fruits and vegetables, which gave valuable help to truck farmers in a period of labor shortage).

Despite formidable problems of stability and direction due to the depression of the 1930s and the outbreak of World War II, the impressive academic record and successful curricular experimentation of the Ethical Culture Schools under Thayer's leadership occasioned national and international recognition.

In the early twenty-first century, however, he is remembered primarily for his professional activities after he left the Ethical Culture Schools and especially for his many writings on problems and issues of American education. Two well-known books deal with the historical background and philosophical influences and formative ideas that have shaped the school in American society. In these and other writings, Thayer engaged in critical analyses of certain well-publicized proposals for reforming education; he also examined such major problems as federal aid, desegregation, and contesting views of church and state in relation to the schools.


RADEST, HOWARD B. 1969. Toward Common Ground: The Story of the Ethical Societies in the United States. New York: Unger.

THAYER, V. T. 1944. American Education under Fire. New York: Harper.

THAYER, V. T. 1945. Religion in Public Education. New York: Viking.

THAYER, V. T. 1965. Formative Ideas in American Education: From the Colonial Period to the Present. New York: Dodd, Mead.

THAYER, V. T.; ZACHRY, CAROLINE; and KOTINSKY, RUTH. 1939. Reorganizing Secondary Education. New York: Appleton-Century.

ZEPPER, JOHN T. 1970. "V. T. Thayer: Progressive Educator." The Educational Forum May:495–504.


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