- Historic Sites
The Public Schools And The Public Mood
Since the birth of the nation, the public’s perception of the quality of public schools has swung from approval to dismay and back again. Here an eminent historian traces the course of school reform and finds that neither conservative nor liberal movements ever fully achieve their aims—which may be just as well.
February 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 1
Meanwhile, John Dewey was advocating a very different version of progressive education. A Vermont farm boy trained in philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, Dewey had already proved himself a brilliant philosopher and a powerful teacher at the University of Michigan when he became head of both philosophy and education at the new University of Chicago in 1894. In the university’s Laboratory School, Dewey and his associates tried to provide education that balanced the children’s interests with the knowledge of adults, that engaged the children in cooperative, active work, and that integrated social and intellectual learning. The concepts of growth and active learning imbued the curriculum. Children learned about earlier societies through studying people’s productive activities. In 1906, for example, the eight-year-olds of the Laboratory School were studying Phoenician civilization. “The occupational work centered around the trading and maritime activities of the Phoenicians,” wrote one of the teachers, “and then moved on to the larger topic of world exploration and discovery.” Teachers tried to relate all the work the class did to the Phoenician unit. “As each group passed from home room to shop, to laboratory, to studio, to music room, the things they did or expressed, related to or illustrated as far as possible the activities that went on in the historical study they were dramatizing.” This is what Dewey meant by education’s involvement with “occupations.”
Outright occupational training was something altogether different. When David Snedden, a curriculum expert at Columbia’s Teachers College, advocated separate vocational high schools for future factory workers, Dewey debated him in the pages of The New Republic. Dewey objected to the “acquisition of specialized skill in the management of machines at the expense of an industrial intelligence based on science and a knowledge of social problems and conditions.” He wanted the kind of knowledge that would “make workers, as far as may be, the masters of their own industrial fate.” Chicago labor unions joined the battle, complaining that dual school systems were designed to put the education of working-class children “under the complete control of corporations,” with the aim of turning out “meek little manikins.” Separate schools for vocational education were defeated in Illinois, as in most other places. Despite the vogue of efficient education for industrial productivity, the most extreme schemes failed because they sounded too undemocratic.
Two very different goals were at the heart of Dewey’s program for progressive education: school efficiency and individual growth.
The “child-centered” school also encountered opposition, not only from Dewey himself, who considered it too permissive, but also from many parents and teachers. When the public schools in Greenwich Village, New York City, began a progressive elementary school in the 1920s, an Italian mother in the parent-teacher association complained: “The program of that school is suited to the children of well-to-do homes, not to our children. We send our children to school for what we cannot give them ourselves, grammar and drill....We do not send our children to school for group activity; they get plenty of that in the street.” Not surprisingly, the New York experiment was soon canceled. Indeed, in the decades that followed, educators adopted efficiency-minded reforms more enthusiastically than child-centered reforms. By the 1950s attempts to combine efficiency and individual development had resulted in an intellectually weak program called Life Adjustment Education. The time was again ripe for school reform, and two conservative strains of criticism—the right-wing anti-Communists of the McCarthy years and the academic traditionalists—emerged to provide it.
The anti-Communists knew more about what they didn’t like (any liberal textbook or leftist teachers’ union) than about what they wanted. In Tenafly, New Jersey, parents identified 131 library books that “follow the Communist line and...are written by Communist sympathizers,” one of a rash of such attacks in the early 1950s. A number of right-wing organizations sprang up to promote and distribute such publications as Progressive Education is REDucation. In Council Bluffs, Iowa, the former congressman Charles Swanson was upset by textbooks that listed Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Franklin Roosevelt as great Presidents but not William Howard Taft. These books, he said, “should be thrown on a bonfire—or sent to Russia.”
The time in the limelight of the obsessed anti-Communists was brief. The champions of traditional academic learning, however, became a considerable voice. They assaulted everything they thought progressive education stood for: a low priority for intellectual training, time wasted on trivial social topics, and an endless string of worthless education courses for teachers. (They often confused John Dewey’s original and demanding philosophy with that of his much more permissive and fuzzier disciples.)