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Tracing John Dewey’s Influence on Progressive Education, 1903–1951: Toward a Received Dewey

by Thomas Fallace - 2011

Background/Context: Determining John Dewey’s exact influence on civic and social education during the early 20th century has been one of the most vexing issues facing curriculum historians. Generally speaking, interpretations of Dewey’s work and influence have been plagued by four recurring methodological limitations: First, historians tend to interpret Dewey’s work philosophically rather than historically. Second, they use their philosophically constructed Dewey to judge the fidelity of past educators against the standard of Dewey’s “true” vision. Third, historians assume that because they have read all of Dewey’s major and obscure works on education, the reformers of the past must (or should) have done so also. Fourth, historians assume rather than demonstrate Dewey’s direct influence on others.

Purpose: To overcome these limitations, this historical study traces the influence of John Dewey on the discourse of civic and social education during the formative years of the progressive education movement by focusing on the received Dewey. By examining the specific ways in which Dewey’s ideas were used by his contemporaries and peers, the author demonstrates that Dewey’s words were often employed in various and conflicting ways to support a number of different curricular agendas. Specifically, the author argues that divisions between proponents of social justice and social efficiency, which play such a central role in the historical literature on progressive education, were not necessarily apparent to Dewey’s contemporaries who cited him. In fact, Dewey’s philosophy was often used specifically to assuage the gaps between these seemingly conflicting educational goals and objectives.

Research Design: The author focuses his inquiry specifically on the curriculum materials and discourse of secondary social and civic education. He focuses qualitatively on the various ways in which Dewey was cited and used by leading and lesser-known civic and social educators during the formative years of the American curriculum, with particular focus on uses of Dewey to support social efficiency and social justice. In the tradition of historiography, the findings are reported in a chronological narrative.

Findings/Conclusions: Although the evidence presented is merely suggestive, a few summative assertions regarding Dewey’s influence on educators during the first half of the 20th century can be made. First, Dewey was often used by contemporaries to reconcile positivistic social science with pragmatic philosophy. Second, although Graham (1995) identified Democracy and Education as “the Bible of the educational reform movement then emerging,” there were in fact numerous Dewey texts cited, often without any reference to others. Third, Dewey’s philosophy was used to support reform agendas aimed at social control and social adjustment as well as social reconstruction and social justice. To say that Dewey was used primarily in support of just one (or none) of these goals is a misrepresentation.

In 1896, Hegelian educator Susan Blow sent a letter to her mentor William Torrey Harris describing her visit to John Dewey’s laboratory school at the University of Chicago. She was not impressed. “The whole principle they were working on seemed wrong,” Blow explained to a presumably sympathetic Harris. “In general the way they work on the imagination will I think nauseate the children.” In the end, she was glad to “see their method defeated” (June 12, 1896, rec. 01247). Of course, as all historians and educators know, Dewey’s ideas were not defeated in 1896; he went on to become the single most significant educational thinker in American history. As Sidney Hook (1939) declared, “No matter what the nature of future educational theory will be, it is extremely unlikely that educational practice will ever return to the state it was before John Dewey’s influence made itself felt on the schools of the nation” (p. 177).

Although few can doubt Dewey’s significance, determining his exact influence on civic and social education during the early 20th century has been one of the most vexing issues facing curriculum historians. Two fundamental questions have driven this inquiry: What exactly did Dewey envision for American schools? To what degree were Dewey’s ideas actually adopted by curriculum reformers and local schools? These two questions have always been grounded in contemporary pedagogical debates about what and how students should be taught. Proponents of Dewey have mined his written works for evidence of missed opportunities and misinterpretations of his ideas (Johnston, 2006; Tanner, 1997; Wirth, 1966; Zilversmit, 1993). On the other hand, critics of Dewey have probed his writings to demonstrate the inherent faults of his philosophy and its devastating impact on American schools (Edmondson, 2006; Egan, 2002; Hirsch, 1987). For many, there is no quicker way to get to the heart of the effects of pedagogical progressivism on civic and social education than to address the impact and influence of Dewey.1

In this essay, I directly address Dewey’s influence on the discourse of secondary civic and social education during the formative years of progressive education. I begin by reviewing assessments of Dewey’s impact by some of the most influential educational historians, including Cremin (1961), Hofstadter (1963), Zilversmit (1993), Kliebard (1995), and Ravitch (2000). I then outline four general critiques that hinder these attempts to determine Dewey’s influence. I argue that tracing the received Dewey is a more promising and accurate way to determine his exact influence on other progressive educators. Finally, I trace the received Dewey through the years 1903–1951 to demonstrate the various and conflicting ways Dewey was used to support a number of different curricular agendas.


To this day, the most cited and influential account of progressive education is Cremin’s Transformation of the School. Regarding the possibility of determining Dewey’s influence on other educators, Cremin openly admitted the difficulty of the historiographical problem. “For almost by definition, influential ideas lend themselves to widespread appropriation,” Cremin explained (1961), “and the historian immediately faces the difficult task of allocating responsibility for inevitable distortions” (p. 238). For Cremin, Dewey’s pedagogical vision was so sprawling and his influence so widespread that determining his influence with any precision is a nearly impossible task. As a result, Cremin absolved Dewey of any responsibility for the misinterpretation of his ideas by arguing: “For a man’s influence frequently exceeds his intentions, and sometimes in quite unexpected directions” (1961, p. 238). Dewey’s influence was so great, far-reaching, and untraceable, Cremin argued, that he should not be held responsible for the hundreds of followers who each put forth their own personal agendas in his name. In the absence of a specific study of Dewey’s influence, Cremin (1961) concluded, “Dewey will remain little more than a symbol of the educational hopes and despairs of the American people at any given moment in their history” (p. 234). Cremin was clearly sympathetic to Dewey’s views, which, he insisted, Dewey stated clearly and repeatedly throughout his career for those who actually took time to read him. Ultimately, Cremin suggested that Dewey’s pedagogy should be considered in the progressive, urban environment from which his pedagogy emerged. To this extent, Dewey’s philosophy suffered more from anachronism than lack of clarity. In the end, Cremin considered Dewey pedagogically sound, largely misunderstood, and indeterminately influential.

Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life was published only 2 years after Cremin’s award-winning text, and his section on Dewey seemed to be aimed directly at Cremin’s account. Hofstadter’s assessment of Dewey’s influence was thinner in its documentation, but firmer in its assertions and convictions. “Dewey’s vocabulary and ideas,” Hofstadter (1963) insisted, “which were clearly evident in the Cardinal Principles of 1918, seem to appear in every subsequent documents of the new education” (p. 361). In contrast to Cremin, Hofstadter placed the blame of misinterpretation squarely on Dewey’s shoulders, not his disciples. Hofstadter (1963) argued that “the unresolved problems of interpretation to which his work gave rise were tokens of real ambiguities and gaps in thought, which themselves express certain difficulties and unresolved problems in educational theory and in our culture” (p. 361). In stark contrast to Cremin, Hofstadter (1963) concluded that “the effects of Dewey’s philosophy on the design of curriculum system” could, in fact, be determined—they were “devastating” to the intellectual rigor of the school curriculum (p. 377).

Ravitch generally agreed with Hofstadter’s assessment. Although she admitted that many of Dewey’s followers were not fully in sync with what he wrote, she held him responsible for a number of developments that helped undermine the intellectual rigor of American schools. Ravitch (2000) insisted:

Dewey’s writings encouraged those who thought that education could be made into a science, those who wanted to create child-centered schools based on interest of children rather than subject matter; those who believed that learning by doing was more valuable than learning from books . . . [and] those who wanted schools to serve as an instrument to improve society. (p. 59)

Thus, every major progressive reform, Ravitch argued, could find its roots in Dewey’s writings.

Kliebard took a much closer look at the curricular discourse of progressive education. Regarding Dewey’s long-term influence, Kliebard’s assessment challenged the conclusions of Cremin, Hofstadter, and Ravitch. Kliebard (1987) asserted that Dewey’s curricular vision “remained largely confined to the world of ideas and had relatively little impact on school practice” (p. 139). Kliebard (1987) insisted that once historians get beyond the catchwords such as “learning by doing” and “activity” that have falsely been attributed to Dewey:

we are left with a curriculum that equips the vast majority of our school population to become intelligent masters of the world in which they live, and I think we are a very long way indeed from even approaching anything like that. (p. 139)

Kliebard viewed curriculum history as a battle largely lost by Dewey and won by behaviorist, scientific curriculum makers such as David Snedden and Edward Thorndike. Ellen Condliffe Lagemann (1989) provocatively voiced a similar view, writing “one cannot understand the history of education in the United States unless one realizes Edward Thorndike won and John Dewey lost” (p. 185). More recently, in a ground-breaking study of local curriculum reform in the suburbs of Chicago, Arthur Zilversmit (1993) argued that Dewey-inspired reforms did temporarily take hold in the 1930s and 1940s but were quickly stamped out by a conservative backlash. When viewed from the reality of what the curriculum looks like today, Kliebard, Lagemann, and Zilversmit agreed that Dewey’s influence is nowhere to be seen.

Depending on how one chooses to define and locate Dewey’s influence, all of these conflicting conclusions are warranted. For example, if one uses the narrow criteria of Dewey’s enacted curriculum at the University of Chicago laboratory school, then Kliebard is correct to conclude that, perhaps, not a single school or person in the history of American education was ever fully faithful to Dewey’s vision. On the other end of the spectrum, if one merely sees uses of phrases such as “growth” and “adjustment” as evidence of Dewey’s impact, than the entire progressive educational movement was practically constructed by his pen.


These historical assessments are further complicated by disagreements over the implicit and explicit goals of progressive education, the progressive movement, and the doctrine of social efficiency. For example, Cremin (1961) defined progressive education as part of a broader effort to democratize American culture without vulgarizing it. For Cremin, Dewey was a significant part of this movement, although his ideas were often misused and abused by his followers. Callahan’s (1962) account of progressive education, Education and the Cult of Efficiency, also traced the sweeping reforms of progressive educators to larger forces in American culture—specifically the nation’s emerging faith in the efficiency of business models. Similar to Cremin, Callahan offered a defense of curricular progressives such as Dewey and George Counts; Callahan’s book was dedicated to the latter. Callahan (1962) argued “that there were other more powerful forces at work than ‘progressive education’ in undermining the intellectual atmosphere of the American Schools”—specifically, the scientific social efficiency experts he described in his text (p. 263). For both Cremin and Callahan, Dewey was a progressive defender of democracy, egalitarianism, critical thinking, and social justice. The ideologies of social efficiency and narrowly conceived utilitarianism that emerged during the first half of the 20th century were a betrayal, not a fulfillment, of Dewey’s ideas.

Wiebe challenged this view in his influential 1967 text, The Search for Order 1877–1920. Wiebe attributed the progressive movement to a new middle class of specialists who used professional organizations and bureaucracy to impose order on a changing society. According to Wiebe, Dewey was not opposed to this process but rather was an important catalyst for this transformation. “Bureaucratic thought and pragmatism,” Wiebe (1967) argued, met only after Dewey had transformed the latter “into a theory that made individuals the plastic stuff of society” (p. 151). Wiebe (1967) asserted that, through a “curriculum rich in civics . . . the schools would facilitate the arrival of Social Rationality, preparing the nation for a higher civilization” (p. 157). In contrast to Cremin and Callahan, Wiebe argued that Dewey and his progressive allies believed that social progress required the elitist notion that citizens accept and implement the informed advice of the new class of experts.

Influenced by Wiebe and the historians of the New Left, Karier (1973) depicted Dewey’s philosophy as supportive of the bureaucratization of American schools toward the capitalistic ends of social control. Likewise, Spring (1970) suggested that what linked the progressives was their “vision of a corporate society dependent upon specialization and cooperation” (p. 54). Spring (1970) linked the origins of the progressive education movement to the Dewey-inspired “social education movement,” which was designed to “make students more aware of social problems and the need for cooperation” and “to introduce the student gradually to the complex interdependence of society” (p. 59). For these revisionist historians, Dewey was a proponent of assimilation and bureaucratic social control, elitist concepts that ran counter to the egalitarian ideals of democratic education and social justice.     

Kliebard avoided the whole sea of troubles of trying to define pedagogical progressivism holistically and how to locate Dewey’s role within its ideology. Instead, Kliebard viewed the period as a struggle between four different interest groups—humanists, child study advocates, social efficiency experts and social reconstructionists—over which Dewey presided, never fully fitting into one group. In The Struggle for the American Curriculum, Kliebard (1995) admittedly used Dewey as a “way of commenting myself on how the battle was proceeding” (p. xvi). In an earlier essay, Kliebard (1975) pitted Dewey directly against the scientific curriculum making of social efficiency advocates Franklin Bobbitt and W. W. Charters. Thus, Kliebard’s Dewey was not present within the currents of pedagogical progressivism and social efficiency, but rather, like Kliebard himself, hovering beside and/or above these various reform agendas as a dispenser of wisdom and truth. As a result, Kliebard left Dewey’s direct relationship to pedagogical progressivism and the currents of social efficiency ambiguous.

Zilversmit (1993) attributed his child-centered brand of pedagogical progressivism exclusively to Dewey. Zilversmit's definition of pedagogical progressivism included “child-centered rather than subject-centered curriculum,” concern for “meeting the needs of the whole child,” and having “children play an active role in determining the content of their education” (p. 18). Similar to Kliebard, Zilversmit contrasts his Dewey-inspired definition of pedagogical progressivism directly against the doctrine of social efficiency, defining the former as “a distinct movement with its own agenda . . . to create a school in which children would find a nurturing environment that would allow them to develop their individual capacities” (p. 3). Therefore, according to Zilversmit, Dewey was a direct opponent of the bureaucratic, centralized business modeling of efficiency experts who stunted, not developed, individual student capacities.



Despite the diverse range of interpretations of Dewey’s work and influence (and there are, of course, numerous other examples), with rare exception these works are plagued by four methodological limitations. First, these historians tend to interpret Dewey’s work philosophically rather than historically. That is, both critics and proponents of Dewey read his major writings on education and construct a Dewey that is holistic and internally consistent. Drawing upon his texts that are often decades apart, historians pull quotations out of textual and historical context and build their Dewey up from the raw materials of his prolific writings. Even close associates of Dewey are guilty of this. For example, in The Dewey School: The Laboratory School of Chicago, Katherine Camp Mayhew and Ann Camp Edwards (1936) used quotations from Dewey’s Democracy and Education, a text published in 1916, to explain events and thoughts that took place at the Dewey school two decades earlier. Through this process, Dewey’s pedagogy is transformed from an historical phenomenon unraveling in real time into a transhistorical, retrospective philosophical construction. Although such a methodological approach is appropriate for philosophers of education, historians of education need to pay closer attention to such temporal distinctions in order to understand how educators of the past (not the present) experienced Dewey’s work as it emerged incrementally. Dewey’s meaning may be a philosophical issue, but his influence is an historical one and should be approached as such.     

The second limitation is a product of the first; once an internally consistent Dewey is constructed, historians then apply their Dewey to the various schools, documents, and reformers of the pedagogical progressivism. In other words, the enacted curriculum and the discourse of other educators are judged for their fidelity to Dewey’s true vision. Through this process, historians created a false dichotomy between those documents and reformers who were Deweyan and those who were not or, more accurately, those who understood Dewey and those who misunderstood him. For example, one question that had engaged historians for decades is whether or not the new social studies of the 1910s and 1920s were a Deweyan movement (Fallace, 2009; Hertzberg, 1981, 1989). Shermis and Barth (19856) argued that “Dewey’s theory, though supportive of the creation of the field, did not play even a small part in the organization and practices of the new social studies” (p. 34). That is, the inquiry-based Dewey that Shermis and Barth constructed did not accord with their own interpretation of the 1916 Committee on Social Studies report, regardless of the fact that the authors of the influential report quoted Dewey and considered themselves in accordance with his ideas (Dunn, 1916). Likewise, as Kliebard (1987) concluded regarding Dewey’s long-term impact versus social efficiency advocate, David Snedden’s, the latter’s:

version with its emphasis on occupational skill training was the ultimate victor in terms of what vocational education became, while Dewey’s “industrial intelligence” in the sense of an acute awareness of what makes an industrial society tick is almost nowhere to be found. (p. 140)

Thus, similar to Shermis and Barth, Kliebard assessed Dewey’s influence, not in terms of the pervasiveness of those who cited him but rather in terms of to what degree the adopted curriculum was ultimately faithful to Kliebard’s version of Dewey.  

The third limitation is linked to the previous two; many historians simply assume that because they have read all of Dewey’s major works on education—and in many cases his more obscure works—the reformers of the past must (or should) have done so also. Thus, the historical actors of the past are held accountable for their misapplications of Dewey because the reformers presumably had access to “the more accurate” Dewey available in his texts (see, for example, Eiesle, 1975; Yengo, 1965; Wirth, 1966). As Cremin (1961) insisted, “too many of those who quoted [Dewey] did not read on, if, indeed, they read him at all” (p. 238). Cremin (1961) concluded that “despite Dewey’s turgid prose, his arguments are, in the last analysis, comprehensible”(p. 238). Particularly, Dewey’s peers were assumed to have read his comprehensive Democracy and Education (1916), the text that, according to Graham (1995), became “the bible” for pedagogical progressives (p. 14). This was not necessarily the case. As we shall see, pedagogical progressives drew upon many of Dewey’s other, less comprehensive texts such as Moral Principles in Education (1909) and How We Think (1910) and used them toward a number of different pedagogical ends.

The fourth and most significant limitation is that, with rare exception, Dewey’s influence is assumed rather than demonstrated. In other words, direct links of evidence are rarely drawn from Dewey’s writings to specific texts in which his ideas were later put to use by educational reformers.2 Instead, curriculum historians focus on the internal consistencies of Dewey’s writings and how prominent education professors, particularly William Kilpatrick, adopted (or distorted) his ideas. Historians rarely move beyond the philosophical discourse into how Dewey’s ideas were specifically applied by well-known and lesser known educators toward a number of different ends. In fact, half a century ago, Cremin (1961) issued a call—unheeded to this day: “there is a need for further systematic study of Dewey’s work and the context in which he proceeded, so that changes he wrought can be distinguished from the changes he explained” (p. 239). This historical study is an attempt to answer this call.   

In this essay, I argue that, in the search for Dewey’s influence, critics and proponents of Dewey have paid too much attention to close readings of Dewey’s text and not enough to the educational uses of Dewey’s work by other educators. That is, historians have attempted to discover Dewey’s influence by looking at the internal meaning of his texts, instead of the external uses of his ideas. In this essay, I move beyond this by focusing on the received Dewey, and what these uses by curriculum researchers, theorists, and practitioners can tell us about the influence of Dewey’s writings on civic education in the early part of the century. Dewey’s own words on pedagogical theory will often be conspicuously absent from these pages as I focus on how Dewey’s peers have interpreted and employed his ideas in a number of different curricular contexts.

By examining the received Dewey, I argue that divisions between proponents of social justice and social efficiency were not necessarily apparent to Dewey’s contemporaries. In other words, I argue that what seems like contradictions to contemporary readers and historians did not necessarily seem like contradictions at the time. In fact, I suggest, in many cases Dewey’s philosophy was used specifically to assuage the gaps between these seemingly conflicting educational goals and objectives. My account of these years will not be exhaustive but rather will be suggestive of how and why Dewey was cited and used during this period.


I focus my inquiry specifically on the curriculum materials and discourse of secondary social and civic education. I do so for a number of reasons. First, civic and social education is the subject area in which Dewey’s ideas were most immediately relevant and assumed to be most influential. Second, my focus on the single subject (social studies) gets us closer to the specific language of classroom curriculum than the broader language used by curriculum theorists, consultants, and specialists such as David Snedden and Edward Thorndike. Most of the examples cited in the narrative below draw upon the experience and/or empirical studies of local classrooms and schools. However, my account focuses on curriculum discourse, not necessarily practice (see Cuban, 1993; Zilversmit, 1993). While admittedly (and regrettably) these sources do not get us beyond the classroom door to the day-to-day actions of actual teachers, the sources nevertheless tell us more about Dewey’s influence than previous studies. Finally, my emphasis on civic and social education provides a methodological approach that allowed me to trace a set of terms (civic and social education) throughout the years of study in a focused and achievable manner.

Ultimately, this is a study of the nature of Dewey’s influence, not the extent of his influence. No attempt was made to quantify what percentage of studies did or did not cite Dewey during this period (although such a study would be very useful). Rather, I focused qualitatively on the various ways in which he was cited and used by leading and lesser-known civic and social educators during the formative years of the American curriculum, with particular focus on uses of Dewey to support social efficiency and social justice. In the tradition of historiography, the findings are reported in a chronological narrative.



Dewey’s popular influence began with his work at the University of Chicago laboratory school. Although Dewey wrote numerous short essays on various aspects of the educational work at the Dewey school, the most robust discussion of his research first appeared in School and Society (1899). At the time of the Dewey school, for most educational theorists, the term social education did not necessarily refer specifically to the issue of how to relate history and the social sciences to student interest, nor did it refer to interdisciplinary problem-based instruction. Instead, social education referred more generically to the social nature of group learning, and/or the relation of the curriculum to the larger sociological concerns of schooling. Dewey’s writings on the laboratory school had addressed both of these issues directly, but early proponents of social education responded to his views in a variety of ways.

One of the earliest reactions to the Dewey school was by Charles McMurry, who offered a positive assessment in his 1903 revised textbook, The Elements of General Method. McMurry incorporated the innovations of Dewey into the Herbartian pedagogical scheme he studied in Germany. The sources of interest for the child in the curriculum, McMurry (1903) explained, “as conceived by Herbart, by recent child study, and by Dr. Dewey,” demonstrated how to link “the strong and growing tendency to place instinctive, spontaneous interests of childhood” to the “the best culture materials which the history, literature, and science of the world furnish, and also the whole range of typical modern industries and social life” (pp. 118119). Thus, McMurry used Dewey to link his Herbartian pedagogy to social theory, because Herbart had not directly addressed the sociological aspects of schooling. Concerned mostly with the psychological and moral process of learning, which in the 1890s was referred to as “child-study,” McMurry employed Dewey’s philosophy to fill in the holes of his Herbartian theory in regard to how schools should cultivate the mind in specific reference to an evolving democratic society. Since the Herbartians constructed their theories for an imperialist German monarchy, not a democracy, McMurry essentially used Dewey to Americanize his Herbartian educational scheme for a broader and more modern audience.    

Another early reaction to the Dewey school was Colin Scott’s Social Education, published in 1908. Scott, a professor of psychology at Boston Normal School, was primarily concerned with the social aspects of pedagogy. He argued that most educational thought at the time was based upon observation of students learning in isolation instead of in groups. “Children in the schools are always in numbers,” Scott (1908) insisted, “and classes are never successfully taught as mere collection of separate individuals” (p. iv). Appropriately, Scott devoted an entire chapter to the University of Chicago laboratory school because Dewey was one of the first educators to take the social nature of learning seriously. However, according to Scott, despite the rhetoric of communal and social learning, the direction of study and material at the Dewey school were always selected by the teacher, not the collective will of the students.

To convey this point, Scott (1908) quoted two complete paragraphs from Dewey’s School and Society relating to the social significance of learning and asked, “What more admirable short description of the social ideal of the internal organization of the school could be written . . . ?” (p. 89). However, according to Scott, the Dewey school did not live up to the ideals outlined in his text. Scott (1908) explained, although:

these social wholes of the past and the present have found such activities useful and necessary to the maintenance of their social efficiency, it does not follow that it would be a social advantage for everyone to be able to work in wood, metal, or the preparation of food. (p. 85)

Scott viewed Dewey’s teleological selection of certain activities based primarily on their importance to the evolution of the human race as too adult-centered and individualistic. Thus, for Scott, the social aspects of learning in the Dewey school were merely tools that were ultimately reshaped to serve the needs of the individual. Scott argued that this relationship should be the other way around. True social education, he insisted, should take social interaction more seriously. For Scott, Dewey’s pedagogy was too reliant upon the knowledge of the disciplines and too dependent on the direction of the instructor. Scott praised Dewey, but suggested that his own version of social education moved beyond the limitations of the Dewey school.

Along these lines, the following year Michael V. O’Shea published a textbook titled Social Development and Education, in which he cited Scott’s Social Education text. Overall, O’Shea was less concerned with the social aspects of pedagogy than he was with the relationship between schooling and society. Drawing upon his numerous observations of children “under a variety of social conditions,” O’Shea (1909) outlined a plan and method of education “designed to make the individual socially efficient” (p. v). Similar to Scott, O’Shea (1909) cited Dewey’s School and Society, but did so to justify the argument that “the school should not altogether suppress the tendency to communicate, but should rather direct it so that it may not express itself in illegitimate ways” (p. 262). Similar to McMurry, O’Shea believed that teachers needed to learn from Dewey how to capitalize on the natural impulses of students in order to redirect them toward more socially efficient activity. Thus, O’Shea used Dewey to bridge the gap between individual growth and expression and the broader goals of social progress. According to O’Shea, by redirecting the impulses of the child toward socially efficient action that benefited the student and others, the interest of the individual and the society were united.

Another early proponent of social efficiency via social education was Henry Suzzallo, whose 1909 essay “Education as a Social Study,” confirmed O’Shea’s and Scott’s assertion that the “educator is beginning to direct his attention to the social ends of the school” (1909a, p. 330). Like these scholars, Suzzallo was also a proponent of using schools to increase student social efficiency toward the broader goals of social evolution. The primary function of the school, Suzzallo (1909a) argued, “both for its efficiency and its respectability, is that it shall possess itself of a sound social point of view, from which to control and adjust its activities” (p. 331). He argued that schools needed a clearer set of objectives linked to a more realized vision of the future. Suzzallo (1909a) was clear that schools should be used as a form of social control, “because the controlling ideas which education had produced are rightly related to the problems of order as found in the society in which the individual is to participate” (p. 33). Moral education should be a central function of the school because such education introduced students to the broader goals of society and persuaded them to submit themselves to the functions of the greater good.

Although Dewey was not quoted or referenced in this essay, Suzzallo was clearly an admirer of Dewey’s work because the scholar wrote the introduction for Houghton Mifflin’s publications of Dewey’s Moral Principles Underlying Education (1909) and Interest and Effort in Education (1913). In the former, Suzzallo (1909b) identified Dewey as the “thinker whose vital influence upon the reform of school methods is greater than that of any of his contemporaries” (p. 331). In the introductory essay to Dewey’s Moral Principles, Suzzallo (1909b) used the opportunity to reinforce his idea that “the conspicuous lack of expertise and economy in the school and in the state has quickened our recognition of a larger need for expert service” (p. 329). According to Suzzallo, the rapidly changing society induced by immigration, urbanization, and industrialization required scholarly experts to step in and impose some order and efficiency. Dewey was the kind of expert to whom Suzzallo (1909b) referred, the kind of leader to whom “the public may well defer” (p. 239). Suzzallo (1909b) was convinced that the school was the only institution with “the power to modify the social order” (p. 328). To do so, he (1913) recognized that teachers had to transcend the “narrow scholastic measures of efficiency,” which he equated with traditionally conceived academic content (p. 469). Instead, teachers needed to select activities of “with reference to the child’s interests, powers, and capacities” (p. 471). Just as O’Shea had done, Suzzallo used Dewey to link the goals of social efficiency with the natural instincts and interests of the child in an attempt to reconcile the new “expertise” of child study with a more ambitious project of social progress and control.

Despite Suzzallo’s allegiance to the allegedly repressive doctrines of social efficiency and control, Dewey appears to have been an admirer of the man. In a letter to Joseph Hart, professor at the University of Washington, Dewey referred to Suzzallo as “progressive in all matters—social and economic as well as educational . . . He is straight and straightforward, and all his sympathies, ideas and acts are thoroughly democratic” (May 18, 1914, rec. 02580). It is not clear exactly how familiar Dewey was with the specifics of Suzzallo’s work on social education, but this letter demonstrates that Dewey clearly considered Suzzallo’s character as sympathetic to the goals of democratic progressivism.               

Suzzallo was not the only scholar to use Dewey’s name in support of social efficiency and control. In The School as a Social Institution: An Introduction to the Study of Social Education, Charles Robbins (1918) quoted Dewey throughout the text to support the agenda of using schools “As an Instrument for Social Control” (p. 191) as well as an a means of “Social Reform and Progress” (p. 32). Similar to Suzzallo, Robbins viewed social control as directly related to moral development and used Dewey’s work to support his assertions. Robbins (1918) explained:

In the theory of Professor John Dewey, less attention is given to mere physical freedom and more to a larger moral and intellectual freedom. The individual should have opportunity to express himself; but this does not mean that caprice shall sacrifice the good of others without social checks. (p. 50)

For Robbins, Dewey’s pedagogy outlined the importance of teaching students to curb their individual impulses to serve the goals of the greater good. If educated properly, students would come to see how their own willful actions aligned with the broader goals of social betterment. Although Robbins cited Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1916) at the end of several of the chapters, Robbins quoted Dewey’s Schools and To-morrow (1915) directly, suggesting that the latter text had a greater influence than the former. In all cases, Robbins ignored Dewey’s specific ideas on pedagogy and instead focused on his broader ideas about how schools could negotiate the moral growth of students in a way that respected the individual and introduced him or her into the fabric of an orderly and dynamic society.         

Dewey’s Schools of To-morrow (1915a) was itself a Dewey-influenced study, because the book was mostly written by his daughter Evelyn. Schools of To-morrow consisted of thematic descriptions of several new schools that demonstrated “tendencies towards greater freedom and an identification of the child’s school life with his environment and outlook, and even more important, the recognition of the role education must play in a democracy” (1915, p. 208). In the text, the Deweys highlighted several aspects that these innovative schools shared with the University of Chicago laboratory school, although direct influences of the latter upon the former were not established. In a review of the text, William Bagley (1915) explained how Schools of To-morrow “describes typical schools in which the theories for which [Dewey] is responsible have been worked out—although he modestly refrains from stating this fact” (p. 466). Bagley declared that “contemporary educational theory is America is dominated by America’s foremost philosopher-John Dewey,” a development Bagley viewed as unfortunate, because Dewey allegedly wished “to have no commerce” with “recorded knowledge” (p. 467). In a published letter, Dewey (1915b) responded to Bagley’s accusation that he was antagonistic to recorded knowledge as “insanity,” and denied that the educators described in the book were his disciples (p. 414). The progressive schools described in the book, Dewey insisted, had “sprung up independently under diverse auspices” (p. 414). As Dewey explained, these schools were manifestations of a broader national effort at democratizing students, schools, and society by appreciating the interrelatedness of all three. Nevertheless, Bagley’s reading of Schools of To-morrow likely reflected that of many readers—that Dewey was demonstrating the pervasiveness of his ideas.

A similar concern with developing democratic behavior was present in Paul Frederick Voelker’s 1921 empirical study on increasing the traits of trustworthiness, The Function of Ideals and Attitudes in Social Education. Under the guidance of educational psychologist Edward Thorndike (Teachers College, Columbia University), Voelker (1921) insisted, “If social education is to be of service in the conservation and improvement of our social order, it must be set up general standards to which all individuals must be taught to conform” (p. 7). In the tradition of Thorndike’s behavioral psychology, Voelker identified disparate but specific objectives to which social education should be aimed, including trustworthiness, loyalty, social service, social sympathy, social conscience, social cooperation, social initiative, social justice, social control, tolerance, reverence, and faith. As we can see, the objectives of social justice and control, and social cooperation and initiative—viewed by many curriculum historians as opposites—were listed one after the other. Obviously, Voelker saw no contradiction in pursuing all of these goals simultaneously.

Despite this ambitious list, Voelker’s study focused specifically on the objective of trustworthiness, which he believed could be enhanced through a specific intervention and then scientifically measured. Although Voelker’s (1921) study was behaviorist and statistical, in his methodology section he quoted both Dewey and Thorndike as justification for “the validity of group motivation” (pp. 96109)—once again demonstrating Voelker saw no contradiction in their epistemological outlooks and methodological approaches, although Dewey (1896) in his famous article, “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology,” had directly attacked the kind of mechanistic behavioral psychology employed by Thorndike. Nevertheless, Voelker (1921) quoted Dewey to justify the behaviorist “law of satisfaction” that posited that desirable behaviors will increase if they are positively reinforced by a conducive environment (p. 39). Thus, just as the researchers above had done, Voelker used Dewey precisely at the point where the author needed to reconcile individualist behavioral psychology with goals of social efficiency. Individual behavior should be shaped and controlled willfully as students conducted their actions in relation to their social environment.

Voelker’s views, and those of the other authors mentioned above, are suggestive of how and why Dewey was cited in support of a number of goals related to civic and social education in the early years of the 20th century. Specifically, Dewey was used to support four emerging beliefs: First, that learning should not be individualistic, but instead should be social in nature by redirecting children’s social and impulsive nature toward desirable ends. This method was considered more humane and more socially efficient. Second, that social learning is beneficial because it more accurately corresponded with the modern, evolving, democratic (industrial) world outside school to which students were adjusting. This required students to learn and work cooperatively. Third, that schools had a dual function of teaching students to behave in a morally appropriate and socially efficient manner (i.e., assimilation), as well as teaching them to be sympathetic toward issues of social justice requiring individual initiative (i.e., contributing to progress). If taught effectively and efficiently, these goals would be coterminous and mutually reinforcing. Finally, that greater social efficiency would result through the refinement of techniques through the application of scientific expertise. By capitalizing on student interest and instinct, not only would schools become more humane and enjoyable, but students would also learn in a more effective and efficient manner.

These beliefs attributed to Dewey by his contemporaries do not fit neatly into the social control/social justice dichotomies outlined in the historiography, nor do they fit squarely into any of Kliebard’s (1995) curriculum interest groups. Instead, these beliefs represent the complexity of pedagogical progressivism, and how Dewey was used in a variety of ways by theorists and practitioners of the movement. The only consistency was the fact that Dewey was cited by these educators to bridge the biological, ethical, psychological, and social aspects of pedagogy, because he had written about each element, often in relation to one another. One of the only other educators with the knowledge and ambition to address all of these issues and factors was Teachers College professor Harold Rugg.


In a letter to Dewey, Rugg declared the educational philosopher the “leading interpreter in our times of the doctrine of growth through personal reconstruction of experience” and the “founder of the first laboratory school to be based upon a designed theory of human nature, behavior and knowing, and the chief intellectual force in the building of the new education” (Oct. 20, 1949, rec. 11679). Throughout Rugg’s long, prolific career, he used Dewey’s work to justify his project to reconstruct the American curriculum. To follow through on the promise of Dewey’s “new education,” Rugg ambitiously argued that social and psychological thought had to be united, considered, and analyzed holistically, linked to a specific vision of the future, and presented to students in a meaningful and engaging manner.

Rugg’s admiration for Dewey began with the scholar’s earliest publications, such as The Child-Centered School (co-authored with Ann Shumaker in 1928), in which Rugg identified Dewey as having kick-started the ‘new’ child-centered educational movement with his laboratory school. According to Rugg (1928), Dewey’s mind was “able to stay above the maelstrom of economic exploitation, rapid urbanization, mass education, and to frame critical hypotheses for the intellectual base of the new national system” (p. 38). For Rugg, Dewey’s school was not about how to reconcile the emerging ideas of the social sciences into a coherent theory of learning but rather about how to reconstruct society through the schools. Accordingly, Rugg (1928) overlooked the moderate objectives of the Dewey school and instead exaggerated the radical elements of Dewey’s approach, calling it a “protest school” and “thoroughly radical institution” (pp. 3839). Just as many subsequent historians would do, Rugg drew upon Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1916) to explain the theories underlying the school, although the laboratory school had been launched two decades earlier. Overall, in the early years, Rugg’s analysis of Dewey was superficial and simplistic. In subsequent works, Rugg offered a more thorough and contextualized view of Dewey’s ideas.

Specifically, Rugg’s outlook for schools and society solidified with American Life and the School Curriculum (1936), which was imbued with a sense of urgency brought on by the Great Depression. Rugg traced the reforms of the previous half-century, and identified Dewey’s work as a major turning point. The Great Transition in education, according to Rugg, occurred as a result of three ideas: growth, the active character of experience, and the concept that the whole organism contributes to the response. Rugg (1936) contributed the first concept—that “all life was regarded as growing, and growth was continuous”—exclusively to Dewey. Rugg traced the second—that “meaning is built though active experience”—to Dewey, Charles Sanders Pierce, and William James (p. 229). However, Rugg attributed the third idea—that “meaning is an integrated process as well as an active one”—not only to pragmatic psychologists such as Dewey and James but also to the empirical work of behaviorists such as Ivan Povlov, Thorndike, and John B. Watson (p. 232). Although Dewey had directly targeted the stimulus-response psychology posited by these scholars, it was essential to Rugg that their ideas formed a new synthesis, which would form the “essential basis for the new curriculum” (p. 236). To many, pragmatism and behaviorism were competing, mutually exclusive theories of mind, but in Rugg’s eyes, Dewey’s philosophy absorbed them both through his functional emphasis on the mind-body interaction in relation to emerging needs. Nevertheless, in his autobiography, That Men May Understand, Rugg (1941) again asserted that all modern psychological schools—including “the Gestaltists, the Behaviorists, Dewey and his followers, Woodworth and the dynamic psychologists, the social psychologists and others”—could be subsumed within Dewey’s organic approach that “every human act is integrative, not additive” (p. 287). Rugg explored this view further in his sprawling more-than-800-page magnum opus Foundations for American Education.

In this text, Rugg asserted that the empirical and philosophical research in the fields of biopsychology, sociology, ethics, and aesthetics over the past 60 years had unequivocally proved that experience was the great unifying principle of modern living. Experience had replaced authority, and organicism had replaced mechanism as the guiding principles of life and curriculum. He referred to this new orientation as the “great consensus”—the idea that bound the “six men who led their peers in building an American philosophy of experience” (p. 84): Pierce, James, Dewey, Thorstein Veblen, Walt Whitman, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. With the exception of Whitman, readers may recognize these scholars as the American pragmatists. Whitman, however, was a significant addition to the list because, according to Rugg, he represented the aesthetic and body-response components of experience that Dewey neglected to emphasize. This emotive component was also given greater significance by Pierce and James. As Rugg (1947) explained, after 1895 “John Dewey . . . developed his intriguing ‘experimental’ theory around . . . problem-solving thought, neglecting, . . . throughout his fifty years of writing the concept that Pierce and James had regarded as prior— namely— Feeling” (p. 43). Although Dewey’s ideas were philosophically sound, the manner in which he applied his educational thought was too cold and scientific to serve Rugg’s educational and social objectives fully.

In addition to critiquing Dewey for his excessive scientism, at the expense of emotion, in Foundations for American Education Rugg also criticized Dewey for withdrawing from interest in experimental schools and for not supporting more actively the various reforms administered in his name in the 1920s and 1930s. Rugg (1947) argued that psychology and education during the first half of the 20th century would have been more effective had “Mr. Dewey and his younger students . . . devoted themselves to the Body-Response concept as thoroughly as they did to the concept of the problem and Problem-solving Thinking” (p. 43). According to Rugg, Dewey’s How We Think (1910), not Democracy and Education (1916), became the most influential text for the curriculum specialists of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. By focusing on the mechanics of the thinking process at the expense of the total experience, curriculum specialists betrayed the program Dewey had constructed at the University of Chicago laboratory school. Accordingly, of all of Dewey’s texts, Rugg considered Mayhew and Edwards’s The Dewey School (1936) his most useful and effective.

Other than these minor critiques, Rugg praised and admired Dewey throughout Foundations for American Education. Although the book was dedicated to the six men of consensus, Dewey appears as the most prominent one; Dewey’s work is quoted, often as a stand-in for Rugg, for nearly every issue and topic he introduced. In the book, Rugg once again attempted to synthesize Dewey’s pragmatic and Thorndike’s behaviorist approaches to mind. Employing dualities with which Dewey would been uncomfortable, Rugg (1947) asserted that Dewey and his associates at Chicago achieved “a definitive statement of the action-concept . . . a psychology based upon the fact that human beings are essentially creatures of action and feeling and purpose, and only secondarily of intellect and reason” (p. 91). Freed from the constraints of disciplinary expertise and tradition, Rugg hoped that the new breed of curriculum specialists would build a progressive curriculum upon the foundation of the great consensus with Dewey’s notion of experience at the core.

The key to Rugg’s frontier vision of the future was a reconciliation of behavioral and social psychology. For Rugg, Dewey was the key to achieving this objective. However, Dewey never fully subscribed to Rugg’s outlook and was not comfortable with the “social foundations” approach. In a 1950 letter to educator Boyd Bode, Dewey coyly admitted that he did not even “know what social foundations of education means” (July 2, 1950, rec. 13394). In another letter, Dewey explained that he, along with Bode, worried that social foundations educators were “urging poli-economic propaganda as educational goals . . . instead of intelligent foundations” (July 23, 1950, rec. 14084). In the end, although Rugg enthusiastically subscribed to Dewey’s educational vision, Dewey did not necessarily subscribe to Rugg’s.


By the 1930s, Dewey’s curriculum at the University of Chicago laboratory school began to fade from memory, and his name began to become associated with the generic problem-method and the fusion approach to the social studies. Rugg’s numerous writings certainly helped to perpetuate this view. Still writing essays prolifically throughout the decade, Dewey addressed broader social and educational topics, and he rarely referred to the practical issues he had worked out at the laboratory school. Nevertheless, changes in the social conditions and educational milieu made Dewey’s ideas even more attractive. According to contemporary educator Robert Knapp (1939), the incompatibility of Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy of wholes and Thorndike’s mechanistic psychology of stimulus-response constituted a major theoretical obstacle for the new education during the early years. However, this tension was assuaged when many American educators adopted the Gestalt psychology in the 1920s.

Gestalt psychology, led by German psychologist Max Werthiemer, emphasized the study of perception, learning, thinking, and problem solving not as separate elemental parts but as wholes. The new psychology revived the pragmatic notion of studying experience as it occurred holistically in real time, but went beyond the pragmatists by creating new methodologies and experimental designs, which placed the approach on more of a scientific basis (Benjamin, 2007, pp. 199–203; Gardner, 1985, pp. 111–114). Based on experiments, the Gestalt psychologists developed new insights into how the brain organized perceptions. As a result of the new psychology, Knapp (1939) explained, “the purposeful activity program really blossomed,” leading to “the fusion of history, geography, and civics in the social studies” (p. 345). Thus, many of Dewey’s philosophical musings about the organic nature of experience and subject matter were being confirmed by the empirical studies and demonstrations of the Gestalt psychologists. In light of this, Dewey advocates, old and new, continued to spread their own interpretation of his ideas.

For many educators, Dewey was depicted as a crusader against the traditionalism of the separate subjects. As University of California, Berkeley professor Walton Bean (1938) explained, “Probably the greatest of the positive influences that destroyed history’s monopoly of the study of society was the educational philosophy of John Dewey, with its insistence that education should correspond to the realities of a twentieth-century, industrialized, democratic society” (p. 291). Bean (1938) attributed the two greatest innovations of the present curriculum, “contemporaneity” and “integration,” directly to Dewey (p. 291). The same year, B. Othanel Smith of the University of Illinois offered a slightly more nuanced view of Dewey’s approach to history, insisting that Dewey did not mean that the subject should be taught backward but rather that history should be used to supply a fuller understanding of the current situation. The present situation itself needed to be understood before students explored its history. “What would be the value of beginning a study of feudalism with the present plight of farmers,” Smith (1938) asked, “if the students have no acquaintance with conditions of farmers?” (p. 207). Likewise, Catherine O’Meara of the Commercial High School in New Haven, Connecticut, used Dewey to support the assertion that one of the major objectives of education was to get students to understand the world around them. As O’Meara (1937) explained, “Dewey still reiterates that education is not preparation for living; it is the life lived” (p. 69). For Bean, O’Meara, and Smith, Dewey’s philosophy rationalized the integration of content and the critical study of current events in newspapers. Dewey’s (1899) approach to history and social sciences was based on his concept of “indirect sociology.” For these readers, the purpose of the social studies was to provide rich descriptions of the present world.

One of the most influential Dewey-inspired texts for social studies educators was Allan Griffen’s dissertation, A Philosophical Approach to Subject Matter Preparation of Teachers of History, published in 1942. This text marked a distinct turn away from Edgar Wesley’s (1937) definition of the social studies as “social sciences simplified for pedagogical purposes” (p. 4) toward Lawrence Metcalf’s (1988–89) definition of the social studies as trans-disciplinary “reflective-thinking,” (p 50) which came to dominate the field after Griffen’s dissertation. Naturally, Dewey’s How We Think (1910) became the preferred text on the reflective process. As Peter Martorella (1978) later concluded, “Most approaches dealing with history have their genesis in the educational ideas developed in [Dewey’s] book How We Think” (p. 191).

This new synthesized approach to the social studies curriculum was largely the creation of the new generation of curriculum specialists. It is not that Dewey’s curricular ideas won and the objective-driven efficiency experts lost, but rather, in the spirit of Rugg and the Gestalt psychologists, the two views were suddenly seen as compatible. Although initially the newly formed schools of education focused on training administrators, by the 1930s the schools awarded numerous doctoral degrees in curriculum design. These specialists were often hired as consultants to design curricula for local school districts or state departments of education (Franklin, 1986; Kliebard, 1995). Many of the local state and city curriculum guides designed during the postwar period cited Dewey directly, but did so in inconsistent ways.

For example, the Kansas Study of Education for Citizenship (1952) began with the results of a survey of current social studies programs in the state. The authors were dismayed to discover a reliance on subject-based instruction, which they dismissed as “not a series of related learning experiences through which we try to develop in our youth the characteristics of effective citizenship” (p. 6). Instead, current programs were a “series of unrelated courses, each course built on the basis of a social studies discipline . . . [with] only incidental relationships to the needs of adolescents or the problems facing our society” (p. 6). The local schools of Kansas had not applied the ideas of the new education as outlined by Dewey. The Kansas report (1952) explained:

Certainly, as John Dewey among others has said, democracy is a way of living together. But education for citizenship in a democracy should not be confused with education for living in a democracy. The former is part of the whole; living in democracy is the whole. (p. 24)

According to Dewey, the Kansas curriculum guide explained, democracy was not just a form of government or an educational objective; democracy was a process of living and learning.  

To remedy the disappointing findings, the Kansas study authors offered their own Dewey-inspired program. It would be logical to expect a Deweyan course of study based on interactive, organic learning experiences centered on growth for its own sake, as outlined in School and Society (1899) and Democracy and Education (1916). The Kansas report (1952) even cited Dewey directly to justify the educational principle that we “learn by doing” (p. 24). Effective behaviors will be learned, the study explained, quoting Democracy and Education (1916), “in an educational scheme where learning is the accomplishment of continuous activities or occupations which have a social aim and utilize the materials of social situations” (p. 29). However, despite the reference to Dewey’s notions of learning as socially oriented organic growth, the Kansas guide was based on a series of specific observable, behavioral modifications in the tradition of scientific curriculum making. Under the Dewey-inspired version of scientific curriculum making, a real-world problem or issue was identified, the issue was broken down into the mental, physical, and emotional tasks involved, and then each task was specifically addressed and assessed individually. As the Kansas program (1952) explained, “objectives must be carefully selected and clearly stated in terms appropriate to desired behaviors” (p. 20). Accordingly, the Kansas study (1952) defined education “as the systematic effort to change or develop behaviors in desirable directions” (p. 35). To justify such a behaviorist, problem-based approach, the Kansas study cited Dewey’s How We Think (1910) as the most influential analysis of the thought process, particularly as it pertained to the skills of critical thinking and the skills of democratic participation.

Dewey’s How We Think (1910) was also cited by the 1951 social studies guide for Nebraska high schools that outlined the five steps of the thinking process, which included the following: (1) feeling a problem or difficulty; (2) defining the problem so that it may be clearly stated; (3) using a tentative hypothesis as leads for gathering pertinent information; (4) choosing this hypothesis for the solution; and (5) evaluating this hypothesis, accepting it if it proves tenable and modifying or rejecting it if it does not (Goldstein & the State High School Social Studies Committee, 1951, p. 20). Dewey’s thinking process outlined in How We Think (1910), according to the Nebraska guide, coincided with the problem-oriented approach to the social studies first outlined by the Committee on Social Studies in 1916, even though the report itself did not cite Dewey’s How We Think.

Nevertheless, the text that was more influential in terms of direct citations than the 1916 report or Dewey’s How We Think was I. James Quillen and Lavone A. Hanna’s text Education for Social Competence (originally published in 1948), which was quoted and cited throughout the Nebraska and Kansas curriculum guides. Quillen and Hanna’s influential text ignored Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1916) and instead cited How We Think (1910). Under the section discussing the popularity of the problem-based curriculum approach in many schools, Quillen and Hanna (1961) explained how “the use of the problems approach in selecting and organizing curriculum materials and learning experiences is in reality the application of Dewey’s definition of reflective thinking to group problems and situations” (p. 156). These authors used Dewey’s How We Think (1910) to rationalize the construction of scientific, problem-based objectives to which the curriculum should be aimed. In the process, for these curriculum makers, “problem-based” came to mean a generic type of curricular method, not a psychological theory of how students learned.

Likewise, Maurice Moffatt’s 1950 textbook Social Studies Instruction also ignored Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1916) and instead cited How We Think (1910) as the rationale for the problem method. According to Moffatt (1950), the problem method suggested attacking “a specific situation in a scientific manner . . . and is therefore . . . directly applicable to the secondary school level of instruction” (p. 84). These documents demonstrate that as the currents of curriculum reform evolved, so did the educational uses of Dewey. While early on social educators had used Dewey’s ideas to justify the social nature of learning and how the schools related to social progress, the authors above viewed Dewey narrowly as a proponent of a specific form of problem-based instruction. These examples suggest that, as Rugg (1947) asserted, Dewey’s How We Think (1910)—not School and Society (1899) or Democracy and Education (1916)—was the most influential text on the professional-trained curriculum specialists of the 1930s and 1940s. In How We Think (1910), these authors saw affirmation for the incremental, step-based instructional planning they promoted.

This view of Dewey as technocratic proponent of objective-driven, problem-based instruction would imply that these curriculum writers belonged in Kliebard’s (1995) social efficiency camp. But, as I have demonstrated, these reformers also owed an allegiance to the broadly conceived Deweyan notions of democratic living and education. To place these reformers solely in the social efficiency or social reconstructionist camp does not accurately depict their orientation. Likewise, placing Rugg in a social reconstruction camp, as Kliebard does, obscures the more conservative elements of Rugg’s thinking, such as his allegiance to scientific curriculum making. In 1916, the year the Committee on Social Studies report was published, Rugg published a statistical study on the transfer of learning in geometry, reflecting his faith in quantitative methods (see Rugg, 1916). In Rugg’s (1933) critique of the 1916 Committee on Social Studies report, he complained that it had “not been based upon investigation, measurement of results attained in current instruction, objective determination of desirable content, or upon experimentation” [italics added] (p. 50). Rugg believed wholeheartedly that his Dewey-inspired educational outlook grew directly out of his scientific findings, not as a reaction against the scientism of others (Evans, 2007). Overall, to Dewey’s contemporaries, the scientific procedures of scientific curriculum making, often affiliated with the doctrine of social efficiency, were used in conjunction with Dewey’s philosophical ideas.


I am not arguing that the Dewey depicted in the texts above was or is more accurate than the Dewey portrayed by historians (for my own take on Dewey, see Fallace, 2009a). In fact, based on my own reading of Dewey, I agree that many of these depictions are distortions of Dewey’s purpose and meaning. Nevertheless, as I stated in the introduction, the objective of this essay was to explore the received Dewey, not to judge these thinkers against my own retrospectively constructed Dewey. My purpose was to depict the diverse ways in which pedagogical progressives used Dewey’s texts to support and refine the scholars’ own divergent reform agendas.

So what was Dewey’s influence on civic and social education? Although the evidence presented here is merely suggestive, a few summative assertions regarding Dewey’s influence on educators during the first half of the 20th century can be made. First, Dewey was often used to reconcile positivistic social science with pragmatic philosophy. At a time when professionals from all the disciplines were carving out their own areas of expertise, science and scientific were terms often used to assert authority and expertise. As explained by Rugg (1947), Dewey’s pragmatism, which was based upon the scientific method, was specifically designed to overcome the shortcomings of speculative philosophy and tradition. To many contemporaries, pragmatic and positivist research differed only in the ontological value of its findings, not in the method the research employed. As Ross (1991) explained:

Dewey’s pragmatism served a variety of uses, . . . on the issues of quantification, the behaviorist ambition of control, and the level of abstraction appropriate for the social sciences, he did not throw his weight to one side or the other . . . The broad range of views with which pragmatism was identified mirrored the broad range of scientism. (pp. 405–406)

Curriculum design, psychological research, and sociological theory were all united by the scientific method they employed, an idea Dewey outlined in How We Think (1910). Pragmatists and positivists each read Dewey’s work as justification for their own methodological and epistemological positions.

Second, although Graham (1995) identified Democracy and Education as “the Bible of the educational reform movement then emerging,” there were in fact numerous Dewey texts cited, often without any reference to others (p. 14). Interest in Relation to Training of the Will (1896), Ethical Principles Underlying Education (1897), School and Society (1899), How We Think (1910), Schools of To-Morrow (1915), and The Dewey School (1936) were all cited and quoted as often as Democracy and Education (1916). To a large degree, the diversity of texts explains the multiple Deweys that appeared throughout this period, because each of these texts focused on a specific element of Dewey’s thinking such as philosophy, psychology, ethics, curriculum, pedagogy, or sociology, but only Democracy and Education (1916) dealt with these elements in relation to one other. By the time Democracy and Education was published in 1916, it was too late to serve as a “Bible” for many educational reformers. For better or worse, Dewey’s influence had already taken hold by the time he wrote his most comprehensive text on education.

Third, Dewey’s philosophy was used to support reform agendas aimed at social control, social adjustment, social reconstruction, and social justice. To say that Dewey was used primarily in support of just one (or none) of these goals is a misrepresentation. Kliebard (1995) was correct to not link Dewey to any one of his curriculum interest groups, but he defined Dewey too narrowly when he pitted him directly against the social efficiency camp. Progressive educational reformers did not identify themselves with labels such as “social efficiency advocate” and/or “humanist.” Such labels, while useful as theoretical constructs for the present, reify the dynamic thought processes of the past. As I have shown, Dewey did not hover above these different interest groups so much as he appeared within and throughout all of them; or, more accurately, he served as the glue that held them all together. Dewey was often used to fill in the holes of any potentially coherent educational scheme because his pragmatic pedagogy linked the specifics of psychical development, ethical growth, psychological processing, curriculum design, and sociological evolution. Although few educators drew upon all the aspects of Dewey’s thought, many drew upon selected portions of his ideas to supplement the scholars’ own theories.

By tracing examples of the received Dewey, I add to a growing body of research exploring more nuanced evaluations of pedagogical progressivism and its relationship to social efficiency (Null, 2004; Wraga, 2001, 2006). The term itself permeated the language and thoughts of virtually every educator during this period, including Dewey, so explorations of social efficiency and/or social control as guiding ideologies are of limited use. Instead, we need to explore further the unspoken philosophical and epistemological assumptions that linked the various ideas of the period. In the spirit of intellectual history, we need to approach pedagogical progressivism more pragmatically as thinking rather than as thought. Only in this manner can we make more accurate claims about the effects of John Dewey on American schooling.


1. I am employing a distinction between pedagogical and administrative progressives as outlined in Tyack, D. (1974). The one best system: A history of American urban education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. This essay deals exclusively with the former.

2. The exception to this is Zilversmit’s (1993) study of curriculum reform in Winnetka, Illinois, which was administered by the Dewey-inspired Carleton Washburne. Zilversmit astutely traces how, even though Washburne used Dewey-like rhetoric, he did not always implement Dewey-like reforms.    


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 3, 2011, p. 463-492
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16057, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 3:21:13 AM

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About the Author
  • Thomas Fallace
    William Paterson University
    E-mail Author
    THOMAS D. FALLACE is assistant professor of education at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ. His research interests include history education, Holocaust education, the origins of the social studies, and the philosophy and influence of John Dewey. Fallace’s articles “Did the Social Studies Really Replace History in American Secondary Schools?” (2008) and “Playing Holocaust: The Origins of the Gestapo Simulation Game” (2007) were both published in Teachers College Record.
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