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Schools of Tomorrow, Schools of Today : What Happened to Progressive Education (History of Schools and Schooling, V. 8)

reviewed by John L. Rury - 2001

coverTitle: Schools of Tomorrow, Schools of Today : What Happened to Progressive Education (History of Schools and Schooling, V. 8)
Author(s): Susan F. Semel & Alan R. Sadovnik (Editors)
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 0820426660, Pages: 448, Year: 1998
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Progressive education continues to hold a powerful attraction for educators and education scholars. The romantic appeal of progressivism is especially palpable in the case of small private schools founded to express and practice the principles of what John Dewey evocatively described as the "new education" in the early twentieth century. "Schools of Tomorrow," Schools of Today, the title of which draws upon Dewey’s famous book of 1915, is a reflection of this continuing fascination and an effort to document the experiences of some of the best known progressive schools in the United States. The result is a potentially valuable record of the development of various institutions, a telling account but one that will hardly be the last word on the progressive impulse in American education.

In certain respects this is a book that is certain to appeal to many educational historians and to devotees of Dewey and progressive education—not a little audience by any means—simply because it represents an effort to show what happened to several of the schools profiled in John and Evelyn Dewy’s Schools of To-Morrow. These are small but well known institutions, familiar both to readers of educational history and to the communities in which they have been located for the better part of the past century. Unfortunately, their histories have not been happy for the most part. Each has experienced a good deal of turmoil over its underlying philosophical principles, along with serious challenges to the financial solvency of the enterprise. The result has been, in almost all of the cases, a gradual shift away from commitment to experimentation and progressive values to service for the wealthy and others interested in a liberal or open minded approach to college prepatory education. As Semel and Sadovnik note, this fits Basil Bernstein’s prediction for such schools, even if it was hardly the future the Deweys had imagined for these particular schools and the educational principles they embodied in 1915.

The book tells the stories of these institutions in separate chapters written by different authors, several of them (including Semel herself) experienced historians. The result is a good deal of unevenness in the treatment given each story, although the general outline of institutional experience is often similar in different cases. There is little cross-referencing between chapters, and the book’s editors appear to have exercised a light hand in bringing the various accounts together. By and large, the chapters focus on organizational and policy dimensions of each institution, documenting changes in leadership, major conflicts over values, and key decisions (many of them concerning financial affairs). Charismatic founders, mostly women, often proved poor institution-builders, and transitions to new leaders were difficult. The chapters give less attention to matters of curriculum and teaching, even though these are features of schools the Deweys were interested in and progressive educators felt were central to their movement. Still, the very act of documenting these distinctive institutional experiences represents a contribution to educational history; it presents a valuable starting point for others interested in exploring the legacy of this branch of progressivism.

The latter portions of the book shift in focus to more recent experiments in progressive education and to efforts to draw lessons from the various cases presented throughout the volume. The four contemporary cases are a mix of private and public institutions, the latter being two schools in New York City. These are less well-known, but may well be representative of the forms in which progressivism is likely to appear today. Little effort, however, is made to determine just how widespread these progressive educational practices may be among other schools. And it is not clear that the schools practicing these principles are aware of the legacy passed down from the institutions described in the first part of the book. As a movement, progressivism seems to have had little continuity from one era to the next, notwithstanding the efforts of educational historians to highlight its debates and accomplishments.

In the end, Semel and Sadovnik conclude that the lessons to be derived from the progressive experiment in education are mixed. They note that optimism and excitement in the early years of several institutions often led to bitter disputes and a grim struggle for survival in later decades. Women leaders, they point out, were neither automatically democratic nor inclusive in leadership styles. Neither were progressive principles and practices universally embraced by parents and teachers. And financial exigency often made the drift toward elite college prepatory education irresistible. But for decades these schools appear to have provided the children fortunate enough to attend them with an unusually rich set of educational experiences. This is perhaps the most telling legacy of these institutions, and an important area for further exploration in historical inquiry. Semel, Sadovnik and the other contributors to this volume have broken new ground, but progressivism remains a fertile field for yet more educational research, analysis and reflection.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 103 Number 1, 2001, p. 14-15
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10435, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 5:47:46 PM

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About the Author
  • John L. Rury
    University of Kansas
    E-mail Author
    JOHN RURY is professor of education at the University of Kansas, where his work concerns the history of American education and related policy studies, particularly concerning urban schools.
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