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Progressive Education and Social Planning

by Walter Feinberg - 1972

Article discusses different well-known educational philosophies and how improvements can be made in the educational system. (Source: ERIC)

The established interpretation of Progressive education insists that the problems of the schools result directly from the fact that Dewey's educational ideas were never clearly understood or widely implemented. Recognizing that questionable practices have been perpetrated in Dewey's name, it denies that these have been in the Deweyian spirit. Seeing some using Dewey to justify "soft" pedagogy and others criticizing him for advocating such practices, his defenders correctly observe that no such justification can be found in Dewey's philosophy. They, therefore, conclude that where people have attempted to implement Dewey's ideas, they have misunder­stood them, and where they have criticized them, they have mistaken the disciple for the master. Those who defend Dewey, however, fail to realize that most contem­porary educational practice is based on a generally correct reading of Dewey's educational philosophy, and that twentieth-century educational thought since 1940 is best understood in terms of the orthodoxy of his theory. They do not recognize this because they believe that the major practical implications of Dewey's educa­tional theory are in the area of classroom instruction, thereby failing to analyze in depth his organizational and curricular concerns and beliefs about the place of the expert in a democratic society.

Often overlooked is Dewey's commitment to a planned society in which economic hardships are cushioned and technology encouraged. In part, this commitment meant that access to the labor market had to be controlled by some public institution —the school—and that production and consumption had to be more rationally supervised. The traditional interpreter is correct. Dewey cherished the qualities of initiative and perseverance which he believed to be part of the American character. He valued planning and individuality, but the interpreter fails to examine the signifi­cance of Dewey's belief that individuality, when exercised, would consent to a planned society. Dewey's emphasis on scientific method and on democratic consen­sus must be seen in the light of his desire for a rational society. In the last analysis, his concern for scientific intelligence is a statement of the need for experts in a highly complex technological society, and his appeal for democratic consensus is an attempt to create a citizenry that is able to see the wisdom of intelligence expertly exercised. This same appeal is to be found in the writings and practices of Progressive educators throughout this century.

The charge that Dewey advocated a soft pedagogy is false because, although he emphasized the interests and inclinations of the child, he also emphasized the needs of a functionally planned society. Scientific objectivity was the means for bringing the interests of the individual in line with the needs of society, and the school was the institution in which objectivity so defined was to be learned. Woven into his view of science and objectivity was the belief that even normative issues could be resolved by scientific procedures and the assumption that truly rational people could agree about the course of practical events. Dewey explicitly believed that the scientific method (or intelligence) applied to human affairs would work to enhance com­munity and democracy. He also explicitly believed that, because such a method would support democratic values, the greater the number of people capable of using it, the greater the scope of democratic consensus. Yet there is little about the method as Dewey describes it which would assure that it be used for the enhancement of either democracy or community, and thus Dewey is faced with a practical dilemma: Is the method of science and the information needed to employ it intelligently to be available to those who might not exercise it in the interest of a planned society? And if Dewey is restrictive, then who is to use the method and when?

During and after the First World War, the tension between the liberals' belief in intelligence and their belief in community was to be severely tested as they con­fronted groups which did not share their commitment to a planned society. In these cases liberals had to choose between their commitment to democracy, community, and individual participation on the one hand, and their belief in intelligence, plan­ning, and expertise on the other. While "democracy" remained the keystone of their rhetoric in these cases, their action revealed a more fundamental commitment to the values of planning and management.

Dewey and his followers recognized that planning and efficiency alone were not sufficient. Dewey did not believe, for example, that the ballot was sufficient to establish a humane, democratic society. True democracy required a redefinition of individuality and society whereby people would be able to recognize themselves as members of a community, each striving to enrich the lives of all. Community was, therefore, the dynamic, binding social force that was to tie people to people in a common but flexible web. If, however, the community was to be a democratic one, Dewey warned, its members were not to be manipulated from above. Its direction was to be determined by the guiding light of intelligence exercised on all levels.

Community vs. Technology

Commentators on Dewey have pointed out an inconsistency between his acceptance of technology and his desire for community. Kimball and McClellan express the contradiction in the following passages:

Dewey recognized that the basic dynamism of our day is found in expanding technology. On the other hand, ... his vision of the future included communal control, through public agencies, of mass industries whose workers would not be mere appendages to machines but rather cooperating citizens in the control of their own destinies.

The inconsistency? Simply this: changing technology would no more spare the cooperative community of industrial workers than it had spared the New England village life from which Dewey's vision had sprung.1

The mistake of Kimball and McClellan is their assumption that Dewey held to the value of community and to the value of technology with equal force. Arthur G. Wirth, in defending Dewey against the criticism of Kimball and McClellan, presents a more accurate statement of Dewey's priorities. Although it is not clear if Wirth's statement should be taken as a defense or an indictment, it is a more precise explication of Dewey's views as a representative of liberal Progressive educational reform in the twentieth century.

His point was that in the urban community individuals would be removed from direct participation in producing life's goods. In order to make sense of a world they could only experience in fragments, they would have to be helped to see it conceptually, and to understand that the intricate superstructure of special­ized processes was an elaboration of means related to fundamental human needs. . . . The new complexity was the result of man's intellectual leap forward and the present task was to become thoroughly familiar with the intellectual skills, and with the content and habits of man that had transformed the banks of the Chicago River—and might eventually transform the face of the moon. The task of liberal education was to give the young an understanding of their place in the scheme of things.... Consequently, they might avoid feeling alienated by the rush of the city's streets; they might feel that they could share in the processes that were contributing to the improvement of life.2

In the last analysis, participation in Dewey's ideal community meant, for most people, an intellectual understanding of their place in the scheme of things. And because his social Darwinism led Dewey also to believe that individuality is achieved only in the context of social activity, he also believed that when people understood their place and their contribution, they would generally accept it. The way in which Dewey's acceptance of technology molded his definition of individuality and com­munity is crucial to an understanding of the major thrust of twentieth-century educational reform.

The traditional interpreter of Dewey might insist that he did not value technology over community. However, he would be correct only in the sense that Dewey did not value technology as an object of choice, but accepted it as a given around which life was to be organized. Other aspects of life were adjustable to one degree or another, but the way in which man related to the machine was not. Because Dewey accepted technology in this fashion and because he did not believe that the develop­ment of the machine could (or should) be reversed, he sometimes failed to perceive the problems that an unbridled technology was creating.

Order, coordination, and predictability are the general prerequisites of a techno­logical society. When science and technology are viewed as the independent variable to which ethical judgments and social relations must conform, then technological considerations become supreme. All other values (community, participation, democ­racy) must be subordinate to coordination and efficiency as they are dictated by the complexity of the machine.

There is a peculiar logic that prevails among technological societies. Order, coor­dination, and predictability, first viewed as means to particular ends, ultimately become the means to all ends. As the condition for any and all values, they become the paramount values. Because technology itself is not realistically questioned, it is not recognized as a value even while it serves as the central force around which all human beings are expected to order their lives. In the Progressive theories of the twentieth century, technology was accepted in such a manner. The explicit view of the Progressive social theorist was that technology was neutral, but it was neutral because it was inevitable, and its neutrality was belied by the fact that people like Dewey made it the model for the most precious of human commodities, human intelligence.

The conventional interpreter claims that the Progressive's allegiance to democ­racy, community, and individuality was more than mere rhetoric. Yet it is precisely in light of these other values that the preeminence of the technological values must be seen. It is easy to write off a Thorndike or a Sneddon who could bend and manipulate the notion of democracy to make it fit the most rigid requirements of the machine age. It is not nearly so easy to write off the humanitarian concerns of a Parker, a Mead, or a Dewey who often perceived better than most the dangers that these requirements presented. But because they attempted to present a humanistic alternative in the context of a cold, rigid technology, it is important to understand how the values of the age molded their thinking. There is no better index for this than their actual work with children, communities, and schools.

Dewey's Concept of Community       

Within Dewey's definitions of the very concepts of community and democracy lurked the values of technology and the possibility of subordinating participation and uniqueness to those values. The traditional interpretation of Dewey does not highlight this fact because Dewey's interpreters have accepted the same technological base and see in Dewey's thought a way to soften and perhaps to humanize what they accept as the inevitable aspects of modern society. The key to this interpretation is to be found in Dewey's concept of community. To understand its nature and where it went astray is to understand a great deal about American education in the twentieth century, reveal­ing theoretical foundations which allow us to overlook the more questionable prac­tices of the schools.

Dewey's concept of community was appealing to the traditional interpreter be­cause in it he saw a way to establish and maintain social control on a large scale without resorting to dictatorial methods. For Dewey the concept of community and the idea of democracy were essentially equivalent terms. The most important con­cern in a democracy was the participation of each member in deciding its goals and sharing in its rewards. In The Public and Its Problems Dewey writes of the demo­cratic ideal:

From the standpoint of the individual, it consists in having a responsible share according to capacity in forming and directing the activities of the groups to which one belongs and in participating according to need in the values which the groups sustain. From the standpoint of the group, it demands liberation of the potentiality of members of the group in harmony with the interests and goals which are common.3

He also warns, as the conventional interpreter is quick to point out, that the institu­tions and machinery of political democracy can hide the more important meaning of a democratic community. Universal suffrage and majority rule, while desirable, are not sufficient to change the quality of human association. A human being may be looked upon in his capacity to fill a certain role, but a person's quality as "a distinctive member of a community, as one who understands and appreciates its beliefs, desires, and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers into human resources and values"4 has been ignored and thus lost.

In the past, communities have been characterized by a face-to-face relationship among their members. One member could see the consequences of his acts upon the others and their acts upon himself. As nations have grown, the people affected by such consequences have become larger while the portion having control over them has become smaller. Dewey's concerns about community were addressed to this problem. In modern times the public, which Dewey defines as those people affected by the indirect consequences of private acts, has become increasingly inarticulate and unable to identify itself. The function of "community" was to organize a diffuse public around common issues.

However well the traditional interpreter may have followed Dewey's line of reasoning, he has failed to perceive two crucial facts about Dewey's concept of community. First, in defining the public as those affected by the indirect conse­quences of private acts, Dewey allows that the state is the agency for caring for those consequences. The state's role is thus determined by the extent and intensity of indirect consequences. Given Dewey's belief in the inevitability of technology and his hesitation to question technological values, such an interpretation of the state gives it uncommon power. In a technological society the indirect consequences of private acts are enormous, extending as far as the economic well-being of an entire nation. The second point that the interpreter fails to perceive is that Dewey some­times acted as if America had already achieved the status of the great community. Paying tribute, for example, to Dr. James Marsh, Dewey quotes his description of American society:

We can hardly ... be said to be subject of any state, considered in its ordinary sense, as a body politic with a fixed constitution and a determinate organization of its several powers. But we are constituent members of a community in which the highest worth and perfection and happiness of the individual free persons composing it constitute the highest aim and perfection of the community as a whole.5

Dewey then continues: "In my judgment, this subordination of the state to the community is the great contribution of American life to the world's history."6

The belief that America had in effect reached the stage of the great community dominated, in one form or another, educational movements in the twentieth century. It gave legitimacy to the nation itself and its institutional structure. Ultimately the emphasis for Dewey is on great and if "community" does not describe the already existing fact of American society, it at least describes a social goal and direction of that society. To be sure, Dewey recognized that there were gaps in the community: the capitalist who had his own interest at heart and perhaps the urban immigrant who was unable to enlarge his own narrow community to include the nation at large. Yet the belief that a national community with established common interests was nourishing gave educators cause to close the gaps in the face of what they took to be the resistance of narrow, recalcitrant interests.

Although Dewey's discussion of the great community was marked by some in­sight, he never comes to grips with some of the more difficult problems of American society in a technological age. Dewey observes that there are too many publics in America, that they are too scattered and diffuse, and yet he believes that there is among them common interests which are the basis of the great community which many of the publics have yet to recognize. His appeal is for a public whose members have developed the habits of intelligent inquiry into social affairs, for a society in which the knowledge of consequences is available to all and where there exists a "lively sense of shared interest."7

To assume that a shared, yet to be recognized, common interest already existed among the many diverse publics was to resurrect a "general will," transcending particular wills and thereby serving as the norm by which all conflicts were ulti­mately to be resolved. The germ of a general will theory had already been present in Dewey's brand of Social Darwinism where each individual was to achieve his individuality through membership in an ever-widening society. Yet when such a concept, implicitly held, was linked to his ideas on democracy, community, and participation, it presented some special practical problems.

The most crucial problem is the extent to which information, the prerequisite for intelligent decisions, is to be made available to groups which have yet to perceive the common interest. The problem is especially important given the role of the intellectual in assessing and collecting information. In a technological society more than in any other the possession of information is often equivalent to the possession of power. Oftentimes the intellectual as the collector and interpreter of information reveals his own beliefs about legitimacy and power by where he chooses to direct his information.

Dewey's belief that the extension of intelligence was the key to the establishment of democracy might lead us to suspect that he would have acted to disseminate information as widely as possible. His view that an essential element of democracy is participation might further allow us to expect that Dewey would have been especially careful to have information available to those whom it most closely affected. Yet such was not always the case.

The Barnes Study       

One of the strangest episodes in Dewey's career began in 1917 when Albert C. Barnes, a millionaire industrialist and art critic, registered for one of Dewey's seminars at Columbia. At the end of the year Barnes suggested that the Polish community posed a counter-example to Dewey's ideas on community and he offered to support a project to find out why Polish groups in Philadelphia were not assimilating to American life. Believing the isolation of the Polish community to be a "cyst" on American society, Dewey accepted the pro­posal.8 Barnes rented a house on the boundary of the Polish community for the members of the seminar, and the project, with Dewey aboard, continued for three months. Out of it came a study of the churches of the community by Brand Blanshard, of the schools by Helen Bradshaw,9 and of the political and organizational aspects of the community by Dewey. Dewey's study was printed in 1918 as a confidential report entitled "Conditions among the Poles in the United States" and submitted, at the request of General Churchill, to the Military Intelligence Bureau of the Federal government. Much in the report would have been highly controversial to members of the Polish community who were engaged in internal battles about organization, funding, and loyalty. The report contains information which would have been useful to members of the Polish community had it been made available to them. More importantly, it represents the thinking of an influential, "liberal" American. Because the study is so significant in clarifying and highlighting Dewey's value priorities, it is necessary to quote at some length from it.

The purpose of the study, Dewey writes, "was to ascertain forces and conditions which operate against the development of a free and democratic life among the members of this group, to discover the influences which kept them under external oppression and control." Then, quoting approvingly from Barnes, Dewey continues: "The idea would be to work out a practical plan, based on firsthand knowledge, to eliminate forces alien to democratic internationalism and to promote American ideals in accordance with the principles announced by President Wilson in his various public communications."10 Although there is a good deal in the study to suggest that there was much factionalism among Polish-American groups and that there were different and varying degrees of sympathy to the Polish struggle abroad, there is virtually nothing of any substance to warrant Dewey's claim that such groups were under "external oppression and control." The most that can be claimed is that some Poles maintained an identity and a loyalty to the homeland while resisting attempts at Americanization.

In the study Dewey identifies two major groups within the Polish community: those who fear and are opposed to Americanization and those who are not. Among the first group, which constitutes by far the largest part of the study, is to be found most of the Polish clergy supported by the conservative financial elements and led by the musician Paderewski and his wife. Dewey admits that the clerics have the support of the mass of Poles, but he attributes this to disorganization among the people, to the absence of a Protestant middle group which he believes would some­how unify different factions, and to the manipulation of the majority of Poles by the priestly class. Little, if any, information is provided in the report, however, which could be construed as actual manipulation, and while Dewey admits that the con­servative faction appears to have more support than the one favoring American­ization, he still describes the priestly group as only "professing" to speak for the masses.11

Dewey's major concern is not the manipulation of one group of Poles by another, but rather the effect on the American war effort that such disunity might provoke. The report, Dewey writes, is concerned with the conditions among the Poles "which have a bearing upon the disposition and morale of the Poles with respect to the war, in that they breed dissension and disturb the unity which is desirable for efficient prosecution of the war."12

Even more significant is his virtually complete identification with American mili­tary and commercial interests, which sheds new light on his discussion of com­munity. Throughout the report Dewey is implicitly questioning the loyalty of the Polish citizen, and in two specific places he proposes a concrete test of that loyalty. Both are related to the formation of an American commission to deal with Polish affairs. The rhetoric of the proposal is of more than passing significance:

The willingness of the Poles to accept a distinctively American commission which should bring about a unity among the different factions of Poles, make a special study of the Polish question and get into relation with Polish conditions abroad, would seem a fair test of whether any Pole or group of Poles put foremost their personal or factional interest or their desire for a free and independent Poland... . An American commission would naturally co-operate with the Paris Committee [a prominent Polish group in exile] and with all other Polish organized groups. The only thing that an American commission would interfere with is the ambition of the Paris Committee to become a provisional government for Poland and to be its representative at the Peace Conference; and the desires and activities of those Poles in America who are so afraid of Americanization that they actually prefer allegiance to a group on foreign soil to an active interest in the Polish question on the part of the United States embodied in a distinctly American commission.13

Dewey clearly places the burden of proof of loyalty and good citizenship on the Polish-American people and their acceptance of such a commission. He also suggests that their loyalty is to be determined by whether or not they are willing to accept the American government rather than a distinguished group of Polish citizens in exile as representing the interest of the Polish nation. That such an issue might not have been a question of loyalty at all, but rather a question of fact about who could best represent the interests of the Polish nation never seemed to have entered Dewey's mind.

Dewey felt so strongly about his proposed American commission for Polish affairs that he suggested that reluctance of prominent Polish Americans to join it might be taken as prima facia evidence of disloyalty. "Refusal of any faction or important Pole to join would indicate that he put personal ambition or partisan interest before the cause of Poland, or else that he put allegiance to some foreign group before his allegiance to the United States."14

The proposed tasks of the commission were equally revealing among which was "to make clear the active and directive influence of the United States in the Polish problem, quieting German and Austrian propaganda and keeping the Poles in Poland faithful to the cause of the allies"1* and further to "provide methods by which information from all Polish sources can be secured and organized and by which the cause of industrial unrest can be immediately detected and the unrest allayed."16 The implications of this second task are perhaps ambiguous. In light of Dewey's philosophical discussion of community, the ominous sounding proposal to collect information on the causes of industrial unrest seems out of place. Dewey may possibly have had in mind the use of reason and intelligence on the part of the government to allay those causes of unrest. If, however, this is the case, it reveals a naive faith in the operation of government, a faith revealed also by Dewey's eager willingness to serve it in secret.

It is difficult, indeed it is almost impossible, to see in the report any major concern for community, democracy, or participation in the sense in which the traditional interpreter of Dewey views these concerns. Paramount in the report is a desire to keep the wheels of industry running, during the war and afterwards as well. In a passage that could as easily have been written by a business tycoon or a government bureaucrat, Dewey writes:

The great industrial importance of Polish labor in this country must be borne in mind and the fact that there will be a shortage of labor after the war and that there is already a movement under foot (which should be carefully looked into) to stimulate the return of Poles and others of foreign birth in Southeastern Europe to their native lands after the war. With the sharp commercial competition that will necessarily take place after the war, any tendency which on the one hand de-Americanizes and on the other hand strengthens the allegiance of those of foreign birth to the United States deserves careful attention.17

Implications for Education

Dewey's concern to es­tablish a new national identity among the Poles and his desire to keep the military and the industrial machinery running provides a somewhat different perspective not only upon his views of democracy and community, but also upon his notion of education. One of Dewey's students, Helen Bradshaw, did a report on education in the Polish community. Unfortunately, this report has been lost. However, Brand Blanshard, who served as Dewey's research assistant, did a study entitled The Church and the Polish Community which contains a short section on education, consistent with the recommendations of Dewey's own study. The fact that Dewey and Blanshard were in close communication when this report was researched and prepared suggests that some influence of the scholar upon his graduate student was likely. Blanshard's major concern is the control exercised by the church and the parochial school over the education of the Polish youth. The church, he believed, was steeped in superstition which it handed down through a monolythic theology to its youth. Like Dewey he extols the virtues of the Protestant religion seeing in it the virtues of diversity, tolerance, and right thinking, and he concludes by demand­ing the drastic revision of the church.

Failing to understand that the church served often to cement a community whose members might otherwise be traumatized by urban life, Dewey and Blanshard, in the name of democracy, sought to undercut its authority through the institution of the public school. This is not to say that the church was a democratic institution or that its hierarchy was always motivated by "the best interest of its worshippers." It is simply to say that the proposals of Dewey and the scholarship of Blanshard were motivated by concerns far beyond the well-being of the Polish-American people, and that their charge that the church was undemocratic did not make their own studies any less so. Indeed in many areas the Polish community had good reason to be suspicious of the public school and its professed nonsectarian nature. Parochial schools in the United States had arisen initially not out of a need to impose a cultural-religious identity, but to keep one from being destroyed by a system that brought out the King James Bible in the morning and the McGuffey reader in the afternoon.

It would be wrong to suggest that all of the more liberal proposals against immigration quotas and for expanding immigrant education were motivated by concern over the labor supply. Yet the reluctance of reform educators to develop an ethical view of man rather than a biological one brought their proposal more directly under the influence of the flux of events over which they exerted little control. Throughout the volumes of Dewey's work, the Polish study is perhaps the grossest expression of the way this influence could work. It is also perhaps the most explicit statement of his overriding commitment to the American nation and to the process of Americanization. It is a statement of his faith in the validity of the rules of American society, of the integrity of its leaders, and of his belief in the established superiority of its culture.

Negro Education

If the Polish study was an exam­ple of a push toward assimilation in the interest of national unity, Dewey's treatment of Negro education provides a somewhat different emphasis. Although his name was on the list of the founders of the NAACP, Dewey was less than visionary in his examination of Negro education. If the Polish study pushed for assimilation, his examination of Negro schools in the same period reveals a resigned attitude toward de facto segregated schools. This resignation issues from the same source as his opposite concern for integration of the Poles. In all probability Dewey did not believe, as Gunnar Myrdal has said of Americans in general, that the Negro was a separate caste, unable to be assimilated into society. Yet he very well may have believed that the rest of American society believed this, and he was less than forthright in challenging this belief. This point is illustrated by a description of an all-Negro school which Dewey wrote with Evelyn Dewey in Schools of Tomorrow, a general survey of experimental schools, in 1916.

P.S. 26 in Indianapolis were an all-Black school in a poor Black slum. Considering the poverty of the neighborhood, the school carried on some worthwhile programs. Dewey mentions that the school was located in "the crowded district of the city and has only colored pupils," " and he mentions too that the school was not attempting to solve the race problem, but that it was developing good citizens. If the experiment were to succeed, it would "mean a real step forward in solving the race prob­lem." " Yet the program which Dewey then describes is a strictly vocational pro­gram. It is an excellent vocational program where much of the school and the neighborhood serve as a shop for the students. At a time when most Black labor was unskilled or farm labor, a program of skill development was an advance forward. Nevertheless, Black boys learned how to cook and Black girls how to sew.

It might be said in the context of the purpose of the book that it is unfair to criticize Dewey for merely reporting what is a splendid vocational program without commenting on the social conditions that made being a cook one of the highest aspirations of a Negro child. Yet, given his somewhat mild, but nevertheless serious criticism of Montessori in the same volume, it would not have been too much to expect at least a comment on the implications of a strictly vocational program for Black children. A more serious shadow is cast over Dewey's evaluation of the experiment as he suggests its greatest value to lie among the youngsters of Negro and immigrant parents. If it was realism that guided Dewey's attitude, it was realism of a peculiar kind, one that believed that the best way for a Black man to cope with American society was to fit into it as best he could and as best as it would allow. Dewey's praise of the program for developing good citizens is of more than passing interest. Given the strictly vocational function of the school, his view of citizenship as it is presented here would do little to alter stereotypes or to change the power relations among groups.

One factor that separated Progressive educators from others was an expressed concern for the well-being and integrity of immigrant and racial minorities. At its best this concern mirrored the appeal for diversity that was an explicit part of Dewey's notion of community. At its worst it expressed the belief in experts, in authority, and in unity that was hidden in that same notion of community.

The Bureau of Intercultural Education       

From the early 1930s to the early 1950s a number of organizations were established by reform­ers to deal with the problems of minorities. The rhetoric of these organizations, mirroring in part Dewey's notion of community, emphasized the cultural uniqueness of different groups. One such organization, the Bureau of Intercultural Education, was formed in 1934 by Rachael Dubois who had become acquainted with Progres­sive literature through the teachings of Dewey's disciple, William Head Kilpatrick.

The activities of the Bureau reveal a style of operation which has its roots in Dewey and which continue to be practiced among liberal educators today. Its history displays the same ambiguity towards diversity and unity as is found in Dewey's ideas on community. The history also reveals that this ambiguity was often resolved, as with Dewey, in favor of the institutional power structure.

The rhetoric and the practice of the Bureau came as a reaction to the parochialism and restrictiveness of the melting pot ideology. Rachael Dubois saw if the melting pot a demand that immigrants conform to the Anglo-Saxon model of culture and society. Dubois and her followers rejected the desirability of such conformity.

The rhetoric of the Bureau of Intercultural Education was representative of the most liberal aspects of Progressive education. It objected to the notion that Ameri­can culture had been fixed once and for all and that the newcomer had nothing to add to the culture, but had only to absorb it. Diversity was seen as the key to cultural richness; to the blossoming of American art, music, and literature. It was also the necessary prerequisite for a continuing evaluation of the direction and priorities of the American nation.

Throughout the 1930s and 40s the Bureau staff worked with the public schools in the area of intercultural education. In the early years the largest part of this activity consisted in providing curriculum materials and in-service courses for public school teachers. As the Bureau grew in size and as changes in personnel occurred (Dubois was replaced as director in 1939), some of its activity was redirected. On one level, the work of the Bureau is consistent with its liberal rhetoric, but as was the case with Dewey, its practical activity reveals as well a conservative side.

Throughout its existence the Bureau had to struggle with two problems. The first was to find ways to increase the understanding of one group by another, and the second was to find ways to extend its own influence. The strategy it used in dis­seminating its ideas reveals a good deal about the fundamental posture of this basically well-intentioned, liberal group of people. Moreover, it is suggestive of the fundamental posture of liberal reform groups in general.

The work of the Bureau in creating the mutual understanding between ethnic groups continued to follow Dubois' basic ideas. Many of the techniques that were used show an innate sensitivity to the attitudes and feelings of minority cultures as well as a strong awareness of general insensitivity of the major institutions towards these cultures. Dubois believed that it was important for the public school not to destroy a child's sense of pride in his culture as the insidious melting pot myth had done. Nor should the schools in the name of Americanism tear the child from his parents as so often happened in the culture of the schoolroom:

Their daddy's may be Irish, German, Jew or Dutch, but if they're born in Yankee land the rest don't count for much

sang the children of a high school in a large Eastern city. Instead children were to be invited to share their holidays with each other and teachers were provided with materials that would supplement textbooks. Yet even in the early days of the Bureau, before it had succumbed to bureaucratic intrigue and while the humanitarian spirit of Rachael Dubois was most strongly felt, there was special care taken to present the right image, the ideal type. Dubois felt the world to be so torn by conflict, so alienating, and so distorted by violence and hate, that only by idealizing a culture could children grow up to respect each other.

Not the Russian peasant but Tolstoy, not the Indian Coolie but Mahatma Gandhi, not the drink-sodden denizen of the Glasgow slums but Sir Walter Scott are figures which the American child must visualize instantaneously when Rus­sians, Indians, Scots are named if his reaction is to be appreciated in the highest sense.20

In order to achieve understanding, adult members of different ethnic groups were to appear in the classroom, but it was important to invite only those members who could immediately counter the child's built-up stereotype. Only the articulate Negro, the athletic Jew, or the urbane Pole should be invited to engage the children in the classroom. In her haste to eliminate violence and hatred from the lives of children, Dubois' techniques were also to eliminate anger or indignation as well.

In many ways it is painful to look too coldly upon Rachael Dubois' dream of American society, for as dreams went it was a good one. At the time when many saw ethnic cultures to be parasitic to American life, she believed them to be essential to its flourishment. At a time when some Negroes feared speaking publicly of Black culture and Black pride, she was describing to Negro children the richness of their heritage and the extent of their contribution to American life. And while some were trying to escape the stigma that had been placed on them because of their back­ground and culture, she was reminding others that the source of the stigma was only external.

Yet Dubois' dream expressed as much faith in the willingness of the members of the dominant culture to open themselves up to influence from minority groups as it did in the value of the minority group culture itself. And it was perhaps because of this faith that she failed to approach the issue of power as it was needed to sustain uniqueness and cultural pride. Her appeal was to the good will of the teachers and administrators. Throughout its growth, its shifts in leadership, and its various con­cerns this was the one faith that dominated the spirit and the operations of the Bureau of Intercultural Education.

The work of the Bureau is as significant for its style of operation as it is for its accomplishments. When it faltered it did so as a result of its willingness to trust the good will of the educational establishment and to serve it when trust was no longer warranted. And it faltered too because it was unwilling or unable to work directly with the minority group whose cause it was hoping to espouse. The instincts of its members uniformly directed them to work through established channels even when those channels were obviously unwilling to advance the cause of the Bureau. As with Dewey in the study of the Polish community, it was inconceivable to the personnel of the Bureau that they might consider turning from those channels and serving directly the people they were attempting to help.

The Bureau in Detroit

The most obvious and clear-cut failure of the Bureau in this regard came in its relationship with the Detroit public schools. During the 1940s the Bureau became a fairly large operation with field offices in a number of cities including Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Gary, In­diana, and Detroit, Michigan. Its work in Philadelphia and in Gary achieved some measure of success, but the program in Detroit, which lasted from the early to the late 1940s, continued to falter as it ran into conflicts with the administrators of the public schools. By this time Rachael Dubois was no longer director of the Bureau, and during this period a number of administrative changes took place. Nevertheless, the innate trust that she had expressed in the good will of school administrators and in their ability to translate that good will into programs of action persisted. The history of the Bureau's relations with Detroit presents some classic problems in intergroup relations.

The industrial development of the city of Detroit had spiraled its population of 285,000 in 1900 to 1,685,000 in 1945. In 1940 20 percent of its population was foreign born and an additional 9 percent was Negro. The city had its Polish section, its Negro section, its Hungarian and Italian areas with shifts in population occurring as one group moved in to replace another on the lower rung. During World War II the Negro population of Detroit had increased considerably, but for the most part schools and housing remained substandard, and the Negro voice was inconspicu­ously absent from political affairs.

Throughout the depression, Detroit had often been an area of intergroup suspi­cion, symbolized by the radio broadcasts of Father Caughlin and aggravated by labor struggles. In the early summer of 1943, much of the strife that had existed between Blacks and Whites came to a head in the riots of June 20 and 21. With the war on this was an especially difficult time. Subsequent efforts were made to uncover the causes of racial strife with part of these efforts undertaken by the schools as committees were formed on interracial understanding. In October 1943 contacts were initiated with the Bureau of Intercultural Education, and a large conference attended by 2,000 Michigan teachers and administrators, sponsored by the Bureau, was held in March 1944. During 1944 and 1945 the Detroit school system concen­trated some energy in the area of intercultural education with committees drawing up intercultural policy statements that emphasized equal employment and education while beginning also to examine the intercultural aspects of the curriculum. During the same period relations with the Bureau were established on a more formal basis, and by January 1945 the Bureau had a staff developing a program with the Detroit school administrators.

There is no need to detail the methods and programs of the Bureau, but it should be sufficient to note that with the addition of some surveys and sociological research, many of the programs were similar to those initiated earlier by Rachael Dubois. What is significant is the relationship sustained by the Bureau with the Detroit schools. In May 1945, the Superintendent of the Detroit Schools, Warren Bow, died. Bow had initiated the contacts with the Bureau and in the eyes of its staff had been sincerely active in the cause of intercultural education. Arthur Dondineau was made acting superintendent and was appointed on a permanent basis in the fall of 1945. While Dondineau was still only acting superintendent, the Bureau staff sensed hesitation in his commitment to intercultural education, but attributed this to the confusion that accompanies a change in personnel. Nevertheless, by November 1945 the "Bureau staff felt. . . that the Detroit people were unwilling to give much time and effort to carrying forward the program in the schools,"21 and the superintend­ent had restricted his direct contact with the staff to occasional correspondence with the Bureau director.

Deterioration of the Program

Events occurring be­tween December 1945 and March 1946 illustrate clearly the deterioration that had occurred. A memo written by the Bureau staff was submitted by Bureau Director Warren Giles to the school administrator in charge of intercultural programs. The memo listed suggestions for improving the intercultural program of the schools. It dealt with administration, teaching, and with the control and selection of curriculum materials. The memorandum was submitted to the appropriate administrative com­mittee and then suffered the following fate, as indicated by the committee's minutes:

The memorandum of suggestions sent by the Bureau staff on the Administrative Committee at our request was distributed. The members of the committee in­dicated their willingness to study this and discuss it in the next meeting.—From Administrative Committee minutes, February 15, 1946.

The memorandum from Dr. Giles and his staff on projected plans for Detroit was discussed briefly. It was decided that this was sufficiently important to deserve longer discussion at the next meeting.—From Administrative Committee mi­nutes, March 7, 1946.

The memorandum from Dr. Giles . . . were to be carried over the next meet­ing.—From Administrative Committee minutes, March 28, 1946.

The records of the administrative committee did not give any hint that the matter was ever discussed again.22

The relationship between the Bureau and the Detroit schools deteriorated further from 1945 to 1949. While the reports of the Bureau personnel reveal that they were sensitive to this deterioration and to their own general impotence, they were unwill­ing to take any dramatic steps to remedy it. Indeed, their own confidential papers show them demoralized and frustrated, but always willing to bite their tongue in public for the sake of continuing what was at best a marriage of convenience.

The reports of the Bureau are heavy with criticism of the superintendent and his top-level staff for their unwillingness to allow any significant research to take place about racial attitudes and practices in the public schools and for failing to implement in any significant way the proposals of the Bureau. In one of the few statements of grievances that ever formally reached the superintendent, the Bureau staff docu­mented the administration's unwillingness to follow its recommendations in a num­ber of areas. Its suggestion that a citizens advisory board be established had been tabled. Its request that research be conducted regarding school boundary line trans­fer policies, and promotion practices with regard to minority groups had been ignored. No systematic effort had been undertaken to evaluate teaching materials and instructional methods as they affected minority groups and no funds had been allocated for the problems of intergroup relations.23 The superintendent greeted the statement of grievance coolly and continued to do nothing about the recommenda­tions.

For all the bitterness that was felt by the Bureau's staff, they were as reluctant to leave Detroit as the administration of the schools was reluctant to have them leave. As ineffective as they were in improving the situation in the schools, they were still willing to have the public schools use them to cool criticism. On February 7, 1949, shortly before the Bureau quietly severed its relations with Detroit, the follow­ing was included in a statement by the administration in a report entitled "Education for Democratic Human Relations in the Detroit Public Schools."

In a special survey of administrative practices sponsored by the Bureau for Inter-cultural Education in 1945, it is significant to note that 94 of the 257 teachers appointed to the schools during the year 1945 were Negroes. Similarly, 148 of the 360 non-teaching employees appointed in 1945 were Negroes. In a quick check in 1948, there were reported 389 Negro educational employees and 546 non-educational employees.

The cooperative relationship of the Detroit Public Schools with the Bureau for Intercultural Education is another instance of administrative achievement. The Detroit Public Schools have had the advantage of working with both the field staff and special consultants of the Bureau since 1944.

What the report failed to mention was that the survey was conducted the year of Warren Bow's death, and that the subsequent administration had repeatedly dis­couraged other surveys. (It is not clear who took the quick check in 1948.) Moreover, the fact that over one-third of the teachers hired in 1945 were Negro is not as impressive as it sounds considering the total number of Negro students and the ratio of Black teachers to Black students. In 1945, given a total student population of 222,391, 38,529 or 17 percent were Black, while out of 7,262 teachers only 286, or 4 percent, were Black. In 1945 7 percent of the clerks and 10 percent of the janitors were Negro. Moreover, if the student population is broken down by age, there is evidence that the percentage of Black school population was increasing at a consist­ent rate. In 1945 13 percent of the high school students, 16 percent of the junior high students, and 19 percent of the elementary students were Negro.24 Even more sig­nificant is the location of the Black teachers with 6 percent in the elementary school, 2 percent in the intermediate grades, and 0.7 percent in the high school.25 Negro teachers were generally restricted to schools that had a sizeable Black student population. There were no Black principals or supervisory personnel.

Shortly before the relationship was broken, a Detroit administrator was quoted as saying:

I think it would be most unfortunate for you, and for Detroit, if you leave Detroit. There are pressure groups in Detroit who will make it very hard for us. It would be bad for you because you will begin to get the reputation of not being able to stick with something to its finish. We both need each other.26

While it was hard for the Bureau members to admit that such indeed was the nature of the relationship, the same conversation reveals the director of the Bureau assert­ing: "The Bureau has invested a lot of time and money in Detroit. We need to make reports to our board from time to time. Sometimes it is hard to report progress in Detroit at the same time Dondineau won't invest a nickle in the program."27 And it was the case that the Bureau made every attempt in its public reports to see progress where there was very little. The following excerpts are taken from the Bureau's report to the board. (The relevant passage of the public report, is followed by a relevant confidential passage in italics.)

There was increased conscious adherence (in Detroit) to the principle that inter-cultural education should be integrated into all aspects of the curriculum and not isolated in separate courses, and greater emphasis on understanding basic human needs, human values, and social problems. Human relations and education for democratic living have been the focus.28

Situation developing toward the segregation of Negro teachers in all Negro schools.29

The number of all Negro schools increased from one in 1943 to sixteen in 1946.30

A program was begun for 4,000 "non-contract" employees. Activities included training in human relations for secretarial staff and for janitors, a campaign to encourage qualified Negro janitors to acquire training as building engineers, and greater attention to protecting the promotion rights of Negro employees.31

Large number of Negro non-contract employees entitled by seniority to supervisory positions, but administrators are fearful of placing them as bosses over White men. The White men won't take it, they say.32

Reports of the Central Administrative Committee indicates a continuing concern with the problems of evaluation, and committees are at work investigating new techniques.33

Durgan is still of the opinion that Dondineau is not giving support in the intercultural program.34

Some new attempts at getting evaluation processes were started, but didn’t bear fruit.35

Schools are continuing to work effectively with parent-teachers association and other local organizations at the neighborhood level.36

Community Concerns

Our community contacts have been limited up to now. These concerns therefore are expressions . . . by the few key people with whom we have close contacts. That more competent school administrators be obtained—specifically, that the present superintendent be removed, based on a judgment that he is not only inade­quate but an obstacle to an improved educational program. There apparently is increasing agitation for organized community pressure for improving the schools.37

Yet the reported desire of the community to have the superintendent removed was not a real issue for the Bureau staff. The very same report in which the concern of the community is reported unchallenged concludes by suggesting that the Bureau staff develop closer "working relations with the superintendent and his executive staff in order to attempt to get them sincerely committed to an effective program of improving human relations."38

A Marriage of Convenience       

The marriage between Detroit and the Bureau was one of convenience, but it was also a matter of selective perception whereby Bureau members believed that the only vehicle for effective change was the good will of the school administrators. The Bureau had committed itself to a notion of community, had accepted the value of group difference, and had elevated the idea of diversity to a principle of explicit worth. Yet within its notion of community was an implicit commitment to unity of a certain kind. It was a unity in which ethnicity could be expressed for the sake of cultural richness, but not as a vehicle of power. Whatever personal objections the members of the Bureau may have had to the superintendent of schools, however inadequate they felt his commit­ment to the improvement of intercultural education and to the protection of the rights of minority adults and children, they were still willing to serve him, to filter their information through him and to subordinate their interpretation of the facts to his. When criticism occasionally came from concerned quarters, they were always there to be spotlighted for the moment until the furor died down. The commitment of the Bureau was to the public school system, and to its administrative staff. When things went wrong and it became clear that the administration was not supporting the intercultural program, the Bureau's response was to try and close a gap that they knew could not be closed. When they saw even their work with teachers becoming ineffective, the recommendation was to begin working more intensely with the principals and the supervisory staff. Thus as the weaknesses in the relationship became more and more obvious, the Bureau responded by attempting to ascend the bureaucratic ladder rather than by intensifying their work with teachers (an A.F.T. chapter was assuming some leadership in Detroit) or establishing closer ties with the community itself.39

Neither the effects of the Bureau's work nor the limitations that possibly may have been imposed upon it from outside need be overlooked in order to understand that its commitment to orderly procedure and bureaucratic legitimacy ran even deeper than its commitment to minority rights, equal opportunity, or intercultural under­standing. More importantly, the activity of the Bureau is consistent with the general direction taken by Progressive educators throughout the century. Their concern for community was much more a plea for a functionally ordered society than it was for actual community participation in the decision making process. Certainly the 1940s were not the 1970s, and caution was more prudent than publicly expressed impa­tience. Yet even in the 1970s this is still the case, and the liberal of the 1970s is marked by the same stripe as the liberal of the 1940s, by a willingness to use and to be used by the bureaucratic structure even when its ponderous and reactionary aspects prevail.


1 Solon T. Kimball and James E. McClellan, Jr. Education and the New America. New York: Vintage Press, 1962, p. 113.

2 Arthur G. Wirth. John Dewey as Educator: His Design for Work in Education, 1894-1904. New York: John Wiley, 1966, p. 292.

3 John Dewey. The Public and Its Problems. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1927, p. 147.

4 Ibid., p. 154.

5 John Dewey. Problems of Men. New York: Philosophical Library, 1946, p. 373.

6 Ibid., p. 374.

7 Dewey, The Public and Its Problems, op. cit., p. 156.

8   The word "cyst" to describe Dewey's attitude was used by Brand Blanshard, Dewey's research assistant in the project, during a telephone interview in the fall of 1970.

9   This study could not be located.

10 John Dewey, "Conditions among the Poles in the United States: Confidential Report," p. 2.

11 Ibid., p. 44.

12 Ibid, p. 4.

13 Ibid., pp. 46-47. Brackets added.

14 Ibid., p. 79.

15 Ibid., pp. 79-80.

16 Ibid., p. 79.

17 Ibid., p. 73.

18 John Dewey and Evelyn Dewey. Schools of Tomorrow. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1915, p. 207.

19 Ibid., p. 208.

20   Bruno Lasker. Race Attitudes in Children. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1929, as quoted in Rachael Dubois. Adventures in Intercultural Education. New York: Hinds, Hayden & Eldredge, 1945.

21 Edman field report, November 12-15, 1945.

22 Information taken from a Bureau report written in 1949 as an overview and evaluation of its relations with the Detroit public schools to be hence referred to as Bureau Confidential Report on Detroit.

23 Bureau Confidential Report on Detroit, pp. 230-233.

24 The evidence for this statement is not conclusive, however, given the usual increase in the dropout rate from elementary school to high school.

25 Figures taken from Bureau Confidential Report on Detroit.

26 Conversation between Paul Rankin, Assistant Superintendent, Detroit, and Fred G. Wale, Director of the Bureau, March, 1949, as reported in Bureau Confidential Report on Detroit.

27 As reported in Bureau Confidential Report on Detroit.

28 Bureau for Intercultural Education: A Report on the Board of the Year 1946-47, "Detroit," Novem­ber 19, 1947, p. 10.

29 RLE. Confidential Report on Detroit, excerpt taken from field report of November, 1946.

30 Ibid., p. 131.

31 B.I.E. Report to the Board on the year 1946-47, p. 11.

32 B.I.E. Confidential Report on Detroit, p. 131, excerpt from November, 1946 field report.

33 B.I.E. Report to the Board for 1946-47, p. 11.

34 B.I.E. Confidential Report on Detroit. Excerpt from May, 1947 field report.

35 B.I.E. Confidential Report on Detroit, summary for year 1946-47, p. 137.

36 B.I.E. Report to the Board, 1946-47, p. 12.

37 B.I.K Confidential Report on Detroit, p. 198, from May 28 Field Staff Memorandum.

38 Ibid., p. 199.

39 Some members of the Bureau, such as Theodore Brameld, a consultant, gave favorable mention of the A.F.T. in public, but this was early in the relationship and the Detroit administration seemed successful in discouraging the use of Brameld's services in Detroit.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 73 Number 4, 1972, p. 485-506
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1600, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 4:34:44 PM

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About the Author
  • Walter Feinberg
    University of Illinois
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    Walter Feinberg is associate professor of philosophy of education at the University of Illinois.
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