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“More Religion in Education and More Education in Religion”: Liberal Progressivism and the Educational “Common Faith,” 1917-1940

by David P. Setran - 2012

Background/Context: Educational historians have given a great deal of attention to the early-twentieth-century growth, development, and implementation of liberal progressive educational theories and techniques. However, with the exception of a few scholars, they have devoted far less attention to the religious dimensions of liberal progressive educational thought. This gap has tended to blind scholars to the reality that liberal Protestantism was an important source and ally of the progressive education movement. This article seeks to combat this neglect by looking at the potent interpenetration of liberal progressive religion and liberal progressive education between 1917 and 1940, specifically focusing on this relationship at Teachers College and Union Theological Seminary. Teachers College progressive educators such as John Dewey, John Childs, William Kilpatrick, and Goodwin Watson were deeply influenced by and sympathetic toward the social gospel and its roots in Protestant modernism. At the same time, a group of academic religious educators, many across the street at Union Theological Seminary, found progressive education the ideal companion for their religious perspectives. Dissolving dualisms between the sacred and the secular, public and religious progressive educators created a shared “common faith” that allowed them to collaborate on a number of practical educational efforts in schools and religious organizations.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article seeks both to demonstrate the strong cooperative relationships between liberal progressive religious and public educators at Teachers College and Union Theological Seminary between 1917 and 1940 and to explain the theoretical and organizational basis for these relationships. The article, therefore, looks specifically at the institutional growth of this alliance, the theoretical underpinnings of these connections, and two of the collaborative efforts emerging from this coalition.

Research Design: This article attempts to make its argument through historical analysis, the data secured chiefly through archival research, and the analysis of primary historical documents.

Conclusions/Recommendations: In the end, I contend that progressives in public and religious education were able to cooperate so fully because they all possessed “a common faith.” With a unified philosophical platform devoid of dualisms, liberal progressives with religious interests forged a joint perspective on education designed to elevate the descriptive and procedural components of the democratic life. The Kingdom of God proved to be a powerful image of the ideal democracy and a powerful representation of religion and education working together to build a better world. It is recommended that future scholars continue to look in other parts of the country and among other individuals to trace these powerful cooperative relationships, thus restoring the place of religion as an important source and ally of progressive education.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 1, 2012, p. 1-29
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16211, Date Accessed: 3/5/2021 8:11:12 AM

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About the Author
  • David Setran
    Wheaton College
    E-mail Author
    DAVID SETRAN is associate professor of educational ministries at Wheaton College in Illinois. His research interests include the history of moral and religious education and the relationship between education and American Protestantism. He is the author of The College “Y:” Student Religion in the Era of Secularization (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007) as well as articles in the History of Education Quarterly, American Educational History Journal, and Religion and American Culture.
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