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Race and the Origins of Progressive Education, 1880-1929

reviewed by Chara Haeussler Bohan - May 11, 2016

coverTitle: Race and the Origins of Progressive Education, 1880-1929
Author(s): Thomas Fallace
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807756512, Pages: 216, Year: 2015
Search for book at Amazon.com

Thomas D. Fallace offers unique insights in Race and the Origins of Progressive Education, 1880-1929 concerning the interplay of race and the new education at the turn of the last century. John Dewey led progressive education, or the new education as it was called at the time, and it was mired in the sociocultural context of the late 1800s and early 1900s, where non-Whites were viewed as inferior to Whites. Fallace’s book is a follow-up to his second book, Dewey and the Dilemma of Race: An Intellectual History, 1895-1922 where he explores this leading educator’s conceptions of race. In this most recent work, Fallace again explores the same concept of race but extends it more broadly by examining its interaction with prevalent educational theories and leading thinkers of the progressive education movement.


Organized into six chapters, the book follows a thematic approach that is loosely chronological in structure. The themes included are also the names of chapter titles like “Roots,” “Recapitulation,” “Reform,” “Racism,” Relativity,” and “Refashioning.” Fallace explains the threefold purpose of his book in the introduction. First, he explores the pervasiveness of the ethnocentric theory of recapitulation. This theory that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” is described in his earlier book on Dewey. For the uninitiated, ontogeny, the developmental history of an organism within its own lifetime, recapitulates phylogeny, the broader evolutionary history of a species. However, in this text, Fallace broadens the lens to analyze progressive education theories and leaders. Second, he details the racial views of progressive educators prior to 1916, as this timeframe precedes later debates about racial difference, the development of intelligence testing (IQ), and the growth of the eugenics movement. Third, he examines consistency and change in racial thinking from 1890-1929, the timeframe chronicled in this book. In large part, his book is an intellectual history, as Fallace explores leading progressive educators’ ideas concerning race.

In the first chapter, Fallace explores the intellectual context of progressive education in a variety of burgeoning academic fields between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I. These fields include anthropology, sociology, psychology, economics, and history. Sociologist Herbert Spencer, a leading social Darwinist, is contrasted against Lester Frank Ward and Albion Woodbury Small (a colleague of Dewey’s at the University of Chicago), who held more egalitarian views of non-White groups, and attributed their inferior status to environment and education, not biology.

Chapter Two describes how these leading progressive education intellectuals employed these theories on the inferiority of non-White groups to justify racially segregated schools and differentiated curricula. Booker T. Washington, a graduate of Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, later founded the Tuskegee Institute. The Hampton-Tuskegee model demonstrated support for the theory of accommodation and was also reinforced in Washington’s Atlanta compromise speech. Education for people of color was to be vocational and industrial, not academic. Fallace contrasts Washington and Samuel Chapman Armstrong’s educational ideas with those advocated by W.E.B. DuBois, the first African American to earn his doctorate from Harvard. Fallace notes that DuBois offered an alternative conception of education for African Americans, as he heralded education for Blacks similar to that offered to Whites. Ironically, the curriculum for White children was developed from the ethnocentric theory of recapitulation. At laboratory schools such as Dewey’s in Chicago or Horace Mann in New York City, the first two years of attendance were spent studying primitive life. The periods of civilization were selected based upon the belief that children’s instincts corresponded to the development of the history of civilization, also known as the culture epoch theory.

The theory of recapitulation was largely unopposed in the years prior to World War I. In the third chapter, Fallace explains how challenges emerged from burgeoning educational movements such as social efficiency and social studies. However, the textbooks of the time, such as Alex Everett Frye’s Elements of Geography or D. Appleton’s Elementary Geography, continued to reflect ethnocentric conceptions of the time period. Fallace notes that the ethnocentrism was hidden, but is blatant to a contemporary reader. However, ethnocentrism was such a part of the cultural fabric in the early 1900s that it was taken for granted by most leading educators at the time.

The theory of recapitulation eventually began to lose its appeal, as anthropologists such as Franz Boas questioned the theory’s basic assumptions and scientists made advances in understanding intelligence and the role of heredity and environment. Chapter Four demonstrates how statistical modeling came into primacy in education, and how the eugenics movement gained a degree of respectability. Intelligence testing developed to sort soldiers for roles in World War I and entered into educational practice through the work of leading progressive educators such as Edward Thorndike and William Bagley. Discrepant racial understandings of intelligence were bolstered by scientific experiments and numeric data.

In Fallace’s last two chapters, “Relativity” and “Refashioning,” he explains how alternative perspectives on race developed within the larger progressive education movement. In the aftermath of World War I, few adopted the perspective espoused by Boas that challenged the view of the innate inferiority of non-White people; cultural pluralists championed cultural preservation. After 1916, Dewey’s views on race shifted towards cultural pluralism as he began using the phrase “associated form of living” and noted that there was danger in refusing to accept what other cultures have to offer. As the new education morphed into progressive education during this time period, the movement became multifaceted with child-centered progressives, administrative progressives, social reconstructionists, and others. However, Fallace argues that none of these groups approached non-White or immigrant groups as being equal.

Overall, Fallace’s work provides insights into the continuing dilemma of race in American society and demonstrates how racism persists in educational institutions established to benefit all humans. Because Black-White discord has persisted throughout American history, Fallace’s analysis largely focuses on this particular binary in educational history. Although he references other non-White groups in his narrative, the change in racial perceptions with respect to Asian Americans is omitted. For example, this would include how this group moved from marginalization evidenced in the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 to contemporary perceptions as a model minority. Similarly, Mexican Americans and Native Americans who resided in the Southwest and West during this same timeframe (the annexation of the Texas-California region following the Mexican American War of 1846-1848) are overlooked, likely because this region was sparsely populated in the late 1800s and early 1900s. During this timeframe, these groups were categorized as Yellow, Brown, and Red. As Fallace notes, White progressive educational leaders in this time period viewed these groups as inferior and even uncivilized.

In the end, Fallace’s Race and the Origins of Progressive Education, 1880-1929 leaves the reader pondering notions of progress and concepts of civilization. What are the genuinely positive and negative aspects of modernization? Fallace’s analysis provides careful insights into how educational institutions in the United States reified notions of the inferiority of non-White racial groups. The challenge for educators today is to remedy the problematic legacy of racism in contemporary society, educational theories, and institutions.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 11, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 20666, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 8:23:27 PM

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About the Author
  • Chara Bohan
    Georgia State University
    E-mail Author
    CHARA HAEUSSLER BOHAN is a Professor in the Department of Middle and Secondary Education in the College of Education and Human Development at Georgia State University.
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