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What Happened to Progressive Education


by Lawrence A. Cremin - 1959

A discussion of progressive education. The author concludes that some of the best of what the progressives tried to teach has yet to be applied in American schools.

THE death of the Progressive Education Association in 1955, and the passing of its journal, Progressive Education, two years later, marked the end of an era In American pedagogy1. Yet one would hardly have realized it from the pitifully small group of mourners at both funerals. Somehow a movement which had for half a century enlisted the enthusiasm, the loyalty, the imagination, and the energy of large segments of the American public and the teaching profession became, in the decade following World War II, anathema, immortalized only in jokes which begin, "There was this mixed-up youngster who went to this ultra-progressive school"; in cartoons like H. T. Webster's classic drawing in the "Life's Darkest Moment" series picturing the day little Mary got a D in blocks and sand piles; in comedies like Auntie Mame with its utterly delightful caricature of a Freud-oriented Greenwich Village private school of the 1920's; in feature articles like the one in The New York Times several months ago describing a retired professor who had realized his lifelong ambition to be an animal trainer with a circus, and who was using progressive education (learned, by the way, at Teachers College) on his Ringling Brothers lions; in vitriolic attacks on John Dewey, mostly by people who have never read him (I might say he is too often defended by people who haven't read him either); and in the rhetoric and jargon of professional educators.


What was this progressive education movement which in two generations worked a transforming influence on American education? When did it begin? Who sponsored it? What were its contributions? What happened to it? And what remains of it today? Is it quite as dead as its critics believe, or are the reports of its demise, in Mark Twain's classic remark, very much exaggerated?


There is currently afoot a simple story of the rise of progressive education—one that has fed mercilessly on the fears of anxious parents and the hostilities of suspicious conservatives. In it John Dewey, somewhat like Abou ben Adhem, awakes one morning with a new vision of the American school; the vision is progressive education. Over the years, with the assistance of a dedicated group of crafty professional lieutenants at Teachers College, he is able to foist the vision on an unsuspecting American people. The story usually ends with a plea for exorcising this devil from our midst and returning to the ways of the fathers. This kind of morality play has always been an important brand of American political rhetoric, used by reformers and conservatives alike. The point is never to confuse it with history!


When did the progressive education movement actually begin? A recent publication of the National Education Association entitled Ten Criticisms of Progressive Education, repeats an often-made assertion: Progressive education refers to a reform movement in education; the term was first used in founding the Progressive Education Association in 1919. The NEA cites as its source the Dictionary of Education, edited by Carter V. Good.


The assertion is nonsense—but commonly accepted nonsense. John Dewey once said that the progressive education movement began during the 1870's with the work of Francis W. Parker in Quincy, Massachusetts; indeed, he called Parker the "father of progressive education." And while I would submit that Quincy was only one beginning—one tributary among several—Dewey is entirely correct with respect to time. The term progressive education appeared sporadically in the newspapers and magazines of the 1880's, sometimes referring to manual training, sometimes to new pedagogical techniques of the sort Parker pioneered in developing. By the nineties, it had become a commonly used expression in the professional literature and in the broader press. Indeed, there is reference not only to progressive education but also to progressive teachers, progressive schools, and progressive techniques; the reformist literature was filled with the vision of a new kind of education.


Why, then, this common error that the movement began in 1919, and the term progressive education with it? The answer of course is that this is what the founders of the Progressive Education Association believed, and wanted us to believe. "The movement began with us,"* they said; "hence we are the movement. Join us; we will lead the way!" We know how common this sort of thing is among reform organizations; it's fine for recruiting. In the case of the Progressive Education Association the propaganda simply worked extraordinarily well.


To understand when the movement began is to have the key to the question, What was it? The popular notion, I'm afraid, is that progressive education represented the effort to remove all restrictions on children, to allow them to behave as they please—after the fashion of the New Yorker cartoon in which the children ask the teacher, "Do we have to do what we want to do today?" This, too, while providing good sport for every humorist worth his salt, is a bit of historical whimsy.


The word progressive provides the clue to what it really was: merely the educational phase of the larger progressive movement in American political and social life. This larger movement represented a vast reformist, humanitarian effort to apply the promise of American life—the ideal of government by, of, and for the people—to the new and puzzling urban-industrial civilization that was coming into being at the turn of the century. Progressive education began as progressivism in education: a many-sided effort to use the schools to improve the lives of individuals. In the minds of the progressives this meant several things.


First, it meant broadening the program and function of the school to include a direct concern for health, vocation, and the quality of family and community life.


Second, it meant applying in the classroom the pedagogical principles derived from new scientific research in psychology and the social sciences.


Third, it meant tailoring instruction more and more to the different kinds and classes of children who were being brought within the purview of the school. In a sense, the revolution Horace Mann had sparked a generation before—the revolution inherent in the idea that everyone ought to be educated—had created both the problem and the opportunity of the progressives. For if everyone was to attend school, the progressives contended, not only the methods but the very meaning of education would have to change. It was all very well for some educators to say, in effect, "We know what good education is; take it or leave it"—in much the same fashion that Henry Ford told customers they could have their cars in any color they wished so long as it was black. What happened was that youngsters in droves deserted the schools, as irrelevant to the world of here and now.


Fourth, progressivism in education implied the faith that everyone could participate in building a new culture, a popular culture, one in which all could share not only in the benefits of the new sciences but in the pursuit of the arts as well. Jane Addams, that noble lady who founded Hull House and led its efforts for fully forty years, once remarked, "We have learned to say that the good must be extended to all of society before it can be held secure by any one person or any one class; but we have not yet learned to add to that statement, that unless all men and all classes contribute to a good, we cannot even be sure that it is worth having." Here was the spiritual nub of progressive education, and it simply negates contemporary nonsense about the movement being narrowly practical and nothing more.


A final point concerning what progressive education was: given these more general commitments, progressive education from the very beginning meant very different things to different people. To the social settlement workers, for instance, it meant transforming the school into a community center which would provide what they called "social education." To the National Association of Manufacturers it meant vocational training, pure and simple. To agrarian reformers it meant a new sort of "education for country life" which would give youngsters a sense of the joys and possibilities of farm life—and, incidentally, keep them from moving to the city. To the General Education Board, a foundation which distributed millions of Rockefeller dollars to educational programs in the South, progressive education meant demonstration farms and an increasing war against hookworm, using the schools as medical aid stations.


Nowhere is this diversity more vividly documented than in a book published in 1915 by John Dewey and his daughter Evelyn called Schools of To-Morrow. To leaf through the volume is to discover that progressive education embraced Marietta Johnson's very Rousseauan school at Fairhope, Alabama; Patty Smith Hill's avant garde kindergarten at Teachers College; the neighborhood-oriented program of P.S. 26 in Indianapolis; and William Wirt's Work-Study-Play Plan in Gary, Indiana. In a final chapter, Dewey argues that all these add up to a new kind of education, one appropriate to a democratic society, one that, by equipping all people to live intelligently and sensitively in the new industrial society, can help make that society a better and richer one to live in. This is what Dewey meant by "adjusting" education to society: to bring the resources of the school to bear in building a better society. It is patent nonsense—indeed, an intellectual perversion—to contend that by adjustment he meant educating people to go along with the social conditions which surrounded them.


Let us move on to the question of who sponsored progressive education. Again, there is currently a bit of whimsy—this one popularized by Mr. Bestor and the Council for Basic Education—to the effect that the educationists, octopuslike, reached for power under the aegis of the progressive education movement, and that in doing so, they committed the ancient sin of pride in assuming that the school could do everything. Now the fact is that the rise of progressive education did coincide with the development of a new, self-conscious educational profession, and that the profession did have a significant part in formulating and advancing the cause of progressive education. But nothing could be further from the truth than the assertion that the profession put something over on the public. If anything, the records reveal that time and again, in local situations, the profession dragged its feet while the public demanded change. Indeed, if we look closely at the groups pressing for reform, we soon discover that some of the most distinguished figures of the larger progressive movement were enthusiastic sponsors of progressive education.


President Theodore Roosevelt, for example, was an eloquent spokesman on behalf of vocational education and domestic science; President Woodrow Wilson paid glowing tribute to Seaman Knapp's efforts in the realm of agricultural education. I have already alluded to the support of Jane Addams; it is not widely known that she actually served a term on the Chicago Board of Education, appointed, by the way, by a progressive mayor in 1905. Jacob Riis, the New York journalist who did so much in the cause of slum clearance, wrote in The Battle with the Slum:


Do you see how the whole battle with the slum is fought out in and around the public school? ... The kindergarten, manual training, and the cooking school, all experiments in their day, cried out as fads by some, have brought common sense in their train. When it rules the public school in our cities . . . we can put off our armor; the battle with the slum will be over.


Many other distinguished persons could be cited: Henry Wallace and Walter Hines Page from the world of journalism; Charles W. Eliot, William James, Charles Van Hise, and Wesley Clair Mitchell to choose merely a few from the academic world. My point is not that the profession had nothing to do with progressive education—this is an approach which has been defensively argued by some educationists who have now climbed down off the band wagon and would like to wash their hands of the whole business; it is rather to argue that the movement enjoyed widespread public support from its infancy on. To argue otherwise does simple violence to the facts.


All these remarks, of course, indicate that the ideas of the progressive education movement had matured and that a great deal of experiment had already taken place in both public and private schools before the Progressive Education Association came into existence. Nevertheless, the founding of the Association in 1919 marked a turning point in the movement. The organization was started by a small group of private school people on the fringes of the cause. It soon broadened, however, and became a spearhead of reform. Its membership climbed steadily, passing 5,000 in 1927 and reaching a peak of 10,500 in 1938. It inaugurated a quarterly, Progressive Education, which served as a forum for the exchange of new ideas and a clearing house for educational innovations of every conceivable kind. It held conferences, summer institutes, and workshops galore; it sponsored studies and carried on experiments; it published useful materials; it gave the progressive education movement shape and entity. During the heyday of the Association, in the 1930’s, educational reform made tremendous headway in school systems across the nation; and I think we can say that at the beginning of World War II, progressive education enjoyed a substantial measure of acceptance in many quarters, particularly among intellectuals and other influential segments of the middle class.


Why, then, the cartoons and the spoofs? Why the public withdrawal? Why the loss of favor? Why the steady decline after 1945 and the collapse a decade later? I would suggest five reasons.


First, distortion. As frequently happens with social movements, success brought schism in the ranks. The movement developed factions; and within some factions there arose cults, cliques, and fanatics. During the 1930*5, for example, one wing of the movement combined the doctrines of liberty and self-expression into a highly individualistic—and sometimes anarchic—pedagogy which held that schools in which children are encouraged freely to develop their uniquely creative potentialities are the best guarantee of a larger society devoted to human worth and excellence. A second group, following the leadership of George S. Counts, sought to tie progressive education much more closely to specific programs of political reform, contending that educators could lead in the building of a new social order. A third group, typified perhaps by Elsie Ripley Clapp, saw the crux of progressive education in school activities directed to the social and economic regeneration of local communities. A fourth group, exemplified by Eugene Randolph Smith—one of the early presidents of the PEA—concentrated on reorganizing and enlivening the traditional school studies. And finally, there were those who, like Dewey himself, continued to regard progressive education as the pedagogical expression of the larger philosophy of Experimentalism, with its emphasis on scientific method, naturalism, and social planning. The movement became strife-ridden, given to bandwagon behavior, dominated by the ideological feuding of minorities. The strife made headlines, and within these headlines lie the seeds of many current caricatures.


Second, I would cite the negativism inherent in this and in all social reform movements. Like many protestors against injustice, the early progressives knew better what they were against than what they were for. And when one gets a true picture of the inequities of American schools during the quarter-century before World War I, one realizes they had much to be against. The physical and pedagogical conditions in many schools were indescribably bad, an effrontery to the mildest humanitarian sentiments. I recall a survey by a New York journalist in the 1890’s for a series of magazine articles on the schools. He went to thirty cities, and what he discovered was shocking. He found public apathy and political corruption; he found a terribly provincial curriculum being taught by appallingly incompetent hacks. One teacher in Baltimore told him, "I used to teach in high school, but I had an attack of nerves and my doctor recommended a rest. So now I teach in the primary grades." A New York City principal, asked why the children weren't allowed to turn their heads, replied, "Why should they look behind them when the teacher is out there in front of them?" A Chicago teacher, rushing her children through a memory lesson, commanded, "Don't stop to think; tell me what you know." Yes, difficult as it is to believe, the schools were that bad.


Like any protest movement, progressive education developed slogans and war cries to stir the faithful to action. Shibboleths like "the whole child" or "according to nature" or "creative self-expression" served as powerful battering-rams against the old pedagogical order, but in classroom practice they weren't very good guides to positive action. At least the generation which invented them had an idea of what they meant. The generation which followed adopted them as a collection of ready-made cliches, cliches which weren't very helpful when the public began to raise searching questions about the schools.


Third, and again this is a common phenomenon of social reform, the movement became the victim of its own success. Much of what it preached was simply incorporated into the schools at large. Once the schools did change, though, progressives too often found themselves wedded to specific programs, unable to formulate next steps. Like some liberals who continued to fight for the right of labor to organize long after the Wagner Act had done its work, many progressives continued to fight against stationary desks in schools where movable desks were already in use. For some young people in the post-World War II generation, the ideas of the progressives became inert—in Whitehead's sense of "right thinking" which no longer moves to action. Dewey in the very last essay he published on education likened these progressive ideas gone stale to mustard plasters taken out of the medicine cabinet and applied externally as the need arose. Other young people of this same generation simply developed different preoccupations, different concerns, different rallying points. The old war cries, whatever their validity or lack of it, had a hollow sound; they no longer generated enthusiasm or impelled to action. Like any legacy from a prior generation, they were too easily and too carelessly spent; rarely, perhaps, were they invested lovingly in something new. This is a problem of generations, and we must deal realistically with it, like it or not.


As a fourth reason for the decline of the movement I would cite the more general post-World War II swing toward conservatism in political and social thought. This is readily comprehensible, since if progressive education was part of progressivism writ large, it should not be surprising if a reaction to it comes as a phase of conservatism writ large. We have seen during the past decade a decided reaction to many political ideas of the thirties; to many of the social ideas of the thirties; to many of the child-rearing ideas of the thirties. The reaction to many of the pedagogical ideas of the thirties has come along with them. As educators, I think we have been reluctant to accept these associations; many within our fold, I suspect, would like to be progressives in education and conservatives in everything else. The combination, of course, is not entirely impossible, though it may well be intellectually untenable. John Dewey addressed himself to the point on the flyleaf of Characters and Events:


Let us admit the case of the conservative: if we once start thinking no one can guarantee what will be the outcome, except that many objects, ends and institutions will be surely doomed. Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril, and no one can wholly predict what will emerge in its place.


We have here, by the way, an incomparably clear statement of what for Dewey was progressive about good education; it gives the lie to much nonsense about his philosophy being anti-intellectual.


The final and perhaps the most important reason for the decline of the movement is that American society has simply gone beyond many proposals of the progressives. We live in a very different America from the one which gave birth to progressive education. The great immigrations are over, and a flow of recent publications by David Riesman, Will Herberg, and others is dramatically redefining the problem of what it means to be an American. Our industrial economy is entering upon an era marked by the harnessing of vast new sources of energy and the rapid extension of automatic control in production. This prodigious advance has rendered many of our notions of vocational education anachronistic; and it has thrust to the fore the school's traditional responsibility for transmitting and extending knowledge of every sort and variety. (You will recall that the Rockefeller Brothers Report on education last year indicated that it was this pressure rather than any Sputnik which had created the "crisis" situation in education.) Then, too, the rise of new educational media, the proliferation of social agencies under public sponsorship, and the rapid extension of industry-sponsored training programs—the "classrooms in the factories" that Harold Clark and Harold Sloan have labelled the real pedagogical revolution of our time—have shifted the balance of forces in education. Whereas the central thrust of the progressive movement was centripetal—it revolted against narrowness and formalism and sought to extend the function and services of the school—it seems to me that the central thrust of our own period is centrifugal—it is seeking to define more precisely the central responsibilities of the school, to delineate those things which must be done by the school because if the school doesn't do them, they won't get done.


My point here is merely to urge that what is progressive for one era is not necessarily progressive for another, a truism which reform movements must bear in mind when they become too wedded to specific programs. What makes sense to one generation may well be nonsense to the next.


Granted this, it seems to me that progressive education in the best sense may well be needed today as much as ever. John Dewey wrote in the Preface to Schools of To-Morrow:


This is not a text book of education, nor yet an exposition of a new method of school teaching, aimed to show the weary teacher or the discontended parent how education should be carried on. We have tried to show what actually happens when schools start out to put into practice, each in its own way, some of the theories that have been pointed to as the soundest and best ever since Plato, to be then laid politely away as precious portions of our "intellectual heritage."


Granted we have gone beyond the reform programs of the last generation, there are still kindergartens that could learn much from Patty Smith Hill, slum schools that could take profitable lessons from Jane Addams, and colleges that still haven't realized that the natural curiosity of the young can be a magnificent propellent to learning. The Progressive Education Association is dead; and progressive education itself needs searching reappraisal. But I think we will find that some of the best of what the progressives tried to teach has yet to be applied in American schools.




1 A talk given as part of the All-College Lecture Series at Teachers College in the summer of 1959.

Dr. Cremin is currently at work on a history of progressive education in the United States.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 61 Number 1, 1959, p. 23-29
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 3392, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 5:21:59 PM

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