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William C. Bagley and the Founding of Essentialism: An Untold Story in American Educational History

by J. Wesley Null - 2007


Most people who study the history and philosophy of education have heard of essentialism, but few people know the story behind how, when, and why the movement came to exist. This paper tells this story for the first time.


This essay has three purposes. First, it provides an introduction to the life and career of William Chandler Bagley, a prominent professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, from 1917 until his retirement in 1939. Following an introduction to Bagley’s life, this work describes the founding of essentialism by drawing upon numerous primary and secondary sources to place this movement within the social and historical context in which it developed. The author pays careful attention to the story of how and why the founding of essentialism took place on the same day that John Dewey delivered his “Experience and Education” lecture at the 12th biennial convocation of Kappa Delta Pi. The paper then argues that what came to be known as essentialism represents a forgotten tradition in American educational history, one that is much richer than contemporary calls for “standards and accountability,” which grew out of the economically driven “A Nation at Risk” report of 1983. To conclude, the essay calls for more substantive attention to liberal education, purpose, moral philosophy, and curriculum for teaching teachers, all of which were at the heart of essentialist educational thought, but are now forgotten in an age obsessed with economic efficiency. The author calls upon contemporary leaders in American education to reconsider essentialism as a powerful philosophy that has great potential for the future of the teaching profession.

Research Design:

This paper is written from the perspective of history and is based upon the long-established methodology from the field of historiography.

What was “essentialism” in American educational thought?  How did “essentialism” come to be?  Who was involved in its creation?  Does essentialism relate to us today, and if so, how and why?  These questions are not easy to answer; however, they are critical to the reconstruction of American education today.  Beginning with the afternoon of March 1, 1938, when William C. Bagley stepped up to his microphone in Atlantic City to deliver his essentialist address, the meaning of essentialism has been narrowly understood and frequently misinterpreted, by both the popular press and historians of education.1 Essentialism was a complex movement that involved a number of key figures.  These figures, moreover, agreed on some matters and disagreed on others.  It is now time for American educators to pay careful attention to this untold story.  This narrative has a great deal to teach us not only about how movements in education begin, but also how educators can think in new ways about what we ought to do in the immediate future with regard to the profession itself.  Essentialism merits reconsideration, if not downright revival, in the early 21st century.

For at least 100 years, American educational thought has been embroiled in a theoretical battle between “traditional” and “progressive” approaches to curriculum and pedagogy.  The division that the terms “progressive” and “traditionalist” create was exactly what the essentialists sought to overcome.  Traditionalists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries held tight to a liberal arts curriculum that placed subjects such as Latin, Greek, mathematics, and philosophy at its core.  This liberal arts ideal draws upon various roots, but most prominently, from the social and political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, which provided the foundation for traditional liberal arts curriculum.  This tradition, however, faced serious challenges when American education transitioned from being a selective enterprise to a universal one.  Democratic education was not something traditionalists had spent a great deal of time thinking about or doing.  Throughout the 19th century, traditionalists held power over American curriculum.  Yet, in 1890, only 3.5 percent of high-school age students nationwide graduated from either a public or a private high school.2 Universal education was an ideal that was a long way from being realized.  Traditionalists did not have the vision or the moral commitment to send out teachers to provide a liberal arts curriculum to every American child.3  The democratic ideal, however, was demanding universal education more powerfully by the day during the late 19th century, and most traditionalists of the 1890s were not at all sure what to do about it.4

The progressive tradition in American education grew directly out of this challenge of universal education in the face of expanding democratic opportunity.  New questions arose such as: To what extent should the traditionalist curriculum be redefined in an age when millions of immigrants were flocking to America’s shores?  To what extent should curriculum be changed when industrialization was rapidly altering the American social and political landscape?  How did American educational institutions plan to provide enough teachers for every child in the country, regardless of whether these teachers would teach a liberal arts curriculum or something else?  Moreover, should educators seek to turn young Americans, especially the new ones, into scholars, workers, citizens, or all three?

In the face of these challenges, progressives like John Dewey, E. L. Thorndike, and William Heard Kilpatrick began to reconstruct traditional education along lines more consistent with the industrial age in which they were living.  Instead of advocating for a definition of democratic education as liberal arts curriculum for all, however, Dewey, Thorndike, and Kilpatrick began to promote vocational training, curriculum differentiation based upon student desire, intelligence testing, project learning, and other devices that were divorced from the traditional liberal arts curriculum.5  As a result of the rejection of the traditional liberal arts ideal by individuals like Dewey, Thorndike, and Kilpatrick, a radical division was set up between traditionalists and progressives.

The essentialist tradition rejects this division.  It replaces a theoretical problem with a moral one.  In short, essentialism integrates progressive and traditional education in order to focus on the moral, pedagogical challenge of providing a liberal arts curriculum to every child in the nation.6 The story of how essentialism came to be, of course, is much more complex than this short summation allows, which is precisely why a careful attention to the founding of essentialism is necessary.  The proper person to start with is William Chandler Bagley, the foremost philosophical leader within the essentialist group.

After an introduction to Bagley’s life, this essay has two purposes: first, it describes the founding of essentialism by placing this movement within the social and historical context in which it developed; and secondly, the work seeks to establish the point that what came to be known as essentialism is a forgotten tradition in educational thought that is much richer than contemporary calls for “standards and accountability.” The paper concludes by arguing that the essentialist tradition, instead of promoting empty rhetoric like “standards and accountability,” calls upon professors of education and their academic colleagues to do something.  It challenges them to unite, focus on teaching teachers, and begin the hard work of raising the status of the teaching profession to the level that it deserves. To begin, a brief consideration of Bagley provides necessary context for understanding this untold story.


Bagley was born in Detroit, Michigan, on March 15, 1874.  When he was seven years old, his family relocated to Weymouth, Massachusetts, where he attended elementary school.  In 1889, the family returned to Detroit where Bagley graduated from Capitol High School in 1891.  Upon the completion of his undergraduate degree from Michigan Agricultural College in 1895, Bagley made a noteworthy decision to serve as a teacher in a one-room school in Garth County, Michigan.  This decision changed his life.  He became captivated by the art of teaching and subsequently chose to dedicate his life to the teaching profession.  To learn more about his new profession, Bagley pursued graduate study first at the University of Chicago and then later at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.  At Cornell, Bagley studied the German-inspired, introspective psychology of Edward Bradford Titchener.  This form of psychology was quite different from that being studied and advocated by individuals such as G. Stanley Hall and John Dewey during the late 1890s.7

After being awarded his Ph.D. degree in 1900, Bagley chose to work as an elementary school principal in St. Louis, Missouri.  The next decision that he and his wife made also influenced the direction of his career significantly.  Beginning in 1902, Bagley served as Professor of Psychology and Pedagogy at Montana State Normal School (MSNS) in Dillon, Montana.  During his four-year stay in Dillon, Bagley deepened his commitment to the teaching profession by dedicating all of his time to the education of teachers.  MSNS, like all normal schools in the various states, existed for the single purpose of educating teachers for public school service.  In addition to his efforts to educate teachers, Bagley also found time to write.  After four successful years in Dillon, he published his first book, The Educative Process, which brought him nationwide fame.8

During the year that followed the successful publication of The Educative Process, Bagley and his family departed Montana for New York State.  For two years, he served as a Professor of Education at the well-known Oswego State Normal School in Oswego, New York.  He taught courses in pedagogy and also served as principal of Oswego’s practice school for teachers.  During the six years that Bagley served as a normal school professor (four in Montana and two in Oswego), his commitment to the education of teachers deepened.  The philosophy of essentialism grows out of Bagley’s moral commitment to the education of teachers.  This commitment became powerful enough that he retained this focus for the next forty years.  During his stay in Oswego, however, Bagley began to consider the possibility of teaching at a university.  The opportunity for him to make this switch to the university environment came in the spring of 1908.  He was offered a position to serve as Professor of Education at the rapidly growing University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, where he began to teach in August of that year.9

While at Illinois, Bagley worked tirelessly to create the university’s School of Education.  During his nine years at Illinois, he successfully argued against the conservative (or traditional) position that teachers needed no special preparation for their work.  To be sure, he thought that liberal arts coursework was critical in teacher education curriculum.  He did not, however, think that a focus on the conventional disciplines was sufficient preparation for teaching (since Illinois was not educating teachers prior to Bagley’s arrival, a focus exclusively on the conventional disciplines obviously was not sufficient).  In his role as chair of the Department of Education at Illinois, Bagley also hired additional faculty members, raised funds to build an on-campus high school in which practice teachers could teach, and established himself intellectually within the university culture with his numerous publications.10

Following his success at Illinois, Bagley, in 1917, departed for Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.  At Teachers College, Bagley’s official title was Professor of Normal School Administration.  In short, this title meant Teacher Education.  The overwhelming majority of teachers from this time period were educated at normal schools; consequently, for Bagley to be the nation’s expert on normal school education meant that he was the leading authority on the education of teachers.11 This new position allowed him to focus his efforts exclusively on teacher education.  The emphasis on research and the education of high school teachers at Illinois had distracted him from what he saw as his purpose.  His goal was to be a leader in the field of teacher education and an authority on curriculum for the education of teachers.

With his new professorship at Teachers College, Bagley now served as the nation’s unofficial Dean of Teacher Education.  During the 21 years that Bagley served in this regard, he wrote numerous articles, editorials, and books, all of which related in one way or another to the education of teachers for public school service.12 Only after a long and productive career of almost 40 years as a professional educator did Bagley lend support to the founding of essentialism.  The events of 1938 must be viewed within this larger context of his life.  He remained committed to the traditional ideal of a liberal arts curriculum, but he also advocated the democratic point that every child in the nation should be taught this substantive curriculum by committed teachers.  Through his commitment to educating teachers, Bagley promoted the ideal of liberal education for all in both thought and action.

If he thought these ideals were being compromised, however, he could be quite forceful in his critiques.  When he and others began to set the stage for what came to be known as essentialism, their purpose was not to eradicate all traces of progressivism.  Rather, they planned to chart a corrective direction for American education—one that would unite progressive and traditional education by focusing on a third level of commitment that held the two together.  To understand these motivations, a consideration of the plans that led up to the main event in 1938 provides necessary context for making sense of what essentialism was, how it came to be, and why it matters today.


In 1934, as Americans were struggling to pull themselves out of the worst depression ever to strike the U.S., Bagley published a book entitled Education and Emergent Man:  A Theory of Education with Particular Application to Public Education in the United States.  This book consists of Bagley’s most well developed theory of education.  Although the specifics of the work lie beyond the scope of this essay, Education and Emergent Man was notable in that it was almost completely ignored by Bagley’s colleagues, as well as by most practitioners.13 This rejection of what Bagley considered to be his most important book must have been devastating.  One individual, however, reviewed the book favorably.  Michael John Demiashkevich, a professor of education at the George Peabody College for Teachers and someone who would prove to be critical in the founding of essentialism, thought that Bagley’s book offered quite good advice.  In this review, Demiashkevich praised Bagley for his lucidity, intellectual courage, critical clear-sightedness, optimism, and fairness to those who professed opposing points of view.14  In the same year that Demiashkevich wrote this review, he also wrote a notable section in his forthcoming book, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education.15  This work would prove to be central to the founding of essentialism.

Demiashkevich was well qualified to write this book on the philosophy of education.  He had studied at the Imperial Historico-Philological Institute in Russia’s St. Petersburg in the early 1910s.  Moreover, he emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1910s and earned his Ph.D. degree from Teachers College in 1926.16 Dean William F. Russell, who studied comparative education, supervised Demiashkevich’s dissertation.17  As a graduate student during the 1924–25 academic year, however, Demiashkevich completed one of Bagley’s courses on the professional education of teachers.18 In an historically significant sentence of his 1935 book, Demiashkevich lumped together a group of well-known educators, one of whom was his former professor:

The future educational administrator and teacher, while naturally attracted by the new or supposedly new theories of education, should not overlook as one of the possible sources of their own philosophy of education the school of educational thought which may be designated as “essentialist.”  This school of thought among whose distinguished representatives in this country are William C. Bagley, Thomas H. Briggs, Herman H. Horne, I. L. Kandel, Paul Monroe, Dean James E. Russell, Frank E. Spaulding, and George D. Strayer…19

With his labeling of this group as the “essentialists,” Demiashkevich described the group’s role as similar to the position taken by the Socratics in opposition to the Sophists in ancient Greek philosophy.  According to Demiashkevich, the neo-sophists, a title he applied to members of the Progressive Education Association, preached a “hedonistic doctrine of change.”20  The essentialists, on the other hand, stressed the moral responsibility of man for his actions. They also looked, according to Demiashkevich, toward permanent principles of behavior.

Demiashkevich’s description of the essentialists’ views pulled Bagley’s ideas toward a more traditional viewpoint.  Bagley fiercely resisted simplistic labels that placed him in one group and his supposed “enemies” in another group. Nonetheless, he looked to the past for helpful ideas as he proposed plans for change in the present. He resisted the acceptance of a new idea simply because it was new or the rejection of an old idea simply because it was old.  He judged each new educational idea on its own merits to determine the likelihood that it would lead to social progress. Despite Demiashkevich’s traditionalist twist to the essentialist label, however, Bagley comfortably accepted the essentialist designation.  He also began to think about the possibilities of an educational philosophy, tentatively titled essentialism, which would counteract the extreme tendencies of progressivism.

A closer look at what Bagley meant when he critiqued progressivism is important to understanding his work, as well as the founding of essentialism.21  From Bagley’s perspective, the progressivism that he critiqued in the 1930s was both similar and different from the progressivism of earlier decades.  Before professors of education such as George S. Counts and William Heard Kilpatrick—both of whom supported the social reconstructionism that arose during the depression—assumed leadership in the Progressive Education Association (PEA) in the early 1930s, Bagley rarely argued against something called “progressivism.”  Certainly, he critiqued ideas such as vocational education, the differentiation of the curriculum, the “doctrine of interest,” the “cult of utility,” and the intelligence testing movement, all of which could be associated with progressive education.  Underlying all of these movements, Bagley believed, was a sense of panaceaism, or progressivism that attempted to provide the One Great Solution to all the problems of American curriculum and teaching.22 He recognized early in his career that education was not a “problem” to be “fixed.”  In Bagley’s words, “As a specific task for education in this period of rapid social change I recommend an arduous cultivation of sales resistance to educational cure-alls and nostrums.”23

PROGRESSIVISM vs. “Progressivism”

With the replacement of the leadership of the PEA, by the early 1930s, with university professors rather than with public school personnel, Bagley began to argue publicly against his Progressivist colleagues.  These Progressives argued for social reconstruction, rather than for child-centeredness, in their attempt always to remain, above all else, “on the frontiers of knowledge.”  The distinction between Progressivism and progressivism was significant to Bagley.24  Acceptance of capital “P” Progressivism, to Bagley, would have signified his support for a movement he considered panaceaistic, power-hungry, and self-promotional.  Additionally, Bagley viewed himself as a public school man who identified closely with the problems faced by practicing teachers and administrators.  Many of the practitioners Bagley sought to support led the PEA of the 1910s and 1920s.25  Throughout his life, Bagley labored to assist public school personnel rather than to add to their problems with radical critiques.

As a result, when Bagley argued against the Progressivism of the 1930s, he wrote of a movement that, at its very root, was highly critical of classroom practice.  Indeed, the subtitle of The Social Frontier, the primary outlet for social reconstructionists, was “A Journal of Educational Criticism and Reconstruction.”  The Progressivism of the 1930s also retained its relentless search for simplistic solutions to educational problems.  In the 1920s, had Bagley argued against Progressivism, public school workers would have been the object of his critiques.  In the 1930s, however, Bagley’s audience, when he wrote of Progressivism, consisted primarily of Kilpatrick and his thousands of followers, as well as Counts and the other contributors to the Social Frontier.26

In the mid-1930s, Bagley began to think the unthinkable.  In order to be heard, he was forced to initiate a movement.  Bagley was alert to such an opportunity when Headmaster F. Alden Shaw of the Detroit Country Day School wrote to him in November of 1937.27  Shaw, along with Bagley and Demiashkevich, would serve as the third major individual who helped to found essentialism.  Shaw asked Bagley if he would serve as the first president of the National Essentialist Association, if such an organization were to be formed.28 Shaw was the type of school practitioner—even though he worked at a private school—that Bagley sought to support.  Although he held no advanced degree, Shaw was a practicing school administrator who also concerned himself with broad educational discussions, especially educational philosophy.

In this initial letter to Bagley, Shaw wrote that Demiashkevich had requested that he write to Bagley to inquire about his interest in the formation of the society.  Several weeks prior to contacting Bagley, Shaw had mailed a letter to numerous educators, including Demiashkevich, that noted:

I am writing to a number of local educators to see what may be done relative to the formation of an Essentialists’ Society … I have no way of judging what response there may be, but I will be very glad to keep in touch with you.29

Demiashkevich responded to Shaw with a positive letter that encouraged Shaw to contact Bagley.30Why Shaw neglected to write Bagley with this initial set of letters, such as the one quoted above, is unknown.  Perhaps the practicing school administrator, Shaw, was comfortable writing to the less well-known Demiashkevich, but was a bit unsure about contacting the nationally prominent Bagley.  Nonetheless, the prospect of a practitioner initiating an educational movement was appealing to Bagley.  Bagley’s mandatory retirement at the age of 65, moreover, was less than two years away.  The time frame for forming such a group while Bagley was a practicing professor was shrinking by the day.

Bagley immediately responded to Shaw’s letter.  He encouraged Shaw to continue his work.  He also agreed that an organization of the type that Shaw proposed was greatly needed.31 In Bagley’s words:

The Progressive school of educational theory is now supreme in our educational councils.  Irrespective of the merits of Progressive education, it is not well for the country that its monopoly should be so nearly complete.  As in government, there should be organized criticism of the party in power.32

As for Shaw’s request that Bagley should serve as the group’s first president, Bagley rejected the offer.  He suggested that a younger man such as Demiashkevich, Thomas H. Briggs, or Isaac L. Kandel lead the group.  With this exchange of letters, the essentialist movement had begun.  In Shaw’s almost immediate response to Bagley, he pushed for Bagley to accept the presidency of the group.33 Shaw also recommended that a temporary executive committee be formed, a group that would consist of the individuals that Bagley had mentioned in his previous letter.  Shaw thought the executive committee could propose plans for the organization as well as choose temporary officers.34 In his almost immediate response, Bagley again declined the presidency, but then set the stage for the group’s first meeting:

Your suggestion of the advisability of an executive committee to initiate the movement is excellent.  Perhaps a beginning could be made by an informal meeting at Atlantic City at the time of the midwinter sessions.35

The sessions to which Bagley referred were the annual meetings of the Department of Superintendence of the National Education Association (NEA). Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Bagley had participated actively in the NEA, especially in the Department of Superintendence.  As the meeting dates of February 26–March 3, 1938 grew closer, correspondence between the new essentialists intensified in anticipation of a big event in Atlantic City.  Bagley, however, was involved in a larger discussion with regard to the upcoming Atlantic City meeting, a discussion that included the internationally known figure of John Dewey.


That Kappa Delta Pi (KDP) scheduled John Dewey to deliver the organization’s Tenth Annual Lecture on March 1, 1938 in Atlantic City was no historical accident.  The honor society’s Executive Council had met in New Orleans, Louisiana, on February 23, 1937 to plan this Tenth Annual Lecture.  At this meeting, two members of the Executive Council, President T. C. McCracken and Second Vice-President Alfred Lawrence Hall-Quest, reported that Dewey had agreed to deliver a critique of his own popular philosophy of education.  Dewey was to deliver this speech in 1938 at Atlantic City.36 Whether or not Bagley involved himself in the choice of Dewey or suggested the idea to ask the prominent philosopher is unknown.  For his entire career, however, Bagley remained closely tied to the leaders of KDP.  In fact, Bagley held the organization’s highest honor of Laureate Counselor from 1928 until his death in 1946.  The leaders of the organization thought quite highly of Bagley’s advice.  Also, Bagley corresponded often, throughout the 1930s, with President McCracken and Executive Secretary E. I. F. Williams.37 KDP officials made few major decisions without consulting Bagley.

Bagley did not attend this New Orleans meeting.  Florence Stratemeyer, his close friend and Teachers College colleague, however, participated actively during both days of the council’s meetings.  As soon as Stratemeyer returned to Teachers College in February of 1937, Bagley (if he did not already know) learned that Dewey planned to deliver his critique of Progressivism at the Atlantic City meeting.  The news that Dewey planned to pronounce his disagreement with certain aspects of Progressivism must have entered into Bagley’s thinking as he continued to plan the essentialist association with Shaw, the school administrator, and with Demiashkevich, the Peabody professor.


Only two weeks after he first heard from Shaw, Bagley again expressed his growing interest in organizing the essentialist group.  Perhaps with Dewey’s scheduled lecture in mind, Bagley wrote to Shaw to inform him that he was becoming more and more convinced that the organization should be launched at the Atlantic City meeting.38 Bagley believed that school practitioners like Shaw would welcome a movement that sought to clarify the confusing situation in educational theory.  Bagley expressed caution, however, about the types of individuals who should be invited to join the group.  After he noted several names that Shaw should invite to the Atlantic City meeting, Bagley listed the types of people he wished to avoid:

(1) extremists of a quite reactionary type, like Dr. Hutchins, of Chicago, and many subject-matter scholars some of whom lack acquaintance with the problems of the lower schools and are wholly insensitive to the difficulties that are encountered by those who work in the field of university non-selective education; and (2) those whose opposition to Progressivism is largely conditioned by the fact that many Progressives are known as social and economic radicals.  The latter group would inevitably becloud the educational issue.39

Bagley’s admonition not to invite President Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago revealed how concerned he was about the nature of the group’s membership.  The inclusion of Hutchins would have opened the door for many educators to dismiss the group as only traditionalist.  Bagley also was concerned that the wide circulation of Hutchins’ writings could engender the interpretation that Hutchins rather than Shaw, the school practitioner, had initiated the group.  Furthermore, Bagley feared that the admittance of Hutchins would commit the group to a view that Bagley considered to be “reactionary in an unfortunate degree.”40

Shaw, the workhorse of the organization, compiled the addresses of the names that Bagley sent to him.41 Shaw continued to promote the organization to attract as many practitioners and “appropriate” theorists as he could find.42 In the search for members, Bagley again expressed his concern about the types of individuals who might be attracted to the group:

I quite agree with you that wide differences of opinion will be found among those whom you have invited to attend the proposed conference.  I think some of these will not cause serious difficulty if the association of the educational Progressives with Social and economic radicalism can be kept “out of the picture.”43

Bagley’s persistent attempts to exclude individuals who disagreed with the social reconstructionists only on political grounds revealed two of his main points.  Bagley wanted the organization to focus specifically on issues of educational philosophy, curriculum, and teacher education.  Furthermore, Bagley’s political views were anything but conservative.  In fact, he voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in every election from 1896–1944, with the exception of the 1932 election when he voted for Norman Thomas.44 Moreover, he did not want to create an organization that simply rehashed debates between “Traditionalists” and “Progressives,” especially if the debate did not lead to useful action.


Other names arrived steadily at Shaw’s school office.  Shaw mailed invitations only to those individuals “approved” by Bagley.  On or about January 4, 1938, Demiashkevich telephoned Bagley at his Teachers College office.  The two “talked at some length” about plans for the proposed Atlantic City meeting.45 One of the main issues they discussed was the importance of involving parents, teachers, practicing school administrators, and other individuals who understood clearly the practical aspect of schooling.  As a result, Bagley suggested that Shaw invite to membership Dr. John A. Stevenson, Vice-President of the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company of Philadelphia.  Stevenson, a former teacher and public school administrator, had received his doctorate in education from the University of Illinois in 1918.46 Despite the seemingly progressive title of Stevenson’s dissertation, “The Project Method of Teaching,” Bagley viewed Stevenson as an intelligent critic of the “extreme Progressive doctrines.”47

In this telephone discussion between Bagley and Demiashkevich, the pair also considered how they might form the group without its views being associated with any one person.  To address this problem, Bagley recommended that they arrange the organization such that a five or seven member executive committee of disparately thinking individuals would decide upon plans and policy.  Placing numerous individuals at the top of the organization, Bagley proposed, would avoid the labeling of the essentialists as “Bagley’s group,” as “Demiashkevich’s group,” or as a group dominated by any other individual.

Hutchins himself put to rest the persistent issue of whether or not he should attend the group’s first meeting.  He informed Shaw that he planned to visit Atlantic City only for one day.48  Somehow, however, Hutchins learned of the essentialists’ plans.  He may have heard from Frederick S. Breed, Charles H. Judd, or another Chicago invitee.  Or, on his own initiative, Shaw may have invited Hutchins, because Bagley, sometime in January 1938, backed off somewhat from his negative position toward Hutchins.49  The issue over Hutchins, however, was far from settled.  Bagley never requested that Shaw invite the president.

Hutchins, nevertheless, had another reason to visit Atlantic City.  He was scheduled to deliver a major address.  The Department of Secondary-School Principals invited Hutchins to deliver the keynote speech at a banquet to be held in honor of Charles H. Judd on Saturday evening, February 26.  Judd recently had retired as Dean of Chicago’s College of Education.50 Hutchins delivered his address in honor of Judd, but he did not attend the meeting of the essentialists.

About January 9, 1938, Shaw mailed a manuscript to Demiashkevich that described his version of essentialism.  Notably, he did not mail this initial manuscript to Bagley.  In a cover letter, Shaw proposed the first date and meeting time for the group.  He suggested that the executive committee meet initially on Friday, February 25 to discuss the principles, or theses, upon which the organization would be founded.51 Shaw furthermore requested that a second meeting of the entire group follow on Sunday afternoon, February 27.  At this second session, Shaw proposed that the members of the group vote for officers, as well as outline the procedures for the society.52  In his letter to Demiashkevich, Shaw noted that Bagley would decide which individuals would be invited to the more exclusive executive committee meeting on Friday afternoon.  The invitations that Shaw had extended during the previous weeks were for the main essentialist meeting on Sunday and not for the meeting of the proposed executive committee on Friday.

Demiashkevich worked with several of his colleagues at the George Peabody College for Teachers (Peabody) to revise Shaw’s initial draft of the essentialist theses.  Besides Shaw, Bagley, and, to some extent, Frederick S. Breed of the University of Chicago, the Demiashkevich group at Peabody served as a principal catalyst for the essentialist group.  Demiashkevich’s Peabody colleagues included Dr. Michael L. Shane, Professor of the Teaching of Modern Languages, and Dr. Louis A. Shores, the Director of the Library School.  Shores soon would prove to be a critical figure in the events that occurred in Atlantic City.  At this Atlantic City meeting, Shores would leak his version of the essentialists’ plans to the press, a move that would spark nationwide interest in educational thought.

Demiashkevich, Shane, and Shores revised Shaw’s manuscript to establish the first tentative theses sent to Bagley, which Demiashkevich mailed on January 13, 1938.  He included a note for Bagley to “tear to pieces” the “articles of credo” that he and his colleagues had attempted to formulate.53 Bagley followed Demiashkevich’s advice.  The published essentialist platform of April 1938 hardly resembles Demiashkevich’s Tentative Theses.54 Although he did not ignore the efforts of Demiashkevich and his colleagues, Bagley wrote a completely new and different manuscript that contained few, if any, phrases from the Peabody group’s tentative theses.

In a departure from his typical quick turnaround, Bagley delayed his response to Demiashkevich for more than two weeks.  When he finally wrote to Demiashkevich, Bagley excused his untimely response by stating that he had been “unusually busy” during the previous weeks.55 Bagley first complimented Demiashkevich for writing “an excellent and effective statement.”  Then, he immediately took issue with the Tentative Theses on two accounts:


As I have suggested in earlier letters I do not believe it wise to let the proposed organization be thought of as a “stand-pat” group in respect of social and economic reforms.  The first thesis, in my judgment, might justify such an implication.


I personally could not subscribe to a belief in transcendental values if this implies personal values that transcend human experience.  Nor can I hold to a belief that ethical judgment and moral conduct must necessarily depend upon the acceptance of supernatural forces.  All this may not be the intent of thesis 2, but such is my interpretation.56

By advancing these charges and eventually rewriting the group’s theses, Bagley stressed the need for the group to succeed on two accounts:  avoidance of social or economic conservatives and specific focus upon an argument for effort, discipline, sequence, and system in the processes and materials of education.  In a final, quite significant paragraph of his letter to Demiashkevich, Bagley emphasized his respect for Dewey and his anticipation of the forthcoming publication of Experience and Education:

Mr. Dewey, as you probably know, has promised a restatement of his educational theory in the Kappa Delta Pi lecture on March 1st.  This will be available in book form immediately after the meeting.  Perhaps any action that we might take would need some revision in the light of what Dewey has to say.57

With this paragraph, Bagley ended his correspondence with Demiashkevich as well as with Shaw prior to the essentialists’ first meeting on Friday, February 25.

Thus, the stage was set for the big event in Atlantic City.  A little more than a year remained before Bagley would retire from Teachers College.  At this late stage in his professional career, Bagley planned to make his opinions known to the worlds of educational thought and practice.  Little did he know the extent to which his message in Atlantic City would reach a nation-wide audience.


During his final years on faculty at Teachers College, Bagley considered himself alone, or at least lonely, due to the often controversial positions that he took with regard to educational thought.58 He often commented to his friends about how he was “persona non grata with the Progressive group.”59  For someone like Bagley who defined his ideal of science as open-mindedness, he did not view himself as working within a bastion of scientific thought.  Most of his Teachers College colleagues advocated either an extreme pragmatism that Bagley considered excessively individualistic, or a social reconstructionist view that he perceived as power-hungry.  His outspoken criticism of these viewpoints, as well as what he called mechanistic psychology, often placed him at odds with many of his colleagues.

However, the stand taken by Bagley and his fellow essentialists in 1938, despite Bagley’s attempt to reduce the political aspect of the movement, clearly was political.  Contemporary observers must consider the essentialist platform within the context of late 1930s American and foreign affairs, as well as within the context of American educational practice and policy.  During the same spring that the essentialists first met in Atlantic City, Hitler’s troops entered Austria and folded that nation into the German government.  The Führer threatened individuals as much as he intimidated governments and armies.  Furthermore, Hitler intended to force the rest of the world to conform to the same insanity that he spread in Germany.  The renewal of the Great War was predictable.

On the other end of the political spectrum, the 1930s also witnessed the evils of Stalin’s Communism.  Bagley was aware of contemporary politics in Russia, and he also read carefully about how certain aspects of American educational thought had been received in other countries.60 Like Germany, the Soviet Union had rejected democratic principles, such as equality of opportunity, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion.  With democracy distinctly on retreat throughout the world, Bagley intended to take a stand for a type of education that he viewed as essential to the perpetuation of democratic societies.  These concerns troubled the soon-to-be retired professor and the other essentialists as they traveled to Atlantic City.

On February 25, 1938, the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) met for the first time under its new name.  The group, formed in 1922, had been known previously as the Department of Superintendence of the National Education Association (NEA).  Members included school superintendents, teachers college and normal school presidents, heads of college and university departments of education, and professors of school administration.  Since its inception, the group existed largely independently, but also within the NEA structure.  At former meetings of the Department of Superintendence, Bagley had delivered his critiques of David Snedden’s vocational training and Robert Yerkes’ intelligence testing.61 Bagley was well known and deeply connected to many AASA members.

The annual AASA meeting, moreover, served as the convening site and time for other educational organizations.  In fact, 13 allied organizations, including the American Educational Research Association, the National Society for the Study of Education, and Kappa Delta Pi, held meetings or events during the same six-day period as did AASA.62 By no means did organizers of the AASA conference intend for Bagley’s address to serve as a major, or even noteworthy, event.  AASA alone scheduled nine general sessions.  These sessions featured a total of more than 140 speakers and 18 discussion groups.  The annual friendship dinner, held on Wednesday evening, March 2 served almost 2300 guests.  The total attendance for the weekend, both AASA and NEA, reached nearly 13,000 individuals.63

As planned, the proposed executive committee of the Essentialist Association met for the first time on Friday, February 25.  The group consisted of Bagley, Shaw, Shane, and Guy M. Whipple, Bagley’s friend from his doctoral studies at Cornell University.  Walter H. Ryle, president of Northeast Missouri State Teachers College, also attended this first meeting.  At the meeting, the group agreed to launch the society with Bagley’s address on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 1.  A larger group of essentialists met on Sunday afternoon, February 27 to arrange final plans and vote on the acceptance of the proposed executive committee.  The preliminary AASA program, however, did not list Bagley as delivering a formal address.  In fact, his name appeared nowhere in the program.  The organizers of the conference, however, scheduled several hours of time for “Discussion Groups,” periods during which various individuals could raise issues they wished to have discussed.  The 1938 schedule listed one of these discussion group periods for the afternoon of Tuesday, March 1.64

This Tuesday session provided the perfect opportunity for Bagley and the essentialists to launch their proposal.  Furthermore, Kappa Delta Pi had scheduled John Dewey to deliver his invited lecture that same evening, March 1, at Atlantic City’s Hotel Chelsea.  Bagley, having already read Dewey’s Experience and Education, wished to speak before Dewey took the stage that same evening.65 Bagley anticipated that, within a few short hours, the forces of extreme progressivism would receive a “one-two punch” from the essentialists (his manifesto) and from Dewey, their titular leader.  Bagley could not have delivered the entire essentialist message during this one session on the afternoon of March 1.  Nonetheless, he had time to emphasize several main points from the longer manuscript that would be published a month later.

First, Bagley charged that public education in the United States was “appallingly weak and ineffective.”  He supported this claim with evidence that, age for age, American students did not achieve at the same academic levels as their European counterparts.66  Following his interest in normal schools, he addressed the point toward elementary education and, importantly, stressed that similar comparisons between secondary schools in America and in other countries should not be made.  Population differences between American and European high schools made accurate comparison impossible.  Significantly, Bagley did not intend to attack public school teachers and administrators.  He wished quite the opposite.

To support these practitioners, however, Bagley advanced a different type of philosophy than the dominant view against which he had argued for many years.  Bagley charged that schools had become weak because of anemic educational theories that were enfeebling at their very root.  Because of these vague, ineffectual theories, Bagley argued, public schools had failed to exert a significantly positive influence during the previous 30 years of rapid change.67 His charge that public education was “appallingly weak and ineffective” was due not only to his assertion that the dominant educational theory was weak and ineffective, but also to his unyielding, even exorbitant, expectations of what American education could accomplish.

An accurate determination of how many people heard his message that afternoon remains difficult to estimate.  However, with almost 13,000 people in attendance at some point during the conference, it is plausible that several hundred people could have attended, although a smaller number is probably more accurate.  No other activity was scheduled for that afternoon besides the discussion groups. Based upon the number of names listed in correspondence, both before and after the event, at least 40 or 50 attended the session, but other people not formally invited by Shaw and the other essentialists probably attended.  A practical guess is that somewhere between 50 and 100 guests attended the meeting.

To those in attendance, Bagley repeated many of his earlier criticisms.  He argued to the audience that the dominant educational theories had abandoned rigorous standards of academic achievement, disparaged all system and sequence in curriculum and teaching, accepted the so-called “activity-movement” without discriminating thought, discredited the academic disciplines, and had used the lower schools inappropriately to establish a new social order.68  Bagley charged that the dominant educational theories, which had been powerful during the previous 30 years, had weakened public school systems rather than invigorating them with a powerful sense of idealism and purpose.  In the final published essentialist platform, Bagley relegated to a footnote one of the most important sentences of his argument:

The present writer has publicly called attention for more than thirty years to manifestations of this influence, and to its weakening tendencies.  His charges, with evidence supporting them, are matters of published record, duly documented.  They have been frequently denounced, but never answered.  In addition to published articles, the following books by the present writer make reference to the problem:  The Educative Process, 1905; Classroom Management, 1907; School Discipline, 1914; Determinism in Education, 1925; Education, Crime, and Social Progress, 1932; Education and Emergent Man, 1934.69

This footnote revealed how the general lack of response to Bagley’s years of criticisms entered critically into the founding of essentialism.  This time Bagley was determined to elicit a response.

The published essentialist platform, which was part Bagley and part the other essentialists, consisted of far more than simply a critique of what the essentialists considered to be the dominant educational theories.  Bagley and the essentialists called for professors of education to strengthen the ideals of American democracy during “a time when the situation both at home and abroad is critical in the last degree.”70 They established that the first principles of the essentialists were found in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the other foundational ideals of American democracy.  They referred specifically to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion. The essentialists also believed that their movement was combating the rise of totalitarian states:

Democratic societies cannot survive either competition or conflict with totalitarian states unless there is a democratic discipline that will give strength and solidarity to the democratic purpose and ideal.  If the theory of democracy finds no place for discipline, then, the theory will have before long only historical significance.71

To revitalize educational theory and to battle the rise of totalitarianism, Bagley and the others offered several basic educational principles.

First, they asserted the right of an immature student to the guidance and direction of a well educated, caring, and cultured teacher.  Second, they proposed that a powerful democracy demanded a community of democratic culture that, although not static, should be taught to each succeeding generation of children. Third, they called for a specific program of studies that required thoroughness, accuracy, persistence, and good workmanship on the part of pupils.  Finally, although the group recognized the necessity of informal learning through activities in the early grades, they contended that the recognized essentials of the curriculum should be taught “through a systematic program of studies and activities for the carrying out of which the teachers should be held responsible.”72

Bagley’s basic point on stage that afternoon (and also that of the other essentialists), was that the  dominant contemporary theories of education were feeble and insufficient.  He wanted these dominant theories complemented, perhaps even replaced, with a philosophy that was strong, idealistic, and positive.  He viewed this philosophy as the glue that held American culture together.  Bagley did not, however, want to destroy completely the dominant theories against which he was arguing.  He argued, rather, for a philosophical complement that synthesized students’ interests with curriculum and teaching.73 To close the address, Bagley noted the contributions that the dominant educational theorists had made, but contended that their ideas had been taken too far:

‘Authoritarianism’ is an ugly word.  But when those who detest it carry their laudable rebellion against certain of its implications so far as to reject the authority of plain facts, their arguments, while well adapted perhaps to the generation of heat, become lamentably lacking in light.74

Bagley’s message was strong and forward-looking like the theory he desired.


This event in Bagley’s life likely would have turned out to be little more than a footnote had Dr. Louis A. Shores not attended the essentialist meetings.75 On the day before Bagley’s speech, Shores spoke to an Atlantic City newspaper reporter.  Shores gave this reporter his version of the essentialist platform.  Neither Bagley nor any of the other executive committee members had authorized Shores to make this release.  With Shores’ leak, what might have been a minor event in Bagley’s life exploded onto the national headlines.  His goal was to take a strong stand for his view of educational philosophy, but the events ballooned larger than he ever anticipated.

Both Atlantic City newspapers reported the birth of essentialism.  One newspaper even published a front-page headline that emblazoned “Bagley Declares War on Dewey.”76  After Shores’ leak to the press, the inaccurate and sensationalistic labeling of Bagley as the “Traditionalist” and Dewey as the “Progressive” quickly began, a regrettably shallow turn of events that Bagley sought to avoid at all costs.  By late afternoon, newspaper reporters rushed throughout Atlantic City to track down the figures involved in the story.77 The most prominent of these individuals was scheduled to speak later that evening at the invitation of Kappa Delta Pi.


As the crowd gathered for the Kappa Delta Pi dinner on the evening of March 1, most people in attendance, specifically Dewey, probably knew that the press planned to send its version of the essentialists’ message throughout the country.  With the heavy media coverage, the message must have traveled quickly, by word-of-mouth, throughout the afternoon.  For better or worse, the impact of Bagley’s address, unlike George Counts’s Dare the School Build a New Social Order? speech six years earlier, came through the media rather than through the response of an audience.78 The head table at that night’s Twelfth Biennial Convocation of Kappa Delta Pi included T. C. McCracken, President; Florence B. Stratemeyer, First Vice-President; Alfred L. Hall-Quest, Second Vice-President; R. J. Walters, Executive Counselor; Bagley, Laureate Counselor; E. I. F. Williams, Recorder-Treasurer; and Dewey, the keynote speaker.  After they enjoyed the music of the Metropolitan Opera Company and dined on a meal of shrimp cocktail, roast turkey, and Neapolitan ice cream, the approximately 200 guests listened to Dewey’s lecture.79

Bagley and Dewey spoke to each other briefly on stage that evening.  Bagley later recalled that, during this exchange, Dewey treated him “fatherly,” patted him on the shoulder, and, referring to the essentialists, asked Bagley why he had involved himself with such an unsavory group.80  Dewey had a point that Bagley likely understood. The very act of forming a group of essentialists began to pull Bagley too far in one direction.

In his speech that evening, Dewey critiqued progressive education as much as he did traditionalism.  Dewey offered a lecture laced with numerous Bagley-type messages.  For example, Dewey recognized that certain aspects of progressive education had taken his earlier message too far.  To Dewey, these progressives had developed a negative rather than a positive philosophy:

There is always the danger in a new movement that in rejecting the aims and methods of that which it would supplant, it may develop its principles negatively rather than positively and constructively.  Then it takes its clew in practice from that which is rejected instead of from the constructive development of its own philosophy.81

Furthermore, Dewey argued that simple rejection of the old philosophy solved no problems. Rejection, rather, created new problems for teachers to solve intelligently and creatively.  He also recognized the need for a balance between external control by teachers and positive growth by students.  Finally, Dewey called for increased attention to the role of teachers as mature leaders in the lives of students:

The tendency to exclude the teacher from a positive and leading share in the direction of the activities of the community of which he is a member is another instance of reaction from one extreme to another.82

These points, combined with an entire chapter devoted to the fundamental importance of subject matter in the curriculum, provided a message with which Bagley could easily agree.83 The two giants who sat together at dinner that night, Dewey and Bagley, delivered messages on March 1 that contained many points of agreement before the extremists, regrettably, pulled them apart.


William Heard Kilpatrick did not attend Dewey’s Kappa Delta Pi lecture.  Bagley’s friend E. I. F. Williams of Kappa Delta Pi invited Kilpatrick to the dinner, but Kilpatrick chose not to attend.  However, near noontime on March 1, Eunice Fuller Barnard, a reporter for The New York Times, telephoned Kilpatrick in his hotel room to ask his reaction to Bagley’s essentialist message.84 Kilpatrick had attended several of the meetings that were underway that week, but he departed for New York City at 1:45 p.m. on March 1, well before the speeches of both Bagley and Dewey.85 Kilpatrick and others, however, may have known the essentialists’ plans by the morning of that day.

The New York Times ran the essentialist story on the morning of March 2.  With highly sensationalistic rhetoric, Barnard, the reporter who had telephoned Kilpatrick, called the essentialist position an attack on all of progressive education.  Despite the fact that Bagley mentioned progressive education only twice, if at all, in his entire address (in the published platform, the term appears only twice and both times in quotation marks), Barnard sought to fashion a verbal war between “Traditionalists” and “Progressives.”86 This thoughtless simplicity was exactly what Bagley had hoped to avoid.  Barnard reported that the essentialists (Bagley) criticized Kilpatrick and, also, Counts by stating that these two educators had perverted the teachings of Dewey.  In this respect, Barnard essentially was correct. The essentialists, Barnard also reported, pointed toward Dewey’s Experience and Education for evidence that Dewey held similar reservations about the excesses of progressive education. On this second point, Barnard also was correct.  With regard to her labeling of Bagley as a “traditionalist,” however, she was less than well-informed regarding the issues at hand.

At some point, Barnard also spoke with Dewey. If Barnard intended to sensationalize the story, Dewey provided her with precisely what she wanted—and a bit more.  Perhaps Dewey should have been angered by the actions of Bagley and the other essentialists. They had created quite an uproar only a few hours in advance of his scheduled major address.  Whether or not the essentialists earned the opprobrium that Dewey accorded them, however, remains questionable:

My criticism in the book of certain schools that call themselves progressive is not a criticism of progressive education.  I have merely pointed out some of the problems which it has to meet and which have been accentuated because of the failure of the type of education which this new essentialist group seems to represent…The statements of the essentialist group are so general that there is no way of telling what they regard as essentials.  So far as it does not mean a return to the three R’s, the movement is apparently an imitation of the fundamentalist movement, and may perhaps draw support from that quarter as well as from reactionaries in politics and economics.87

Dewey’s statement that Bagley and the essentialists wished to embrace or to imitate fundamentalists of any sort was almost as inexplicable as were the claims made by Kilpatrick:

The essentialists represent the same sort of reactionary trend that always springs up when a doctrine is gaining headway in the country.  The astonishing thing is not the fact of the reaction, but that it is so small and on the whole comes from such inconspicuous people.88

Kilpatrick’s choice to label Bagley and the essentialists “inconspicuous” reveals a great deal about the differences between these two men.  With this label, Kilpatrick demonstrated his contempt for people who were not as popular as he was.  Kilpatrick also showed his attitude toward school practitioners (for example, Shaw).  Ironically, Bagley not only allowed, but demanded that Shaw, the practitioner, chair and organize the essentialists.  Bagley’s willingness to mingle so closely with practitioners, or non-university people, may have tempted Kilpatrick to choose the label “inconspicuous.”  The term allowed Kilpatrick to label Bagley with a negative term, while at the same time appearing to speak about other essentialists who, at least to theorizers like Kilpatrick, were inconspicuous.

By the time that Bagley delivered the essentialist address, however, the essentialists received support not only from the seven executive committee members, but also from a number of other notable educational leaders.  They included Henry C. Morrison and Frederick S. Breed of the University of Chicago, Frederick Eby of the University of Texas, H. M. Jones of Harvard, F. B. Knight of Purdue University, Isaac L. Kandel of Teachers College, Roscoe Pulliam of the Southern Illinois Teachers College, and William Johnson, Superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools.  As philosophy of education professor John Wahlquist recalled a few years after the March 1 event, “By no reasonable standard of judgment could the above group be considered inconspicuous!”89

In fairness to Kilpatrick and Dewey, however, Barnard exploded the essentialist story out of proportion to its actual influence at Atlantic City.  Kilpatrick and Dewey may have provided many more reasonable statements than that which Barnard chose to publish.  On the other hand, neither Dewey nor Kilpatrick ever denounced this New York Times article, nor did either one of them call attention to any possible misrepresentations of their positions.90  Either they were satisfied with its general tone and accuracy or they felt that any comment about it might provide even more publicity to the essentialist group. Bagley never responded to either of them in kind.


The publicity that the founding of essentialism attracted pleased Demiashkevich; he hoped the increased attention would encourage others to join their cause.91  In a letter shortly after the meeting, Demiashkevich wrote to Bagley that he had spoken with Dean William F. Russell of Teachers College at the train station on his way home from Atlantic City.  Demiashkevich reported that Russell “seemed cordial toward our movement and definitely critical of the intolerant and arrogant position taken by Mr. Kilpatrick toward us.”92

In response to Demiashkevich’s letter, Bagley reminisced and commented about the events at Atlantic City.  Speaking of Dewey and Kilpatrick, for example, he wrote that “the premature publicity stimulated such a hearty and bungling onslaught of criticism luckily from two most prominent leaders on the other side that their ill-chosen missiles proved startlingly effective boomerangs.”93 Bagley recognized that Shores “made a magnificent mistake” with his leak to the press, but he also agreed with Demiashkevich that the opportunity to attract new members was a sure possibility because of all the publicity.  Also, Bagley noted that “the onus of ‘starting hostilities’ must now be borne by our opponents and neither they nor the educational public must be permitted to forget it.”94

Bagley published the essentialist platform one month after the Atlantic City conference.  Prior to its publication, however, Bagley mailed copies of the draft manuscript to all executive committee members to solicit their comments.  Within 10 months of the article’s publication, Educational Administration and Supervision had sold more than 1500 offprints of the article.95 Following the Atlantic City address and the publication of the platform, numerous letters of interest arrived at Bagley’s Teachers College office.  The list of members or potential members reached approximately 100 within a few weeks.96

The press continued to publish essentialist-related stories for several months.97 In a change of character, Bagley even wrote an article for The New York Evening Sun, in which he responded to the progressives’ charges, but did not resort to personal attacks.  He rejected several unfounded proposals, which claimed that the essentialists were “red-baiters” who wished to “Hitlerize” the schools.98 He also responded to an American Federation of Teachers (AFT) press release that included such unfair and anemic rhetoric as “the Essentialists do not want American schools to become more democratic and more American.”99 To counteract the essentialists’ claims, the AFT press release urged teachers to ignore the essentialists and instead “give American children the types of subject-matter which will interest them and which they need.”100

Bagley understood very well the AFT’s argument that teachers should give students a curriculum that interested them and that met their needs.  Yet again, however, in “How to Keep Education Virile,” Bagley called attention to the weakening tendencies of an exclusively interest-based curriculum.  He also praised John Dewey as he addressed the “Bagley Declares War on Dewey” Atlantic City headline:

I should indeed be more than foolhardy, I should be insane, to “declare war” on a man whom I have frequently and publicly referred to as the greatest educational leader of modern times, and who, I have predicted, will have a place in history at least as high, if not higher than, that of any other member of his generation.101

Bagley could have engaged in ad hominem attacks on Dewey.  Instead, he publicly showered Dewey with high praise.  In return, he received only public opprobrium from Dewey and the other progressives.


After Atlantic City, Bagley and Kilpatrick continued to tolerate each other as they had for years at Teachers College.  Because Kilpatrick retired in 1937, he did not come to the college very often.  Nevertheless, in correspondence, the two men wrote courteously, even congenially at times, as they discussed educational issues.102 Kilpatrick, for example, wrote to Bagley approximately seven months after the publication of the New York Times’ “inconspicuous” article:

It is, of course, true that our respective partisans very easily get aroused over the personal element rather than the inherent merits of the problem, but it does not appear to me that you have said anything that especially arouses partisan feelings in the minds of any…I am glad to feel that however much we may have differed upon matters of educational theory and practice, we have agreed in maintaining cordial personal relations and agreed in a sensitive consideration of each other’s feelings in connection.103

Whether or not the personal element entered into educational discussions was significant to Bagley.  In the March 2 New York Times article, however, Kilpatrick, at least on this one occasion, chose to discredit Bagley personally rather than to discuss the ideas at hand.

In another post-Atlantic City development, Dr. Claude E. Robinson, the Associate Director of the American Institute of Public Opinion (founded by George Gallup), asked Bagley and Kilpatrick to help develop a survey that would clarify the philosophical positions of the two educators.  Robinson also wished to conduct a national poll to determine the percentage of people who agreed with each of the two schools of thought—progressivism and essentialism.  For several weeks, Bagley and Kilpatrick wrestled over the wording of Robinson’s questions.  Finally, they settled on two rather long and tortuous sentences.  Their wording illustrates the differences between the ideas of these two thinkers.  The first question was Bagley’s and the second was Kilpatrick’s:

In your opinion, should our public schools prepare boys and girls for adult responsibilities through systematic training in such subjects as reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and English, requiring mastery of such subjects and, when necessary, stressing discipline and obedience, with informal learning recognized but regarded as supplementary rather than central?

Or, should our schools make central the informal learning of experience and activity work, placing much less stress on formal, systematic assignments, discipline, and obedience and, instead, seeking to develop pupil initiative and develop responsibility with teachers while in control, serving primarily as guides?104

Robinson never conducted the survey because of the length of these questions and because of the technical nature of their wording.  In Bagley’s words, “Mr. Gallup even prepared to submit the controversy to one of his famous polls of public opinion, but, according to reports, gave it up as a hopeless task when two questions acceptable to both sides apparently promised to be equally unintelligible to the ubiquitous man in the street.”105 Bagley and Kilpatrick could not agree on shorter questions.

Another development that grew out of the Atlantic City meetings also is worth mentioning.  During the months after the founding of essentialism when people such as Robinson were working with Bagley and Kilpatrick on the proposed survey, Bagley received cautious support from Boyd H. Bode, his long-time friend.  The two of them had attended graduate school together, in the 1890s, at Cornell.  Bode, who proudly displayed Bagley’s photograph on the mantel in his home, admitted that he had not had time to “dig into” essentialism.106  However, Bode wrote to Bagley that he planned to read the “Essentialist Manifesto” and other materials as soon as possible.  Bode further informed Bagley that he was “in very extensive agreement” with Bagley about the shortcomings of progressive education.107 Regarding progressive education, Bode wrote that “the shortcomings loom larger and larger to me the more I look at the darn thing.”108 Such statements were not minor from an influential philosopher of education.  Bode, nonetheless, never joined the essentialists’ organization.  In the same year as the founding of essentialism, however, he published Progressive Education at the Crossroads, a book in which he sharply criticized many of the Progressive propositions.109 In time, perhaps Bagley could have persuaded Bode and others to join the essentialists.  Several events, however, combined to frustrate the growth of this fledgling organization.


The first major setback for the Essentialist Association occurred on Friday morning, August 26, 1938, only five months after the association’s founding.  After a long battle with depression, Michael John Demiashkevich committed suicide.  According to his colleague Michael L. Shane, Demiashkevich suffered from “indigestion, worry, and overwork on his last book.”110 These problems, which began as early as spring 1938, prompted Demiashkevich’s nervous breakdown.111

Demiashkevich’s death, of course, shocked Bagley.  He considered the death of his associate to be a serious loss to the cause of education.112 Bagley also wrote that he suspected Demiashkevich’s depression on the basis of some of his friend’s comments during the previous months.  Despite some of their differences on plans for the essentialist movement, Bagley and Demiashkevich had worked closely together. The loss of Demiashkevich took from the essentialists one of the top three forces behind the movement.

Furthermore, had F. Alden Shaw not initiated the formation of the organization, the essentialist movement never would have occurred.  As a practicing school administrator, however, Shaw found himself overwhelmed in his attempt to answer the numerous letters of interest that had arrived from across the country.  For several months, Bagley forwarded letters from interested parties to Shaw weekly, if not daily.113 The organization never collected enough money, however, to hire an employee, or anyone else, who could encourage membership.  Thus, Shaw faced the twin tasks of operating a school and launching a new organization. Although he had the desire, he simply did not have the time to nurture the essentialist organization.114

Finally, Bagley retired in the summer of 1939.  Of course, he hoped that the essentialist group would thrive, but he also planned to enjoy some well-deserved relaxation time during retirement.  In addition, the outlook for war grew increasingly ominous by the day, especially with Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.  A few of the essentialist members met informally in 1939, 1940, and 1941.  Bagley, however, did not support any formal meetings of the group during the war period.  In 1942, for example, he wrote to Shaw “that anything beyond an informal meeting of our committee would be inadvisable.”115 After some discussion, the group chose not to meet at all in 1942.  Difficulties with wartime transportation and concern about the war prompted them to cancel the meeting.116 Bagley thought the war took priority over discussions of educational theory and policy.  The organization’s membership roster became dormant after Demiashkevich’s death, due to Shaw’s attention to administrative duties, as a result of Bagley’s retirement, and because of the onset of World War II.  Bagley, moreover, died in July of 1946.  Once Demiashkevich and Bagley were dead, there was no one left to do the hard work of nurturing the fledgling group.  What might have been a unifying social and political force in curriculum and the profession of teaching died after only a few years.


The essentialist movement attracted a variety of individuals with various philosophical perspectives.  Demiashkevich, for example, argued for an essentialism, much of which could be found in his An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education that, in the words of Diane Ravitch, “did not accept the American commitment to egalitarian, popular education.”117 He also “recommended that children should be sorted on the basis of their scholastic achievement after only four years of elementary schooling.”118  Upon the completion of these four years of basic schooling, Demiashkevich believed—reminiscent of Plato’s Republic—that schools should sort students into a group of “intellectual elites” who were destined to rule society; this group would be separated from the remaining  group, an underclass, who were destined to fill lower positions in life.

Bagley and Shaw, on the other hand, were too committed to democracy to accept the elitism that Demiashkevich promoted.119 Shaw, like Bagley, supported liberal education for all.  He also followed Bagley’s insistence upon balance.  For example, in a reflective letter to Bagley several years after the founding of essentialism, Shaw wrote, “I don’t like to ‘tag’ myself as belonging exclusively to any group…but I like to picture myself as the man standing at the supporting bar of a see-saw, alternatively pushing down the end that is at the top.”120 This balanced, corrective measure approach illustrated by Shaw was quite representative of the vision that Bagley had in mind for the group.  Because he had no advanced training in educational thought, however, Shaw was more than willing to defer to Bagley with regard to questions of pedagogical import.

Despite their differences, the primary individuals involved in the founding of essentialism seemed to agree on a number of central points.  First, they believed that educational theory needed to reemphasize the primary role of the teacher after a period when informal learning had become excessively popular.  They also believed that this de-emphasis on the role of teachers in classrooms had served to weaken rather than to strengthen the profession of teaching.  Second, the essentialists sought to reestablish the significance of a reasonable amount of system in the organization of curriculum.  Third, democratic societies, they held, demanded that teachers teach a core of democratic ideals to combat any attempts to establish totalitarian states.  Fourth, they asserted that every child had the right to a teacher whose job it was to teach them a body of subject-matter.  Furthermore, the learning of this body of subject matter was essential to societal progress.  Finally, the essentialists believed that students were responsible for the pursuit of their education not only for themselves, but also so that they could contribute to the improvement of American culture.121

Essentialism was anything but a conservative call for a return to 19th century schooling.  Traditionalists such as Mortimer Adler quickly dissociated themselves from the essentialists.  Adler rejected the essentialists, interestingly, because they allied themselves too closely with progressivism.122 Furthermore, the essentialists, especially Bagley, did not reject entirely the body of thought commonly referred to as progressivism.123 They agreed that education was “life itself and not a preparation for life.”  They also recognized that teaching could not succeed unless it was based on the interests, capacities, and purposes of students.124 To complement students’ interests, however, the essentialists contended that teachers should teach a body of subject matter as they drew upon the interests of pupils.125  Essentialists also accepted certain aspects of educational pragmatism, but they also argued that the contributions of this mode of thought should be relegated to the realm of methodology.126  Finally, and most importantly, essentialists recognized that their movement was anything but a panacea for all educational problems.  They did not want to control, or, even to dominate educational thought.  Instead, they wished to provide a set of ideals that would complement the best elements in progressive education.127 In the words of Alfred Lawrence Hall-Quest, a leader in Kappa Delta Pi who sat next to Bagley and Dewey at the head table when Dewey delivered his “Experience and Education” lecture:

Essentialism does not lay claim to being a movement…It does not seek to revive classical learning or to promote rationalistic subject matter. Toward many of the emphases in the so-called new education it is discriminatingly cordial. Essentialism approves of purposeful learning, motivating activities and meaningful experiences. It supports many of the newer enrichments and forms of the curriculum whatever name they may bear.128

In Hall-Quest’s article, which was published in School and Society (a journal that Bagley was editing), he drew numerous distinctions between traditionalism and essentialism. He also stressed the point that, from the perspective of the essentialists, “the teacher both as expositor and as director or guide is of central importance in the school.”129  Moreover, he provided his own description of how essentialism and progressivism could be united to provide a powerful theory for public education.130


The extent to which any of these theoretical disputes reached educational practice, however, remains questionable.  Perhaps John A. Sexson, Superintendent of the Pasadena California Schools and 1938 President of the AASA, best clarified the situation in classrooms.  Sexson, who completed his Ph.D. degree at the University of Southern California, also in 1938, wrote for The Phi Delta Kappan only two weeks after the essentialists launched their organization.131 In this editorial, one that historians of education should consider a classic, Sexson wrote:

The facts are that neither the teachers nor the schools ever went “progressive” in the sense implied by the “Essentialists”—nor did the “Progressives” themselves ever go progressive in any such sense.


The essence of true progressive education for its intelligent followers was never the neglect of the “essentials.”  Progressive education embodied two essential ideas.  One was the recognition of child growth needs and the satisfaction of those needs to the extent necessary to insure normal growth and development.  The other was a forward attack upon the problems of modern life whether they be problems of the individual or problems of society as a whole.

No sane, intelligent progressive ever advocated any neglect of the “essentials” or the “fundamentals.”  There was a lunatic fringe of radicals who did so advocate, but the whole movement should not be condemned because of the unintelligent ballyhoo of its would-be friends or the gross misrepresentation of a sensation-seeking press.132

Sexson surely was correct in his assertion that much “ballyhoo” had erupted in Atlantic City.  He insightfully raised the issue of the extent to which the theoretical discussions, or proposals, that had been touted by thousands of reformers actually had influenced the school-based actions of practitioners during previous decades.133 Both the essentialists and the progressives assumed, throughout their arguments, that the adoption of progressive or essentialist language translated immediately into practical action.134

The founding of essentialism served as Bagley’s final major event during his active career as a professor.  After he had watched countless movements for decades, he finally decided to join with others in order to take a stand for a set of specific ideas.  Unfortunately, ill-founded charges from Kilpatrick, Dewey, and others that Bagley harbored fundamentalist, reactionary, or even fascist beliefs served to squelch a movement that had unity at its core.135  Bagley sought to initiate a philosophy that placed balance, synthesis, teaching, curriculum, and teaching teachers at the center of its beliefs. This balanced approach, however, was destroyed by a few short comments in the New York Times.


This story of the founding of essentialism reveals a complex discussion that does not lend itself to simple categorization.  The study also demonstrates that any attempt to use Bagley’s ideas to support contemporary calls for “standards and accountability” rests on a weak understanding of the history and philosophy behind essentialism.  Bagley’s essentialism was a philosophical position that sought to educate teachers—as well as those who teach teachers—about how they should think and make judgments about curriculum and pedagogy.  Essentialism was never a national or state political mandate that sought to require the teaching of a rigidly prescribed national or state approved curriculum.  Also, Bagley, a lifelong advocate for public education and for college and university-based teacher preparation, surely would be troubled by the way in which higher education institutions have radically marginalized teaching teachers as an end in and of itself, by the attempted state take-over of teacher education, by the extremism that fuels contemporary advocacies, and by the narrow view of knowledge that undergirds virtually all efforts to enthrone standardized tests as the only measure of a teacher’s craft.136  Of course, Bagley understood the obvious point that tests, sequence, and system have their place.  To view a test as the ultimate end of education, however, is desperately thin compared to the rich attention to purpose and ideals that Bagley provided throughout his lifetime.137

Although the primary purpose of this paper has been to describe the founding of essentialism within its historical context, a few comments regarding how essentialism relates to contemporary movements is appropriate.  One person who has drawn attention to Bagley’s legacy in recent years is Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University.  Ravitch, in fact, has held up Bagley as a deeply significant forgotten figure from American education.138 Ravitch also is a strong advocate for curriculum standards.139 I agree with Diane Ravitch and her commitment to the ideal of liberal arts curriculum for all, as well as for curriculum standards.  She is correct in identifying Bagley as someone who supported these ideas.  As Bagley well knew, however, holding up the ideal of liberal arts curriculum for all is only the beginning.  The challenge is for members of the teaching profession to work with Ravitch and others to figure out how to get leaders within higher education to place as much value on teaching teachers as they do on training businessmen, lawyers, engineers, political pundits, physicians, and highly-specialized professors.140

Another connection between essentialism and contemporary movements also is worth mentioning.  Due to the lack of attention that has been paid to the story of the founding of essentialism, numerous foundations of education texts draw a connection between Bagley’s essentialism and reports such as “A Nation at Risk,” issued in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education.141 A Nation at Risk served as the founding document for what has become known as the late 20th century “standards and accountability” movement.  Direct correlations between essentialism and the 1983 report, however, are deeply problematic.  First of all, the three primary individuals behind the founding of essentialism—Bagley, Shaw, and Demiashkevich—each had different perspectives on what essentialism was or should be. Thus, to speak of “the essentialist movement” presents immediate difficulties. The question, “Whose essentialism?” always should be asked.  As for the “Risk” report, many more individuals were involved in the movement.  Most prominently, politicians provided the power behind Risk, as opposed to educators like Bagley, Demiashkevich, and Shaw, who founded essentialism.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Risk, and hence the “standards and accountability” movement that it spawned, was driven primarily by economics, not by a substantive vision of educational philosophy and curriculum.  All of the essentialists called attention to purpose in a substantive sense and not merely utility in an economic efficiency sense.  Economics was peripheral to their argument, and vocational training entered nowhere into their conversations.142  The vocational training for test score production that has grown out of A Nation at Risk is a long way from the scholarly, cultured, literature-focused minds of Bagley and Demiashkevich.143 What is currently being advocated by political elites in the name of standards, accountability, competition, choice, and “excellence” has nothing to do with liberal arts education, most certainly not the kind of liberal arts curriculum that individuals like Bagley and Demiashkevich advocated their entire lives.144  Risk, like its more recent counterpart No Child Left Behind, was driven by economics, despite the shibboleths that might be used to hide these effects.145

To Bagley, education was primarily a moral problem, not merely a system problem as the architects of Risk and other more recent mandates have wrong-headedly assumed.146 As his purpose in life, Bagley chose to commit himself to teaching teachers.  Moreover, he worked for decades to strengthen institutions that also took as their moral purpose the education of teachers.  As higher education jettisoned the question of purpose, so did the teachers colleges that Bagley labored so hard to build and improve.147 The philosophy of essentialism only can be understood within this larger context of the transformation of higher education and the subsequent delegitimization of teaching children as an end in and of itself in American higher education and culture.148 Through his writings as well as his actions, Bagley held up the profession of teaching children as an ideal that America’s brightest young people should seek to attain.  This robust understanding of moral purpose was at the heart of the founding of essentialism. Sadly, this ideal that he held up for more than 40 years is all but dead in early 21st century America.

Quite likely, if Bagley and Dewey—two thinkers who shared more points of agreement than most people realize—were writing today, both of them would agree that educators should seek to synthesize children’s interests with disciplinary knowledge by focusing on a unifying, real end that holds the two together.  These two prominent educational philosophers also would push contemporary thinkers to address substantive pedagogical questions about why teachers ask students to learn knowledge and skills in the first place.149  The essentialist tradition—whether it be Bagley’s, Shaw’s, or Demiashkevich’s—demands that contemporary trustees of American public education do much better than test, measure, punish, and train students for economic efficiency.  Our curricular goal, rather, should be for discipline-driven researchers and professors of education (specifically professors of curriculum) to unite in order to achieve a common goal.  That goal should be universal liberal arts curriculum, and it can only be achieved through the education of teachers who have learned what, how, and why to teach as part of the curriculum they study within our nation’s institutions of higher education.150 This moral philosophy of teaching teachers is inherent in Bagley’s conception of essentialism.  The time has arrived for those of us who teach teachers to summon the will to revive it.151


1. The popular press of the day, as I will show in this paper, portrayed the founding of essentialism as an intellectual battle between “progressives” and “traditionalists,” missing the entire point of essentialism.  For two examples of histories of American education that do not consider the significance of or the complexities behind the founding of essentialism, see Herbert M., Kliebard, The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 2nd Ed., (New York:  Routledge, 1995); and Joel Spring, The American School, 1642–2004, 6th Ed. (Boston, MA:  McGraw-Hill, 2005).

2. David B. Tyack, The One Best System (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1974), p. 57.

3. Isaac L. Kandel, “The Philosophy Underlying the System of Education in the United States,” In Educational Yearbook of the International Institute of Teachers College, 1929, Isaac L. Kandel, Ed., (New York:  Teachers College Bureau of Publications, 1930), pp. 461–547.

4. The person who is often held up as a representative of traditional education is William Torrey Harris.  Harris, however, was quite committed to universal education in both theoretic and practical ways.  For someone from the traditionalist perspective as I have described it here, see the work of Josiah Royce, a professor of philosophy at Harvard University from 1882 to 1916.  Royce rejected the idea that there should be a science of education altogether.  See Josiah Royce, “Is There a Science of Education?,” In Pedagogy:  Disturbing History, Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori, Ed., (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996), pp. 275–289.  Royce’s essay was originally published in 1896.

5. See, for example, John Dewey, “The Primary-education Fetich,” Forum (1898):  315–328; John Dewey, The School and Society (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1899); John Dewey and Evelyn Dewey, Schools of Tomorrow (New York:  E. P. Dutton, 1915); E. L. Thorndike, The Principles of Teaching:  Based on Psychology (New York:  A. G. Seiler, 1906); William Heard Kilpatrick, “The Project Method:  The Use of the Purposeful Act in the Educative Process,” Teachers College Record 19 (September 1918):  319–335; and William Heard Kilpatrick, Foundations of Method (New York:  Macmillan, 1926).

6. The phrase “disciplined progressive” is meant to signify this synthesis.  For more, see J. Wesley Null, A Disciplined Progressive Educator: The Life and Career of William Chandler Bagley (New York:  Peter Lang, 2003.)

7. See, for example, Edwin G. Boring, A History of Experimental Psychology (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1950; John M. O’Donnell, The Origins of Behaviorism: American Psychology, 1870–1920 (New York: New York University Press, 1985); E. B. Titchener, “The Postulates of a Structural Psychology,” The Philosophical Review 7 (September 1898): 449–465, see Titchener’s footnote directed toward Dewey on page 451–452; See, also E. B. Titchener, “Structural and Functional Psychology,” The Philosophical Review 8 (1899): 290–299; See, also, A. A. Roback History of American Psychology (New York: Library Publishers, 1952), pp. 213–215; and Daniel N. Robinson, An Intellectual History of Psychology, 3rd ed. (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), pp. 297–343.

8. William C. Bagley, The Educative Process (New York:  Macmillan, 1905).

9. J. Wesley Null, “William Chandler Bagley, 1874–1946”, The Encyclopedia of Education, 2nd Edition, Vol. I, edited by James W. Guthrie (New York:  Macmillan, 2002), pp. 163–165.

10. See, for example, William C. Bagley, Craftsmanship in Teaching (New York:  Macmillan, 1911); William C. Bagley, Educational Values (New York:  Macmillan, 1911); William C. Bagley, School Discipline (New York:  Macmillan, 1914); see, also, J. Wesley Null, “Social Efficiency Splintered:  Multiple Meanings Instead of the Hegemony of One,” Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 19 (Winter 2004):  99–124.

11. William C. Bagley, “The Problem of Teacher Training in the United States,” In Educational Yearbook of the International Institute of Teachers College, 1927, Isaac L. Kandel, Ed. (New York:  Teachers College Bureau of Publications, 1928), pp. 571–606.

12. See, for example, William S. Learned, William C. Bagley, Charles A. McMurry, George D. Strayer, Walter F. Dearborn, Isaac L. Kandel, and Homer W. Josselyn, Professional Preparation of Teachers For American Public Schools: A Study Based Upon An Examination of Tax-Supported Normal Schools in the State of Missouri (New York: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1920); William C. Bagley and John A. H. Keith, Nation and the Schools: A Study in the Application of the Principle of Federal Aid to Education in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1920); William C. Bagley, John W. Withers, and George Gailey Chambers, Professional Education of Teachers in Cleveland: A Report Concerning the Work and Possibilities of the Cleveland School of Education in Affiliation with the Western Reserve University (Cleveland: Cleveland Board of Education, June 1922); William C. Bagley, Education, Crime, and Social Progress (New York: Macmillan, 1931); William C. Bagley, Education and Emergent Man: A Theory of Education With Particular Application to Public Education in the United States (New York: T. Nelson and Sons, 1934).

13. For more on the content of this text and its place in the development of Bagley’s educational thought, see J. Wesley Null, A Disciplined Progressive Educator:  The Life and Career of William Chandler Bagley (New York:  Peter Lang 2003).

14. Michael Demiashkevich, “Book Reviews,” Educational Administration and Supervision 20 (December 1934):  705–708.

15. Michael Demiashkevich, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (New York:  American Book Company, 1935).

16. See Michael John Demiashkevich, “The Activity School:  New Tendencies in Educational Method in Western Europe Critically Examined,” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1926); see, also, Gurney Chambers, “The Educational Philosophy of Michael John Demiashkevich,” (Ph.D. diss., George Peabody College for Teachers, 1967).

17. For Demiashkevich’s published dissertation, see Michael J. Demiashkevich, The Activity School:  New Tendencies in Educational Method in Western Europe Critically Examined (New York:  J. J. Little and Ives Company, 1926).

18. George Keiser Evans, “The American Career of Michael J. Demiashkevich,” (Ph.D. diss., George Peabody College for Teachers, 1959), p. 364; see, also Special Collections, Teachers College, Columbia University, Teachers College Announcements, 1924–25, p. 46.

19. Ibid., 147.

20. Ibid., 147.

21. William C. Bagley, “’Progressive’ Education,” Stanford University, Hoover Institution Archives, William W. Brickman Collection, unpublished and undated manuscript, Box 50; hereafter referred to as “Hoover Brickman Collection.”

22. William C. Bagley, “The Task of Education in a Period of Rapid Social Change,” Educational Administration and Supervision 19 (November 1933):  561–570.

23. Ibid., 570.

24. William C. Bagley, “Progressivism in Educational Theory and Practice,” unpublished and undated manuscript, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 50.

25. Patricia Albjerg Graham, Progressive Education From Arcady to Academe, 1919–1955 (New York:  Teachers College Press, 1967).

26. For a consideration of the changes in Progressivism during the 1930s, see C. A. Bowers, The Progressive Educator and the Depression:  The Radical Years (New York:  Random House, 1969).

27. Letter from F. Alden Shaw to Bagley, November 8, 1937, Hoover Brickman Collection, Box 50.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid.

31. Letter from Bagley to F. Alden Shaw, November 10, 1937, Hoover Brickman Collection, Box 51.

32. Ibid.

33. Letter from Shaw to Bagley, November 16, 1937, Hoover Brickman Collection, Box 50.

34. Ibid.

35. Letter from Bagley to Shaw, November 8, 1937, Hoover Brickman Collection, Box 50.

36. Minutes of the Meeting of the Executive Council of Kappa Delta Pi, February 22 and 23, 1937, p. 2, Kappa Delta Pi Photographs and Documents Archives (KDP PDA), Indianapolis, Indiana.

37. See various letters, KDP PDA.

38. Letter from Bagley to Shaw, November 22, 1937, Hoover Brickman Collection, Box 50.

39. Ibid., 2.

40. Letter from Bagley to Shaw, December 11, 1937, Hoover Brickman Collection, Box 50.

41. The names of professors of education that Bagley sent to Shaw included Dr. Ernest Horn of the University of Iowa, Drs. Henry C. Morrison and Frederick S. Breed of the University of Chicago, Dr. M. G. Neale of the University of Minnesota, Dean Henry W. Holmes of Harvard, Dr. E. H. Reeder of the University of Illinois, and Dr. C. C. Tillinghast of Teachers College’s Horace Mann School for Boys.  In the specific subject-matter fields, Bagley suggested Dr. W. D. Reeve (mathematics), Dr. C. B. Upton (mathematics), and Dr. W. L. Carr (classics), all of whom taught at Teachers College.

42. Letter from Shaw to Bagley, December 8, 1937, Hoover Brickman Collection, Box 50.

43. Letter from Bagley to Shaw, January 3, 1938, Hoover Brickman Collection, Box 50.  In this letter, Bagley also mentioned the name of Dr. Margaret Kiely, Dean of Queens College in Flushing, New York.

44. J. Wesley Null, A Disciplined Progressive Educator:  The Life and Career of William Chandler Bagley (New York:  Peter Lang, 2003), p. 194.

45. Letter from Bagley to Shaw, January 7, 1938, Hoover Brickman Collection, Box 50.

46. By the time Stevenson received his doctorate, Bagley had left the University of Illinois; see John A. Stevenson, “The Project Method of Teaching,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois, 1918).

47. Ibid.  In this letter, Bagley also requested that Shaw invite Dr. Charles H. Judd of the University of Chicago, Dr. Milo B. Hillegas of Teachers College, and Dr. Mary E. Townsend also of Teachers College.

48. Letter from Shaw to Bagley, January 12, 1938, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 50.

49. Letter from Bagley to Shaw, December 11, 1937, Hoover Brickman Collection, Box 50.

50. “Something for Everyone in Atlantic City,” The Journal of the National Education Association 27 (January 1938):  23.

51. Letter from Shaw to Bagley, January 12, 1938, Hoover Brickman Collection, Box 50.

52. Ibid.

53. Letter from Demiashkevich to Bagley, January 13, 1938, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 51.

54. Michael Demiashkevich, “Tentative Theses of the Essentialist Education Association,” unpublished manuscript, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 50.  To be sure, Bagley and Demiashkevich held rather different visions for the Essentialist society.  See, also, Michael Demiashkevich, “Essentialist Committee for the Advancement of Education (ECAE) Summary of Theses:  A Statement of the Essential Means and Ends of American Education,” unpublished manuscript, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 52.

55. Letter from Bagley to Shaw, February 1, 1938, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 52.

56. Ibid.

57. Letter from Bagley to Shaw, February 1, 1938, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 52.

58. William C. Bagley, “Some Relations of Education to the Status Quo,” School and Society 47 (April 1938):  562–565; see, also, William C. Bagley, “Teachers’ Rights, Academic Freedom, and the Teaching of Controversial Issues,” Teachers College Record 40 (November 1938):  108.

59. letters, Hoover Brickman collection; see, for example Bagley to Flora J. Cooke, April 14, 1938, Box 52.

60. William C. Bagley, “Soviets Proceed to the Liquidation of American Educational Theory,” School and Society 37 (January 1933):  62–63.

61. William C. Bagley, “The Fundamental Distinction Between Liberal and Vocational Education,” National Education Association Proceedings and Addresses (1914):  161–170; and William C. Bagley, Determinism in Education:  A Series of Papers on the Relative Influence of Inherited and Acquired Traits in Determining Intelligence, Achievement, and Character (Baltimore, MD:  Warwick and York, 1925).

62. “The Atlantic City Convention,” The Journal of the National Education Association 27 (April 1938):  99–104.

63. Ibid.

64. Precise evidence as to the exact date and time of Bagley’s Essentialist address remains somewhat obscure.  The afternoon of March 1st, however, represents the only logical time slot during which he could have delivered the paper.  Furthermore, this time frame matches all other evidence about the address.  See “Program From Atlantic City,” The Journal of the National Education Association 27 (January 1938):  44–45.

65. Dewey’s Experience and Education, published by Kappa Delta Pi, was distributed on the same evening when he delivered the address.  Photographs from Kappa Delta Pi lectures show the books stacked near the podium used by the lecturer.  The books surely had to be published well before the evening of March 1st.  As a society leader, Bagley would have been one of the first to receive a copy.  Moreover, he likely would have seen a draft copy of the manuscript well before the publication of the book.

66. William C. Bagley, “An Essentialist’s Platform for the Advancement of American Education,” Educational Administration and Supervision 24 (April 1938):  241–256.

67. Ibid.

68. Ibid.

69. Ibid., 245.

70. Ibid., 250.

71. Ibid., 251.

72. Ibid., 254.  For a much less adamant, and in many respects better written, explanation of the Essentialist position, see William C. Bagley, “The Significance of the Essentialist Movement in Educational Theory,” The Classical Journal 34 (March 1939):  326–344.  The other members of the Essentialist Committee exerted less influence over this second article than they did with the original Essentialist platform.

73. Bagley also made this point often in his Education and Emergent Man.

74. William C. Bagley, “An Essentialist’s Platform for the Advancement of American Education,” Educational Administration and Supervision 24 (April 1938):  256.

75. For a study of Louis A. Shores and his efforts in the field of library science, see Lee Shiflett, Louis Shores:  Defining Educational Librarianship (Lanham, MD:  The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1996).

76. John T. Wahlquist, Philosophy of American Education (New York:  The Ronald Press Company, 1942); see also Florence B. Stratemeyer, “The Story of William Chandler Bagley,” Teachers College Special Collections.  Both Wahlquist and Stratemeyer acknowledge the existence of this headline.  After considerable searching, however, I have not been able to locate it.

77. Letter from Demiashkevich to Bagley, March 6, 1938, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 50, p. 2.

78. George S. Counts, Dare the School Build a New Social Order? (Carbondale, IL:  Southern Illinois University Press, 1959), with an Introduction by Wayne J. Urban.

79. Menu and Dinner Program for the Twelfth Convocation of Kappa Delta Pi, March 1, 1938, Hotel Chelsea, Atlantic City, New Jersey, KDP PDA.  A photograph from this evening shows approximately 200 guests.

80. Letter from William C. Bagley To the Members of the Essentialist Committee, May 18, 1938, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 50.

81. John Dewey, Experience and Education (New York:  Touchstone, 1938), p. 20.  Kappa Delta Pi recently has reprinted a 60th Anniversary Edition of the book.  See John Dewey, Experience and Education:  The 60th Anniversary Edition (West Lafayette, IN:  Kappa Delta Pi, International Honor Society in Education, 1998).

82. John Dewey, Experience and Education (New York:  Touchstone, 1938), pp. 58–59.

83. For a further consideration of similarities between Bagley and Dewey, see J. Wesley Null, “Schwab, Bagley, and Dewey:  Concerns for the Theoretic and the Practical,” The Educational Forum 65 (Fall 2000):  42–51; J. Wesley Null, “An Intellectual Progressive Educator:  Toward a Rereading of William Chandler Bagley, 1874–1946,” The Educational Forum 67 (Summer 2003):  300–307; J. Wesley Null, “Education and Knowledge, Not ‘Standards and Accountability’: A Critique of Reform Rhetoric Through the Ideas of Dewey, Bagley, and Schwab,” Educational Studies 34 (Winter 2003): 397–413; and J. Wesley Null, “Social Efficiency Splintered:  Multiple Meanings Instead of the Hegemony of One,” Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 19 (Winter 2004):  99–124.

84. William Heard Kilpatrick Diaries, Special Collections, Teachers College, Columbia University, Volume 34, Roll 9, p. 55.  Kilpatrick never mentioned the Essentialist movement after this initial entry regarding Ms. Barnard from The New York Times.

85. Kilpatrick Diaries, Volume 34, Roll 9, p. 56.  For whatever reason, Kilpatrick recorded the exact time he left Atlantic City.

86. “Study Row Stirred By Essentialists:  Their Attack on Progressive Education is Assailed by Dewey and Kilpatrick,” The New York Times, 2 March 1938, p. 8.

87. Ibid., 8; italics added.

88. Ibid., 8; italics added.

89. John T. Wahlquist, Philosophy of American Education (New York:  The Ronald Press Company, 1942), p. 122.

90. For other journalistic reports of the beginning of the Essentialist movement, see “Dewey Raps Foes of School System,” Atlantic City Press, 2 March 1938, p. 1; “Essentialist Group Urges Pupils Be Coddled Less and Taught More,” Newsweek 11 (March 14, 1938):  26–27; and “Progressives’ Progress,” Time (October 31, 1938):  31–35.  The Newsweek article based several of its claims on a report entitled “Essential Means and Ends of American Education.”  Bagley did not prepare this document.  Either Demiashkevich or Shaw most likely wrote it.

91. Letter from Demiashkevich to Bagley, March 6, 1938, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 50.

92. Ibid., 2.

93. Letter from Bagley to Demiashkevich, March 10, 1938, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 50.

94. Ibid.

95. Letter from Bagley to Shaw, August 10, 1939, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 50.

96. “Inquiries Regarding Membership in the Essentialists,” unpublished manuscript, Hoover Brickman Collection, Box 50.

97. See, for example, “Parents Acclaim Essentialists:  Dr. Bagley Says ‘Fan Mail’ Shows They are Concerned About Educational Trends,” The New York Evening Sun, 3 August 1938, p. 4.

98. William C. Bagley, “How to Keep Education Virile:  Professor Bagley Explains the ‘Essentialists’ and Commends New York City’s Schools,” The New York Sun, 21 March 1938, p. 3. For an inappropriate article indicative of some of the charges directed toward Bagley, see S. A. Courtis, “The Fascist Menace in Education,” University of Michigan School of Education Bulletin, (January 1939):  51–53.  This same article was reprinted in Current Viewpoints in Education, ed. Claude Eggerston and Warren R. Good (Ann Arbor:  Bureau of Educational Reference and Research, University of Michigan, 1942), pp. 41–43.

99. “‘Essentialists’ Trying to Force American Schools Back Into European Patterns,” Press Information from the National Office of the American Federation of Teachers, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 50.

100. Ibid.

101. Ibid.

102. Letter from Bagley to Kilpatrick, July 26, 1938, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 50; Letter from Kilpatrick to Bagley, September 27, 1938, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 50.

103. Letter from Kilpatrick to Bagley, October 14, 1938, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 50.

104. Unpublished and undated manuscript, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 50.

105. William C. Bagley, “The Significance of the Essentialist Movement in Educational Theory,” The Classical Journal 34 (March 1939): 328.

106. Letter from Boyd H. Bode to Bagley, July 20, 1938, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 50.

107. Ibid.

108. Ibid.

109. Boyd H. Bode, Progressive Education at the Crossroads (New York:  Newson and Company, 1938).

110. Letter from Shane to Bagley, August 31, 1938, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 52.

111. Ibid.  This letter from Shane to Bagley very carefully described the events that preceded Demiashkevich’s suicide.  Louis Shores and his wife found Demiashkevich’s body soon after the event occurred.  See Letter from Louis Shores to Bagley, January 19, 1939, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 52.

112. Letter from Bagley to Shane, September 9, 1938, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 52.

113. Letter from Shaw to Bagley, February 21, 1939, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 51.

114. Letter from Shaw to Bagley, January 20, 1942, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 51; Letter from Shaw to Bagley, August 4, 1939, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 51.

115. Letter from Bagley to Shaw, October 28, 1942, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 53.

116. Letter from Shaw to Bagley, November 24, 1942, Hoover Brickman Collection, Box 52; see, also, Letter from Bagley to Shaw, December 1, 1942, Hoover Brickman Collection, Box 52.

117. Diane Ravitch, Left Back:  A Century of Failed School Reforms (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 2000), p. 294.

118. Ibid.

119. Bagley and Demiashkevich also disagreed with regard to whether or not the published theses should contain a reference to Dewey.  Demiashkevich argued to Bagley that Dewey’s name should be omitted, whereas Bagley stood firm on the point that Dewey should be cited as the greatest educational leader from their time period.  Bagley won the argument.  The published platform refers to Dewey as “the present outstanding leader” of American education; see William C. Bagley, “An Essentialist’s Platform for the Advancement of American Education,” Educational Administration and Supervision 24 (April 1938):  245; for Demiashkevich’s argument that Dewey should be omitted, see Letter from Demiashkevich to Bagley, April 30, 1938, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 51.

120. Letter from Shaw to Bagley, February 7, 1944, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 51.

121. For a recent republication of Bagley’s essentialist platform, as well as his second major essay on essentialism, see Andrew J. Milson, Chara Haeussler Bohan, Perry L. Glanzer, and J. Wesley Null, Eds. Readings in American Educational Thought:  From Puritanism to Progressivism (Greenwich, CT:  IAP, 2004).

122. See, for example, Mortimer J. Adler, “The Crisis in Contemporary Education,” Social Frontier 5 (February 1939):  140–145.

123. George F. Kneller, ed., Foundations of Education (New York:  John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1967), pp. 112–113.

124. William W. Brickman, “Essentialism Ten Years After,” School and Society 67 (May 1948):  361–365.

125. William H. Howick, Philosophies of Education (Danville, IL:  The Interstate Printers and Publishers, Inc., 1980), pp. 47–59.

126. Ibid.

127. The eruption of essentialism prompted Guy M. Whipple to dedicate an entire yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education to philosophies of education.  The yearbook, published in 1942, included chapters by Edward Riesner, William H. Kilpatrick, Frederick S. Breed, Herman H. Horne, Mortimer Adler, William McGucken, and John Brubacher.  None of the authors, however, mentioned essentialism.  Bagley rejected Whipple’s recommendation that the Yearbook focus specifically on essentialism.  Instead, he recommended that the Yearbook undertake “a comparative treatment of the philosophical systems underlying present-day educational theories.”  This organization of the Yearbook, suggested by Bagley, was, in fact, what Whipple eventually published.  Although he did not write a section for the Yearbook, Bagley did serve on the committee that chose these seven philosophers; see Bagley to Whipple, December 8, 1938, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 51; see Philosophies of Education:  The Forty-First Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, ed. Guy M. Whipple (Chicago:  National Society for the Study of Education, 1942).  Recently, Steve Tozer (with Ilhan Avcioglu) incorrectly reported that Bagley wrote a chapter in this 1942 NSSE Yearbook; see Steve Tozer (with Ilhan Avcioglu), “The Social Foundations of Education:  School and Society in a Century of NSSE,” Education Across a Century:  The Centennial Volume, Part I, ed. Lyn Corno (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 2001), p. 292.  For Whipple’s mention of an NSSE Yearbook following the founding of essentialism, see Whipple to F. Alden Shaw, March 30, 1938, Hoover Brickman collection, Box 50.

128. Alfred L. Hall-Quest, “Three Educational Theories:  Traditionalism, Progressivism, and Essentialism,” School and Society 56 (November 1942): 457–458.

129. Ibid., 458.

130. Ibid., 452–459.

131. See John A. Sexson, “A Study of the Relationship of School Expenditures to Educational Services Provided,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Southern California, 1938).

132. John A. Sexson, “Editorial Comment,” The Phi Delta Kappan 20 (March 1938):  209; see, also, John T. Wahlquist, The Philosophy of American Education (New York:  The Ronald Press Company, 1942), pp. 129–130.

133. For further discussion on this point, see Arthur Wellesley Foshay, The Curriculum:  Purpose, Substance, Practice (New York:  Teachers College Press, 2000).

134. Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught:  Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1880–1990 (New York:  Teachers College Press, 1993; David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering Toward Utopia:  A Century of Public School Reform (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1995).

135. See, for example, S. A. Courtis, “The Fascist Menace in Education,” University of Michigan School of Education Bulletin, (January 1939):  51–53; and “Study Row Stirred By Essentialists:  Their Attack on Progressive Education is Assailed by Dewey and Kilpatrick,” The New York Times, 2 March 1938, p. 8.

136. See, for example, William C. Bagley, Craftsmanship in Teaching, (New York:  Macmillan, 1911).

137. William C. Bagley, Education and Emergent Man:  A Theory of Education With Particular Application to Public Education in the United States (New York:  Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1934); William C. Bagley, “Teaching as a Fine Art,” Educational Method 9 (May 1930): 456–461; William C. Bagley, see, also, “Teaching as a Fine Art.” National Education Association Proceedings and Addresses (1930): 789–791 (excerpts).

138. Diane Ravitch, Left Back:  A Century of Failed School Reform (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 2000).

139. Diane Ravitch, National Standards in American Education:  A Citizen’s Guide (Washington, DC:  Brookings Institution Press, 1995).

140. Another individual who has recognized Bagley’s tradition in recent years is E. D. Hirsch, Jr., the author of the well-known book Cultural Literacy.  Hirsch has captured part of who Bagley was with his emphasis on core curriculum, or core knowledge, which Bagley believed should be taught to all Americans through public education.  Hirsch is another individual with whom education faculty members should cooperate to do the hard work of providing a liberal arts curriculum for all young Americans.

141. For a sample of the texts that make this so-called connection between essentialism and A Nation at Risk, many of which are used as part of undergraduate teacher education curricula, see Allan C. Ornstein and Daniel U. Levine, Foundations of Education, 8th ed., (Boston, MA:  Houghton Mifflin, 2003), pp. 123–125; Richard I. Arends, et. al, Exploring Teaching:  An Introduction to Education, 2nd ed., (Boston, MA:  McGraw-Hill, 2001), pp. 92–95; and Joseph W. Newman, America’s Teachers:  An Introduction to Education, 4th ed., (Boston, MA:  Allyn and Bacon, 2002), pp. 227–237.

142. William C. Bagley, “An Essentialist’s Platform for the Advancement of American Education,” Educational Administration and Supervision 24 (April 1938):  241–256.

143. This is not to say, however, that Risk and No Child Left Behind contained no positive developments.  Of course they did.  The positive aspects of these documents, however, must be considered with the rest.  For more on Bagley’s views with regard to liberal education and purpose, see William C. Bagley, “Latin From an Educationist’s Point of View,” Educational Administration and Supervision 27 (March 1941): 161–167.

144. J. Wesley Null, “Education and Knowledge, Not ‘Standards and Accountability’: A Critique of Reform Rhetoric Through the Ideas of Dewey, Bagley, and Schwab,” Educational Studies 34 (Winter 2003): 397–413.

145. For more appropriate historical analogues to A Nation at Risk and No Child Left Behind, see, for example, John Franklin Bobbitt, “The Supervision of City Schools:  Some General Principles of Management Applied to the Problems of City-School Systems,” Twelfth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Part I, (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1913), pp. 7-96; John Franklin Bobbitt, “The Elimination of Waste in Education,” Elementary School Journal 12 (1911/1912):  259-271; and Franklin Bobbitt, The Curriculum (Cambridge, MA:  The Riverside Press, 1918), pp. 53-87; see, also, J. Wesley Null, “Social Efficiency Splintered:  Multiple Meanings Instead of the Hegemony of One,” Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 19 (Winter 2004):  99–124.

146. National Commission on Excellence in Education, “A Nation at Risk:  The Imperative for Educational Reform,” April 1983, Report to the Nation, the Secretary of Education, and the United States Department of Education.  Washington, D.C.:  ERIC ED 226 066.

147. See, for example, William S. Learned, William C. Bagley, Charles A. McMurry, George D. Strayer, Walter F. Dearborn, Isaac L. Kandel, and Homer W. Josselyn, Professional Preparation of Teachers For American Public Schools: A Study Based Upon An Examination of Tax-Supported Normal Schools in the State of Missouri (New York: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1920).

148. J. Wesley Null, A Disciplined Progressive Educator:  The Life and Career of William Chandler Bagley (New York:  Peter Lang, 2003).

149. William C. Bagley, “The Significance of the Essentialist Movement in Educational Theory,” The Classical Journal 34 (March 1939): 326–344; John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1934); John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct:  An Introduction to Social Psychology (New York:  The Modern Library, 1922); for more on pedagogy, see Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori, Ed., Pedagogy: Disturbing History, 1819–1929 (Pittsburgh, PA:  University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996); and Gabriel Compayre, The History of Pedagogy (Honolulu, HI: University Press of the Pacific, 2002). Compayre’s book was published originally in 1891.

150. William C. Bagley, “Professors of Education and Their Academic Colleagues,” The Mathematics Teacher 28 (May 1930):  1–12.

151. J. Wesley Null and Diane Ravitch, Eds., Forgotten Heroes of American Education:  The Great Tradition of Teaching Teachers (Greenwich, CT:  IAP, 2006).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 4, 2007, p. 1013-1055
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12868, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 10:24:44 PM

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About the Author
  • J. Wesley Null
    Baylor University
    E-mail Author
    J. WESLEY NULL is a teacher educator, historian of education, and Associate Professor in the School of Education and the Honors College at Baylor University. At Baylor, he teaches curriculum theory and foundations of education. He also teaches teacher education courses each semester at Waco High School. He is the author of A Disciplined Progressive Educator: The Life and Career of William Chandler Bagley (Peter Lang, 2003) and co-editor (with Diane Ravitch) of Forgotten Heroes of American Education: The Great Tradition of Teaching Teachers (IAP, 2006).
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