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The Dewey School as Triumph, Tragedy, and Misunderstood: Exploring the Myths and Historiography of the University of Chicago Laboratory School

by Thomas Fallace & Victoria Fantozzi - 2017

Background/Context: Over the last century, perhaps no school in American history has been studied more than John Dewey’s Laboratory School at the University of Chicago (1896–1904). Scholars have published dozens of articles, books, essays, and assessments of a school that existed for only seven and a half years.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article reviews the extensive firsthand accounts and historiography of the famed school. In the first section, the authors trace the published accounts of those who experienced the Dewey School firsthand between 1895 and 1904. In the second section, the authors review accounts of the school by contemporaries, reformers, and historians between 1904 and 2014, focusing on three historiographical areas: the events surrounding the closing of the school, the rationale underlying its curriculum, and the impact of the experiment on U.S. schools. In the third section, the authors argue that most accounts of the Dewey School convey one of three historiographical myths: the Dewey School as misunderstood; the Dewey School as triumph, and/or the Dewey School as tragedy.

Research Design: A historiographical essay is a narrative and analytical account of what has been written on a particular historical topic. Following this methodology, the authors are less concerned with establishing what happened at the Dewey School, than they were with how the school was analyzed and interpreted by contemporaries and historians over the past 120 years.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The authors analyze each myth to conclude that Dewey only subscribed to the myth of the Dewey School as misunderstood, while the other two were historiographical constructions created by Dewey’s contemporaries and historians.

Over the last century, perhaps no school in American history has been studied more than John Dewey’s Laboratory School at the University of Chicago (1896–1904). Scholars have published dozens of articles, books, essays, and assessments of a school that existed for only seven and a half years. There are many reasons for the extensive research on the school. First, Dewey is commonly identified as one of the most significant intellectuals of the twentieth century, and the fact that he established and ran an elementary school makes him unique among scholars of his stature (Menand, 2001; Westbrook, 1991). Second, scholars often depict the Dewey School as having launched the new child-centered and/or progressive education movement in U.S. schools. As such, scholars often use an in-depth exploration of the school’s approach and curriculum as a metonymic device for the entire progressive education movement itself (Cremin, 1961; Rugg, 1947; Rugg & Shumaker, 1928; Zilversmit, 1993). Third, the Dewey School is possibly the most documented school in history, with extensive published and unpublished materials depicting the administrative, curricular, and pedagogical innovations in great detail. This robust documentation allowed for scholars to focus on different aspects of the school and nurtured multiple interpretations of its meaning (Knoll, 2014a; Tanner, 1991, 1997; Westbrook, 1992; Wirth, 1966b). Fourth, Dewey opened his school precisely at the point when his pragmatic philosophy coalesced, leading scholars to speculate about how the school contributed to the development of Dewey’s educational and social ideas and vice versa (Menand, 2001; Ryan, 1995; Westbrook, 1991, 1992). Finally, the Dewey School ended abruptly in 1904, but Dewey continued to write extensively about education throughout his career. He published his most famous works on education—How We Think (1910/1997b), Schools of To-morrow (1915/2008), Democracy and Education (1916/1997a), and Experience and Education (1938/2007)—years after the school had closed, but this work augmented his international reputation as a pedagogical innovator and pragmatic philosopher. Dewey’s world-famous writings on education drew upon his seven and a half years working at his eponymous school, which, in turn, drew more attention to the origins and approach of the experiment (Menand, 2001; Ryan, 1995; Westbrook, 1991, 1992; Wirth, 1966a, 1966b).

In this essay we offer a historiographical review of the extensive literature on the Dewey School and argue that much of the literature has centered around three historical myths: the Dewey School as misunderstood, the Dewey School as triumph, and the Dewey School as tragedy. Myth may be a controversial term, because it implies that narratives about the Dewey School are somehow distorted or untrue, but this is not necessarily the case. We employ Finkelstein’s (1992) definition of historical myth in education: a “specialized message system … [that] can sow seeds of hope and/or despair, encourage and/or discourage particular courses of action, sound political or moral calls, or otherwise shape the forms of the future imagining can take” (p. 256). Mythmaking, Finkelstein explains, “flows inexorably from the nature of the institutions [education historians] study and the special roles schools have played in the US political and economic life” (p. 256). Because one’s view of the educational past is informed and shaped by policies and issues of the educational present, mythmaking is an important and perhaps unavoidable function of writing the history of education, as the historiography of the Dewey School will clearly demonstrate. We locate the origins of each myth to demonstrate that Dewey played a direct hand in both combatting and perpetuating the myth of the Dewey School as misunderstood but did not subscribe or contribute to the other two myths—the Dewey School as triumph and the Dewey School as tragedy—which were created and sustained by Dewey’s contemporaries and historians to create “specialized message systems” about the intrinsic value of progressive education.


A historiographical essay is a narrative and analytical account of what has been written on a particular historical topic. Historians have used the historiographical essay as a way to communicate ideas and anxieties about where the field of educational history has been and, more importantly, where they think the field is going or should go. Working in the long-established tradition of historiographical essays in education (see Butchart, 1988; Cremin, 1955, 1965, 1974, 1978; Finkelstein, 1992; Moroney, 1999; Reese & Rury, 2008; San Miguel, 1986; Tamura, 2001; Tyack, 1970; Weiler, 2006; Wraga, 2014) we are less concerned with what actually happened at the Dewey School than we are with how the school was analyzed and interpreted by contemporaries and historians over the past 120 years. Specifically, we are primarily concerned with locating the historiographical origins of each myth—Dewey School as tragedy, triumph, and misunderstood—and determining to what degree Dewey was responsible for them, rather than trying to prove or disprove the validity of the myths themselves. To locate sources, we employed a simple and transparent methodology. We searched the resource Works about John Dewey, 1886–2012 (Levine, 2013) for entries on the University of Chicago Laboratory School and located all the major essays, books, and book chapters on the topic; dissertations and unpublished theses were omitted. Using these published accounts, we then identified additional sources that were cited, referenced, and used in these narratives. We dismissed sources that were less than five pages long (e.g., Chase, 1980; Maxson, 1976; Wood, 1981), and we focused only on substantial, interpretive accounts of the theory and practice of the school itself. Each account that met the criteria—regardless of whether it was authored by a professional historian, educational historian, curriculum theorist, administrator, or practitioner—was given equal weight.

In the first section, we chronologically reviewed the published accounts of those who experienced the Dewey School firsthand between 1895 and 1904. In the second section, we traced accounts of the school by contemporaries, reformers, and historians written between 1904 and 2014. We identified three historiographical foci that emerged from this literature: the events surrounding the closing of the school, the rationale underlying its curriculum, and the impact of the experiment on schools in the U.S.1 For the third section, we synthesized the contemporaneous and historical accounts from the previous two sections to argue that most accounts of the Dewey School convey at least one of three historiographical myths: the Dewey School as misunderstood, the Dewey School as triumph, and the Dewey School as tragedy. We analyzed each myth to conclude that Dewey only subscribed the first myth, while the other two were historiographical constructions created by Dewey’s contemporaries and historians.


The story of the Dewey School began on April 11, 1894, when John Dewey wrote a letter to his wife Alice explaining his visit to a local normal school for training teachers in Chicago where he had recently delivered some lectures on pedagogy. Dewey was frustrated to discover that the teachers had not accurately implemented the psychological principles he had outlined, and so he concluded that to bring about meaningful educational reform, he would need to establish his own school to test his educational and philosophical principles in practice. In the letter to his wife, Dewey first envisioned that such a school would be “a school where some actual and literal constructive activity shall be the centre and source of the whole thing, and from which the work should always be in two directions—one the social bearings of that constructive industry, the other that contact with nature which supplies it with its materials” (Hickman, 2005, rec. 00218). The next year, Dewey (1895/1972b) outlined his vision for the University Primary School, as it was originally called, more formally in a paper entitled “Plan for Organization of the University Primary School” in which he explained that he hoped to utilize “the child’s impulses towards, and powers of, expression in such a way that he shall realize the social ends to which they may be made serviceable” (p. 229). The school was approved in October 1895, and on November 6, 1896, Dewey reached out to the schools’ first director, Clara Mitchell, explaining: “The dept expects to have a school … primarily a school of methods, only secondarily a school of practice—That is, its primary intention is to attempt a systematic organization of the school curriculum, testing & developing methods both from the psychological & the practical sides” (Hickman, 2005, rec. 00268).

In December 1895, the University of Chicago announced that it would “shortly open a Primary School, under the direction of the Department of Pedagogy” (Hickman, 2005, rec. 02072). The school charged $12 per quarter and hoped to enroll 25 students “with attainments about equal to those of children in the first three grades of school work” (rec. 00277). The first day of the school was documented by a brief write-up in the University of Chicago Weekly (“A Model School,” 1896), describing the facilities and activities of the “twelve students and twice that number of parents and visitors” (p. 707). The article, representing the first published account of the school, reported that the morning “began with song, followed by a survey of the premises to test the knowledge of children regarding the uses of garden, kitchen, etc. as well as their powers of observation.” In June 1896, Dewey published an essay in Kindergarten Magazine further explaining the ambitious design and purpose of the school: “The primary school serves the purpose of a focus to keep the theoretical work in touch with the demands of practice and also makes an experimental station for the testing and developing of methods of which, when elaborated, may be safely and strongly recommend to other schools” (p. 739).

Despite Dewey’s enthusiasm and rationale for his school, the first accounts of the experiment were not positive. Within weeks of the school’s opening, one unidentified teacher (perhaps Mitchell) expressed frustration with the lack of direction. She complained to the University president, William Rainy Harper, of Dewey’s alleged “incompetency,” to which Dewey responded that the launch of the school had been rushed (Hickman, 2005, rec. 00509). One early visitor, kindergarten expert Susan Blow, was also unimpressed with the school, explaining in a letter that “the whole principle they were working on seemed wrong,” and that she was “glad to see their method defeated” (rec. 01247). In 1897 a visitor to the University Elementary School offered a mixed review in the Public School Journal. While impressed with the “suggestive and inspiring” ambition of Dewey’s experiment, the author was struck by the alleged lack of structure at the school, reporting that “no textbooks were used,” there were “no lessons in writing or in spelling,” and “there was the least regard shown for those rules of decorum that make community life enjoyable” and “little sense of obligation for the teacher” (Brown, 1897, pp. 537, 534, 535). However, by the next year, another visitor offered a more positive assessment of the Dewey’s student-centered approach in the Journal of Education. The author reported that he thought “at first that he must have stumbled into a very big family, where everyone is having the happiest kind of a time,” because the school lacked “desks and stationary chairs” and the children expressed “exuberance” and “enthusiasm” for learning (Farrand, 1898, p. 172). In contrast to the observations of the visitor from the Public School Journal, this visitor concluded: “There is freedom from constraint, and yet the liberty is never allowed to degenerate into license.”

In 1899 Dewey published his first classic book on education, The School and Society (1899/1956), which was originally composed of only three lectures and an added report entitled “Three Years of the University Elementary School.” (Later editions of The School and Society added five additional chapters of previously published material). Dewey’s essay on the school was originally an address he had delivered to the school’s parents’ association. In this address Dewey explained that the University Elementary School had just moved to a new building, and that he was prepared to enroll 120 students the following year. He attributed these conspicuous successes to his teaching staff, pointing out that “the conduct of the school, as well as its administration, the selection of subject matter, and the working out of the course of study, as well as the actual instruction of children, have been almost entirely in the hands of the teachers of the school” (p. 116). Dewey defended his approach against unnamed “misunderstanding and misrepresentation,” perhaps alluding to the write-up in the Public School Journal, by insisting that the school was best characterized by “work, not amusement” (p. 129). By the end of the 1898–1899 school year, Dewey was confident in what he had accomplished at the school. “[W]hile the program as to year one in history, and some minor points in the sequence of the science work is under consideration,” Dewey (1899/1976) reported to President Harper, “upon the whole the outline adopted is found to work excellently, and it is believed that the period of experimentation in this direction is practically at an end” (p. 318).

Educators’ response to Dewey’s book The School and Society was so positive that in February 1900 the University of Chicago launched the journal the Elementary School Record (Runyon, 1900b) to document the innovative work being done by Dewey and his teachers “to apply the methods of modern psychology to a very practical education” (“The Elementary School Record,” 1900, p. 139). Each monthly issue of the Elementary School Record was based on a theme—Art, Music, Textiles, Botany, Kindergarten, Sewing, Cooking, Geography, and History—introduced by the teaching specialist in that area, followed by a brief essay authored by Dewey and a “School Report” describing the curriculum in the corresponding subject. At the end of the year the University of Chicago published all nine volumes as a single monograph, providing a detailed account of the work being done at the school (Runyon, 1900b).

National interest in the University Elementary School peaked in 1900. That year, the Inland Educator declared: “It is safe to say that no other educational experiment has been observed with greater interest than” the Dewey School (“The Elementary School Record,” 1900, pp. 139–140). In 1900, the Southern Educational Journal, the Chautauquan, Education: A Monthly Magazine, and the Chicago Times-Herald each published positive appraisals of the school based on firsthand testimonies. The Southern Educational Journal published a pair of articles on the educational work being done at the University of Chicago based on two years of study by the author (Moncreiff, 1900a, 1900b). The first essay described the theory behind Dewey’s approach, and the second depicted a day in the life of the school. The author described how, instead of handling books, the children at the University Elementary School “carried cotton, wool, flax, cereals, bugs, woods, flowers, relics—anything relevant to the particular problem at hand” (1900b, p. 305). The day began with a whole group “opening exercise,” after which the students were divided into 10 subgroups, “some to the workshop, some to the gymnasium, some to the kitchen, some to the studio, some to the scientific laboratory, some to the sewing room, some to the textile laboratory, some to the library, some to the field or garden” (p. 306). The author concluded that Dewey’s approach would probably not work in the average common school because the student-to-teacher ratio would be too high and the materials too expensive, but he was nevertheless “convinced that [Dewey’s educational vision] is the only completely consistent and thoroughly rational theory yet projected” (p. 308).

The Chautauquan essay, “A Day with the New Education,” authored by University Elementary School teacher Laura Runyon (1900a), depicted her first visit to “the Dewey School,” as it was commonly called after 1900 (p. 589). Runyon reiterated that none “of the children seemed to have books,” but “they seemed to be having such a good time.” She observed students singing, cooking, serving lunch, taking sheepskin off a loom, and debating the comparative merits of John Smith and George Washington. “One little girl had a live alligator in a box,” Runyon related, “a small boy was carrying a large Indian blanket in from a carriage; one boy child had a basket of fruit and another a package which I heard him tell the teacher contained ‘sandwiches.’” The Chicago Times-Herald article, “An Experiment in Education,” weaved in quotations from Dewey’s “My Pedagogic Creed” (1897/1972a) and The School and Society (1899/1956) to provide a group-by-group outline of what was being taught at the school and why. The author gushed, “so many fascinating things are done that the visitor can scarcely tear herself away” (Foster, 1900, p. 3). Describing how academic content was taught in connection with social activities, the author explained, “Number work arising in the workshop, kitchen, science and serving rooms is formed into distinct problems for the different groups” (p. 2). The visitor from Education similarly found the school “brimful of joyous, abounding life” in his article “A New Direction in Education” (Hodgeman, 1900, p. 232). In contrast to the rigidity of the public school, the children at the Dewey School “gather around the teacher in natural positions, … questioning as well as questioned, always tremendously in earnest, and face and posture alike bespeaking intense interest” (p. 234). The author surveyed the curriculum, explaining that “in the subject-matter taken up by the children, the emphasis is laid on studies presenting a body of valuable knowledge in themselves rather than those which are simply tools to enable one to gain knowledge” (p. 237). However, the large number of unusually skilled and knowledgeable teachers at the Dewey School made the author skeptical that its innovations could be implemented in public schools. In 1901 a write-up in the Kindergarten Review described a lesson on music and the home: “The atmosphere of the school seemed to the visitor to be that of a sweet, well-ordered home,” the author concluded. “Though the external only has been mentioned, one reads between the lines of the mental and moral power back of it” (Clippinger, 1901, p. 426). The relaxed atmosphere and the physical freedom afforded to the children consistently impressed visitors to the school, but these same authors also expressed doubts that the experiment could be replicated elsewhere.

In 1900 Dewey brought former Superintendent of Chicago schools Ella Flagg Young on board as Director of Instruction of the school, which was now formally called “The Laboratory School” at Young’s suggestion. The same year, President Harper first announced a plan to combine Dewey’s Laboratory School with Colonel Francis Wayland Parker’s elementary school, but Dewey’s professional colleagues and Laboratory School parents convinced Harper to reverse his decision. In 1901, Dewey’s wife, Alice Chipman Dewey, was made principal of the Laboratory School, while Dewey took on more administrative responsibilities at the University of Chicago School of Education. By Fall 1902, enrollment at Dewey’s Laboratory School had dropped precipitously from 140 to 80 students, and for 1903 Dewey decided to adopt Harper’s earlier suggestion to combine his school with Colonel Parker’s school (Parker having recently passed away). For the rest of the year Dewey exchanged dozens of letters with President Harper and former Parker School associates Anita Blaine, Flora Cooke, and Wilbur S. Jackman over the complicated philosophical and financial merger of the two schools. For the 1903–04 school year, Alice Dewey was controversially named principal of the newly combined Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, which the Parents’ Association of the Laboratory School continued to call “the Dewey School” (O’Connor, 1904, p. 532). Part of the compromise worked out by President Harper and the former Parker School educators was that Alice Dewey would step down as principal after one year, but apparently this expectation was not clearly relayed to the Deweys. In spring 1904, Alice was informed that her appointment was not being renewed. Upset over how the situation was handled, Alice and John Dewey submitted their resignations, and the Dewey School came to an abrupt end. Dewey soon accepted a position at Columbia University, but Alice Dewey would never work professionally again.


After the Dewey School had closed the question remained: what did the school reveal about the theory and practice of the new, or progressive education? Appraisals of the Dewey School began to be published almost immediately as scholars assessed the curriculum of the school against their own objectives, standards, and purposes. Only four years after Dewey left Chicago, Colin Scott (1908) devoted an entire chapter to the Dewey School in his book Social Education, because, according to Scott, Dewey was one of the first educators to take the social nature of learning seriously, but the Dewey School did not live up to the ideals outlined in The School and Society. Although “these social wholes of the past and the present have found such activities useful and necessary to the maintenance of their social efficiency,” Scott explained, “it does not follow that it would be a social advantage for everyone to be able to work in wood, metal, or the preparation of food” (p. 85). Scott considered Dewey’s teleological selection of certain activities based primarily on their cultural importance to the evolution of the human race as too adult-centered and individualistic. For Scott, Dewey’s pedagogy was too reliant upon the knowledge of the disciplines and too dependent on the direction of the instructor. Scott praised Dewey but suggested that his own ideas moved beyond the limitations of Dewey’s approach.

A more positive assessment of the Dewey School appeared in The Child-Centered School by Harold Rugg and Anna Shumaker (1928), in which the authors identified Dewey as having launched the ‘new’ child-centered educational movement with his Laboratory School. According to Rugg and Shumaker, Dewey’s mind was “able to stay above the maelstrom of economic exploitation, rapid urbanization, mass education, and to frame critical hypotheses for the intellectual base of the new national system” (p. 38). For Rugg and Shumaker, Dewey’s school was not concerned with how to reconcile the emerging social sciences into a coherent theory of learning, but rather how to reconstruct society through the schools. Accordingly, they identified Dewey’s experiment as a “protest school” and a “thoroughly radical institution” (pp. 38–39).

By far the most significant publication in the history of the Dewey School was the book The Dewey School, published in 1936 by sisters and former Laboratory School teachers Katherine Camp Mayhew and Anna Camp Edwards. Drawing heavily upon the published and unpublished documentation of the school (e.g., Runyon, 1900b), the book painstakingly detailed the various aspects of the curriculum by connecting each with Dewey’s educational principles. The authors’ 489-page account recounted weekly meetings with Dewey and daily communication among the faculty about the children, highlighting the child-centered approach and direct connection with Dewey’s educational and philosophical vision. Mayhew and Edwards (1936/2007) made clear the passion they carried for Dewey’s approach to education, concluding: “The light of this vision has never gone out in the lives of those who caught it.… It shines through the long years since, an undimmed beacon for new education and new society” (p. 441). Aimed at correcting misconceptions “about the school which [have] prevailed since,” Dewey’s essay appended to The Dewey School contained some subtle critiques of the progressive schools his experiment inspired, “namely that they exist in order to give complete liberty to individuals” (p. 467). However, in place of correctives and answers, Dewey offered humility and the continued spirit of experimentation. If Dewey expressed ambivalence about the success and impact of his school, subsequent commentators failed to take notice.

In 1939 William Heard Kilpatrick assessed the impact of the Dewey School in an essay on Dewey’s influence on education. He identified two major principles that guided the school: its shared spirit of experimentation for the teachers and the students and its curricular focus on the intellectual curiosity of children. Through the successes of the school, Kilpatrick argued, “the underlying doctrines, education as living, the active child, interest, moral education, inherent subject matter—these are for everybody—even critics of Dewey—the standard expectations of primary education” (p. 465). Furthermore, Rugg revisited his account of the Dewey School in his 1947 magnum opus, Foundations for American Education, in which he reiterated: “I am convinced that the Dewey School was a great seven-year experiment. I can find no greater one in the fifty [progressive] schools that have grown up since its demise” (p. 556). Forever the advocate for his own radical brand of progressive education, Rugg argued that the last 50 years of research and practice had proved that “on most points [Dewey] was essentially right,” because the Dewey School had helped establish such principles as growth as the basis for curriculum design, the school as a miniature home, and the use of social occupations and problem-solving in the school.

By the 1940s enthusiasm for progressive education had waned, although most scholars still held Dewey and the work he had done at the Laboratory School in high regard. In 1941 Dewey’s former student Max Eastman wrote a portrait of the philosopher that devoted several fascinating pages to the final months of the Dewey School— a “sad story which altered the direction and to some extent tone of Dewey’s whole life” yet had “never been told” (p. 678). Eastman argued that the fall of the Dewey School could be traced to a million-dollar endowment offer from Anita McCormick Blaine, which inspired President Harper’s plan to combine the Dewey School with Colonel Parker’s school. Placing the blame solely on Harper, Eastman explained that Dewey “was interested in an experiment in education, not in providing an endowment for the University of Chicago” (p. 679). Eastman’s account contained some factual errors, major omissions, and no citations or references whatsoever. Yet Eastman did include some interesting character sketches of the major actors. In particular, Eastman depicted Alice Dewey as the main impetus behind the establishment of the school, because she was “a zealot … [who] put guts and stuffing into what had been with [John] mere intellectual conclusion” (p. 678). Alice, Eastman continued, “kept pulling [John] down into the real world” and “was the sole channel through which Dewey’s ideas could naturally get down into action” (pp. 678, 680). Furthermore, Eastman gave Ella Flagg Young “most of the credit” for the school’s “concrete operation,” despite the fact that the Dewey School had been in existence for four years before she joined the faculty (p. 678). Overall, Eastman depicted Dewey as a victim of Harper, and he painted Young and Alice as the driving forces behind the school.

Further praise for the Dewey School appeared in Lawrence Cremin’s 1961 classic account of progressive education, The Transformation of the School. Despite Cremin’s claim that his account moved beyond the “morality play … [that] John Dewey awoke one night with a new vision of the American school,” he nevertheless praised the experiment throughout his eight-page description, calling it the “most interesting experimental venture in American education; indeed there are those who insist that there has been nothing since to match its excitement, quality, and contribution” (pp. viii, 136). Two years later, a brief report in Newsweek contained some of the most heightened rhetoric to date, declaring that the Dewey School “set off echoes that have reverberated through almost every US classroom” because “the school was the laboratory where progressive education was born” (“Dewey’s Labs,” 1963, p. 75). The article reported on recent developments at the University of Chicago Laboratory School to keep this flame of innovation alive. By the early 1960s, the literature had embraced the idea that the Dewey School had contributed to, or perhaps was even solely responsible for, the launching of progressive education in American schools.

However, the year 1960 marked a major turning point in the writing of education history; that year historian Bernard Bailyn (1960) provocatively attacked the past and present work of educational historians by dismissing much of it as “derived directly from their professional interests” (p. 9). Certainly, the accounts of the Dewey School by Kilpatrick, Rugg, Eastman, and even Cremin, to some extent, were guilty of Bailyn’s charge because these authors all had direct connections with Dewey’s second academic home, Columbia University. Instead, Bailyn suggested that the field divorce itself from the educationists and align itself with the methods and approaches of mainstream historians. Bailyn inspired scholars to reengage the archival and primary sources on the Dewey School to offer more disinterested, critical accounts. Over the next six decades, historians developed a robust historiography focusing on three key issues: Why did the Dewey School end so abruptly? What was the real ideological rationale for its child-centered curriculum? Why did the Dewey School make such a minimal impact on American schools?


The focus on the closing of the Dewey School underscored the point that the school had been a success and therefore, its ending was an unfortunate or even tragic event. Accounts differed greatly as to whether the demise of the school was due to Dewey’s incompetence, President Harper’s shortsightedness, or broader structural issues in society and higher education. Robert McCaul (1961a, 1961b, 1961c) published a three-part series of essays exploring the reasons behind the closing of the Dewey School based on archival research he had done at the University of Chicago. McCaul (1961c) emphasized the importance of the school and lamented that had it not closed in 1904, Dewey “might have evolved a more viable educational theory and method and one less vulnerable to misinterpretation and distortion” (p. 205). McCaul focused more on the administration of the school, never questioning the merit of the curriculum. In contrast to Eastman’s (1941) account, McCaul ultimately attributed the tragic closing of the school to both Harper and Dewey. McCaul (1961c) faulted Harper for his “indecision and inability or unwillingness to communicate with precision” and for equivocating on the decision whether to support the school financially by making it a formal part of the University of Chicago, or fully independent (p. 206). Dewey, McCaul (1961c) asserted, was at fault for being a poor administrator, “lacking the personal attributes of leadership that the job demanded” (p. 206).

A decade later, Dykhuizen (1973) published the first major comprehensive biography of Dewey, in which he weaved the details of the Dewey School into a discussion of Dewey’s broader writings on education. Drawing upon what was then unpublished correspondence, Dykhuizen objectively chronicled the conflicts among Blaine, Jackman, Harper, and the Deweys that led to the Deweys’ sudden departure but offered little analysis or interpretation. Ida Depencier (1967) originally believed Dewey’s version of the end of the school, writing: “The real reason, as given by Mr. Dewey’s daughters in a later book, was President Harper’s indifference and hostility to the Dewey School” (p. 49). However, in a publication marking the centennial year of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, DePencier and coauthor William Harms seemed to side with Harper, pointing out that “Nepotism naturally rankled the democratic-minded community” and that “Harper’s intention on the matter seemed clear to many people in and around the Laboratory School’s campus” (Harms and DePencier, 1996, p. 15). Jay Martin (2002) agreed with Eastman (1941) that Harper was largely to blame for the end of the Dewey School, because Harper employed an “expansive style of management,” “made promises he could not keep and never intended to keep,” and by 1904 “was sick of both Deweys, and he nursed his annoyance and resentment for years” (pp. 205, 214).

In stark contrast, Joan Smith’s (1979) biography of Ella Flagg Young cast John and Alice Dewey as incompetent, petty, and vindictive administrators during the final years of the school because they allegedly ignored pleas for compromise and deliberately targeted the former faculty of Colonel Parker’s elementary school after the merger. Smith argued that Young did her best to remain professional among the constant infighting but she “was growing tired of the faction and power plays existing in academe, [h]aving known firsthand, how to pragmatically steer and control an educational ship so that it stayed on course without mutiny” (p. 97). Smith suggested that Young was ultimately relieved when the Deweys resigned in spring 1904, and so she turned down an offer by President Harper to stay on and handed in her own resignation, not as a sign of solidarity with the Deweys, but rather as sign of exhaustion and frustration with working at the school.

Feminist philosopher Charlene Haddock Seigfried (1996) argued that despite Dewey’s egalitarian and democratic rhetoric, the University of Chicago reflected hierarchical and oppressive views towards women—a factor which contributed to the end of the school. After reconstructing the events leading to Dewey’s resignation, Seigfried suggested that the Dewey School had placed unprecedented power in the hands of women, Alice Dewey and Ella Flagg Young, who were viewed as a threat by Dewey’s male contemporaries. Unconvinced by the charges of nepotism aimed at John, Seigfried concludes: “From my perspective Dewey’s resignation appears to be one of the earliest principled protests against the use of administrative appeals to nepotism as an excuse for discriminating against women” (p. 88). Historians’ accounts of the end of Dewey School, Seigfried continued, have focused on President Harper’s and John Dewey’s experience but have failed to recognize that “the reputation and careers of two good women” were “also at stake” (p. 89).

By the 2000s Anne Durst (2005, 2010a, 2010b) had remedied the dearth of studies on women at the Dewey School. In contrast to Seigfried, Durst (2010a) cast the Dewey School as a “convivial” place to work because the female teachers “joined a community of Americans dedicated to creatively making sense of a changing world” (pp. 66, 55). Durst demonstrated that working at the Dewey School was not oppressive, but rather empowering because the female teachers at the school contributed significantly to the curriculum and worked collaboratively with Dewey. Specifically, Durst drew upon archival material in seven states to retrace the lives and experiences of four teachers—Anna Camp, Katherine Camp, Althea Harmer, and Mary Hill—in their day-to-day struggles with implementing Dewey’s ambitious approach to education. The success of the school, Durst (2010b) argued, was due in large part to “the very structures that were in place to assure teachers’ intellectual freedom, such as teachers’ reports and meetings, [that offered] … teachers the guidance they needed to grow in effectiveness as professionals” (p. 8). As Durst argued, such active participation of women in the construction of curriculum “provided them with a chance to assume responsibilities, with accompanying satisfactions, rare in American Schools of this era” (p. 73). Durst traced the careers of these women after the closing of the school and argued that they maintained fulfilling and successful careers that would not have been possible during an earlier time.

Perhaps Durst’s (2005, 2010a, 2010b) focus on only four teachers with close relations to the Deweys skewed her perspective on the overall experience of working at the school. In his revisionist account of the end of the Dewey School, Knoll (2014a) placed the blame for the sudden end of the experiment solely on the Deweys. Knoll argued that Harper acted fairly and reasonably given the circumstances, but “the inability of John and Alice Dewey to fill their roles and deal with superiors, colleagues and subordinates properly” betrayed their “own liberal ideas” (pp. 40, 39). Drawing upon original sources, Knoll documented internal discord and frustration among the faculty in the final years, aimed especially against Alice Dewey. Agreeing with Smith (1979), Knoll (2014a) asserted that John “was the wrong man in the wrong place and could not adequately meet his numerous, and admittedly difficult, executive obligations,” and therefore, the end of the Dewey School “was self inflicted and Dewey’s own fault, i.e. his high moral posture and his inadequate institutional expertise and experience” (p. 40).


By the late 1950s a backlash had formed against progressive education (Cremin, 1961; Kliebard, 2004; Ravitch, 2001). As a result, scholars became more interested in explaining exactly what Dewey was hoping to accomplish at his school and why. Wirth (1966a) discussed Dewey’s curriculum in the context of contemporaneous evolutionary psychology, arguing that Dewey’s goals for the school were “to understand the processes in the evolution of mind and experience” and “to formulate a unified theory that avoided traditional dualisms” (p. 88). Wirth historicized Dewey’s vision by demonstrating that “the ideas Dewey projected for his Laboratory School” did not spring “full-blown from his own head” but rather were “immersed in the history of educational thought and the vital educational movement of his time” (p. 90; see also Wirth, 1966b). Similarly, Strickland (1967) and Provenzoi (1979) both explored the role of history in the curriculum of the Dewey School by placing Dewey’s thought in the ideological context of modernism. Strickland explored the way the school employed its own version of the culture-epoch theory as a means for having students learn to participate in and understand the structure and working of society by reliving the experience of past cultures. Provenzoi (1979) outlined the nature of historical inquiry at the Dewey School, concluding: “for Dewey … history had little meaning except as a tool for social inquiry” (p. 381). Shiraishi (1995) explored the music curriculum at the Dewey School and concluded that the teaching of music aligned with Dewey’s vision for the teaching of arts, which approached the subject as a form of communication and expression.

Johnston (2006) argued that Dewey’s revision of the Laboratory School’s early curriculum in light of teacher feedback and student experience demonstrated the “self-correcting nature of inquiry firsthand” and underscored Dewey’s assertion that “a problem emerges out of the results of a prior inquiry” (pp. 144, 146). Johnston argued that Dewey successfully explored his ideals of notions of inquiry, community, and growth at his school but “Democracy, as a formal arrangement of the community premised on the having of shared problems, is not developed at any length” in Dewey’s early writings (p. 154). In contrast, Knoll (2014b) cast Dewey’s early revisions to the curriculum as necessary correctives to his flawed early approach to pedagogy. As the Laboratory School enrolled more students and became more successful, it abandoned its early radical child-centeredness and collaborative methodology. As a result, Knoll argued, it began to look more like a traditional school because it employed subject specialists, single-age groupings, and a top-down administrative structure. Thus, according to Knoll, Dewey’s final curriculum was ultimately “innovative but not exceptional” (p. 457).

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a group of “radical revisionist” historians cast U.S. schools as conservative, racist, classist, stifling, and bureaucratic (Finkelstein, 1992). In a chapter of the most famous radical revisionist text, Roots of Crisis, Clarence Karier critiqued what he perceived to be the conservative nature of Dewey’s curriculum. Karier (1973) argued that “what Dewey seemed to generate earlier at Chicago was a kind of middle-class history that eschewed conflict and violence and supported the organizational thinking of the new managerial class” (p. 98). Two decades later, Andrew Feffer (1993) similarly remarked: “The imagined picture of the rural family sustained by Dewey and his colleagues [at the Dewey School] did not include incest, alcoholism, the exploitation of children by their parents, or religious extremism” (p. 127). Instead the curriculum reflected an unwarranted optimism based upon a view of the family as a “well-knit, cooperative unit, independent of political authority” (p. 127). For the most part, the radical revisionists steered clear of attacks on Dewey and his school but emphasized some of the anachronistic and antidemocratic ideas of progressive educators, which forced many historians to take a closer look at the exact ideological context that engendered the school.

Herbart Kliebard (2004) agreed with the radical revisionists that many of the reforms of progressive education were conservative in nature, but he placed Dewey in the context of other leading thinkers of the 1890s and cast Dewey as a moderate. Kliebard argued that Dewey’s vision transcended the two leading approaches to early childhood education in the 1890s: the humanist approach of William Torrey Harris, which focused on the transmission of subject matter, and the developmental approach of G. Stanley Hall, which focused on capitalizing on the inherited instincts of children. Dewey’s solution as enacted at the Dewey School was to center the curriculum on the historic activities of the human race, which Dewey called social occupations. “Dewey was not reaching for a compromise between the positions of say, Harris and Hall,” Kliebard (2004) concluded; “rather, he was trying to reconstruct the issue of the child versus the curriculum in such a way as to make their opposition unnecessary” (p. 63). Building on ideas introduced by Strickland (1967) and Kliebard (2004), Fallace (2009) argued: “Dewey’s view of the savage mind served as an important component of Dewey’s own historicist and recapitulational approach to the curriculum” (p. 388). By considering the Dewey School’s curriculum in the ideological context of Hegelianism, Darwinism, and nineteenth-century anthropological, sociological, and psychological theory, author (2009) asserted that Dewey based his pedagogy and history curriculum largely upon an “outdated, ethnocentric theory of correspondence” that depicted nonwhite “savages” as the sociological/psychological equivalent of white children, because Dewey had the children at the school relive the linear cultural history of the human race (p. 402). Author later (2011) demonstrated that Dewey’s entire pre-1916 philosophy of education—including the Dewey School—was permeated with ethnocentric belief that nonwhite premodern societies represented previous steps towards Western civilization, an approach Dewey shared with the vast majority of his peers.

Seeking to defend Dewey from accusations of conservatism by revisionist historians such as Karier (1973) and Lasch (1965), Westbrook (1992) emphasized how the Dewey School reflected Dewey’s “radical” vision that emerged from his “observations of the fierce struggles between capital and labor in the last two decades of the nineteenth century” (p. 403). According to Westbrook, the Dewey School’s curricular focus on social occupations represented “a critique of wage labor” and Dewey’s “commitment to industrial democracy and the schools that would foster it” (pp. 414, 415). Westbrook’s account was one of four major biographies of Dewey published at the turn of the twenty-first century, pointing to a revival of interest in the famous philosopher (see also Martin, 2002; Rockefeller, 1991; Ryan, 1995). This interest culminated in the Louis Menand’s (2001) Pulitzer Prize–winning intellectual history of pragmatism, The Metaphysical Club, in which Menand linked the Dewey School to a period during which the philosopher made his most significant intellectual discoveries about the nature of knowledge. With his school “Dewey wasn’t conducting curricular experiments or collecting data on mental development,” Menand insisted. “He was trying out a theory…. A theory of ‘the unity of knowledge’” (p. 322). Menand concluded that the Dewey School was not merely focused on solving the problems of American schools, rather it was a “philosophy laboratory in the same way that [Jane Addams’s] Hull-House was a sociology laboratory,” because Dewey was exploring the idea that knowledge was inseparably united with doing (p. 320).



Although attacks on progressive education insisted that Dewey had a substantial and wide-reaching impact on U.S. schools, most educators believed the exact opposite: that Dewey made a minimal impact on schools, and/or that his original vision had been grossly distorted by those who cited him. This inspired historians to speculate about why Dewey’s ideas were so easily ignored or misapplied. In a provocative essay, Chris Eisele (1984) argued that the Dewey School represented “A Record of Success and a Reality of Failure.” Although textbooks in education had portrayed the school as “something good or successful,” ultimately, the “Lab School did not finish what Dewey had set out to accomplish and probably did not establish a precedent that led to a later accomplishment of Dewey’s goals” (p. 29). Citing contemporary and posthumous testimonies, Eisele emphasized the open-ended and experimental nature of the Dewey School and argued that its premature closing undermined its chances of serving as a constructive model for other schools. In contrast, Sarason (1982) considered the Dewey School to be a legitimate model for emulation; educators’ failure to do so was not due to any major shortcomings on Dewey’s part, but mainly due to a lack of will. Focusing on Dewey as an administrator, Sarason concluded: “The things that Dewey did in his school are in most if not all respects capable of being done by principals today,” particularly Dewey’s commitment to “experimentation, learning from failure, and constant inquiry” (pp. 208–209).

Ryan (1995) insisted on both the common-sense nature of Dewey’s educational ideas as well as the obstacles to implementing them. Ryan insisted that Dewey-inspired schools could never have influenced on American education substantially because they would be too expensive, they demanded too much of teachers, and “it is simply unclear what a Deweyan school is like” (p. 146). Lagemann (1996) suggested that Dewey was not wholly responsible for the excessive child-centered reforms affiliated with progressive education. However, Dewey “was responsible … for the widespread misunderstanding of the important role he assigned to teacher” because he failed to outline the importance of teaching in his major works (p. 172). Through an exploration of the ideas and work of Ella Flagg Young, Lagemann critiqued Dewey’s vague writings on the role of the teacher in the classroom to assert that had Dewey learned more from Young, his ideas would have been implemented more consistently. Lagemann concluded that Dewey “was better at describing the aims of education than he was at considering how those aims might be achieved” (p. 182).

In contrast, Laurel Tanner (1991, 1997) considered Dewey’s message to be unambiguous to those who took the time to explore his extensively documented school. In 1997 Tanner revisited the Dewey School in the first book-length study of the experiment since Mayhew and Mathew’s 1936 account. Tanner’s intent was to derive lessons from the Dewey School for today. She offered thematic chapters on the curricular and administrative aspects of the famous school and compared them with the ideas of leading progressive researchers and theorists of the 1990s. “Dewey and the teachers put into practice some of the ideas that we are trying to implement today,” Tanner (1997) argued, “relating the curriculum to children’s life and experience, integrating the curriculum, teaching critical thinking and problem solving, stimulating creative thinking, supporting collaborative decision making by the school staff” (p. xii). Tanner concluded with a list of 25 lessons from the Dewey School that could be used as standards for evaluation of current schools, including: “It is organized as a social community” and “Teachers work together in planning theme-related activities” (p. 177).

Philip Jackson wrote the foreword to Tanner’s book, but in his own assessment of the Dewey School published the next year, he was less certain of Dewey’s triumph. Jackson (1998a) argued that the Dewey School was trying to update the curriculum to align with the new psychology, to make the public schools become broader in their appeal, and to establish a “kind of community that would compensate in some manner for the gradual disappearance of viable communities within society at large” (p 169). Jackson then criticized Dewey for failing to develop a robust vision for art and experience at the Laboratory School and for approaching his own students in a teacher-centered manner that contradicted the very pedagogical principles he had established at his famous school. These shortcomings, Jackson asserted, make Dewey somewhat responsible for the misunderstandings and misinterpretations of his work.

Furthermore, in a review of a reprint of Dewey’s The School and Society, Jackson (1998b) questioned the     premise that the Laboratory School conveyed universal lessons for all schools , arguing that the experiment assumed that “educational principles and their enactment in specific settings can somehow be pulled apart and kept separate” and that “there are sufficient number of discoverable principles about practice to warrant the high costs and the continued operation of such an institution” (p. 426). Similarly, in 2001 Diane Ravitch praised the Dewey School as “likely one of the most exciting schools in American history,” but she too considered its success to be completely reliant upon “extraordinary circumstances” such as “the leadership of John Dewey, a remarkable staff, highly educated parents, and a network of supportive intellectuals” (pp. 172–73). These fortuitous circumstances, Ravitch argued, “guaranteed that it could not be translated into a program for large bureaucratic structure” (p. 173).

Several minor historiographical disputes emerged from the robust literature on the Dewey School. Was the Dewey School an extension of Progressive-Era male hegemony (Seigfried, 1996), or did it challenge these ideas (Durst, 2005, 2010a, 2010b)? Was the Dewey School curriculum socially radical (Rugg, 1947; Rugg & Shumaker, 1928, Westbrook, 1991, 1992), or did it reflect the imperialistic and corporate thinking of its time (Feffer, 1993; Karier, 1973; author, 2009, 2011; Seigfried, 1996)? Did the Dewey School come to an abrupt end because of President Harper’s shortsightedness (Eastman, 1941; McCaul, 1961a, 1961b; Martin, 2002), or because of the Deweys’ pettiness and incompetence (Knoll, 2014a, 2014b; Smith, 1979)? Is the Dewey School an appropriate model for today’s schools (Sarason, 1982; Tanner, 1997), or was it the product of unique circumstances that can never be repeated (Jackson, 1998b; Ravitch, 2001; Ryan, 1995)? These questions remain open-ended and may or may not warrant further study. However, we argue that literature about the Dewey School has never been driven by historiographical debates. Instead, since its inception, the research on the school has been focused on three historical myths: that the school’s accomplishments were a triumph, that the school’s closing was a tragedy, and that the schools’ curriculum and pedagogy have been largely misunderstood. These myths are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they often play off one another: the Dewey School was a triumph, and its premature closing was a tragedy, which led to the school being misunderstood. But where exactly did these myths come from and who was responsible for them?


From the beginning the Dewey School was plagued by the perception that it was unstructured and excessively child-centered, and Dewey fought to correct this view throughout his career. As early as 1899 Dewey complained of “misunderstanding and misrepresentation” of his school, insisting that his approach was best characterized by “work, not amusement” (1899/1976, p. 129). Furthermore, one of the formal missions of the Parents’ Association of the Laboratory School was “to be able to correct misconceptions formed in regard to the school by the outside world” (O’Connor, 1904, p. 533). In 1923 Dewey later complained: “Trying to stand for freedom in dealing with teaching, I have found that I have been considered by many as upholding the doctrine ‘that children should do exactly as they please’” (1923/1983, p. 178). In his essay for Mayhew and Edwards (1936/2007) The Dewey School, Dewey offered further clarification regarding misinterpretations “about the school which has prevailed since”; specifically that the school existed “in order to give complete liberty to individuals,” and that the school was child-centered “in a way which ignores, or at least makes little of, social relationships and responsibilities” (Mayhew & Edwards, 1936/2007, p. 467). Historians have followed Dewey’s lead. Westbrook (1991) bemoaned “how Dewey came to be seen by critics as a proponent of ‘aimless’ progressive education” (p. 104), and Lagemann (1996) asserted that no claim “has been more pervasive or pernicious than the claim that Dewey advocated child-centered education” (p. 172). Furthermore, Martin (2002) insisted, “Many people—including many educators—misunderstood Dewey to mean that instead of a traditionally institution-centered aim, education should become child-centered [italics in original]” (p. 199). Thus, setting the record straight about Dewey’s true position on the content, structure, curriculum, and teachers’ role at his Laboratory School has become an almost moral crusade for historians. Who exactly was perpetuating this misunderstanding? Dewey and his contemporaries never identified anyone. Westbrook only cited Richard Hofstadter (1963) as a culprit, but Lagemann and Martin failed to cite a single scholar or critic.2 There were likely many contemporaries who simplified or misrepresented Dewey’s approach to pedagogy, but there is little to no documentation of exactly who these educators were.

To understand the origins of myth of the Dewey School as misunderstood, two points need to be explored. First, contemporaries who experienced the school firsthand had trouble understanding what Dewey was trying to accomplish without having it explicitly explained. In other words, Dewey’s approach was not easy to discern even by those who experienced it in person. One of the first teachers at the Dewey School, probably Clara Mitchell, accused Dewey of incompetence, and early visitors to the school were struck by its radical subject matter, lack of books, cheekiness of the children, and seemingly aimless curriculum (Brown, 1897; Farrand, 1898; Hickman, 2005, rec. 01247). Even Dewey admitted that in the early years of the school, “in order to get data upon which we could act, it was necessary to give too much liberty of action rather than to impose too much restriction” (Mayhew & Edwards, 1936/2007, p. 468). It was not until the publication of The School and Society in 1899 that his approach coalesced and educators suddenly understood what Dewey was trying to accomplish with his school because the book convincingly explained the rationale behind its focus on activity-based social occupations. Consequently, visitors to the school after 1899 often weaved in quotations from The School and Society to help explain Dewey’s complicated approach to pedagogy (see Foster, 1900; Moncreiff, 1900a). Subsequent scholars likewise relied on The School and Society (see Dykhuzien, 1973; Jackson, 1998b; Martin, 2002; Scott, 1908) to appreciate what Dewey was hoping to accomplish with the school, often ignoring the firsthand accounts of the school that expressed initial confusion. Thus, the publication of The School and Society marked an important turning point in allegedly understanding the Dewey School correctly.

Second, much of the subsequent misunderstanding of Dewey’s child-centered approach derived from the book Schools of To-morrow (1915/2008), which he had coauthored with his daughter Evelyn. Schools of To-morrow completely ignored the Dewey School; instead John and Evelyn Dewey described experiments from 16 progressive schools and school districts around the country. In the book the Deweys first introduced the term “learn by doing,” they outlined three vague concepts that characterized progressive education—freedom in schools, connecting the school to community, and education in a democracy—and they oddly introduced the entire work with a discussion of romantic French philosopher Jean Rousseau (Dewey & Dewey, 1915/2008, p. 45). In addition to ignoring the Dewey School, Schools of To-morrow completely overlooked the extensive writings Dewey had worked out in Chicago that situated his approach in the context of work by Darwin, Hegel, William Torrey Harris, the Herbartians, and G. Stanley Hall. Although fully consistent with Dewey’s contingent and experimental approach to teaching, Schools of To-morrow nevertheless did far more to confuse contemporaries about Dewey’s approach to curriculum than did the heavily documented Dewey School. In fact, the first published attack on Dewey’s educational ideas came in the form of an editorial review of the book (Fallace & Fantozzi, 2015). William Bagley (1915) criticized the teachers and schools depicted in Schools of To-morrow as Dewey’s “disciples,” dismissed their pedagogical ideas as being “nine-tenths Rousseau,” and quipped that “[t]he very notion that the child should be asked or required to assimilate the experience of others is repugnant” to Dewey (p. 5). Further, Bagley accused Dewey of wishing to have “no commerce with recorded knowledge” and worried that his ideas would lend “support for the dangerously individualistic tendencies of the hour” (p. 5). Likewise, E. D. Hirsch (1987) later asserted that Schools of To-morrow was Dewey’s most influential text and that “Dewey assumed that early education need not be tied to specific content” (p. xv). Bagley’s and Hirsch’s critiques did not draw upon Dewey’s well-documented work at the Dewey School; instead they drew upon Dewey’s later works, such as Schools of To-morrow (author & author, 2015).

In summary, from the start Dewey recognized that the school was misunderstood and attempted to clarify his vision because, especially during the first three years, Dewey’s approach was inchoate, messy, and confusing. The rationale behind Dewey’s complicated pedagogy was not obvious to observers, and his ideas only became clear after he articulated them in writing in The School and Society.3 However, just as The School and Society clarified his ideas, as Dewey moved away from the school his later writings caused misunderstandings to reemerge. Dewey’s extensive writings after he left Chicago diluted the work he had done at his school. Dewey’s later works, such as How We Think (1910/1997b) and especially Schools of To-morrow, deflected attention away from the concrete, practical pedagogy he had worked out at his school and refocused readers on his theoretical propositions. A detailed description of Dewey’s work at the school (i.e., Mayhew and Edwards’s The Dewey School [1936/2007]) was not published until the 1930s, decades after his other major works such as The School and Society, How We Think, and Democracy and Education had been in circulation.


Unlike the myth of the Dewey School as misunderstood, the myths of the Dewey School as tragedy and the Dewey School as triumph were largely constructed and perpetuated by Dewey’s friends, contemporaries, and historians. Scholars discuss the closing of the school as a tragedy because the teachers, students, and Dewey himself were allegedly bereft of the learning and lessons that might have taken place had the school continued. The closing of the school was also allegedly a personal tragedy for Dewey. For example, Eastman (1941) lamented, “the end of the Dewey School … was the end of a wholly joyful and very affluent epoch in Dewey’s life” (p. 680). McCaul (1961c) asserted that had the school continued a few more years Dewey “might have evolved a more viable educational theory and method and one less vulnerable to misinterpretation and distortion,” extrapolating that had the school lasted a few more years, the continued study would have allowed Dewey to clarify his theories and connect them more fully to practice (p. 205). In addition, the premature closing of the Dewey School meant that it was never extended into the grades of secondary education. Similarly, Westbrook (1991) wrote that when Dewey “abandoned the elementary school that was the only practical expression of his philosophy of education,” he “left it to others to interpret, apply, and usually distort Dewey’s pedagogical ideas but also deprived him of the one concrete manifestation of his democratic ideals that he could point to and say ‘this is what I have in mind’” (p. 113). Eiesle (1984) likewise concluded that the “Lab School did not finish what Dewey had set out to accomplish and probably did not establish a precedent that led to a later accomplishment of Dewey’s goals” (p. 29).

Dewey did not play a hand in constructing the myth of the Dewey School as tragedy for three reasons. First, it is clear that to most of the participants the experiment had run its course, that the merger with Parker’s Elementary School was not working, and that Dewey could not handle his overwhelming administrative duties (Knoll, 2015a; Martin, 2002). Ella Flagg Young was glad to move on after the Deweys left, and Harper was ultimately ambivalent about Dewey’s departure (Martin, 2002; Smith, 1979). Dewey had also grown tired of working with teachers, complaining to William Torrey Harris during his final months of the school: “So many teachers are simply looking around for something that somebody else has said, and are so willing to swallow it all whole, that I hesitate about putting any additional temptations in their way” (Hickman, 2005, rec. 00936). Even in the context of Alice’s dismissal and a rocky relationship with Harper, Dewey’s departure was ultimately a result of his own doing; he left under his own auspices. Second, the idea that the Dewey School would have been more successful if it only had a few more years to work out its secondary curriculum ignores Dewey’s robust writings on secondary education during his stay in Chicago and his later work at Columbia University. Dewey commented extensively on the role of secondary education in a democracy in numerous essays: How We Think (1910/1997b), Democracy and Education (1916/1997a), and especially Schools of To-morrow (1915/2008), in which Dewey and his daughter outlined several concrete examples of successful secondary curricula in much more economically and culturally diverse schools than the Lab School. Perhaps Dewey would have altered his views somewhat had he worked with older students at the Dewey School, but probably not. Finally, according to his public comments on progressive education, Dewey likely never intended his school to arrive at a point in which his vision was fully realized or completed because he likely would have reformed and revised his school indefinitely. The Dewey School, like all progressive schools as Dewey envisioned them, was meant to offer one possible solution among many to engage the interests of the child. For example, even when Dewey (1899/1976) reported to President Harper that experimentation in the curriculum for the early years was “practically at an end,” he still felt compelled to explain that “the chief purpose” of the school “is to demonstrate certain principles … rather than to turn out methods and materials that can be slavishly copied elsewhere” (pp. 318–319). Similarly, as Dewey (1933/1985) later wrote, “progressive education has not one formula, is not a fixed and finished thing about which it is legitimate and safe to make generalizations” (p. 152). At his Laboratory School, Dewey may have found some viable solutions to educational problems that he had worked out with his students in one context, but they were never expected to work perfectly elsewhere. Therefore, Dewey did not close his school prematurely; he just ended it having solved some problems but not others—a position fully consistent with his pragmatic approach to knowledge (Johnston, 2006). A few more years would likely not have changed his open-ended approach to progressive education and his school.

In summary, the myth of the Dewey School as tragedy was not one that Dewey ever entertained himself. He continued to write authoritatively and extensively on education for the rest of his career. If anything, Dewey left Chicago energized, not demoralized. Free from administrative duties and the pressure to launch a new school of philosophy, Dewey fell comfortably into the role of public intellectual at Columbia University. The students who attended the Dewey School continued to have access to one of the most respected progressive schools in the world, which was run by experienced progressive educators who had worked with Colonel Francis Parker. With the exception of Alice Dewey, the teachers at the school moved on to successful careers. There was no tragedy here.


There is ample evidence that the Dewey School was a success, although Dewey did virtually nothing to endorse his experiment after he left Chicago. Early visitors to the Dewey School were impressed by the radical freedom awarded the students and the relaxed atmosphere of the school. Visitors recorded that the school was “brimful of joyous, abounding life” (Hodgeman, 1900, p. 232), felt like a “sweet, well-ordered home,” (Clippinger, 1901, p. 426), and involved “so many fascinating things” that the visitor “can scarcely tear herself away” (Foster, 1900, p. 3). The feel of the Dewey School, especially compared to the rigidity of nineteenth-century education, was perhaps its most striking feature and greatest innovation. However, contemporary educators (Kilpatrick, 1939; Rugg, 1947; Scott, 1908) and later scholars (Sarason, 1982; Tanner, 1997) extended the alleged accomplishments of the school beyond this by insisting that Dewey successfully established some of the core empirical principles of progressive education, including: education as living, learning as social activity, the active child, interest, moral education, inherent subject matter, growth as the basis for curriculum design, the school as a miniature home, the use of social occupations, and problem-solving in the school. High, almost euphoric, praise for the school continued throughout the century. Sidney Hook (1939) called the Dewey School “the most important experimental venture in the whole history of American education” (p. 15), and Newsweek (“Dewey’s Labs,” 1963) dubbed it the school “where progressive education was born” (p. 75). Cremin (1961) called the school “the most interesting experimental venture in American education” (p. 136), Ryan (1995) insisted that it was “obviously wonderful” (p. 135), and Tanner (1997) stated that Dewey’s vision was “remarkable for it embraces all that we, who as a people demand so much of our schools, could want for our children” (p. xi). The Dewey School may well have been the most important school in U.S. history; it certainly has been one of the most studied, praised, and admired.

However, since its origins, contemporaries and historians have identified some of the inherent weaknesses of the school. For example, initial visitors and subsequent historians have expressed doubts about the transferability of its innovations. Moncrieff (1900b), Hodgeman (1900), Ryan (1995), Jackson (1998b), and Ravitch (2001) all questioned whether Dewey’s experiment would have worked elsewhere, especially in a public school with larger class sizes, less exceptional teachers, and a more economically diverse student population. Second, Dewey related his own ambivalence about the Dewey School by rarely referencing his work there after 1904, and, as discussed above, by endorsing a dozen other progressive experiments in his book Schools of To-morrow (1915/2008). Even in Democracy and Education (1916/1997a), Dewey failed to mention his school a single time, even though he paraphrased and/or copied directly from essays he had written while he was in Chicago (e.g., the section on culture-epochs, history education, etc.). Dewey’s failure to cite his work at the Dewey School seems to have been deliberate. Third, the Dewey School failed to accomplish, or never even tried to accomplish, some of the broader goals of his reform agenda for schools in the U.S. Because the Dewey School did not have racially, religiously, and economically diverse students, Dewey could not test his innovative theories on cultural pluralism, associated living, vocational education in a comprehensive high school, and/or the teaching of social issues. Dewey (1916/1997a) famously explored all of these ideas in depth in later years, but they were beyond the scope of the Dewey School. Finally, scholars must recognize the irony that, as the Dewey School improved in curriculum, it lost focus in administration. Dewey and his teachers made substantial revisions to the curriculum by moving away from its initial focus on child-centeredness and the linear reenactment of the history of the human race towards a more structured focus on social occupations facilitated by experts in subject matter (Knoll, 2015b). These revisions were teacher driven and democratically implemented (Durst, 2010b). However, once the school grew too large and its staff more heterogeneous, the administrative aspects of the school began to suffer. Even one of the most experienced and gifted administrators in the nation, Ella Flagg Young, could not iron out the major structural and political issues (Smith, 1979). Ultimately, the Dewey School seems to have peaked between 1899 and 1901, when its student population, funding, context, and staff were ideal (Knoll, 2015a). If the Dewey School was a triumph, it was only a triumph for a few years.


Finkelstein (1992) argues that educational myths are “specialized message system[s]” (p. 256). What messages did the myths of the Dewey School convey about Dewey and progressive education? The myth of the Dewey School as misunderstood suggests that there were few inherent problems in Dewey’s original approach to schooling, that the school’s lessons were clear and easily transferable, and that any shortcomings of progressive education were distortions of Dewey’s original vision. These historical defenses of Dewey are often aimed at critics of progressive education and argue implicitly or explicitly that Dewey and progressive education still have much to offer educators in the present, if they would just take the time to understand Dewey fully. The myth of the Dewey School as tragedy suggests that the shortcomings of progressive education were not Dewey’s fault, but were the result of circumstances outside his control, such as the premature closing of the school or the misapplication of his ideas by others. If only Dewey had been given a few more years to work out his vision with greater clarity and precision, then the course of progressive education could and would have been different. The authors of these accounts are often convinced by the critics of progressive education, but they seek to excuse Dewey from any responsibility for what eventually happened to the movement because subsequent reformers allegedly betrayed Dewey’s original vision. The myth of the Dewey School as triumph suggests that the experiment was a complete success, but its lessons have been forgotten and/or unlearned. Studying the school helps to remind educators about the specificity of what Dewey had accomplished and enables them to learn from the empirical lessons he had painstakingly worked out. As demonstrated above, each of these myths can be misleading, but they may speak more to the state of progressive educational ideas at any given time than to the lived experience at the famous school.



1. Our study represents the first comprehensive review of the literature on the Dewey School. The study is also the first to include a chronological account of all known published testimonies of the school and how they relate to later interpretations.

2. In Anti-intellectualism in American Life, Hofstadter (1963) attacked the general philosophy and pedagogy of Dewey, but had very little to say about the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago.

3. The laudatory firsthand accounts of the Dewey School by Foster (1900), Runyon (1900), and Moncreiff (1900) were all written by people who had personal relationships with Dewey; Knoll (2014a) even suggested that these accounts may have been inauthentic and published specifically to increase enrollment at the school.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 2, 2017, p. 1-32
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21671, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 7:46:55 PM

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About the Author
  • Thomas Fallace
    William Paterson University
    E-mail Author
    THOMAS FALLACE is Associate Professor of Education at William Paterson University of New Jersey. He researches social studies education, curriculum history, and the history of ideas. He is author of Race and the Origins of Progressive Education, 1880–1929 (Teachers College Press, 2015) and, with Victoria Fantozzi, “Was There Really a Social Efficiency Doctrine? The Uses and Abuses of an Idea in Educational History” in Educational Researcher (2013).
  • Victoria Fantozzi
    Manhattanville College
    E-mail Author
    VICTORIA FANTOZZI is Assistant Professor of Education and Chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Manhattanville College. She researches early childhood education, teacher education, and curriculum history. She is author of “Making Meaning in Student Teaching” in Action in Teacher Education (2012) and, with Thomas Fallace, “A Century of John and Evelyn Dewey’s Schools of To-morrow: Rousseau, Recorded Knowledge, and Race in the Philosopher’s Most Problematic Text” in Educational Studies (2015).
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