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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

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.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 2, 2017, p. 1-32 ID Number: 21671, Date Accessed: 11/22/2018 6:00:36 AM

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