13 Chapter 13: The Progressive Era

This chapter introduces students to the Progressive Era and the ways in which progressivism was perceived by different people and groups. Following what historians have referred to as the Gilded Age, where extreme inequality developed beginning in the late nineteenth century as corporations gained extensive access to and favors from government institutions, as well as the resulting Great Depression, progressives viewed changes of further democratizing society with little hope without intervention. In other words, in the face of increased government corruption, economic devastation, all on the heels of WWI, progressives proposed a number of reforms. For instance, political progressives attempted to remedy the prevalent corruption in urban areas related to political machines. They introduced the civil service to combat political patronage. They introduced the referendum in hopes of making certain policy decisions more democratic, and they introduced voter registration in order to diminish voter fraud. In the area of education, progressives consisted of two main groups, which will be discussed below.

Other changes in education began during this period including, but not limited to, the development of kindergarten, junior high school and high schools. With more children attending public school and for longer periods of time, schooling transforms in a number of ways through organization, curricula, administration, and teaching.


Learning Objectives

Upon completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Articulate the purposes and objectives of schooling during the Progressive Era.
  • Analyze the reasons for the development of social reconstructionism
  • Articulate parallels between the goals of administrative progressives during the early nineteenth century and educational goals today
  • Analyze the reforms advocated by scholars responsible for the area known as social foundations of education in teacher preparation institutes
  • Analyze the connection between “social intelligence” and schooling
  • Describe the development of and reasons for teacher unions
  • Explain the reasons for the development of an educational ladder
  • Analyze and compare the different education philosophies


Part 2, Chapter 13 Preface to Readings


Administrative and Curricular/Pedagogical Progressives

Initially progressivism had its biggest impact in urban areas where political machines flourished and teaching positions, not unlike government patronage, were often handed out to friends, relatives, and supporters of political machines. Cities also witnessed additional waves of immigrants. Finally, since more children were now going to school and attending for longer periods of time with the development of the junior and high schools, the use of schools as instruments of social control took on greater urgency.

Administrative progressives were primarily business reformers who decided to weaken political machines by centralizing neighborhood schools into larger urban systems. In addition, budget hawks argued that it was more efficient and cost effective to consolidate schools and house more children under one roof. All of the functions carried out in many decentralized schools could now be handled in fewer larger schools, relying on economies of scale. Furthermore, administrative reformers were effective in using a number of business models, most notably those created by Frederick Taylor (Taylorism) wherein the specialization and division of labor were adopted in school organization. Graded classes were being developed (often referred to by modern scholars as (egg-crate classrooms), specialized and differentiated subject areas, ringing bells, orderly daily itinerary, hierarchical management with men serving as schoolboard members, superintendents, and principals, and women at the bottom of the rung as teachers. Historians of education have long referred to this era of reform as a “cult of efficiency,” the best and most efficient way to house more and more students in public schools while providing basic education in literacy and skills. Courses, particularly in high schools, were increasingly introduced to fulfill the demands of the market and industrialization. A classical curriculum appeared less relevant when educational institutions were now needed to prepare good workers for a rapidly changing economy. So, while administrative progressives adopted factory models to remedy the disarray and corruption previously present, schools became better at processing and testing the masses. Social efficiency represented the new consolidated and hierarchically managed schools.

Curricular or pedagogical progressives were focused on changes in the curriculum generally and how and what students were learning specifically. Many of these progressives were seeking to utilize schooling, not as a means to assimilate children according to a top-down, uniform curriculum, but a curriculum focused on social justice. John Dewey, often referred to as America’s philosopher, focused most of his scholarly energies on the existential nature of learning and the ideal purposes that he believed should be gained from educative experiences. Dewey often refers to democracy and education as synonymous –that training is simply a process of one generation passing on its cultural heritage to the next generation. This is a necessarily conservative process since each of us is born into an already existing culture. In order to survive, infants and children cannot help but to be exposed to and learn from their cultural milieus. Democratic education, Dewey believed, must build on the existing culture or status quo and free students and adults alike toward conscious positive change based on newly discovered information, improvements in science, and democratic input from all members of the community, which added legitimacy to a society’s growth. This is very different from a top-down or hierarchical view, which was prevalent in the economy and government institutions. Democratic communication was also a key ingredient in Dewey’s philosophy. All individuals ought to realize and benefit from increased democratic deliberations about all matters affecting their lives. When this takes place, people actualize their potential and democratic decisions carry greater normative power. Hence, Dewey advocated for a more genuine form of democracy in society and in the schools in order to prepare children to cooperate with their fellow citizens once they graduated from school. Dewey and his like-minded progressives have often been referred to as social reconstructionists. Education, they believed, in order to live up to its true potential, must be utilized to improve society, not in a predetermined way, but to improve society continuously as human beings adjust to changes in their natural and social environments. Rather than educate to continue the status quo, education could be an unequivocally progressive endeavor, Dewey believed, which was a natural process in the human developmental process of becoming. Having information imposed, while necessary to a degree among infants and toddlers, simply results in a static society unable to benefit from progressive change. It is this group of progressives who supported democratic education for social justice that made up the field of the field of educational foundations in colleges of education.

The Social Reconstructionists

Referred to as “faculty radicals” or Teachers College radicals,” the Social Reconstructionists consisted of a group of social scientists or “politicized education professors,” as Urban and Wagoner assert, “who taught at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City” (2011, 302) during the 1920s and 1930s. According to Urban and Wagoner,

The faculty radicals included leaders from a variety of educational fields: Jesse Newlon in educational administration, William Heard Kilpatrick in philosophy of education, Harold Rugg in social studies education, and George Counts in educational sociology. A few of them had been associated with progressive education at Teachers College in the 1920s. In the 1930s they participated in a wide range of activities that included a discussion group, the sponsorship of a new journal [The Social Frontier], and the writing of books, pamphlets, and textbooks. All of these activities were devoted to altering teachers, administrators, and interested citizens to the new depression-era conditions and to the responses that the professors felt were appropriate to these conditions….The Teachers college radicals devoted themselves to serious social analysis. Their special interest centered around the relations between school and society (2011, 302).

The following additional history of the social reconstructionists is from Brian W. Dotts’s “Social Foundations in Exile: How Dare the School Build a New Social Order,” which was originally published in the Journal of Educational Foundations in 2015:

In the first paragraphs of Democracy and Education, John Dewey differentiates “between living and inanimate things.” The latter, such as a stone, he argues, may be acted upon in such a way as to fragment its shape from without or, if the stone’s “resistance is greater than the force” exerted upon it, the stone “remains outwardly unchanged.” On the other hand, “while living things may easily be crushed by superior force, it none the less tries to turn the energies which act upon it into means of its own further existence.” Dewey utilized this metaphor to distinguish between two types of learning: “conservative,” that which reproduces the status quo through cultural transmission and socialization (the stone that is acted upon), and “progressive,” wherein living things grow out of the conditions that gave them life by consciously directing “the energies which act upon [them] into means of [their] own existence,” for the purposes of experiencing “growth” and broadening “potentialities” (1944, 1, 41). These two purposes of education, often perceived as dichotomous have existed since the Sophists’ appeared in ancient Greece. At bottom, they represent two diametrically opposed purposes of education: to control or to liberate.

Dewey recognized this primordial schism during his own time. In 1934, he quoted Roger Baldwin, a founder and executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, who pointed out that teachers and students were being manipulated and objectified by external forces in order to maintain categorical support for existing social arrangements: “The public schools have been handed over to” reactionary groups, according to Baldwin, that were “militant defenders of the status quo,” including the “the Daughters of the American Revolution, the American Legion, the Fundamentalists, the Ku Klux Klan, and the War Department” (Dewey 2011, 27). Dewey also criticized the implementation of “compulsory patriotic rites,” required Bible reading in schools, and teaching a doctrinaire knowledge of the Constitution. “Three [American] states” he disparaged, made it “a crime” to teach “evolution,” and several more required “loyalty oaths” among “students as a condition of graduation.” He was appalled by the fact that teachers unions and tenure were under attack, all of which represented an atmosphere that he described as “militant” and formulaic. Unlike the inanimate rock that is objectified and acted upon in Dewey’s Democracy and Education, teachers and students he believed must act within their given milieu to “translate the desired ideal over into the conduct [and] detail of the school in administration…and subject matter,” so that schools could “consciously” reconstruct “society” (Dewey 2011, 27, 29). Dewey and other social reconstructionists were attempting to penetrate America’s long cultural resistance to intellectualism. They were defending and trying to validate what they believed was the essence of authentic education, inquiry stripped from, but not aloof to, its cultural, social, political, and economic veneers. Their attempts to critique existing institutions were characteristically met with contempt because critique threatened to fracture the existing socio-political system and rupture a deeply woven social fabric fashioned by and deeply laced with a conservative exceptionalism. Intellectuals were and often continue to be depicted as gadflies, troublemakers or agitators in order to discredit their work. In the words of Harold Rosenberg, “the intellectual is one who turns answers into questions,” often shifting the steady ground that we stand upon (Hofstadter, 1970, 30). Those who derive financial benefits or power from existing institutional arrangements or those whose cultural identity is deeply interlaced in and mutually reinforced by a nation’s dominant culture, tend to be threatened by change and transformation. During social, economic, religious, scientific, or political crises, competing conceptions of the good life emerge, and these ideas are perceived as threats to the existing social order or as an opportunity for progress by others. Due to its potential power in defining a nation’s moral compass, the purposes of formal education and schooling become significant among a number of competing groups that struggle to define and thereby institutionalize their insular worldviews. In a word, public schooling is necessarily politicized. While natural science is often politicized, most of us expect physicists, biologists, geneticists, chemists, and astronomers to critique physical phenomena and to investigate paradigmatic anomalies, there is no reason to expect anything less from social scientists, and this is what social foundations scholars do, broadly speaking.

Writing in the midst of social and economic crisis, Harold Rugg made the following observation in 1941: “The current attack on modern education is not the first of its kind. It is true that this present one is nation-wide, more virulent, and promises to last longer and to set back the work of the schools more than any previous one…These [attacks]…coincide fairly closely with the ups and downs of the curves of social hysteria and conflict.” A social progressive and professor at Columbia’s Teachers College, Rugg outlined a number of recurring attacks on public education by conservative groups during the early twentieth century including the Red Scare of 1919-1921, followed by the attack on “New Historians,” progressive influences in government, and “liberal- and red-baiting” organized by “Hearst newspapers in 1934-1935.” These attacks, according to Rugg, were reactionary onslaughts initiated by “publicity men and patrioteers,” who perceived progressive change –the development of unions and workers’ rights, the production of critical histories in higher education, and freethinking social reforms that advocated a “New Statecraft in government” and with it broad educational reforms –as threatening the status quo (Rugg, 2011, 251-257). The notion that schooling should be apolitical or neutral in the midst of such politicization is a perplexing dichotomy, indeed. The common school movement was rooted in and has consistently been shaped by politics. Yet, when politics or ideology noticeably sneaks into the curriculum, controversy often erupts. Piety is exposed to examination, and dare we question the answers that provide us with “stability”? As Immanuel, Kant declared in 1794 regarding his understanding of the Enlightenment, “Sapere aude!” or “Dare to know!” (Kant, 1963, 3).

Social Foundations: America’s School of Critical Theory and the Development of Social Intelligence

Germany witnessed the establishment of The Frankfurt Institute of Social Research in 1923 whose broad purpose included the development of a critical theory dedicated to moving academia beyond so-called objective methodologies that merely described and explained social, historical, economic, and cultural phenomena. Critical theorists viewed the traditional academic approach, according to David Ingram, as a means “to control or influence the behavior of others” (Ingram 1990, xix). Subjecting human beings to positivist or behaviorist research methods, critical theorists believed, not only impeded a holistic understanding of human nature, it also disregarded or diminished opportunities to improve human existence. Mired in and constricted by insularly research methods, the academician adjudicates his social phenomena with observational acuteness, but he restricts from his scientific conclusions any normative considerations because he has been taught to believe that such judgments are either too ideological or irrational. What is really meant by this accusation is that normative judgments are often messy and controversial, and they often lead to developing questions of widely accepted answers. Knowledge so narrowly defined in academia became a form of methodism that revealed a nearly impenetrable evangelical quality, a self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing ideology that became reified in virtually all levels of educational inquiry in academia. (Dotts, 2013). Many twentieth-century social scientists generally, and behaviorists specifically, bled from their methodologies and research conclusions any discussion of or engagement with normative critique in order to maintain so-called objectivity and neutrality. Put differently, by attempting to maintain detachment, academia avoids, in fact, shuns, engaging in normative deliberations about the unequal distribution of political and economic power, inequitable social arrangements, institutional forms of discrimination, social and political conflict, the ideological and political nature of schooling, essentially preserving the status quo by treating these phenomena as anomalies of accepted systems rather than as symptomatic of deeper structural problems rooted historically in our cacophonous social fabric. “Education…conceived solely as method,” according to Counts, “points nowhere and can arrive nowhere. It is a disembodied spirit” and “it is not education” (Counts, 1934, 534).

Franz L. Neumann, a member of the Frankfurt School, began a discussion of the role of the social scientist or intellectual as “the critical conscience of society,” and because “conscience is…inconvenient, particularly in politics…he is always ostracized” (Neumann, 1953, 4). A critical theorist, whether of the Frankfurt School or of the Social Reconstructionist type, on the other hand, repeatedly challenged the notion that method was ideologically neutral. “Growth must have direction,” Counts asserted in his 1934 publication of The Social Foundations of Education, but its corollary must not be perfunctorily determined. “Education,” in the broadest sense of the term, “is by no means an exclusively intellectual matter,” he added (1934, 536). Counts and others viewed education, if used in its fullest and most natural sense, as an infinite process of acclimatization realized through conscious social reconstruction.

According to Deborah Britzman, quoted by Jerilyn Kelle, “the context of teaching is political, it is an ideological context that privileges the interests, values, and practices necessary to maintain the status quo.” Teaching is by no means “innocent of ideology,” she declares. Rather, the context of education tends to preserve “the institutional values of compliance to authority, social conformity, efficiency, standardization, competition, and the objectification of knowledge.” (Kelle, 1996, 66-67). This objectification of students, according to Paulo Freire, is achieved in part by an “education…suffering from narration sickness,” a “sonority of words” that have lost “their transform[ative] power” by making the student a “spectator” and “not [a] re-creator” (Freire, 2000, 71, 75). Objectifying students determines their futures or at least confines their opportunities. Critical theorists and social reconstructionists, on the other hand, who have long conceded the ideological nature of teaching, believe that “humanity consists of potentials that ought to be realized,” and that this commitment depends “on human agency,” according to Ingram (Ingram, 1990, xx). With roots in German Idealism, critical theorists seek to interpret and transform society by fracturing the assumption that social, economic, and political institutions developed naturally and objectively. In addition, critical theorists rejected the epistemological assumptions made by others; namely, that absolute truths existed or that they could be discovered. The original Frankfurt School theorists included Max Horkheimer, Friedrich Pollock, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Georg Lukács, and Leo Lowenthal, among others, who were dedicated to ideology critique and the long-term goal of reconstructing society in order to “ensure a true, free, and just life” emancipated from “authoritarian and bureaucratic politics” (Held, 1980, 15). Clearly a normative (and ideological) enterprise, critical theorists utilized their interdisciplinary expertise in history, philosophy, political science, sociology, economics, psychoanalysis, and literary criticism “to lay the foundation for an exploration…of questions concerning the conditions which make possible the reproduction and transformation of society, the meaning of culture, and the relation between the individual, society and nature” (Held, 16). Critical theorists largely devoted their energies to interpreting political, social, and economic institutions, and it was not until the like-minded social reconstructionists emerged in the United States that schooling and education, also important key and relatively new social institutions responsible for educating the masses, would be analyzed similarly.

A decade after the inception of critical theory in Germany and amidst the Great Depression, America witnessed the emergence of its own Frankfurt School, identified as a social reconstructionist movement that found a home in social foundations programs in various academic institutions including its first department in Columbia University’s Teachers College. While a formal collaboration between the Institute in Germany and America’s social reconstructionists does not appear to have existed, membership overlapped both organizations including prominent American faculty, such as Charles Beard, Margaret Mead, Robert M. Hutchins, and W. F. Ogburn (Wheatland, 2009, 44, 66, 222; Jay, 1996, 114). Furthermore, in 1933, the University in Exile was established at the New School for Social Research in New York City providing a safe haven for Germany’s Frankfurt School scholars fleeing Nazi Germany. In fact, it was during the 1930s that social reconstructionists and members of the Frankfurt School found a comfortable home at Columbia University, as well as the latter also taking up residency in the New School, both “in the center of the capitalist world” (Jay, 1996, 39). Not unlike their brethren across the Atlantic, America’s social reconstructionists developed what the Frankfurt School identified as ideology critique, which is peppered throughout their journals, The Social Frontier (1934-1939) and Frontiers of Democracy (1939-1943).

Conceptualizing the past and the future from the precipice of the Great Depression, “political reaction and cultural regimentation,” and the reality of rapid social changes taking place, George Counts concluded that Americans “must choose among the diverse roads now opening before them…whether the great tradition of democracy is to pass away with the individualistic economy to which it has been linked historically or…to undergo the transformation necessary for survival in an age of close economic interdependence” (Counts, 2011, 20). Cautioning against “evasion” or indifference to the changes taking place, Counts outlined the social reconstructionists’ broader agenda in the group’s 1934 inaugural publication of The Social Frontier. Declaring “absolute objectivity and detachment” as impracticable in human affairs, educators were “a positive creative force in American society” that could serve as “a mighty instrument of…collective action.” First and foremost, according to Counts, educators serve a unique capacity to critique the status quo with the aim of improving “human existence” and “the democratic ideal” (Counts 2011, 21). Critique, reflection, and action, often referred to as praxis, are intrinsically educational, going far beyond the mere transmission of a culture, which is why its virtuosity in the eyes of its practitioners is often viewed as threatening to established authority. But because it is inherently educational, Counts, Dewey, Kilpatrick, and others justifiably situated this academic discipline in teacher preparation institutions and specifically in social foundations programs where they believed the field could be supported, cultivated, and germinate in succeeding generations of teachers an appreciation of and commitment to praxis. Second, Counts framed this pursuit as an attempt to affirm and actualize for everyone the moral claims put forth in the Declaration of Independence; namely, “that ‘all men are created equal’ and are entitled to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’” Critiques have often illustrated the hypocrisy between the ideals expressed in Founding documents and American practices, and their fuller realization has rarely taken place without disturbing the status quo. Populist movements, emancipation of slaves, women’s rights, workers’ rights, the Civil Rights Movement, among others, have all served as important educative, and often extra-constitutional, moments that illustrate this hypocrisy. Third, social reconstructionists were devoted to ideology critique. “Every important educational event, institution, theory, and program” will be subject to “critical review,” according to Counts, in order to fulfill the final goal of social reconstructionists: identifying and positively remedying the root causes of social injustice. For Counts and other social reconstructionists, education (as opposed to training) should not be static; that it is a fundamental and existential aspect of a broader culture’s “process of evolution,” and what is unique about education is its ability to rise above, beyond, or perhaps, to broaden the horizons of what otherwise appear to be an objective reality operating behind the backs of its inhabitants. Social reconstruction, as the name suggests, had “no desire to promote a restricted and technical professionalism,” according to Counts. To rely merely on the administration of existing institutions, like their Frankfurt School brethren cautioned, would simply and gratuitously perpetuate the status quo. Rather, social reconstructionists adopted a sociopolitical “role” for “education in advancing the welfare and interests of the great masses of the people who do the work of society –those who labor on farms and ships and in the mines, shops, and factories of the world” (Counts, 2011, 21-21). Humanity was not expected to serve the interests of capitalism or of politics; rather, social reconstructionists sought to invert this relationship to ensure that institutions would serve the interests of all. Unlike their Frankfurt School brethren, America’s social reconstructionists were determined to look beyond higher education’s role in preparing philosophers, political theorists, psychologists, historians, and sociologists by attempting to cultivate a specialized field that drew from all these disciplines in order to edify professional teachers’ social intelligence with regard to how institutionalized schooling, captured by certain interest groups, tended to reinforce, evangelize, or perpetuate a given social order. While the social reconstructionists were often painted by their critics as “High Marxists,” radicals, revolutionaries or communists, they repudiated a predetermined “blue print” for training teachers. They did not support training teachers to be revolutionaries, but they did reject “the notion that educators, like factory hands, merely…follow blue prints made by outside “pressure groups,” according to George A. Coe (1935, 26). Likewise, Counts objected to the “entrenchment” of a privileged “minority” supported by “law and custom, holding title to the social means of production” (Counts, 1934, 512). The Social Frontier’s editors criticized the fact, for example, that “the typical board of education,” was unrepresentative and undemocratic, disproportionately made up of “merchants” and “lawyers,” as well as “physicians” and “bankers…manufacturers” and “business executives,” making it “practically impossible for the school to serve as an agency for the transformation of society.” Likewise, the editors concluded, “the very existence of progressive education depends on the radical democratization of the board of education” (Editors, 1935, 4).

John Dewey claimed that the single most important and unifying theme framing education should be democracy. Dewey and his colleagues attempted to rectify the individualistic, competitive, and self-interested ethos penetrating the public sphere by emphasizing the multiple benefits of collectivism and cooperation, which required acknowledging our interdependence for democracy to be meaningful. Public life (including public schools) was being eclipsed by an instrumental mentality that once was limited to the market and market relationships. “The line between economy and government,” Counts concluded, “is becoming increasingly difficult to discern” (Counts, 1934, 421). Nowhere was this more noticeable to Counts and others than in the nation’s public schools. Acknowledging its underdevelopment, Dewey asserted, “the democratic ideal…is not filled in, either in society at large or in its significance for education,” (Dewey, 2011, 221) but that the purposes of schooling should unite in this single and essential commitment. Indeed, Dewey realized the hypocrisy of developing a fixed definition of democracy, particularly since he understood democracy as a social practice, a means of becoming, rather than a predefined ideal to be irrevocably reached. He viewed education and schooling as the ideal setting for democracy’s gestation. “The school,” Dewey asserted, “must have some social orientation” and “the place of intelligence looms as the central issue” (1935, 9). In other words, intellect required developing a social intelligence, a mental agility able to critique society’s problems. Schools should provide spaces for critique of society, not with the intention of being subversive or revolutionary, but to draw out from each child his or her ability to transcend the ideological veneers –those preconceived ideas, beliefs, and customs that they absorb outside the school. Each classroom should facilitate the possibilities for what psychologists refer to as gestalt effects. Scientific revolutions may be the result of such an effect in the natural sciences, and if one has faith in education and knowledge, there is no practical reason to reject their value in any field. But in order to realize the benefits of a gestalt switch, one must make the leap of faith to look at the world differently, to understand new perspectives, and to consider alternatives. “An education that does not strive to promote the fullest and most thorough understanding of society and social institutions,” according to Counts, “is not worthy of the name” (Counts, 1934, 537). We are selling ourselves short, if we utilize schools as merely dispensers of select information. If we expect genuine education to occur teachers could not be “neutral” and “aloof” on the one hand, nor could they be “‘purely intellectual,’” on the other hand, Dewey protested. Teachers should not exhibit a “mechanical…attitude toward social conflict” (Dewey, 1935, 9). To do so, would be to deny the vivacity of education’s possibilities. According to Hofstadter, “If a democratic society is truly to serve all its members, it must devise schools in which, at the germinal point in childhood, these members will be able to cultivate their capacities and, instead of simply reproducing the qualities of the larger society, will learn how to improve them” (Hofstadter, 1970, 362-363). A democratic way of life could best be achieved by rooting democratic practices in the social character of schools, to envelope the multiple perspectives democracy permits, and this fact required teachers to become familiar with the social foundations of their field, to develop in them what the social reconstructionists repeatedly refer to as “social intelligence.” Indeed, the expectation that public “schools should consciously be partners in the construction of a changed society,” as John Dewey asserted in 1934, illustrated a radical idea and perhaps an unrealizable expectation given the fact that government schools served conservative purposes (Dewey, 2011, 29, 221-222). On the other hand, Kliebard argues that Dewey’s agenda, often perceived more radically than intended, “was much more closely tied to the ability of the schools to teach independent thinking and to the ability of students to analyze social problems than it was to an organized effort designed to redress specific social evils” (Kliebard, 1995, 170). Dewey did not expect the school to upend society; rather, as institutions that touched virtually all youth, he saw schooling as the most effective means of propagating the habits of critical thinking, cooperative learning, and ascertaining how to solve problems so that students could, once they became adults, carry on this same activity democratically in their attempts to improve society. Dewey viewed change as an inevitable consequence of a developing complex society, but he expected change to occur through slow accretion rather than through radical revolution. Similarly, Jesse Newlon, Director of the Division of Foundations of Education at Teachers College, asserted in 1940 that the department’s goals did not include stirring up revolution. Rather, he believed that “teachers should denounce…methods and…doctrines that point in the direction of dictatorship –whether the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ or the dictatorship of the ‘élite,’” as all “these doctrines are poison to our way of life.” What Newlon did expect, however, was to purge from teacher education the commonly accepted “myth of neutrality.” This is a rational conclusion to make if one’s goal is committed to realizing democratic practices and progressive change. If America considered itself a “democracy” above all else, then why should the economy, a mere instrument of private production and exchange, dictate democracy’s boundaries? Viewing democracy as the archetype and capitalism obsequiously as an ancillary subsystem, Newlon advocated the “pragmatic” and democratic approach in teacher education. “The political education of all members of the profession is,” he declared, “a first essential” (Newlon, 1940, 23-24). Elsewhere, Newlon asserted that democratic education requires that we “neither accept the free enterprise system uncritically nor entirely condemn it on preconceived or doctrinaire grounds.” Rather, we should inquire, “‘How does this system work today?’ Does it minister adequately to the actual needs of the American people?” In all likelihood, according to Newlon, the answers to these questions “will be neither the total acceptance nor the total rejection of the ‘private enterprise’ system,” and that improvements could always be made upon sincere reflection and analysis. (Newlon, 1941, 210). This expectation was generally accepted in the natural sciences, and social reconstructionists held similar expectations for teacher education.

The idea of generational sovereignty and breaking free from outdated ideas and practices was nothing new. It was an idea advocated by individuals like Aristotle, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and even the more conservative Edmund Burke, but when Dewey made his educational philosophy known, it had the potential of filtering down into classrooms. The whole history of education illustrates the threatening nature of knowledge when its purposes reach beyond reproduction of the status quo. The attack on social reconstructionism during the first half of the twentieth century illustrated the typical reactionary response to this educational challenge. Responding to what was perceived by critics as “treason,” the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Legion developed a full counter attack against the social reconstructionists’ pursuit of inquiry (Kliebard, 1995, 177; Spring, 2008, 299).

The Editors of The Social Frontier in 1935 condemned the overwhelming corporate influence in the schools: “Business men and financiers…have begun to consider the function of the school” to inculcate “blatant patriotism, blind loyalty, optimistic crowing about the ‘bright’ side of things,” and “practicality.” The editors objected to the present state of education, and they responded by asking, “What shall the elementary school, high school, and college say about all this? Shall they deny it and futilely seek to nurture youth on cold facts and empty ideals?” The editors called on teachers to “sow the seeds” of social change and not to agonize over the potential “whirlwind” caused by their actions (Editors, 2011, 99-100). Witnessing the capture of public education by interest groups and corporate America, the Social Reconstructionists sought to highlight the fact that schooling, like other public and political institutions, was being infiltrated by special interests intent on utilizing this social institution as a venue to indoctrinate masses of children. Not unlike contemporary attempts to privatize public schools, Social Reconstructionists witnessed the growing business influence in schools, introducing the notion that “capital” was beginning to “command goods well beyond the market,” as Lewis Hyde astutely noticed more recently (Hyde, 2010, 222). In their final issue of Frontiers of Democracy the Editors quoted William Kirkpatrick who asserted that, “a medium” was necessary “for the development of a constructive social consciousness among educational workers.” Moreover, in light of their decades-long mission, they quoted Sidney Hook, who demurred, “Among the most poignant tragedies of history are those in which men cried ‘impossible’ too soon” (Editors, 1943, 100).

Not only did George Counts, Harold Rugg, and John Dewey, among others, endorse a comprehensive and controversial political agenda for social foundations within their social reconstructionist vision, debates also focused on the objectives for including social foundations courses in teacher preparation institutes. Should curricula be exclusively devoted to professional education, liberal education, scientific research or a combination of all three, for example? (Cohen, 1999, 11). Historically, social foundations programs and faculty have weathered a relentless ebb and flow of debates that endure today. Social foundations and social foundations faculty face surmountable challenges in not only justifying their liberal arts and humanities content, but also in rationalizing their value in teacher preparation institutions that are increasingly being transformed to meet the neoliberal agenda. This agenda is hostile to the liberal arts and humanities and therefore to social foundations programs that link these academic disciplines to teacher preparation programs.

Dan Butin recognized “the near total ascendancy of an instrumentalist conceptualization of teaching and learning in educational policymaking” Social foundations of education, he concluded, “no longer has relevance either because it is no longer needed to prepare highly qualified teachers or (perhaps even worse) because it can supposedly be done more efficiently and effectively in other ways.” Excluding a discussion of educational foundations in all but one of several policy documents he reviewed, the impression is that social foundations coursework “provides no quantifiable value-added to teacher preparation (which in turn seems to provide very little value-added to student learning),” making social foundations of education appear “irrelevant.” Moreover, Butin concluded, it appears that the authors of the policy documents he reviewed have obliquely resolved that “social foundations of education material can be more efficiently covered in other educational coursework through more direct instruction. In either case, social foundations scholars and the social foundations field [have] become inconsequential” (Butin, 2005b, 293-294). The key descriptor in Butin’s analysis is “instrumental,” which elucidates the contemporary positioning of public education within a utilitarian, efficiency-situated, goal-oriented, and outcome- (output) based neoliberal ethos. By reframing our debates about public education and the purposes of schooling, at whatever level, within a free-market ideological discourse, we delegitimize academic disciplines that are not perceived as having tangible and direct impacts on students’ standardized assessments on the one hand, and we privilege curricula that is otherwise perceived as having more immediate and functional relevance in meeting neoliberal expectations. In 2008, Pope and Stemhagen declared similarly that, “those who wish to standardize not only educational outcomes but seemingly all aspects of education, including the skills and selves of those who teach, tend not to see the worth of reflective or broad-based foundational thinking in teacher preparation programs and schools of education in general” (2008, 248).

According to Kerr and Mandzuk, the problems experienced by social foundations of education programs and faculty are not unique to the United States. Focusing primarily on Canada, they concluded in a recent study that “faculties of education across North America are increasingly characterized by unquestioned ideologies, often leaving prospective teachers with the erroneous impression that there is one ‘right way’ to teach” (Kerr and Mandzuk, 2011, 120). Similarly, and perhaps of greater concern is the fact that the “criterion of efficiency necessarily leads to a violation of equity,” according to Braverman 1982, 398-399). In other words, an emphasis on efficiency in education appears to be an odd goal for an institution (or a relationship) devoted to learning, creativity, and imagination. In the name of efficiency, schooling has been standardized, routinized, and assimilatory. Part of this resulted from the commitment to providing schooling for a mass population, but Americanization previously and No Child Left Behind today, make educational experiences merely a form of indoctrination, rote memorization, and systematization. Students who do not or cannot adapt to this process of information production (a cookie-cutter system) will often experience greater incongruities, more hurdles to academic achievement, and fewer opportunities. As Charles Beard demurred, “ideology…surrounds political institutions” and “runs against the notion that social inventiveness is an essential quality of the good citizen.” Rather, “it sanctions the transmission of achievements already accomplished and attempts to stamp them as stereotypes good for all time (Beard, 1932, 112).

“Democracy,” Dewey wrote, “is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience” that integrates citizens regardless of their “class, race, and national territory which [otherwise] kept men from perceiving the full import of their activity.” By enlarging the variety of perspectives each of us can envisage, Dewey’s conception of democracy as educative reveals the existential meaning that he gave to both and why he believed that democracy, more than economics, religious beliefs, and social customs, but serve as the archetype of public life. That is, by enlarging the variety of perspectives that we publicly take into account and deliberate upon, we set in motion a greater potential for “fully and adequately” realizing what each of us “is capable of becoming…in all the offices of life” (Dewey, 1944, 87, 358). According to Sheldon Wolin, Dewey was critical of many of the Enlightenment philosophers, including John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill, whose economic theories undermined their simultaneous support for the liberalization of politics. In other words, their support for a free market cultivated “a business culture that thwarted the democratic potential of” republican institutions. They fused the act of seeking self-interests in the economic realm with political and civic virtue in the public realm. This “reduction of politics to interest,” according to Wolin, “has cast a powerful shadow on modern politics.” (Wolin, 2004, 251, 512-513) In 1971, John Rawls similarly reflected upon the rationalities that distinguished a liberal market with liberal democracy by asserting, “The theory of competitive markets [is] not moved by the desire to act justly,” and to realize “just…arrangements.” Rather, these “normally require…the use of sanctions” in order to “stabilize” conflict resulting from “persons who oppose one another as indifferent if not hostile powers.” The atomistic and self-interested nature of “private society,” including the competitive market that is intended to channel and give life to these principles, reminds us that “private society is not held together by a public conviction that its basic arrangements are just and good in themselves, but by the calculations of everyone…pursu[ing] their personal ends.” (Rawls, 1971, 521-522) However, unlike Dewey, who viewed democracy as an existential activity, Rawls’s liberalism prioritizes “the role of administration,” according to Wolin, over participatory democracy. Conceptualizing the state as an arbiter of competing interests not only results in the encapsulation of politics within market ideology, it reduces the citizen and civic virtue to market man. Wolin concludes, for example, that “The demos has been hammered into resignation, into fearful acceptance of the economy as the basic reality of its existence, so huge, so sensitive, so ramifying in its consequences that no group, party, or political actors dare alter its fundamental structure.” (Wolin, 2004, 578) The permeation of the market’s influence in areas that were once considered to be public responsibilities, including schooling, has been so extensive as to relegate civil society to a pliable condition that can be molded to serve the former’s demands and interests. Contributing to the eclipse of the public and civic realm is the fact that the language of economics, which has been so prevalent in our contemporary national discourse, appears neutral in the same way that positivism has positioned the social sciences. In other words, the laws of supply and demand, inflation and interest rates, changes in employment and unemployment are given as natural developments (i.e., laws) and therefore, void of ideology. Indeed, this is inaccurate, but contemporary ideologies of neo-liberalism and libertarianism often portray market processes and outcomes as the natural outgrowth of an “invisible hand” produced by the uninhibited interest-seeking individuals who compose society. These ideologies are therefore presented as innocuous and free from racist, classist, and sexist ideologies because their outcomes are depicted as the natural, which represents nothing more than the sum of society’s organic parts enjoying their liberty and pursuing their own self-interest.

Richard Hofstadter asserted more recently about America’s anti-intellectualism and the “Great Inquisition of the 1950s,” it is true “that the [Reactionary] needs his Communists badly, and is pathetically reluctant to give them up.” Why does the Reactionary need his “Communists”? According to Hofstadter, attacking intellectuals is a way “to discharge resentments and frustrations, to punish, to satisfy enmities whose roots lay elsewhere.” The underlying cause of this attack on intellectuals had more to do with “a long-standing revolt against modernity,” and change, Hofstadter asserted (Hofstadter, 1970, 41-42). The “irony,” he went on to claim, “is that Americans now suffer as much from the victory as from the defeat of their aspirations,” which he explains below:

What is it that has taken root in the world, if it is not the spirit of American activism, the belief that life can be made better, that colonial peoples can free themselves as the Americans did, that poverty and oppression do not have to be endured, that backward countries can become industrialized and enjoy a high standard of living, that the pursuit of happiness is everybody’s business? The very colonial countries that belligerently reject our leadership try to follow our example…But this emulation has become tinted with ideologies we do not recognize and has brought consequences we never anticipated. The American example of activism has been imitated; what we call the American way of life has not” (Hofstadter, 1970, 44).

When education stops reproducing the status quo, when the above ironies are brought to life, examined, and critiqued, when we self-reflect and become self-critical, when we attempt to produce change and social improvement, when the work of powerful and vested interests is challenged by new knowledge, this is when intellectuals and education become threatening. “Reformers of science like Galileo, Descartes, and their successors, Dewey reminded his readers, “carried analogous methods into ascertaining the facts about nature.” Their “interest in discovery took the place of an interest in systematizing and ‘proving’ received beliefs” (Dewey 1944, 294-295).

If Dewey or Rugg were alive today, they could add countless other attacks on education in the United States that parallel many of those he witnessed prior to World War II. Reactionaries have criticized the emergence of multiculturalism and ethnic studies since the 1960s, the inclusion of critical histories, such as those engendered by Howard Zinn, James Loewen, and other scholars, they have criticized a humanistic emphasis in public school curricula, the teaching of evolution in science classes, and today, our commitment to public education is undergoing a widespread political attack as neoliberals and neoconservatives continue their work to privatize public schools at all levels. Like Rugg’s description above, reactionary and cyclical assaults on higher education generally and social foundations programs specifically have become predictable occurrences in the United States and now throughout North America (Kerr and Mandzuk, 2011). Especially since the Progressive Era, the intellectual has often been painted by the Right as an “ideologist,” according to Hofstadter, as if giving the appearance of objectivity was non-ideological, and perhaps this phenomenon was inevitable with the rise of ideology critique, which was increasingly “identified with the idea of political and moral protest” (Hofstadter, 1970, 38). Indeed, it was near the turn of the twentieth century when we witnessed a dramatic shift occurring in higher education, specifically related to disciplines that were engaged in critical theory –when educational institutions moved beyond explanatory research methods and included normative critiques of social, political, and economic institutions. The aim for critical theorists and social reconstructionists alike includes the altering of educational (and other) institutions in ways that those institutions themselves normally prohibit because they have been captured by powerful groups that have a vested interest in utilizing the school as a mechanism to maintain the status quo. George Counts demurred in 1934 that, “In both the cities and the universities…authority” had “passed into the hands of business men,” likewise resulting in “education” reflecting “a business enterprise.” Like other social, political, and economic institutions in society, Counts concluded that public school curricula would reflect the demands of a “sect…party…class [or] special interest…in proportion to its [political] strength,” as each of these forces “strive…to incorporate its viewpoint into the curriculum” (Counts, 1934, 256, 270, 272). What developed, and what continues to be a center of conflict today over the issue of education, is a struggle over these two polarizing purposes of formal schooling. The first purpose is generally described as the transmission and indoctrination of the values, customs, ideologies, beliefs, and rituals, circumscribed by the current generation’s most powerful interest groups who have succeeded in extracting from consideration the principles and cultural ideals of less powerful groups. The second purpose of education, often perceived as too radical or dangerous, is the view that education should serve as a means of critique and social reconstruction in order to improve society. “Without action,” according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “thought can never ripen into truth,” was a quote used by Harold Rugg in his appeal to “thinking men” in 1935 (Rugg, 2011, 94). Following the Gilded Age and in the midst of the greatest economic catastrophe in U.S. history, the conditions were ripe for radical remedies. The cadre of social reconstructionists took learning and schooling to its decisive extreme –tools for structural and progressive change.

Extending Schooling Beyond the Primary Level

While high schools existed in New England towns since the establishment of the Boston Latin Grammar School in 1636, it was not until the early nineteenth century that high schools started appearing in urban areas. The high school as we know it today did not develop in greater numbers until the latter part of the nineteenth century, and these institutions were not commonly attended until the early twentieth century. According to Urban and Wagoner, “By the 1920s…a major portion of America’s public schools had a curriculum that had become quite diversified and largely uncommon for all students.” While the purposes of common elementary schooling included providing a common curriculum based primarily on the inculcation of a common morality, a differentiated curriculum in the early twentieth century high schools “reflected a new, largely economic, purpose for education” (2009, 234). As is nearly always the case, the high school curriculum became a focus of politicized debate between supporters of a classical curriculum and those who supported the inclusion of vocational training in order to meet the demands of working class students and the demands of a rapidly changing economy. Moreover, World War I affected the goals of education at all levels, resulting in a focus on patriotism and the abolishment of German language instruction in many schools. Behaviorist methods of research also impacted schools as intelligence tests were introduced that contributed to tracking students based on early-age IQ test scores. Not only were more children attending school at this time, they were attending for longer periods of time. This resulted in the high school becoming a major institutional mechanism in developing the future teenager. In the meantime, the modern high school was underway, and the purposes of high school reflected new conflicts during changing times.

The National Education Association developed a report in 1918 titled the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, which contributed to the development of “the comprehensive high school, which would accommodate multiple curricula (academic, commercial, and vocational) within the same school building,” according to Urban and Wagoner. “The principle objectives of a high school education, according to the Cardinal Principles, were health, command of fundamental processes, worthy home membership, vocation, citizenship, worthy use of leisure, and ethical character.” Moreover, “the philosophy that underlay the cardinal principles was what Edward Krug has called ‘social efficiency,’” or “preparing…students for their adult lives” by “fitting [them] into appropriate social and vocational roles.” (Urban and Wagoner, 2009, 271-272). The functionalistic nature of high school also resulted in the development of extracurricular programs including, but not limited to, “athletics,” school “newspapers, and school clubs of various kinds” in order to teach “students the importance of cooperation” and to “serve…the needs of industrial society.” It was also during this period that the educational ladder expanded to include not only a system of elementary and high schools, but also the institutionalization of kindergartens, which had served as separate private institutions since the mid-nineteenth century, junior high schools, and community colleges. (Urban and Wagoner, 2009, 272-276).

The Development of Teacher Unions

The feminization of teaching during the mid-nineteenth century contributed to its becoming a hierarchical system that paralleled much of America’s patriarchy. Teaching positions were overwhelmingly filled by females while governance of schools continued to be dominated by male administrators. While teaching offered new (and only) career opportunities for women at the time, their increasing presence in the profession was met with little pay and much exploitation. Female teachers were expected to teach more students, particularly in urban areas where immigration tended to ebb and flow. It was not unusual for teachers to forego their salaries during economic downturns, and they had little or no benefits or rights to due process. As Dana Goldstein elucidated in her The Teacher Wars, teaching was (and continues to be) viewed as missionary-like as teachers experienced exploitation by and complete dependence upon male administrators and policymakers. The latter typically justified their ill-treatment of teachers by treating them as martyrs for their communities (2014).

Decades of professional neglect and abuse resulted in the eventual organization of teachers into associations. The National Education Association was established in 1857, initially to address the interests of school administrators, but it eventually transformed its purposes after the election of its new leader, Ella Flagg, in 1910. Today, it serves as a major interest group for the teaching profession lobbying at all levels of government. The American Federation of Teachers, on the other hand, emerged in 1916 as an outgrowth of teacher associations in Chicago. This more radical group joined with organized labor unions, such as the AFL and CIO in order to increase its formative power. Both organizations continue to exist today with state and local chapters.

Educational Philosophies

Following the Progressive Era, four educational philosophies broadly represented the history and purposes of curricula in the United States. These include perennialism, essentialism, progressivism, and reconstructionism. They are summarized in the table below.

Curriculum Purposes
Perennialism Focus on the great ideas of Western
civilization, as these are viewed as enduring in their value; focus on
developing the intellect and cultural literacy; also referred to as a classical
Essentialism Heaven to find,Focus is on teaching a common core of objective,knowledge including the basics of literacy and teaching society’s basic,morality. Schools should not try to critique or change society.
Progressivism Focus on the whole child as the experimenter; active,experience leads to questioning and problem solving by the child who learns,to think independently; textbooks are tools rather than authoritarian in,nature.
Social Reconstructionism Focus is on developing important social questions by,critically examining one’s society; requires greater knowledge of social,,economic, and political systems, and how schools and teachers can help instill,in students orientations for collaborative change in order to develop a,better society and enhance social justice.

While the Gilded Age, the Great Depression, and the rapidly changing economy affected ideas about education and schooling, many of the reforms during the Progressive Era were driven by educational insiders: philosophers, educators, policymakers, and interest groups. During and after World War II, however, educational reform is largely driven by external forces (Urban and Wagoner, 2009, 318).

State v. John Scopes 1925 Teaching Evolution
Murray v. Maryland 1936 Segregation
–Segregation Segregation
West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette 1943 Pledge of Allegiance

Case information courtesy of Justia, LexisNexis Academia, Oyez.org, and the University of Missouri-Kansas City

Questions to Consider

  • Why was “progressive” about administrative and pedagogical reformers during the early twentieth century?
  • Why was social reconstructionism developed? For what purposes and for what goals? Why was it largely rejected as a curriculum?
  • What is the likelihood of institutionalized (public systems) schooling ever adopting a social reconstructionist curriculum?
  • What are your opinions of the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education?
  • What are your opinions toward teacher associations and teacher unions?
  • Should teachers be allowed to strike? Under what conditions, if any?
  • What are your views of the four education philosophies: perennialism, essentialism, progressivism, and social reconstructionism? Explain what you like or do not like in each philosophy.


Beard, Charles A. (1932). A charter for the social sciences in the schools. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Butin, Dan. W. (2005b). Is anyone listening? Educational policy perspectives on the social foundations of education. Educational Studies, 38(3), 286-297. doi: 10.1207/s15326993es3803_8

Coe, George A. (1935). “Blue prints” for teachers? The Social Frontier, 1(7), 26-27.

Cohen, Sol. (1999). Challenging orthodoxies: Toward a new cultural history of education. New York: Peter Lang.

Counts, George S. (2011). Orientation. In Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., (Ed.). The Social Frontier: A critical reader (pp. 19-25). New York: Peter Lang.

Counts, George S. (1934). The social foundations of education. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Dewey, John. (2011). Can education share in social reconstruction? In Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., (Ed.), The Social Frontier: A critical reader (pp. 26-30). New York: Peter Lang.

Dewey, John. (1944). Democracy and education. New York: The Free Press.

Dewey, John. (1935). The crucial role of intelligence. The Social Frontier, 1(5), 9-10.

Dotts, Brian W. (2015). Social Foundations in Exile: How Dare the School Build a New Social Order. Journal of Educational Foundations,

Dotts, Brian W. (2013). Schooling in the ‘Iron Cage’ and the crucial role of interpretive, normative, and critical perspectives in social foundations studies. Educational Studies, 49(2), 148-168. doi: 10.1080/00131946.2013.767257

Editors. (1935). National education policy. The Social Frontier, 1(6), 3-8.

Held, David. (1980). Introduction to critical theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hyde, Lewis. (2010). Common as air: Revolution, art, and ownership. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Hofstadter, Richard. (1970). Anti-intellectualism in American life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Ingram, David. (1990). Critical theory and philosophy. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.

Jay, Martin. (1996). The dialectical imagination: A story of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research 1923-1950. London: Heinemann.

Kant, Immanuel. (1963). On history. L. W. Beck (Ed.). New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Kelle, Jerilyn. F. (1996). To illuminate or indoctrinate: Education for participatory democracy. In Burstyn, Joan N. (Ed.), Educating Tomorrow’s Valuable Citizen. (59-76). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Kerr, D., Mandzuk, D., and Raptis, H. (2011). The role of the social foundations of education in programs of teacher preparation in Canada. Canadian Journal Of Education, 34(4), 118-134. Retrieved from http://proxy-remote.galib.uga.edu/login?url=https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy-remote.galib.uga.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=72015045&site=ehost-live

Kliebard, Herbert. M. (1995). The struggle for the American curriculum, 1893-1958. 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge.

Neumann, Franz. L. (1953). The social sciences. In Neumann, Franz. L., Peyre, Henri, Panofsky, Erwin, Kohler, Wolfgang, and Tillich, Paul. (Eds.), The cultural migration: The European scholar in America. (4-26). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Newlon, Jesse. H. (1941). Democracy or super-patriotism? Frontiers of Democracy, 7(61), 208-211.

Rawls, John. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rugg, Harold. (2011). This has happened before. In Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., (Ed.), The Social Frontier: A critical reader. (251-258). New York: Peter Lang.

Pope, Nakia S. and Stemhagen, Kurt. (2008). Social foundations educators of the world unite! An action plan for disciplinary advocacy. Educational Studies, 44(3), 247-255. doi: 10.1080/00131940802511518

Urban, Wayne J. and Wagoner, Jennings L., Jr. (2009). American Education: A History. (Fourth Edition). New York: Routledge.

Wheatland, Thomas. (2009). The Frankfurt School in exile. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Wolin, Sheldon. S. (2004). Politics and vision: Continuity and innovation in western political thought. (Expanded Edition). Princeton University Press.


Divide students up into three groups and assign each group a research activity focusing on one of these three broad progressive reforms: social, educational, and political. Have them report their results to the class. Open up class discussion related to how all three areas of reform were related.

Have groups of students research Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony including a focus on their relation to education, their similarities, and their differences.

Have groups of students read sections of Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars and have them follow up by finding state laws and/or local laws that exploited female teachers during the nineteenth century.

Have groups of students conduct research on the first normal schools founded in the United States and report and compare their findings.

If available, have individual students read brief articles from the Social Frontier and Frontiers of Democracy and identify how they align to a social reconstructionist philosophy.

Assign a teacher strike from the list below to groups of students. Have them research the strike and develop PowerPoints (or other forms of media) to present their findings related to these questions:

  1. What did teachers/union members define as their primary goals for the strike?
  2. How did strike opponents reject this argument?
  3. What did strike opponents identify as their primary fear about the strike?
  4. How did the teachers/unions reject this argument?

List of U.S. Teacher Strikes

  • 1946 Teachers Strike in St. Paul, Minnesota
  • New York City Teachers Strike of 1968
  • Florida Statewide Teachers Strike of 1968
  • Chicago Teachers Strike of 1969
  • Philadelphia Teachers Strike of 1972
  • Hortonville Teachers Strike of 1974
  • Baltimore Teachers Strike of 1974
  • Chicago Teachers Strike of 1980
  • Chicago Teachers Strike of 1987
  • Los Angeles Teachers Strike of 1989
  • Detroit Teachers Strike of 2006
  • Hayward Teachers Strike of 2007
  • Puerto Rico Teachers Federation Strike of 2008
  • Wisconsin Teachers Strike of 2011
  • Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012

Have students debate the purposes of the social reconstructionist curriculum and whether it should be included in schools today.

Have students debate the purposes of the perennialist curriculum and whether it should be a focus in schools today.

External Readings & Resources

Dewey, John. (2011). Education and Social Change. In Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., The Social Frontier: A Critical Reader. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing

Dewey, John. (1944). Education as Conservative and Progressive. In Democracy and Education. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Dewey, John. (1944). The Democratic Conception in Education. In Democracy and Education. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Karier, Clarence J. (1972). Testing for Order and Control in the Corporate Liberal State. In Clarence J. Karier, Paul Violas, and Joel Spring, (Eds.). Roots of Crisis: American Education in the Twentieth Century. New York: Rand McNally.

Kilpatrick, William H. (2011). Freedom to Develop Social Intelligence. In Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., The Social Frontier: A Critical Reader. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.

Kliebard, Herbert M. (2004). The Curriculum of the Dewey School. In The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958. New York, NY: Routledge.

Krug, Edward A. (1972). Visions for the Future. In The Shaping of the American High School, 1920-1941. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Reese, William J. (1986). Power and the Promise of School Reform: Grass-Roots Movements during the Progressive Era. Boston, MA: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Tyack, David and Cuban, Larry. (1997). Progress or Regress? In Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Urban, Wayne J. (1982). Why Teachers Organized. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

Supplemental Materials

America 1900 (courtesy of PBS American Experience).

A History of American Sweatshops: 1820-present (courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute).

Aspiration, Acculturation, and Impact: Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930 (courtesy of Harvard University Open Collections Program).

Impact of Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’ on Food Safety (courtesy of NPR).

Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (courtesy of PBS).

Overview of the Progressive Era (courtesy of Digital History).

The Progressive Era (courtesy of The George Washington University).

Progressive Era to New Era, 1900-1929 (courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Reforming Their World: Women in the Progressive Era (courtesy of the National Women’s History Museum).

Progressive Era (courtesy of the New Georgia Encyclopedia).

Teaching with Documents: Political Cartoons Illustrating Progressivism and the Election of 1912 (courtesy of the National Archives).

The 1911 Triangle Factory Fire (courtesy of Cornell University).

Cremin, Lawrence A. (1964). The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957. New York: Vintage Books.

Cuban, Larry. (1993). How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms 1890-1990. New York: Teachers College Press.

Dewey, John. (1944). Democracy and education. New York: The Free Press.

Reese, William J. (2002). Power and the Promise of School Reform: Grass-Roots Movements During the Progressive Era. New York: Teachers College Press.

Reese, William J. (1999). The Origins of the American High School. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Tyack, David B. (1974). The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tyack, David B. and Cuban, Larry. (1997). Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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