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In: Journal of Curriculum Studies 47 (April 2014), pp. 203-252 (excerpt).
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The Laboratory School, or as it was originally called, the University Primary School, was opened on 13 January 1896 in a small private house west of Washington Park in proximity to the University of Chicago. After just two months of preparation, the event was quite unspectacular and went almost unnoticed. According to the single account known and published three days later in the university’s student newspaper, neither John Dewey, the school director and professor of philosophy and pedagogy, nor William R. Harper, President of the university and sponsor of the school, gave a festive reception or held a commemorative speech. As the University of Chicago Weekly reported under the heading ‘The Model School’:

‘The primary school connected to the pedagogical department of the University opened Monday morning with twelve children in attendance, and twice that number of parents and visitors. The building, No. 369 Fifty-seventh street, is a new house; has large windows, sunny rooms, and is surrounded by a playground. The work of the first morning began with a song, followed by a survey of the premises to test the knowledge of the children regarding the use of garden, kitchen, etc., as well as their powers of observations. They were then seated at tables and provided with cardboard. At the end of the morning each child had completed a paper box for pencils and other materials. A story was told by one of the children, and physical exercise concluded the program’. (quoted in Dykhuizen 1973: 88)

However modest the school started its work, the Laboratory School soon established itself as an innovative and exciting experiment. And although the school existed merely eight years, it is still regarded as one of the most distinguished pioneer schools of the progressive education movement and can – according to many educators (Cuffaro 1995, Simpson and Jackson 1997, Tanner 1997, Fishman and McCarthy 1998, Bickman 2003, Stuckart and Glanz 2010) – teach us valuable ‘lessons for today’. Nonetheless, the history of the Laboratory School has not been researched extensively (Mayhew and Edwards 1936, DePencier 1967, Harms and DePencier 1996), and there are numerous issues to be resolved (cf. Durst 2010, Fallace 2011). One of the most puzzling questions will be reconsidered here: Why did Dewey leave the University of Chicago in 1904 and abandon suddenly and unexpectedly an experiment he had initiated with so much hope and ambition?

More than 50 years ago, Robert L. McCaul rendered in a series of three articles titled ‘Dewey and the University of Chicago’ a thorough account of the issue, quite rightly regarded as a landmark piece on Dewey, governance and school administration. Having reviewed a plethora of documents housed at the University of Chicago and the Wisconsin State Historical Society, McCaul (1961: 206) concluded that Dewey’s resignation, especially as Director of the Laboratory School and the School of Education, was a major ‘tragedy’ since the two principal actors of the drama, Dewey and Harper, were ‘good men whose misfortune was brought upon them not by malice or deceit, but by institutional circumstance and errors of judgment’. If he had stayed on and Harper had not provoked his leaving, McCaul claimed, Dewey could have done much more than he already had to further research and development in education, teaching, and teacher training. On the other hand, McCaul was not quite sure that Dewey had enough interest and the necessary talent for administrative matters. ‘It may be’, he (1961: 206) observed, ‘that his worst mistake was in ever accepting the directorship at all’. Relying on McCaul’s report, Robert B. Westbrook reached a similar conclusion in his magisterial biography on John Dewey and American Democracy. His untimely departure, Westbrook (1991: 113) pointed out, ‘not only 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”’. At the same time, Westbrook was certain that the final word on the issue of who was to blame for the separation had not been spoken. Beyond the substantial antagonism between Harper and Dewey, he (1991: 113) explained, ‘the deeper reasons [why] Dewey left the university, have been obscured by the politics of protective coloration’. Although McCaul and Westbrook tried to do justice to both parties, their sympathy was clearly with Dewey, and in this respect they did not stay alone. Till today, the tendency to favour Dewey to the disadvantage of Harper has been maintained by succeeding generations of historians and educators (cf. Dykhuizen 1973, Rockefeller 1991, Menand 2001, Martin 2002, Johnston 2006, Durst 2010).

Yet two scholars departed significantly from the standard interpretation as provided by McCaul. In her study Pragmatism and Feminism: Reweaving the Social Fabric, Charlene H. Seigfried (1996) made Harper the scapegoat and solely responsible for Dewey’s parting from Chicago. The antifeminist University President, Seigfried asserted without offering new evidence, had forced Dewey’s wife Alice for no objective reason out of her executive office at the Laboratory School thus provoking the husband to protest against sex discrimination and cut all his ties with the university at once. Joan K. Smith (1976) took in her biography Ella Flagg Young: A Portrait of a Leader the opposite stance. Contrary to Seigfried, however, Smith presented new archival material, in particular from the Anita M. Blaine papers, that increased our knowledge about Dewey’s conduct as superior and school administrator considerably. It was not so much Harper, Smith argued, who mismanaged matters, but it were essentially Alice and John Dewey who – lacking the personal and administrative skills necessary to handle people and head institutions – misjudged the situation and attributed most of all to the unhappy end of the experiment.

On the whole, Smith’s biography is overlooked or disregarded by Dewey scholars. With the exception of Brian Hendley (1986), Alan Ryan (1995), Ellen C. Lagemann (1996), Lee Benson, Ira Harkaway, and John Puckett (2007) no historian writing about Dewey and the Laboratory School has ever made use of her findings or taken issue with her propositions. In fact, apart from Smith, only Ryan dared to criticise Dewey’s performance as school director frankly. ‘An impartial observer’, he (1995: 154) wrote, ‘would think almost everyone behaved badly during the two years before Dewey left, but Dewey worse than anyone’. On the one hand, the general neglect of Smith’s findings is amazing since her book should be required reading for historians and Dewey scholars, after all it deals with Ella Flagg Young, a confidant of Dewey and his close collaborator at the Laboratory School. On the other hand, the absence of Smith’s critical appraisal of Dewey’s conduct as school administrator is not surprising. For educators love their heroes, especially when they promise freedom, democracy, and progress. At the most, they shy away from cutting legends down to size and taking great individuals as human beings who exhibit not only strengths and virtues but faults and weaknesses as well. Yet timidity or ideology cannot be guiding principles of scientific research.

Sixty years after his death, it is time to historicise Dewey and re-evaluate his educational achievements in-depth. In this context, the analysis of how Dewey assumed leadership and solved administrative challenges is of special interest, even from the curriculum point of view, because it contributes greatly to deciding whether the philosopher was indeed the right person to demonstrate, not only in theory but also in practice, how American education and schooling could have been advanced in the past and should be improved today and in the future. By sharing hitherto unknown or unavailable documents notably from the correspondence of John Dewey, Anita Blaine, and William Harper as well as from the Laboratory School collections held at the University of Chicago and the Mayhew and Edwards papers kept at Cornell University, the essay at hand will readdress the issue and review – and if appropriate, extend or discard – the theses and propositions distinguished historians such as McCaul, Smith, Westbrook, and Seigfried put forward on Dewey’s tenure in Chicago.

Harper and Dewey – the two founders

The future the founders of the Laboratory School imagined for their venture was bright. William Rainey Harper, who had lured the 35-year-old John Dewey by a substantial salary increase in 1894 from the University of Michigan to Chicago, was a man who - blessed with courage, vigour, and vision - had seduced the oil magnate John D. Rockefeller merely two years before to establish a full-fledged university and to provide it generously with funds and property. Ambitious as Harper was, he aspired to transform the University of Chicago in the shortest time possible and in all fields of learning to the foremost institution in the United States. Actually, he dreamed of a pedagogic empire that included all facets of education from the elementary and high school to college, graduate school, and research institute. Even before Dewey’s arrival, he had launched partnerships with high schools such as the Morgan Park Academy, the Manual Training School, and the South Side Academy which he could soon incorporate in his kingdom. Moreover, Harper was an exceptional teacher. Ever since he was a lecturer at the Baptist Union Theological Seminary, and later a professor at Yale, an organizer of summer schools at the Chautauqua Institute, and an author and editor of numerous textbooks and journals on curriculum and instruction, he had reawakened the interest in Hebrew and Semitic languages, not only for clerics but for lay people as well. From Dewey, the newly appointed head professor of philosophy, psychology, and education, Harper expected initiatives to establish the University of Chicago as the leading teacher training institute in the country, if not the world, and to catapult the Department of Pedagogy to the forefront of educational progress. To this end, he was ready to provide, to a certain extent, moral support and institutional funds.

Like Harper, Dewey was not inexperienced but after all a ‘novice’ in the educational field. Having received his bachelor degree in 1879 at the University of Vermont, Dewey taught for two years at high schools in Oil City, Pennsylvania, and in Charlotte, Vermont – contrary to Harper, however, with little success: the school board of Charlotte did not extend his contract since, due to his permissive attitude and liberal principles, he was unable to tame the students and urge the unruly teenagers to study and learn satisfactorily. As professor at the University of Michigan, Dewey formed a Bible class in cooperation with the Student Christian Association, served as inspector of high schools to be accredited at the college, and wrote his first works on education. Probably under the influence of his wife Alice, an avowed feminist, he published two papers addressing the correlation between the health of young women and their educational achievements; and being a founding member and president of the Michigan Schoolmasters’ Club, he delivered two lectures discussing the question of how psychology resp. ethics should be taught in high school. With the birth of his children and his concern for their growth and ‘natural’ development, he got increasingly interested in the issues of child study and elementary education. The first published outcome of this endeavour was a small empirical report on the linguistic competence of infants (Dewey 1971).

The Cook County Normal School – the Mecca of progressive educators

For Dewey, as for Harper, it was clear from the beginning that education - if it should gain acceptance as a science - could not dispense with practical activities. Therefore in November 1894, the two men decided to attach to the Department of Pedagogy a practice and demonstration school as they existed at Normal Schools and, in particular, at the University of Jena and at Teachers College of Columbia University. Although Dewey regarded Wilhelm Rein’s ‘practice school’ in Jena and Nicholas M. Butler’s Horace Mann School in New York as ‘outposts of educational progress’, he emphasized that these schools could not be a model for his project since they subscribed to no significant educational theory and conducted no serious experimental research. In contrast, Dewey wanted to establish an ‘experiment station’ where excellent teachers and students with professional experience and innovative ideas would develop a radically new system of education and teaching. ‘The conception underlying the school is that of a laboratory’, Dewey (1972a: 437) explained. ‘It bears the same relation to the work in pedagogy that a laboratory bears to biology, physics, or chemistry. Like any such laboratory it has two main purposes: (1) to exhibit, test, verify, criticize theoretical statements and principles; (2) to add to the sum of facts and principles in its special line’.

In addition to Jena and New York, there existed in Chicago an educational showpiece of the first rank. The Cook County Normal School, a seminary for elementary school teachers with a practice school attached, was nationally known for its novel contents and methods since Francis W. Parker had taken over its management in 1883. Francis Wayland Parker, Colonel of the Civil War and the real ‘father’ of the progressive education movement, had studied in Europe and especially in Berlin where he became familiar with the writings of Pestalozzi, Froebel, and Herbart. In 1875 as principal and school superintendent in Quincy, Massachusetts, he introduced a system that not only postulated but realized the central and long-known principles of a ‘new departure in education’. Against staunch resistance and permanent hostility, Parker implemented a pedagogy centred on child, activity, and life that is nowadays primarily associated with Dewey’s name. In fact, it was Parker, not – as generally assumed – Dewey, who with his bestselling book Notes of Talks on Teaching of 1883 made the motto ‘learning by doing’ the slogan and the focal point of progressive education; and it was Parker, not Dewey, who at first condemned the traditional ‘machine education’, who designed the school as an ‘ideal home’ and ‘embryonic democracy’, and who organized the course of study, as far as possible and prudent, ‘naturally’, i.e. open, situational, and interdisciplinary. Like the schools in Quincy, the Cook County Normal School soon became the ‘Mecca’ for educational reformers. Countless teachers, principals, professors pilgrimaged to Englewood to ‘wind up’ – with G. Stanley Hall’s words - their pedagogical ‘watch’ and get new ideas and fresh inspiration.

Dewey, too, appreciated Parker. He lectured at Englewood, visited classes, and enrolled his two eldest children, Fred and Evelyn, in the ‘practice school’ where they felt comfortable and where the teachers, as Dewey noted in 1894, had ‘solved the problem of reading & writing & spelling on the formal side completely’. ‘There is every reason to believe’, says Lawrence A. Cremin (1961: 135), ‘the children would have continued, had the Deweys not decided to establish their own school early in 1896’. Moreover, Clara I. Mitchell whom Dewey employed as the first teacher for his school was a student and experienced member of the Cook County Normal School. But despite the deep respect he expressed for Parker, and despite all the ideas and suggestions he owed to the civil war veteran, Dewey quickly developed his own strategy of how to reconstruct education and schooling. Contrary to Parker, he justified his concept of teaching scientifically by introducing four new features: (1) his functional psychology regarding curiosity, action, and experience as basic conditions of learning; (2) his concept of children’s interests that identified communication, making, investigating, and self-expression as the appropriate starting points for curriculum and instruction; (3) his problem method that recognized overcoming obstacles and solving difficulties as the only effective mode of acquiring knowledge and skills; and (4) his theory of social and active occupations that took cooking, weaving, constructing as the best means for learning reading, writing, arithmetic as well as history, chemistry, and physics (Wirth 1966, Tanner 1997, Knoll forthcoming). At least since December 1895, when he offered the Chicago School Board his services as an ‘educational expert’ to reconstruct the Cook County Normal School, Dewey had completed his novitiate and envisioned himself as the prophet and advocate of a ‘new education’ that went far beyond the theory and practice Parker and his associates represented and exemplified (Smith 1976: 79).

Dewey vs. Harper – the quarrel over funds

Like all schools, and in particular private schools, the Laboratory School had to surmount many difficulties. Repeatedly, adequate classrooms had to be found, poor teachers to be dismissed, ambitious curricula to be defused, improper methods to be abandoned, and, above all, financial straits to be resolved. Unlike the official name ‘University Primary School’ resp. ‘University Elementary School’ (since autumn 1897) suggests, and unlike any other practice schools in the country, the Laboratory School was not maintained by the parent institution but had – apart from a one-time grant of $ 1250 and the regular salary payments for up to ten student teaching assistants – to generate by itself the necessary revenue through fees, gifts, and donations. [...]