The “Union of Intellectual Freedom and Cooperation”: Organizing the Laboratory School Community

  • Anne Durst


John Dewey’s educational theories have long been widely and sometimes wildly misconstrued.1 Dewey is referred to as the “father of progressive education,” but his educational ideas differ in many ways from those called “progressive” in his time and since.2 In Experience and Education, Dewey made the case that his ideas belonged in a domain that was neither “traditional” nor “progressive.”3 Likewise, while the Laboratory School is often referred to as a “progressive” school, Dewey was careful to distinguish it from such schools in light of its focus on “the social phase of education,” which was “put first” at the school. Contrary to progressive schools that “exist in order to give complete liberty to individuals” and that are “ ‘child-centered’ in a way which ignores, or at least makes little of social relationships and responsibilities,” the Laboratory School was, according to Dewey, “community-centered.”4 And while a common criticism of the philosopher is that his work on education ignores the importance of academic content, at the Laboratory School, teachers’ “subject-matter” expertise was central to the school’s organization.5


Experimental School Female Teacher School Organization Academic Content Specialist Teacher 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Many Dewey scholars have addressed this matter. Jay Martin, for instance, maintains that while seen as the father of progressive education, Dewey’s ideas and his school differed substantially from schools of that label. See Jay Martin, The Education of John Dewey: A Biography (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 495–496.Google Scholar
  2. See also Philip Jackson, “Introduction” to John Dewey, The School and Society and The Child and the Curriculum (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1990);Google Scholar
  3. Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 42;Google Scholar
  4. Eric Margolis, “Teaching John Dewey: An Essay Review of Three Books on John Dewey,” Education Review, 10, 14 (November 29, 2007), 1–15;Google Scholar
  5. Richard S. Prawat, “Misreading Dewey: Reform, Projects, and the Language Game,” Educational Researcher, 24, 7 (1995), 13–22;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Laurel Tanner, “The Meaning of Curriculum in Dewey’s Laboratory School (1896–2904),” Journal of Curriculum Studies, 23, 2 (1991), 101–117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 2.
    For instance, see Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000), 57.Google Scholar
  8. 3.
    John Dewey, Experience and Education (New York: Collier Books, 1938).Google Scholar
  9. 4.
    John Dewey, “The Theory of the Chicago Experiment,” Appendix II in Katherine Camp Mayhew and Anna Camp Edwards, The Dewey School: The Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, 1896–1903 [1936] (New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine Transactions, 2007) 467. For the label of child-centered, one need look no further than article titles.Google Scholar
  10. See, for instance, Thomas Gallant, “Dewey’s Child-Centered Education in Contemporary Academe,” Educational Forum, 37, 4 (May 1973), 411–419. While in the text, Gallant qualifies his use of this label as applied to Dewey’s philosophy, he nonetheless employs it in his article title. See also Ravitch, Left Back, 171. Ravitch writes, “The most influential model for child-centered schooling in the United States was the Laboratory School, founded by John Dewey and his wife, Alice, at the University of Chicago in 1896.” While she also qualifies the use of this term as it applies to Dewey’s ideas, such statements and titles serve to reinforce the association of “child-centered” with Dewey and, in Ravitch’s case, with the Laboratory School as well.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 5.
    Diane Ravitch argues that Dewey’s ideas about content have been misconstrued, maintaining that “many of Dewey’s disciples drew the wrong lessons from the Dewey School” (Left Back, 172). Yet her discussion of Dewey’s ideas and of the Laboratory School serves to perpetuate such misunderstandings. For instance, Ravitch writes that “Dewey wanted schools to concentrate on problems and processes rather than academic subjects,” explaining that Dewey advocated learning biology through experience (58). Her statement distinguishes between content and problem solving, whereas Dewey considered them to be integral parts of a whole—the educative experience. Later in the book she maintains that the Laboratory School teachers were “far from being hostile to subject matter,” yet this appears in a chapter titled “Instead of the Academic Curriculum” (171). See Alan Ryan’s review of Left Back: “Schools: The Price of ‘Progress,’ ” New York Review of Books, 48, 3 (February 22, 2001), downloaded version. On Dewey’s critics, including President Dwight Eisenhower, see Maurice R. Berube, American School Reform: Progressive, Equity, and Excellence Movements, 1883–1993 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994), 39.Google Scholar
  12. See also Robert Westbrook, Democratic Hope: Pragmatism and the Politics of Truth (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005); and “John Dewey (1859–1952),” Prospects: The Quarterly Review of Comparative Education, XXIII, 1/2 (1993), 277–291.Google Scholar
  13. For a recent discussion of the “pragmatic understanding of community,” see John Jacob Kaag, “Pragmatism and the Lessons of Experience,” Daedalus, 138, 2 (2009), 63–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 7.
    On the Laboratory School and its organization, in addition to Mayhew and Edwards, The Dewey School; see also J. J. Chambliss, John Dewey’s Laboratory School as a Social Experiment (Bryn Mawr, PA: Buy Books, 2000);Google Scholar
  15. Brian Hendley, Dewey, Russell, Whitehead: Philosophers as Educators (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986);Google Scholar
  16. Jerald Alan Katch, “Discord at Dewey’s School: On the Actual Experiment Compared to the Ideal” (Unpublished dissertation, University of Chicago, 1990);Google Scholar
  17. Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, “Experimenting with Education: John Dewey and Ella Flagg Young at the University of Chicago,” American Journal of Education, 104 (May 1996), 171–185;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Susan Laird, “Women and Gender in John Dewey’s Philosophy of Education,” Educational Theory, 38, 1 (Winter 1988), 111–129;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001); Ravitch, Left Back;Google Scholar
  20. Laura Runyon, “A Day with the New Education,” Chautauquan, 30, 6 (1900), 589–592;Google Scholar
  21. Dee Miller Russell, “The Passion That Precedes Knowledge: The Role of Imagination in John Dewey’s Theory of Experience and in the Activities of the University of Chicago Elementary School, 1896–1904,” unpublished dissertation, University of Georgia, 1996;Google Scholar
  22. Seymour B. Sarason, The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change, especially ch. 12, “The Dewey School” (Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1971);Google Scholar
  23. Laurel Tanner, Dewey’s Laboratory School: Lessons for Today (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997);Google Scholar
  24. Robert Tostbert, Educational Ferment in Chicago, 1883–1904 (Unpublished dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1960);Google Scholar
  25. Robert B. Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991);Google Scholar
  26. and Arthur G. Wirth, John Dewey as Educator (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1966). See also archival collections at the Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library, and at the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.Google Scholar
  27. 8.
    John Dewey quoted in Mayhew and Edwards, The Dewey School, 464–468. For a discussion of the Laboratory School and Dewey’s philosophy, see Melvin C. Baker, Foundations of John Dewey’s Educational Theory (New York: Atherton Press, 1966, first published 1955), especially ch. 8 and 9.Google Scholar
  28. For a discussion of the importance of changes in both curriculum and organization at the Laboratory School, see Herbert Kliebard, “Fads, Fashions, and Rituals: The Instability of Curriculum Change,” in Laurel N. Tanner, ed., Critical Issues in Curriculum: The Eighty-Seventh Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Part I (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 16–34.Google Scholar
  29. 10.
    See also Anne Durst, “The Union of Intellectual Freedom and Cooperation: Learning from the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School Community, 1896–1904,” Teachers College Record, 107, 5 (May 2005), 958–984, from which sections of this chapter are drawn.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 11.
    This discussion draws upon the following studies: Nancy Hoffman, Woman’s “True” Profession: Voices from the History of Teaching (Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press, 1981);Google Scholar
  31. David Hogan, Class and Reform: School and Society in Chicago, 1880–1930 (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985);Google Scholar
  32. Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, An Elusive Science; Karen Leroux, “Veterans of the Schools: Women’s Work in United States Public Education, 1865–1902,” unpublished dissertation, Northwestern University, 2005;Google Scholar
  33. Victoria Maria MacDonald, “The Paradox of Bureaucratization: New Views on Progressive Era Teachers and the Development of a Woman’s Profession,” History of Education Quarterly, 39, 4 (1999), 427–453;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. William J. Reese, Power and the Promise of School Reform (Boston, MA: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986);Google Scholar
  35. Kate Rousmaniere, Citizen Teacher: The Life and Leadership of Margaret Haley (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2005);Google Scholar
  36. John Rury, “Who Became Teachers?: The Social Characteristics of Teachers in American History,” in Donald Warren, ed., American Teachers: Histories of a Profession at Work (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 9–48;Google Scholar
  37. Myra H. Strober and David Tyack, “Why Do Women Teach and Men Manage? A Report on Research on Schools,” Signs, 5, 3 (1980), 494–503;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. David Tyack, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974);Google Scholar
  39. David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot, Learning Together: A History of Coeducation in American Schools (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  40. See also Ella Flagg Young, Isolation in the School (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1901).Google Scholar
  41. 15.
    John Dewey, “Democracy in Education,” The Elementary School Teacher, IV, 4 (December, 1903), 194–196.Google Scholar
  42. 17.
    John Dewey, “Three Years of the University Elementary School,” postscript to The School and Society, 166. Four of the questions dealt with: bringing the school in relation to the home; introducing subject matter in science, history, and art; instructing children in reading, writing, and mathematics in the context of the occupations; and providing adequate individual attention to children (166–169). On the demands made of the teachers, see Alan Ryan, John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995), 147; and Westbrook, Democratic Hope, 90.Google Scholar
  43. On teachers’ responsibilities, see Alan Ryan, Liberal Anxieties and Liberal Education (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998).Google Scholar
  44. 18.
    Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy, x. See John Dewey, “Creative Democracy—The Task Before Us” [1939], in Jo Ann Boydston, ed., John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925–1953, Vol. 14 (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), 224–230.Google Scholar
  45. 21.
    In The Dewey School appendices, the authors include a list of teachers and assistants, and of those listed, 80 were women and 31 were men. (In addition, two were listed just by initials, and one just by the title of Dr.) See Mayhew and Edwards, The Dewey School, Appendix III, 479–480. The spirit of gender equality was illustrated in several ways at the school. First, Alice Dewey collaborated with her husband from the very beginnings of the Laboratory School, and she and Chicago educator Ella Flagg Young held key positions of leadership at the school from 1901 to 1904. Lagemann, in An Elusive Science, argues that Young’s work influenced Dewey’s ideas on “cultivating the intellects of all teachers.” (51) On Alice Chipman Dewey, see Irene Hall, “The Unsung Partner: The Educational Work and Philosophy of Alice Chipman Dewey” (Unpublished dissertation, Harvard University, 2005). On Ella Flagg Young, see also Rosemary Donatelli, “The Contributions of Ella Flagg Young to the Educational Enterprise,” unpublished dissertation, University of Chicago, 1971; Lagemann, “Experimenting with Education”; and Constance Heaton Goddard Goddard, “Ella Flagg Young’s Intellectual Legacy: Theory and Practice in Chicago’s Schools, 1862–1917” unpublished dissertation, University of Illinois—Chicago, 2005. Jane Addams, while less directly involved with the school, introduced Dewey to a living example of a working democracy at Hull House. On Jane Addams, see Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, “The Plural Worlds of Educational Research,” History of Education Quarterly, 29, 2 (1989), 185–214;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. and Charlene Haddock Seigfried, Pragmatism and Feminism: Reweaving the Social Fabric (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996); and “Socializing Democracy: Jane Addams and John Dewey,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 29 (June 1999), 207–230. Some examples of gender bias, of course, existed, of course. For instance, Katherine Camp told her mother that during talks over a reorganization of the school, they were looking for a man to take care of “refractory parents.” See Katherine Camp to Elizabeth Francis Camp, March 23 [1900] (year not given), box 9, Camp Family Collection (891), Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. And it was mostly the male teachers who took responsibility for building the clubhouse: Frank Ball, Mr. N. and Mr. G. Fowler, Clinton Osborn, and Harry Gillett, along with Lillian Cushman and Althea Harmer. See Mayhew and Edwards, The Dewey School, 232.Google Scholar
  47. 23.
    This theory was outlined in John Dewey, “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology” [1896], in Jo Ann Boydston, ed., John Dewey: The Early Works, 1882–1898, Vol. 5 (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972), 96–109.Google Scholar
  48. See also Dewey’s Democracy and Education [1916] (New York: The Free Press, 1966), ch. 11, “Experience and Thinking.” As Louis Menand argues in The Metaphysical Club, the theory of the “organic circuit” was central to Dewey’s thinking. Dewey “conceived of the [Laboratory School] as a philosophy laboratory … He was trying out a theory. It was a theory, as he said, of the ‘unity of knowledge.’ ” As Menand puts it, “By ‘unity of knowledge’ Dewey did not mean that all knowledge is one. He meant that knowledge is inseparably united with doing.” Menand argues, “Education at the Laboratory School was based on the idea that knowledge is a by-product of activity: people do things in the world, and the doing results in learning something that, if deemed useful, gets carried along into the next activity” (322).Google Scholar
  49. 24.
    George Herbert Mead, “The Philosophies of Royce, James, and Dewey in their American Setting,” International Journal of Ethics, 40, 2 (1930), 228.Google Scholar
  50. 25.
    John Dewey, “The Theory of the Chicago Experiment,” in Mayhew and Edwards, The Dewey School, 476. See also John Dewey, “The Reflex Arc.” On the importance of this essay, see Ryan, John Dewey, 124–130; and R. W. Sleeper, The Necessity of Pragmatism: John Dewey’s Conception of Philosophy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), 57.Google Scholar
  51. 27.
    John Dewey, “Psychology of Occupations,” The Elementary School Record, I, 3 (April 1900), 82.Google Scholar
  52. 34.
    Melvin C. Baker argues that the school experienced “three perhaps four stages in its career.” He identifies them as the following: a six month trial and error period; a two year period of “growing experiences”; a longer, “more settled era,” from 1898–1903; and then the final year, 1903–1904, of “uncertainty and insecurity.” See Melvin C. Baker, Foundations of John Dewey’s Educational Theory (New York: Atherton Press, 1966), 136.Google Scholar
  53. 36.
    For discussions of teachers and curriculum creation, see D. Jean Clandinin and F. Michael Connelly, “Teacher as Curriculum Maker,” in Philip W. Jackson, ed., Handbook of Research on Curriculum: A Project of the American Educational Research Association (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 363–401. Clandenin and Connelly write, “We believe that proper historical studies of this period [the early twentieth century] would be illuminating; not only would they help us to understand the history of the teacher as curriculum maker but also they would provide a more balanced picture of the ways in which schools, colleges of education, faculties, consortia, and laboratories might work together” (378–379).Google Scholar
  54. See also William F. Pinar, What Is Curriculum Theory? (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004).Google Scholar
  55. 38.
    John Dewey quoted in Mayhew and Edwards, The Dewey School, 372. On the importance of school organization, and Dewey’s views on this, see Herbert Kliebard, Forging the American Curriculum (New York: Routledge, 1992), ch. 6, on educational reform;Google Scholar
  56. and David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), ch. 4, on what the authors call the “grammar of schooling.”Google Scholar
  57. 39.
    See Richard S. Prawat, “Misreading Dewey: Reform, Projects, and the Language Game,” Educational Researcher, 24, 7 (1995), 15; and Tanner, Dewey’s Laboratory School.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. 45.
    Mayhew and Edwards, The Dewey School, 374. See also John Dewey and Laura Runyon, introductory materials, Elementary School Record, I, 1 (February 1900), 1–2;Google Scholar
  59. and John Dewey, “Three Years of the University Elementary School,” postscript in John Dewey, The School and Society and The Child and the Curriculum (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 174–177.Google Scholar
  60. 46.
    Mayhew and Edwards, The Dewey School, 376. In this text, the middle chapters cover the curricular focus of the eleven groups, which are described as follows: Groups I and II (ages four and five); Group III (age six); Group IV (age seven); Group V (age eight); Group VI (age nine); Group VII (age ten); Group VIII (age eleven): Group IX (age twelve); Group X (age thirteen); and Group XI (age fourteen to fifteen). See John Dewey on grouping of students: “Three Years of the University Elementary School,” 174–177, postscript in John Dewey, The School and Society and The Child and the Curriculum (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990). On both of these shifts, see also Tanner, “The Meaning of Curriculum.”Google Scholar
  61. 66.
    On Ella Flagg Young, see Lagemann, “Experimenting with Education,” and An Elusive Science; John T. McManis, Ella Flagg Young and a Half Century of the Chicago Public Schools (Chicago, IL: A.C. McClurg, 1916);Google Scholar
  62. and Joan K. Smith, Ella Flagg Young: Portrait of a Leader (Ames, IA: Educational Studies Press, 1979).Google Scholar
  63. 67.
    Ella Flagg Young, Isolation in the School (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1901), 33.Google Scholar
  64. 83.
    David Tyack in Sarah Mondale and Sarah B. Patton, eds., School: The Story of Public Education (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 75. For a discussion of schools of the time in contrast to the Laboratory School, see also Mayhew and Edwards, The Dewey School, 459.Google Scholar
  65. 94.
    John Dewey, “Democracy and Educational Administration” [1937], in Jo Ann Boydston, ed., John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925–1953, Vol. 11 (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987), 222.Google Scholar
  66. See also James Campbell, Understanding John Dewey (Chicago, IL: Open Court, 1995), ch. 5.Google Scholar
  67. 95.
    Mayhew and Edwards, The Dewey School, 368–370. In the book, this meeting is noted as having taken place in 1899, although partial notes exist in the archival record that date the meeting to April 22, 1901. See Teachers Meeting, April 22, 1901, box 17, Katherine Camp Mayhew Collection (6561), Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. See also John Dewey, The Educational Situation, Part I: “As Concerns the Elementary School” [1901], in Jo Ann Boydston, ed., John Dewey: The Middle Works, 1899–1924, Vol. 1 (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1976), 260–282, especially 272, and his “Democracy in Education.”Google Scholar
  68. 103.
    George Herbert Mead, “The Basis for a Parents’ Association,” The Elementary School Teacher, IV, 6 (February 1904), 375–391.Google Scholar
  69. 110.
    Althea Harmer, “Textile Industries,” The Elementary School Record, I, 3 (1900), 79. Dewey uses the term “constructive imagination” in The School and Society, 11. See Campbell, Understanding John Dewey, 45–53, on Dewey’s “pattern of inquiry.”Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Anne Durst 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anne Durst

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations