Beyond Rhetoric

New Perspectives on John Dewey’s Pedagogy

by Michael Knoll (Author)
©2022 Monographs 410 Pages


While John Dewey is an icon of American education and his work object of comprehensive
studies, this book ventures to fill gaps that have been neglected by previous research.
In particular, it opens new perspectives on Dewey’s theory of curriculum, his concept of
democratic education, his role as an administrator and the extent to which his philosophy
of education coincided with the practice of the Laboratory School teachers. Thus, the
author joins the ranks of those who strive to historicize Dewey’s pragmatist pedagogy
and contextualize his celebrated school experiment.
Drawing on new archival research and dozens of overlooked sources, Knoll offers numerous
insights into what was and was not original in Dewey’s pedagogy, and to what degree
Dewey and his associates were successful in faithfully implementing his complicated
vision. This is Dewey scholarship at its very best!
Thomas Fallace, author of Dewey and the Dilemma of Race
“While many historians have chronicled the growth of John Dewey’s educational philosophy,
very few have traced in detail its application by Dewey in the real world. In this
superb critical study of Deweyan educational reform, Michael Knoll does both. At once
a tour de force and a cautionary tale.”
Andrew Feffer, author of The Chicago Pragmatists and American Progressivism
“Michael Knoll’s meticulous archival research places Dewey’s work both in the long
sweep of the history of educational ideas and in the context of Dewey’s historical moment.
Knoll highlights significant transatlantic currents in the New Education, illuminates misunderstood
or overlooked episodes in Dewey’s lifework, and humanizes Dewey. Knoll’s
findings and interpretations will challenge scholars to reassess prevailing perspectives
not only on Dewey’s work, but also on early 20th century education reform in the US.”
William G. Wraga, author of Progressive Pioneer: Alexander James Inglis
(1879¬–1924) and American Secondary Education

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Illustrations
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Deschooling the School: John Dewey’s Theory of Curriculum and Instruction
  • 1. First theoretical considerations—Dewey’s letters to Clara Mitchell
  • 2. The psychological and the sociological—traditionalists and Herbartians as opponents
  • 3. The logical as the third didactic element—the public controversy with William T. Harris
  • 4. Student freedom versus teacher guidance—the covert conflict with George P. Brown
  • 5. Problem versus project—the unexpected dispute with William H. Kilpatrick
  • 6. The pragmatist as idealist—some critical remarks
  • 2. The Child and the Community: John Dewey’s Education for Democracy
  • 1. Democracy in politics and society
  • 2. Democracy in school and education
  • 3. Social studies and the issue of indoctrination
  • 4. Democracy at the Laboratory School
  • 5. The conflict between private interests and political conviction
  • 6. Negative freedom, social integration, and the new individualism
  • 3. Theory versus Practice: The Laboratory School on Trial
  • 1. Reading and writing—problems and potentials
  • 2. Arithmetic—an innovative concept with a hitch
  • 3. Science—success within limits
  • 4. History—the intricacies of change
  • 5. The Laboratory School—a progressive experiment among others
  • 4. The Long Course of History: John Dewey and the Maxim “Learning by Doing”
  • 1. Aristotle, Comenius, Froebel—the three classics
  • 2. Francis W. Parker and his campaign for “learning by doing”
  • 3. John Dewey—the new figurehead of the movement
  • 4. Historical amnesia—a worldwide phenomenon
  • 5. John Dewey’s Part: The Origin and Meaning of “Social Efficiency”
  • 1. Benjamin Kidd and the origin of social efficiency
  • 2. John Hobson, Lester Ward, and the humanitarian approach
  • 3. Social efficiency as the main aim of education before 1905
  • 4. William Bagley, David Snedden, and the high tide of social efficiency
  • 5. Dewey and the magic triangle
  • 6. Social efficiency, democracy, and empowerment
  • 6. “Two Roads to Culture”: The Dewey–Kerschensteiner Controversy about Vocational and General Education
  • 1. Kerschensteiner’s lectures in the United States
  • 2. The continuation school and its American friends
  • 3. Dewey’s criticism of the Munich system
  • 4. Vocational and general education—two complementary models
  • 7. John Dewey on Maria Montessori: A Research Note
  • 1. Kilpatrick’s assessment of the Montessori Method
  • 2. Dewey’s review of Kilpatrick’s manuscript
  • 3. Alice and Evelyn in Rome and Montessori in Schools of Tomorrow
  • 4. Dewey’s blind spots and the gender question
  • 8. John Dewey as Administrator: The Inglorious End of the Laboratory School
  • 1. William Harper and John Dewey—the two founders
  • 2. The Cook County Normal School—the Mecca of progressive educators
  • 3. Dewey versus Harper—the quarrel over funds
  • 4. Francis W. Parker—the veteran as competitor
  • 5. Harper’s plan—the merger of two elementary schools
  • 6. Dewey as victor—the rescue of the Laboratory School
  • 7. Alice Dewey—the wife as principal
  • 8. Changing names—from the University Elementary to the Laboratory School
  • 9. Dewey as administrator—the School of Education in crisis
  • 10. Declining enrollment—the Laboratory School on the brink
  • 11. Dewey’s solution—the hostile takeover of the Parker School
  • 12. Alice Dewey as principal—resistance from all quarters
  • 13. Harper’s compromise—a wasted opportunity
  • 14. Dewey’s resignation—the way out of a deadlock
  • 15. A pragmatist’s dilemma—theory as passion and practice as burden
  • 16. Dewey as an autocrat—blunders with the merger
  • 17. Hasty flight and protective coloration—a conclusion
  • 9. Alice Dewey’s Legacy: The Origin and Purpose of Mayhew and Edwards’ Classic “The Dewey School”
  • 1. Alice Dewey initiates the project
  • 2. Margaret Naumburg and Lucy Mitchell decline cooperation
  • 3. Katherine Camp Mayhew comes into play
  • 4. John Dewey gets involved
  • 5. Dewey’s fight against traditionalists and sentimentalists
  • 6. Anna Camp Edwards takes the lead
  • 7. John Dewey comes to the rescue
  • 8. Marion Pigman and John Childs as teammates
  • 9. Evelyn Dewey has the final say
  • 10. Idealization and colored information as politics of history
  • References
  • Name Index

←12 | 13→


1. Prospectus of the Laboratory School, June 1901.

2. Dewey’s theory of correlation I, November 1895.

3. Dewey’s theory of social occupations, December 1895.

4. Dewey’s didactic triangle I, January 1896.

5. Dewey’s theory of correlation II, Winter 1896.

6. Dewey’s didactic triangle II, April 1897.

7. The project method of William H. Kilpatrick .

8. The problem method of John Dewey.

9. The teacher as magician.

10. The Clubhouse Project, ca. 1902.

11. Dewey’s concept of democracy.

12. Dewey’s concept of social integration I— the Great Community.

13. Dewey’s concept of freedom.

14. Dewey’s concept of social integration II— the Miniature Society.

15. Dewey’s concept of social integration III— the style of teaching.

16. Sandbox lesson with Laura Runyon.

17. Time schedule, Group I to V.

18. Lessons given in Groups IV and V.

19. The children’s own work.

20. Domino invented by Clinton S. Osborn.

21. Report card in arithmetic.

22. Report on a science lesson by Harry Gillet.

←13 | 14→

23. Course of study in history, 1896–1901.

24. Learning to weigh in Phoenicia.

25. Poster of Parker’s lecture in 1897 at the Opera House in Rochester, Michigan.

26. Dewey’s theory of experience.

27. The dissemination of the term “learning by doing.”

28. Benjamin Kidd (1858–1916).

29. Lester F. Ward (1841–1913).

30. William N. Hailmann (1836–1920).

31. David S. Snedden (1868–1951).

32. Dewey’s magic triangle of educational aims.

33. The two basic models of social efficiency.

34. The dissemination of the term “social efficiency.”

35. Georg Kerschensteiner (1851–1932).

36. Educational aims of Kerschensteiner’s continuation school.

37. Workshop for art smithing, Munich.

38. The simplified system of education in Germany.

39. The connecting link between school and employment.

40. Walking versus Riding.

41. The educational concepts of Dewey and Kerschensteiner.

42. Maria Montessori (1870–1952).

43. Dewey’s letter to William H. Kilpatrick, 1913.

44. William R. Harper (1856–1906).

45. Francis W. Parker (1837–1902).

46. Anita Blaine (1866–1954).

47. Zonia Baber (1862–1956).

←14 | 15→

48. Harper’s school reorganization I—Summer 1901.

49. Harper’s school reorganization II—Summer 1902.

50. Student enrollment at the Dewey School and the Parker School.

51. Harper’s school reorganization III—Summer 1903.

52. Alice C. Dewey (1858–1927) with her daughter Lucy.

53. Katherine Camp Mayhew (1870–1946).

54. Dewey’s letter to Anna Edwards supporting the book project.

55. Anna Camp Edwards (1876–1956).

56. Funds received from John Dewey.

57. Advertisement of The Dewey School, 1936.

←16 | 17→


John Dewey—the philosopher, psychologist, pedagogue, and founder of the Laboratory School in Chicago—is an icon of progressive education. Apart from contributing substantially in the field of ethics, logic, political theory, and the psychology of learning, he has written a vast number of books and essays on school, democracy, and education which are considered classics worldwide. His works—though sometimes hard to comprehend—have been rendered into all major languages. An exchange that Nicholas M. Butler had with Erich Hylla in the late 1920s describes this aspect best. “You did translate Dewey’s Democracy and Education into German?,” the president of Columbia University posed this question to a senior official of the Prussian Ministry of Education. “Great!—Wouldn’t you like to try translating it into English as well?”1 This witty remark is not without substance. It points to impediments that other recipients such as William James, Oliver W. Holmes, Lewis Mumford, and H. L. Mencken experienced, too. Indeed, Dewey’s sometimes loose and ambiguous use of language has caused problems and led readers time and again to making casual interpretations and fallacious conclusions. Therefore, it is only appropriate to reconsider the case and raise once again questions that are crucial in regard to Dewey’s conception of education, growth, and democracy.

Dewey is renowned for his philosophy of pragmatism, a methodic approach that—inspired by Charles Darwin, Charles S. Peirce, William James, and the dramatic advances in science and technology during the 19th century—rejected the dualistic epistemology and metaphysics of Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes in favor of a naturalistic concept that viewed knowledge as arising from an active adaptation of the human organism to its environment. Dewey’s pragmatism emphasized the importance of a society that was democratic and inclusive in nature; regarded the individual as an active, social, creative person; and assumed a method of inquiry that addressed problematic situations experimentally and transformed them subsequently into determined situations, thus enriching the lives and experiences of the parties involved. As for teaching and learning, Dewey adhered to the ideas and insights that had been developed in the English-speaking world since the 1860s under the name of “new education.” Employing slogans like “complete living,” “back to nature,” “teaching with objects,” and “learning by doing,” Herbert Spencer, Edward A. Sheldon, Charles W. Eliot, and Francis W. Parker had advanced the educational principles of Comenius, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel; and, to a remarkable extent, they or their ←17 | 18→numerous allies had implemented their concepts in often thriving projects within kindergartens, schools, and colleges. By assimilating also the features of the vigorous Herbartian movement that dominated the discussion in the 1890s, Dewey had to fall in line. However, using his philosophy of pragmatism, he refined educational theory, improved teaching methods, enhanced the subject matter, and encouraged curriculum reforms that still persist and wield pervasive influence both in the Unites States and globally to this day.

The main features of Dewey’s philosophy of education are well known. The starting point of his considerations was the everyday life of children and the experiences they acquired in their interaction with their physical and social environments. Primarily, Dewey did not concern himself with the family whose childcare he regarded as natural and exemplary but only with the school, because he identified the basic evil of traditional classroom education in the lifeless subject matter, the competitive spirit, and the lack of hands-on activities. The school, therefore, had to provide above all for the growth of the students, that is, for the improvement of the quality of experience they should achieve step by step and in a relaxed atmosphere. Building on the students’ experiences, the teacher’s task was to develop a curriculum that encouraged experimentation and scientific thinking so that the students would comprehend the world, broaden their horizon, and acquire social habits that were essential for leading a meaningful life in a democratic society. The best means to stimulate critical thinking and acquire hard skills was, according to Dewey, the arrangement of challenging and multifaceted learning situations and the use of the method that researchers employ to solve scientific problems.

But many questions are still unresolved, especially as far as details are concerned. Indeed, despite the countless books, essays, and dissertations published on the subject, there are issues relating to Dewey’s pedagogy that have not been discussed sufficiently or not at all. By introducing new archival sources, some of the open questions about his educational theory, the early dissemination of his teaching ideas, and their implementation at his Laboratory School will be addressed in the nine chapters of the present book. To begin with, Chapter 1 deals with curriculum and instruction, pointing out that Dewey’s concept did not exist beforehand but gradually evolved in direct confrontation with leading educators of the time during the first two years of the school’s existence. Later, Dewey faced opposition even from his devoted followers and felt compelled to defend his problem method, in particular against William H. Kilpatrick’s child-centered project method. In essence, Dewey developed a new model of the didactic triangle that, including the “psychological,” “logical,” and “sociological,” provided the teacher with a set of criteria so that they could do justice to the complexity ←18 | 19→of the learning process and to their responsibility as the competent agent of the child, society, and the sciences. While acknowledging Dewey’s sound didactic principles, it must be kept in mind that—due to numerous idealistic assumptions about intrinsic motivation, incidental instruction, social control, to name just a few—his curriculum theory cannot simply be adopted and implemented in actual classroom practice. Chapter 2 examines the concept of democracy, noting that Dewey draws a fundamental distinction between democracy as it should be lived in politics and society and democracy as it should be applied in school and education, a distinction that is sorely neglected in academic discussions. For this reason, the democratic structure of the Laboratory School turned out to be less liberal and more controlling than generally assumed. Consistent with Dewey’s specifications, the students were not granted the “positive freedom” of adults (freedom of action, right to self-determination), but—beyond the traditional limitations—they could exercise the so-called negative freedom, defined as freedom of thinking, freedom from repression, and right to resistance. Accordingly, the teachers had to take on new roles. They weren’t allowed to practice an autocratic style of education but were asked to pursue a socially integrative one that ensured that the students enjoyed a school atmosphere free of fear and oppression. Contrary to Dewey’s democratic conviction, the Laboratory School was, socioeconomically, an aristocratic institution that provided a home for children of the propertied and educated upper and middle classes. Chapter 3 takes up the broader question of what teaching at the Laboratory School was like in various subjects and fields of learning. In contrast to previous studies, the present review does not simply draw on the well-known documentation, The Dewey School of Katherine C. Mayhew and Anna C. Edwards, but rather on the thousands of unpublished teachers’ reports that are stored at the University of Chicago’s special collections. By way of example, the chapter analyzes how the students were taught the three Rs, history, and the sciences. It turns out that the subject matter was largely conventional, and the teaching methods often innovative but rarely exceptional and not always successful. What has also gone unnoticed so far is that the Laboratory School teachers did not always act jointly. In fact, two wings can be identified within the faculty, a “progressive” wing that largely followed Dewey’s precepts and a “conservative” one that mostly stuck to established practices. In short, theory and practice, and aspiration and reality, often diverged widely at the Laboratory School.

Having surveyed the curriculum of the Laboratory School from different viewpoints, each of the following four chapters will focus on controversies in which Dewey was deliberately or reluctantly involved over the years. In the first instance, I explain how the maxim “learning by doing” came into being and how ←19 | 20→that maxim passed through, from Aristotle to Dewey. Particular emphasis is placed on the central position that Francis W. Parker occupied in the dissemination of the slogan. After Parker’s death, Dewey was unintentionally thrust into the role of inventor and figurehead of the progressive activity movement. He resisted in vain the instrumentalizing of his pragmatist concept. More importantly, his own maxim “learning by experience” failed to catch on. Dewey’s view was criticized by pointing out that not all learning focused on hands-on activities, problematic situations, and scientific decision-making. Chapter 5 deals with the concept of “social efficiency,” which is nowadays negatively associated with “social engineering” and fitting the child into the new industrial order. This approach is habitually attributed to David S. Snedden, although it is much older and had—from the beginning—not a utilitarian flavor but a profound humanitarian connotation. Contrary to what leading historians of education believe, it was not Snedden but Dewey who represented the mainstream when he, in Democracy and Education, specified social efficiency as a barrier against rugged individualism, ruthless capitalism, and, in particular, as a crucial aid for social empowerment and the child’s ability to solve problems, put insights into effect, and come to self-fulfillment. Chapter 6 explores the widely unknown debate between Dewey and Georg Kerschensteiner about vocational education and the merits and demerits of the German “continuation school.” After heated discussions, Kerschensteiner’s dual system of work and study was legally established in the Smith–Hughes Act as an important element of professional education and received generous financial support from the federal government; however, it failed to gain sustained acceptance, not least because of Dewey’s opposition, the Great Depression, and the expansion of the high schools. The lack of efficient part-time education in the U.S. school system, while lamented about from time to time, has been inconsequential so that practically inclined boys and girls weary of schooling leave the regular system before the age of eighteen without the benefit of training on the job in a company combined with work-based learning at a vocational school. Chapter 7 is devoted to one more controversy, this time between Dewey and Maria Montessori. The review of the issue is still in its infancy, and a fair appraisal is not easy to achieve due to the paucity of documents. Nevertheless, there are four points evident: Dewey had only a superficial knowledge of Montessori’s method of teaching; his knowledge derived largely from William H. Kilpatrick, his wife Alice, and his daughter Evelyn; his view of Montessori’s accomplishments turned over time from the more positive side (appreciation of the motor element, of self-organized learning) to the more negative one (fixed didactic material, neglect of social and creative occupations); ←20 | 21→and, finally, Dewey’s—and Kilpatrick’s—critical stance cannot be reduced to the gender issue, for the overwhelming number of critics were, after all, women.

The following two chapters are once again about the Laboratory School, this time about its history and its presentation. Chapter 8 tackles the hotly debated question of why the Laboratory School ended so ingloriously after just seven-and-a-half years of existence. The reasons for the collapse are many. The prevailing view is that William R. Harper, president of the University of Chicago, denied Dewey the necessary financial support, did not include him in the discussion about taking over Parker’s Chicago Institute, and did not renew Alice Dewey’s contract as school principal. While these are weighty reasons, they are by no means sufficient to explain the failure of the school experiment. Far more important is the fact that John and Alice Dewey did not come to terms with the management of the school. Dewey had no organizational talent, misjudged precarious situations, and considered the school an administrative burden; Alice Dewey was a commanding, self-righteous principal who lacked patience, understanding, and skill in dealing with the faculty. Chapter 9 tells for the first time the story of how and why the book of Mayhew and Edwards, The Dewey School, came about. While Alice Dewey had the original idea, but not the energy, the two sisters took on the task of completing the documentation with the aid of numerous collaborators, most notably John and Evelyn Dewey. Two reasons why Dewey supported and sponsored the enterprise stand out: The book was intended to prove that his theory of education had passed the practical test, and the Laboratory School did not provide a rationale for a child-centered approach to teaching, as his critics claimed all along. Furthermore, the analysis reveals that the documentation was, if nothing else, an instrument of historical politics and therefore has a limited historiographic value, especially since the authors employ numerous manipulative devices, such as editing primary sources, exaggerating learning outcomes, reconciling theory with practice, to present Dewey’s educational concept as the definite alternative to the traditional book- and teacher-centered pedagogy.

As it is apparent, the present book ventures to fill several gaps that have been neglected by previous research. Above all, it attempts to counteract hagiographic studies, correct oversimplified statements, reject exaggerated claims, accentuate the transatlantic exchange of ideas, highlight the difficult job the teachers had to do, and unravel at least some of the numerous myths that surround Dewey’s work. One shortcoming of the Dewey studies to date will particularly be discussed, namely the assumption that his educational theory and the Laboratory School practice are identical; consequently, its specific relation does not need to be examined in detail. This attitude has contributed more than anything else to the ←21 | 22→unjustified glorification of Dewey and his educational achievements. Thus, I join the ranks of those who strive to historicize his pragmatist pedagogy and contextualize his school experiment. Except for one, the chapters have been published, mostly in German. However, substantial revisions have been made to bring the articles up to date and attune them to the expectations of an international readership. Inevitably, there will be some repetition of themes and details. I have refrained from editing these out as I would like the chapters to stand alone. I ask the reader to bear with me in this regard.


←22 | 23→


Scholarship thrives only in a congenial context. I would like to express my thanks for the generous grants I received from the German Research Foundation (DFG), Bonn, and the Swiss National Foundation (SNF), Bern. Without their longstanding financial support, the book would not have come into being. For their vital and valuable assistance, I am deeply indebted to the curators of the archives and special collections, in particular at Cornell University, University of Chicago, University of Michigan, Wisconsin Historical Society-Madison, Yale University, Bank Street College, Columbia University, Teachers College, Literaturarchiv Monacensia-Munich, Library of Congress, Mercer University, Southern Illinois University, and University of California-Los Angeles. A sincere appreciation goes to the anonymous reviewers for their numerous suggestions that greatly improved of my work. Severe thanks also go to Karl Frey (†), Rudolf Künzli, Gerhard Wehle (†), Hans-Jürgen Apel, Gudrun-Anne Eckerle, Franz-Michael Konrad, and Craig Kridel who at different times and in different functions encouraged my studies with friendly, stimulating, and, occasionally, critical comments.

I am grateful to the publishers and university archives who granted permission to use documents and photographs that are reproduced here for the first time or had previously been published in books and scholarly journals.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (July)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 410 pp., 57 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Michael Knoll (Author)

Michael Knoll, Ph.D., Dipl.Päd., was a high school teacher and school principal; a visiting scholar at Teachers College-Columbia University and the University of South Carolina; a research fellow at the universities of Kiel, Bayreuth, Eichstaett and the Swiss Institute of Technology, Zurich; an interim full professor, University of Rostock. His primary areas of scholarship are the history of curriculum, instruction and school administration with the focus on progressive education in the United States and Germany.


Title: Beyond Rhetoric
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