The Historic Link between Horace Mann and John Dewey in Support of Public Schooling: A Lesson in Democracy

Audrey Cohan and Charles F. Howlett, Molloy College 

     Each day millions of students attend the nation’s public schools. Yet how many teachers and students have asked why we have public schools and what is their essential function? So much attention is devoted to distinct subjects within the classroom that teachers and students rarely look at learning holistically. Most schools are made of brick and motar while classrooms have whiteboards and neatly arranged desks. But what does all this mean in terms of acclimation, socialization, and accommodation? Public schooling is more than brick buildings, whiteboards, and desks within a classroom. In order to appreciate that observation it is important to look at the views of two of the country’s most famous educators: Horace Mann and John Dewey. Both were instrumental in promoting the concept of public schooling as the most valuable mechanism for furthering our democratic way of life. Educators today must reestablish the call for public education on behalf of students, families, and local communities.

      From the 19th to mid-20th centuries, Mann’s Common School and Dewey’s Progressive Education considered public schooling as the foundation for access to education for all, which stands in stark contrast to this decade’s erosion of public education with a push for privatization and elite boards with little or no connection to the communities of children, which they serve. Dewey, especially, carried further Mann’s arguments at the turn of the twentieth century when public schools were being established as the “one best system” in America. Dewey’s call for public education is recognition that the early twentieth century marked a key period in the development of his views about education as a progressive movement tied to an individual’s and community’s experiences. Largely, this was in response to the rapid industrialization and urbanization of American society, which witnessed millions of new immigrants coming to the nation’s shores. In fact, when the twentieth century began, a total of 16,920,687 children were attending the nation’s schools; by 1920 the number rose to 23,360,164; by 1930 it was 28,388,346. Thus, Dewey’s support for public education was in direct response to the need for assisting immigrant children and the throngs of new students in our cities adapt to American society and become productive democratic citizens. Public schools were to become the pathway for opportunity. Dewey wrote in 1938, “I take it that the fundamental unity of the newer philosophy is found in the idea that there is an intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education” (p.20) in a publication for Kappa Delta Pi, the international honor society.

The Common School Movement as the Historical Path for Dewey’s Philosophy

      Dewey’s development of his educational philosophy was influenced earlier by Horace Mann. A famous early nineteenth century educational innovator, Mann was also a product of his environmental surroundings. He embodied the reformer’s belief in progress—engendered through education—and believed that education was the basis for active citizenship. Mann postulated that Common Schools practice selfgovernment. He believed that educational reform is a “pressing necessity of democratic government” (Welter, 1965, p. 98). As a pedagogical liberal, Mann was critical of the Prussian educational system, despite its efficiency, for depriving its subjects of an opportunity to exercise democratic freedoms. What inspired Mann’s call for a Common School system in the United States was the fact the European nations ignored the fundamental principle that all citizens have a natural right to education. These concepts were later adopted by Dewey, particularly his own criticisms of German education at the turn of the twentieth century. The German “educational process,” Dewey concluded, “was taken to be one of disciplinary training rather than of personal development” (Dewey, 1915, p. 95).

Mann’s Influence in Promoting the Idea of Public Education

     Horace Mann, was dedicated to the belief that public schools were a vehicle for education that would foster social mobility in this country. It was with this objective, that Mann led reform activities in many states appealing to the working class to support the Common School Movement. His ideas were premised on egalitarian principles and Jeffersonian political concepts. What Mann did was transpose Thomas Jefferson’s democratic agrarianism and apply it to the emerging industrial way of life in the northeast and subsequently the emerging middle states.

Northern States

    The development of education in the Northern states has been well documented (Cremin, 1951; Kaestle, 1983; Urban & Wagoner, 2004) and was the home to the Common School Movement. Many people, especially large numbers of wage earners, join the movement for public schools. It is well known that Mann was referred to as the “father of the public school” based on his praise for the common person as well as his efforts to reform education. He became a crusader for the people’s schools and was instrumental in establishing normal schools for teachers in effort to make classroom teaching more effective. Specifically, Mann helped form the Massachusetts State Board of Education and used The Common School Journal to support his message that public elementary schools were the basis of democracy and an educated society. He “decried the rifts between rich and poor” (Sadker & Zittleman, 2009, p. 143) and countered the arguments for having religious practices in the schools. Prior to the American Civil War a system of free, public education was created. Nearly all children, at least in the Northern states, were provided a free elementary education.

Middle States

     The Middle States, and later the Midwest, were more diverse in language, traditions, religion, and cultures than the South. This led to growth of both parochial schools as well as charity schools. The Middle colonies were, therefore, aptly named an “assimilationist common-school system” (Kaestle, 1983, p. 216). Furthermore, the Middle States benefited from industrialization, trade routes, and marketing— along with urbanization—which eventually led to the need for a more educated working class through free public education.

Southern States

     The education available for children in the South relied on tutors or boarding schools and colleges in the Northern states. The development of schools in the South was impacted by large plantations and farms which made it difficult for students to be educated together as in the Northern state models. Additionally, there were anti-Northern sentiments which “reinforced the opposition to Northern-style common school systems” (Kaestle, 1983, p. 213). Historically, the Southern states were mired in discourse about abolition and this hindered integration in public schools. Kaestle (1983) referred to Horace Mann as “a timid integrationist” (p. 215) in his analysis of regional differences in Common School development.

     Moreover, those that opposed the Common School Movement of the 1800’s had arguments which reflect today’s attacks on public education. Regardless of where you lived in the nation, the groups that criticized a free education for all were people without children, those with grown children, or those whom send their children to private school, including the very affluent. The momentum of the Common School Movement was generated between 1820 and 1860 and by the end of this period, the notion of public education for “all” was widely accepted in the North, Middle, and Midwest. With the successful growth of the Common School Movement it is easy to forget the political struggles that set the stage for the Progressives and John Dewey to welcome additional reforms.

Focus of the Curriculum: Connections between Mann and Dewey

  In his new role as Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, Mann tried to influence others regarding his political, economic and educational goals. Urban and Wagoner (2004) contend that “he already had well-developed views about the social problems of his day but had only a little knowledge about educational problems and issues” (p. 99). Mann was a fast learner and sought to influence others with his defined moral views and expressed ideas about overcoming economic divisiveness. Horace Mann and other educations reformers of the time, including Henry Barnard, believed that “moral education was at the heart of the curriculum” (Urban & Wagoner, 2004, p. 105). This line of thinking advanced Mann’s ideology that school should be more child-centered than teacher-centered (Urban & Wagoner, 2004) and built a foundation for Dewey’s exposition within his educational philosophy.  

     Specifically, in terms of curriculum, Mann (1844) was influenced by Heinrich Pestalozzi and embraced his pedagogical leanings in his “Seventh Annual Report” to the Massachusetts Board of Education. Mann encouraged the reformers of the time to incorporate a pedagogy that valued young children and their ideas and interests, rather than focus strictly on memorization and routinization. He stated,

     Experience has now proved that it is much easier to furnish profitable and delightful employment for all these powers, than it is to stand over them with a rod and stifle their workings, or to assume a thousand shapes of fear to guard the thousand avenues through which the salient spirits of the young play outward. (pp. 116-117)

     Despite Mann’s (1840, 1989) ardent views on how to teach the young child, many educators of the time believed in discipline and conformity as the central focus of a quality education (Association of Masters of the Boston Public Schools, 1844) and further believed that a childcentered focus was a weak and ineffective way to instruct children.

     Like Mann, Dewey’s views on curriculum are interwoven in many of his theses. (Boydston, 1969-1991; Dewey, 1897, 1899, 1902, 1938). Dewey often focused on the community and incorporated socialization as part of the school curriculum. In Experience and Education, Dewey (1938) opined,

A genuine community life has its ground in this natural sociability. But community life does not organize itself in an enduring way purely spontaneously. It requires thought and planning ahead. The educator is responsible for a knowledge of individuals and for a knowledge of subject-matter that will enable activities to be selected which lend themselves to social organization….(p. 56)

     Similar to Mann’s views, moreover, Dewey’s educational philosophy emphasized the importance of activity, not a fixed system of doctrines. As part of his progressivist outlook, factors such as time, place, and culture were central to a distinctive mode of thinking. Intelligence, nourished by an educational system open to all, would further cultural development and communal participation. A curriculum that represents a continuous reconstruction of experience, one designed not for the preservation of the social order but for its improvement, was just as critical in Mann’s time as it was in Dewey’s—Mann’s working class constituency and Dewey’s immigrant-urban populace. Thus current attempts to establish charter schools, for instance, can only serve to perpetuate the concept of segregated communities while reinforcing the dominant social order.

     Furthermore, in terms of curriculum content, Dewey argued for what one might call a democratizing educational process designed to build a global culture that was socially, economically, and culturally-based on the concept of justice and education for all. This was clearly expressed in his magnum opus, Democracy and Education (1916). Theoretically, the central theme contained in Dewey’s educational writings is that the Common School—which we refer to today as the public school—best represents the quest for community in American society. Throughout Dewey’s long and distinguished career, he consistently sought to reconcile the dualism between school and society. In doing so, he also attempted to use public education as the instrument for achieving the necessary balance between the demands of individuality and the demands of community within our democratic framework. How public schools communicate what knowledge we, as Americans, hold in common, along with what values, skills, and dispositions, Dewey argued, represented the kind of society we want our children to live in and educational system required to achieve this desired end.

Dewey’s Ideas Built upon Horace Mann’s Call for Common Schools

     The concept of the Great Community (Curti, 1959) as described by John Dewey (1927), is built on the foundation of the Common School Movement. Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy and continued focus on active participation of students, parents, and teachers in the quest for equitable educational opportunities are aligned with Mann’s prescription for early public schools (Cremin, 1957), which were taxsupported and locally controlled. One important historical connection between Mann’s educational efforts (Kaestle, 1983; Reese, 2011) and Dewey’s progressive philosophy was how they addressed the issue of an emerging industrial society and how public schooling could best assist in furthering the democratic way of life.

     In the early nineteenth century in New England schools were not entirely free. All parents who could afford to do so paid tuition fees so their children could attend school; the local town itself paid for only the poor, or “charity” students. The situation in the Middle and Southern states was even worse; the only access to public elementary education was provided by church schools. In the South, of course, children of slaves were entirely excluded. Throughout the various states parents had to declare themselves paupers in order to send their children to schools without paying a fee. However, in the 1820s and 1830s, particularly in the North where textile factories were prevalent, the crusade for free, tax-supported public schools was launched. Mann would lead this crusade and by the end of the century Dewey continued this campaign for public schooling as the nation’s life became more influenced by science and industry, and as more people were directly impacted by urban industrialism. Public schools were now an extension of democratic equality.

     Furthering the democratic way of life was important to both Mann and Dewey. It was also tied to their belief in the importance of education for social justice. Mann promoted the concept of the Common School as a means for establishing good in society; it was better to serve the community than being fixated on profit and status. His educational philosophy was tied to moral instruction aimed at promoting proper human behavior to counter social indifference to human suffering. His influence on Dewey’s later thinking was profound. According to Curti (1959), “Mann did uphold the ideal that the true interests of the schoolroom were identical with the great interests of society—an ideal which John Dewey was much later to advocate with telling force” (p. 132). As Dewey would later insist at the turn of the new century, Mann argued for an education directed at social purposes and one for a changing world marked by the advent of industrialization. His development of the Common School idea, furthermore, was built upon the concept of political democracy, which would only succeed through a free and universal school system.

     Moreover, critical to Dewey’s reconstruction of philosophy was Mann’s argument for the Common School as a social center encouraging moral development for social justice. Dewey was indebted to Mann, according to Curti (1959), because he expanded upon Mann’s initial thoughts and adapted them to his own time and place during the Progressive era:

In its function as a social center the school must…develop morality by interpreting to the individual the intellectual and social meaning of the work in which he is engaged; it must further provide for bringing people and their ideas and beliefs together in such ways as to lessen friction and to introduce deeper sympathy and understanding. (p. 524)

     Dewey took Mann’s Common School for social justice one step further and popularized it with his own brand of progressive education. In a very important article “Horace Mann Today” (1936), Dewey noted that “Mann checked his faith in republican institutions by full acknowledgment of the multitude of evils in the conduct of government, the state of the electorate, and the corruption of business, which he saw growing all about him” (Dewey, 1936, p. 41). How Dewey framed his progressive education theories as a means for social justice was rooted in Mann’s own actions. Mann, according to Dewey, did not join “in urging restriction of popular government, [instead] he made the facts the basis of his passionate plea and his aggressive activity in the cause of universal free education. He saw intellectually and he felt emotionally a direct correlation between the…corrupt state of political life and the backward state of political life and the backward state of public education” (p. 41). The problem of defining the meaning of democracy and republican self-government “depended upon institution of a system of free schools” just as it was “in Mann’s time” (p. 42). Maintaining and reinforcing the public school system, Dewey insisted, “concerns every citizen who cares for the establishment of a truly democratic ways of life” and should be taken “as seriously as Mann took it in his day” (p. 42).

     Moreover, applying his pragmatism to education, Dewey noted that the mind of the individual pupil was an instrument shaped by the public school. Thinking is an activity, a symbolic activity as well as an embryonic act born out of an idea. What public schooling fosters is a rejection of the notion of elitism—associated with Charter Schools in which pupils begin to view themselves as different or better than those in the public system—while acquainting students with the problems of the day and encouraging the need to interact with ordinary people, the plain people as part of a classless society. This was the American experience he called for and one that, today, is being challenged by the Charter School Movement.

In turn, Dewey ran with Mann’s earlier views that the educational process carried out through public schooling was the greatest force in changing society since its primary goal was to have students continually focus on democratic ends as one community. Public schools, catering to all its pupils, were the best mechanism for allowing each student to realize his/her full potential only by cooperation within the community. Dewey stated (1916), “It is often well in considering educational problems to get a start by temporarily ignoring the school and thinking of other human situations” (p. 52). His belief that democracy extended beyond schools and incorporated an appreciation for all people, regardless of race, culture, gender, socioeconomic status or ethnicity.

Dewey’s Focus on Peace Education and Connection to Mann

     One of the clearest examples of the Mann-Dewey education connection, moreover, was their like views on the importance of world peace and criticisms of any efforts to introduce militarism in public schools. Militaristic values are autocratic and while there were private military academies to provide such training public schools act as a safeguard for preserving democratic openness of ideas. Mann insisted that schoolchildren should be taught that war is not necessarily heroic and demanded that school history textbooks devote less of their pages to the heroes of war. “What can save us, and our children after us, from eternal, implacable, universal war,” Mann queried, “but the greatest of all human powers—the power of impartial thought?” (Mann, 1855, p. 53) The issue of war, he strongly believed, “will never be settled, until we have a generation of men who are educated, from childhood, to seek for truth and to revere justice” (p. 53).

     In numerous lectures and essays, Mann condemned the art of war and questioned the need for huge military expenditures (Howlett & Harris, 2010). In later years, while serving as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts, he addressed cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. In that speech, he informed his audience that the growth of world trade, advanced technology, and greater human enlightenment portended the demise of modern warfare. In Mann’s estimation, “The object of the common Normal School is to teach teachers how to teach: so the object of the Academy is to teach killers how to kill” (Stomfay-Stitz, 1993, p. 23). Mann’s views were certainly in keeping with Dewey’s own perception on how education should approach matters related to war and peace. That was certainly made clear in one of Dewey’s pre-Columbia University lectures. “Yes it is true,” he told his University of Chicago students, “I think, as Horace Mann said, that one reformer is worth a thousand reformers.” “In other words,” he continued,

…the education that originally forms the mental attitude in a way which is helpful and significant, toward the desirable ends, is a much more economical and efficient way of getting the result than this more tentative and blind education which comes after habits and attitudes have become relatively fixed and set, and where the friction, the disturbance, the violence—emotional if not physical— and the uncertainty, the blundering, is more or less due to the premature fixation of disposition and habit. (p. 129)

The clearest evidence of Dewey’s connection to Mann’s views on peace education was Dewey’s direct participation in the 1920s and 1930s Committee on Militarism in Education. Like, Mann, Dewey opposed the authoritarian practices of military training as well as the emphasis on rigid conformity to drill. He found little educational value with respect to Teaching Social Studies: Vol. 19, No. 2, Summer-Fall 2019 73 enlightened reason. Dewey, in keeping with Mann’s views, considered education as a creative and self-developmental process; any form of strict discipline, which was being introduced in the form of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) on college campuses and the junior ROTC program in high schools, was considered counter-productive to his progressive education theories. It did little to advance Mann’s arguments that education seek truth and revere justice.

So concerned was Dewey about this movement to militarize the tone and temper of the nation’s life that he felt it his duty and obligation to acquaint the American public with the facts at hand. Is the reader aware, he wrote, “that the effort of this vested interest to militarize the country is operating deliberately and knowingly through the medium of our schools and colleges? Is he aware that the vested interest resorts to methods of aspersion and overt attack in order to intimidate those persons and organizations who oppose its efforts to get a strangle hold on our schools and in order to prevent students from being influenced by the facts and arguments these opponents present?” (Dewey, 1927a, p. 3) In his opinion, “Peoples do not become militaristic or imperialistic because they deliberately choose so to do. They become militaristic gradually and unconsciously in response to conditions of which militarism is the final consequence” (p. 4).

“Under the name of discipline and good order,” Dewey (1933/1971) also wrote in How We Think, “school conditions are often made to approximate as nearly as possible to monotony and uniformity. Desks and chairs are set in positions; pupils are regimented with military precision” (p. 53). Promoting militarism is schools posed a serious threat to democracy.” An education with “its passivity of attitude, its mechanical massing of children, its uniformity of curriculum and method” mirrors the type of training required of soldiers but does little to enhance student independence and free will (Dewey, 1899, p. 72).

     Mann also complained that the state was willing to pay a militia bounty of $30,000 to soldiers for three or four training sessions, which sum easily could have “sustained the sinking hearts of those females who keep school for a dollar a week or for nine pence a day” (StomfayStitz, 1993, pp. 23-24). Mann strongly believed that future generations should be “educated to that strength of intellect which shall dispel the insane illusions of martial glory” (Stomfay-Stitz, 1993, p. 23). The continuing dilemma facing American society remains how do we as a nation address the role of military expenditures versus human needs?

     Dewey raised this very same argument in the 1930s prior to America’s involvement in a second world war. He questioned why 80 percent of the national budget was allocated to paying for past and future wars in light of the War Policies Commission request for the conscription of four million men, with seven million more in reserve. Less than fourteen years after the armistice ending World War I was signed Dewey distressingly observed that “our military, naval and other future war expenditures are several hundred million dollars a year larger than before the ‘War to End War’” (Howlett & Cohan, 2016, p. 175).

     Even though Dewey believed that such social institutions as the home, local government, and church, rather than the school, were the basic force in shaping minds, he did not agree with the opinion of more conservative-minded educators that the school must passively accommodate itself to external exigencies, including those promoting military training in the nation’s schools and colleges. He envisioned the school as a basis for energetic change. He argued that the school could indeed become a dynamic rather than a reflexive agency—one that would search out and reinforce concrete patterns to remake society. This reconstructivist view acknowledges that society can transform itself while at the same time enabling students and communities to realize full potentiality in the process of change. According to Dewey, It is not whether the schools shall or shall not influence the course of future social life, but in what direction they shall do so and how. In some fashion or other, the schools will influence social life anyway. But they can exercise such influence in different ways and to different ends, and the important thing is to become conscious of these different ways and ends, so that an intelligent choice may be made….(p. 351) Public schooling will become less public, less democratic, less social and more selective if the martial spirit took hold of the consciousness of impressionable young minds.

Dewey’s Call for Public Education in the Spirit of Mann

     Dewey’s (1916) Democracy and Education is perhaps the strongest and most articulate call for public education as the foundation of democracy. Dewey (1916) stated “Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can only be created by education” (p. 83). Public education, for both Mann and Dewey, was the means for preparing citizens for democracy. They both believed that the engagement of children and parents in the community was the basic lesson for future participation in governance. Examples of this were the citizenship curriculums promoted by both Mann and Dewey in which schools—and their democratic processes—were microcosms of society. Nelson, Palonsky, and McCarthy (2013) noted that, “in recent years, political theorists and education scholars have reiterated the significance of public education to democracy” (p. 100).

  The objectives of public education have been undermined by the more recent growth in charter schools and the call for privatization by advocates. Many educators see the demand for charter schools as a deliberate dismantling of public education. The last three Presidents— George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barak Obama—supported charter schools as well as our current President, Donald Trump. Nelson et al., (2013) view the growth of private schools as a response to funding issues:

Over time, the idea of a public school system that deserved funding because it prepared citizens has been replaced by the idea that tax dollars should be used to improve the chances of individual children to obtain an education that will make them economically successful. Schooling was no longer seen as a way to achieve the ‘common good.’ Instead, its purpose was the ‘private good’ of individual children. (p. 59)

     As the debate between public and private continues, Stitzlein (2017) underscores the responsibility of citizens in “upholding a commitment to schools as a central institution of democracy” and defines this as “democracy in action” (p. 106). She notes that Dewey connects “the means and ends of preserving democracy” (p. 106) as highlighted in Dewey’s (1937) work, “Democracy is Radical.”

     Dewey’s commitment to public education for all as an extension of democratic citizenship also drew inspiration from noted social activist and settlement house reformer Jane Addams in the 1890s. Her attempts to reinforce the positive nature of liberal values with respect to adjustment for immigrants and wholesomeness for children become the basis for Dewey’s Laboratory School while teaching at the University of Chicago in the 1890s. “I cannot tell you how much good I got from my stay at Hull House,” he wrote to Addams. “My indebtedness to you for giving me insight into matter there is great….I think I got a pretty good idea of the general spirit and methods. Every day I stayed there only added to my conviction that you had taken the right way” and “I am confident that 25 years from now the forces now turned in upon themselves in various churches and agencies will be finding outlet largely through just such channels you have opened” (Dewey, January 27, 1892). Those channels also applied to how he would formulate his own progressive education theories in the new century.

     Using more recent terminology such as community service and socially transformative activity, schools are still able to make a direct connection to Dewey’s call for “reorganizing, reconstructing, transforming” (Dewey, 1916, p. 48). In The School and Society, Dewey (1899) argued that the role of school and education represented the best “means of seeing the progress of the human race” (p. 48). Similarly, in Dewey’s (1916) classic work, Democracy and Education, he postulated that

….it is the business of the school environment to eliminate, so far as possible, the unworthy features of the existing environment from influence upon mental habitudes. It establishes a purified medium of action. Selection aims not only at simplifying but at weeding out what is undesirable. (p. 20)

     Certainly, what Mann argued in the early part of the nineteenth century—and Dewey articulated at its conclusion and into the twentieth century— is that the fundamental bedrock for promoting the democratic way of life was through public education. The bond that ties Mann and Dewey was their steadfast faith in the Jeffersonian tradition. Mann saw it through the lens of an agrarian society, which was gradually being transformed into an industrial one; Dewey saw it during its mature industrial phase marked by rapid urbanization. In both cases, they rested their argument on the principle of egalitarianism; that is, the general diffusion of knowledge “should be the paramount concern of a republic society” (Cremin, 1965, p. 41).

Dewey’s Progressive Education Tied to Public Schooling

     Dewey developed his view of progressive education following the forty years of the     Common School Movement. During the 19th century, and throughout the Common School Movement, arguments about the role of morality were fought with schools as the backdrop. For example, levels of moral education (no longer based solely on religion), as well as a focus on community values, patriotism, and pledges were found in the tax-supported, locally controlled schools developed during the Common School Movement. Stevens, Wood, and Sheehan (2002) noted that “Dewey and his followers tried to leave the religious battles of the nineteenth century behind and engage school morality in the problems of the twentieth-century industrial society” (p. 153). Dewey’s progressivism, as reflected in classrooms, encouraged the students to be the facilitators of their own learning with respect for culture, interests, and preferences. Public schooling was the perfect experimental laboratory to carry out this mission. Much of the criticism launched at Dewey related to his progressive views on schooling were often labeled as overly permissive and too child-centered.

     Such criticism, however, was unwarranted, especially with respect to Dewey’s charges against the child-centered wing of the progressive education movement. Throughout his career, Dewey cautioned his fellow educators to be wary of fragmented curriculum. He encouraged progressive educators to establish an intellectual, coherent, and rigorous curriculum tied to life experiences. “The school is the one form of social life,” he wrote to his first wife, Alice Chipman Dewey, which is abstracted and under control—which is directly experimental, and if philosophy is ever to be an experimental science, the construction of a school is its starting point” (Dewey, November 1, 1894). Such construction, nevertheless, required that the curriculum be structured to highlight an associated way of life as part of defining the real meaning of public education.

     Furthermore, he laid out his objections to a faulty curriculum in a 1930 article that appeared in The New Republic. Dewey’s (1930) “How Much Freedom in New Schools?” noted sternly that

some of these [progressive] schools indulge pupils in unrestrained freedom of action and speech of manners and lack of manners. Schools farthest to the left (and there are many parents who share this fallacy) carry the thing they call freedom nearly to the point of anarchy. (p. 220)

More disconcerting, he added, is that Ultimately it is the absence of intellectual control through significant subject matter which stimulate the deplorable egotism, cockiness, impertinence and disregard for the rights of others apparently considered by some persons to be the inevitable accompaniment, if not the essence, of freedom. (p. 220)

    Educational historian Karier (1986) points out that “Dewey conceived human nature as plastic and learning as a rationally organized experience.” Consequently, he continues, “Neither conception is compatible with the romantic, child-centered educator who generally assumed the child’s nature to be innately good and thought of the learning process as unrestrained, real-life experience” (p. 147). In a very revealing speech to the Japan Education Association Dewey’s second wife, Roberta Lowitz Grant Dewey, wrote: “Now I shall tell you here what has never before been said, John Dewey did not put a label on his ideas of education—he never called it ‘progressive education.’ He told me that he never knew who initialed the phrase ‘progressive education’ because he regarded all education which was education in the real sense of the word, as ‘progressive” (Roberta Dewey, April 7, 1955). In his view “progressive” meant “public.”

How to Define a Democratic Classroom?

     Dewey’s (1916) Democracy and Education is the treatise for public education within a democratic society. When reading Dewey’s work, it becomes clear that he has tied together his vision for public education and a democratic way of life; highlighted in “democratic classrooms.” Dewey may have defined democratic classrooms differently than we do today—but how did he envision a democratic classroom? One interpretation is that democratic classrooms are safe classrooms which are free from bullying, teasing, or harassment. Carpenter (2018) argued that “democratic classrooms are safe classrooms in which students are free from intolerance and abuse” (p. 37).

     Other aspects to this definition that Dewey proposed remain relevant today. He raised several important questions critical to sustaining a democratic classroom. Dewey’s (1930) writing, “The Duties and Responsibilities of the Teaching Profession” posed the following:

  • (1) “Should criticism of the existing social order be permitted?” and “Can pupils really be educated to take an effective part in social life if all controverted questions are excluded?” (p. 226);
  • (2) “Do students go forth from the school without adequate consciousness of the problems and issues they will have to face?” (p. 226);
  • (3) “Can a vital professional spirit among teachers be developed” unless there is “a greater degree of realization of the responsibility that devolves upon educators for the social knowledge and interest which will enable them to take part in social leadership?” (p. 227);
  • (4) “Can the power of independent and critical thinking…be attained when the field of thought is restricted by exclusion of whatever related to controverted social questions?” (p. 227);
  • (5) “How far does this principle imply—that learning goes on most readily…when it grows out of actual experience—that the structure of economic and political activities, which affect out-of-school experience, should receive systematic attention in school” (p. 228)?;
  • (6) “How far is the working purpose of present school work…compatible with the professed objective of democratic cooperation?” (p. 228);
  • (7) “How can and should the schools deal with such questions as arise from racial color and class contact and prejudice?” and “What can and should the schools do to promote greater friendliness and mutual understanding among the various groups on our population?” (p. 228); and, lastly,
  • (8) “Does the teaching of patriotism tend toward antagonism toward other peoples?” and “How far should the teaching of American history be designed to promote ‘Americanism’ at the expense of historical facts?” (p. 228).

Most importantly, Dewey observed, “the isolation of the school from life is the chief cause for both inefficiency and lack of vitality in the work of instruction,” which mitigates an effective and meaningful democratic classroom when tackling “the larger issues and problems of our time” (p. 229).

The Historical Link of Public Education through the Lenses of Mann and Dewey

    Mann, committed to the idea of education for all as well as equal educational privileges, laid the groundwork for the progressives. Mann   stated, “Society does not exhibit a more instructive or salutary lesson, than those inequalities of actual condition which result from an unequal use of equal opportunities” (as cited in Stevens et al., 2002, p. 29). The concepts of equality and fairness resonated half a century later with the Progressivists led by Dewey. Involvement of the state(s) into the field of education, as well as the development of normal schools, were notable outcomes of the Common School Movement. The trajectory for state controlled educational policies and practices, as well as pre-service and in-service teacher preparation and certification are lasting initiatives of the Common School era and are benchmarks in the quest for public education.

    One lesser known initiative by Mann and discussed by Reese (2011) was his preference for standardized testing. “Despite his romantic leanings, Mann anticipated the standardized testing of the future by sponsoring citywide examinations in Boston in 1845 to demonstrate what children had learned at school, knowledge acquired by memorizing facts in textbooks” (p. 86). Years later, Dewey responded to this formalized curriculum by criticizing the memorization of facts from textbooks without critical thinking. However, Reese’s (2011) interpretation of Dewey stated, “Despite what some people believed, Dewey was never a romantic educator” (p. 140). Rather, Dewey’s extensive writing attacks the economic equalities and social injustices of the time. Yet Reese’s interpretation also brings up another important aspect to the historic arc of public education as seen through the lenses of Mann and Dewey.

Critical to any understanding of public education in American history has been its direct connection to a common culture, which, in turn, is tied to Mann’s and Dewey’s understanding of democracy. Both educational theorists recognized the need for social integration: Mann with the emerging working-class families of the textile mills in the northeast and Dewey with the immigrant populations in modern urban America. Both called for Common Schooling— one bringing together pupils from all economic classes, “creeds, and ethnic backgrounds into little ‘embryonic communities’” (Cremin, 1965, p. 61). What Mann introduced, Dewey concluded when he defined democracy as “primarily a mode of associated living” (Cremin, 1965, p. 62).

The noted educational historian Lawrence Cremin in his analysis of Mann and Dewey’s contributions to public schooling, points out that the key arc not to be overlooked is the “integrative power” of public education. What remains crucial today in terms of the new challenges presented by charter schools is that public schools exist for unification, not segregation and not separatism. As Cremin (1965) stated: For one thing, it [common schools] generated the kind of political support for public education that could and did easily cross class line. And for another, it led educators to attempt to make the schools ever more attractive to widely disparate groups. (p. 63) What public schooling accomplished was building those community relationships crucial to the democratic way of life.


Dewey’s twentieth century vision for democratic education was a critical component to his philosophy and educational theories and possibly one reason that over 100 years after his publication of The School and Society (1899), the necessity of public education is still at the center of scholarship. He continued the line of argument first promoted by Mann in order to further the democratic way of life. The legacy of Dewey as an educator, social justice activist, writer, and philosopher (Martin, 2003; Rockefeller, 1991) can be summed up by his quest for democratic public schools and equitable educational opportunities for all. His outstanding contributions to public education can be traced to the foundation for public education for all as championed by Horace Mann. The call for a “gentler philosophy” aligned—and perhaps led—to the core message of Dewey’s early writing. He is perhaps the nation’s greatest spokesperson championing the virtues of public schooling as the foundation for democratic values. What this research reveals is that without strong support for public schooling, the search for equitable access to learning for all will put in jeopardy the democratic way of life both Mann and Dewey envisioned for this “Great Community.”


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