History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Education in the 1920s

Many would call the decade of the American 1920s the decade of the Progressive Movement in Education. Progressive education espoused an experiential philosophy; an education derived more from the student than from the teacher. It was a student-driven, student-centered concept of education that attempted to foster the precarious balance between individualism and collectivism. It was a grand and idealistic experiment, indeed. Leading this pedagogical foray was the unassuming, bespectacled former school teacher, John Dewey. It may be argued that Dewey single-handedly moved notions of progressive education into the educational forefront often with both criticism and cynicism. Yet despite such ideological and practical obstacles, Dewey's progressive ideal did take root. Bastions of American teachers became enamored with this ìnewî education. Yet Dewey's influence in the promotion of progressive education can not be confined to the American shores. Indeed, it is during the 1920s that Dewey moves from an American education to truly one of international stature.

At the behest of the Commissar of Education, in 1928 John Dewey, along with a delegation of twenty-four other educational figures, traveled to the fledgling Soviet Union. Much of the communist ideal espoused in the heyday of 1917 had never materialized. The Soviet educational ideal of collective ìliberationî lay in shambles. It is the individual (student) -collective (society) tenet of Deweyís progressive education that so appeals to Soviet educators. Progressive education is seen as the panacea of Soviet societal ills. John Dewey, the physician on-call.

What is most striking about this period in the life of both John Dewey and progressive education is the influence of John Dewey, the man, and the transience of progressive education, the movement. In the 1920s, Dewey travels to China and Turkey, with the blessings of respective heads of state, in the hopes of resuscitating ailing educational systems. In this light, one may comfortably state that progressive education may indeed have been an American construct, yet it would be folly to believe that the influence - the power and allure - of progressive education was geographically and ideologically confined to the American shores. Progressive education, indeed, had an international reach.

What can clearly be seen in this period called the Roaring 20s is the international flavor the decade adopted. Coming off the heels of the Great War, the 1920s were to be a time of healing, a time of reconciliation and a time of national focus, if you will; the age of internationalism was waning. Yet, international factionalism, soon raised its ugly and bloody head as the lessons of carnage inspired by such partisanship were soon forgotten.

At home, it is during the 1920s that the impact of the second great wave of immigration is being felt. This human swell had a rippling effect that impacted business, politics, and education. Though the privileged of the Gilded Age lived in impervious opulence, for the newly-arrived immigrant, the 1920s were a precarious balance between opportunity and hope, of dreams realized and lives shattered. Yet arguably the most tangible (some may say intangible) result of this immigration explosion was the rise of xenophobia. The "Americaness" of American was under siege.

Abroad, while some were licking their self-inflicted wounds of World War I, many found the 1920s and 1930s a golden opportunity for ideological and military positioning. With many countries retreating into the supposed safety of isolationism, others found complacency antithetical to the fulfillment of national goals and objectives. It is just such national goals and objectives that ignited the fury in 1939 Poland.

It is in this arena of international upsurge that John Dewey materialized. Traveling to China, Turkey, and the Soviet Union in a time of national crisis, Dewey, and his promise of a 'new' education was seen as the compass needed to guide these faltering and listless countries. Dewey's education was a temporary pacifier in an age of international tension.


------------ (1928). New schools for a new era. In Boydston, J. (Ed). (1983). John Dewey: The later works, 1925-1953. Volume 3. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University.

Bereday, G., Brickman, W., & Read, G. (Eds). (1970). The changing Soviet school: The comparative education society field study in the USSR. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Dewey, J. (1924). What are the Russian schools doing? In Boydston, J. (Ed). (1983). John Dewey: The later works, 1925-1953. Volume 3. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University.

Dykhuizen, G. (1973). The life and mind of John Dewey. London: Feffer & Simons, Inc.

Prepared by: Tim Lintner (UCLA)

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