Essay Topics On Progressivism

This article presents an overview of progressive education. Progressive education was part of a larger social movement that began at the turn of the twentieth century. Although conflicting ideas were sometimes proposed under the progressive label, making it difficult to define the movement as a whole, progressive education today is most closely associated with the work of John Dewey. John Dewey, often referred to as the greatest American philosopher of the twentieth century, believed that curriculum should be determined in part by the interests of the child, that education should serve the needs of the whole child, and that schools should help prepare students for participation in a democracy. Importantly, he also believed progressive education could help create a more egalitarian society. Progressivism was the dominant approach to education at various times throughout the twentieth century, but has largely fallen out of favor since the 1980s.

Keywords Dewey, John; Child-Centered Progressivism; Progressivism; Social Re-Constructionism; Social Reform Progressivism; The Progressive Era; Traditionalism


Many scholars use the pendulum as a metaphor to describe the history of educational philosophy and pedagogy in America (Hayes, 2007; Pogrow, 2006). Since the beginning of compulsory schooling in the late nineteenth century, beliefs about education have swung between two extremes known as traditionalism and progressivism. The pendulum has often swung quickly from one to the other, coinciding with larger cultural and social events, so that the history of education in America is characterized by clearly delineated turning points. Since the 1980s, however, traditionalism has dominated the public school system, and many argue that while progressivism may still inform specific educational practices, it is unlikely to emerge again as a broader educational movement (Hayes, 2007).

Before describing the many shifts between progressivism and traditionalism, it is important to first understand how these competing philosophies differ. This comparison is complicated by the fact that contradictory ideas have often flourished under the label of progressivism, so much so that some historians believe progressive education has become a 'meaningless term' (Hayes, 2007). Nevertheless, progressive education today is typically associated with one particular strand of progressivism - known both as child-centered progressivism and pedagogical progressivism - and can be characterized by the following (Labaree, 2005):

• Progressive educators believe education should be child-centered. The curricula should be determined, in part, by the interests and motivations of the individual child.

• Progressive educators believe the teacher should serve as a guide and facilitator, rather than someone who simply transmits knowledge to her students.

• Progressive educators believe students learn by doing. Proponents of experiential learning and problem-solving, progressives are critical of rote memorization, repetitive drilling of students, and lecture as dominant instructional methods.

• Progressive educators believe in the education of the whole child, including the child's intellectual, emotional, spiritual, moral, physical, and social development.

• Progressive educators believe self-control and responsibility should be fostered within each child, so that discipline is self-imposed rather than administered by an external authority figure.

• Progressive educators believe schools are a vehicle for social reform; by giving all children access to education, schools can help alleviate racial and social inequality, and prepare students to become active and engaged citizens in a democratic society.

By contrast, traditionalists favor teacher-centered classrooms; a standardized curriculum that emphasizes the basics such as English, history, science, and math; the use of textbooks and lectures as the primary means through which knowledge is transmitted to students; classroom management principles that rely on the teacher as disciplinarian; and methods of evaluation that measure students' recall as an indication of learning (Labaree, 2005).

Although progressivism is now often associated with education and schooling, as a philosophy it was a part of a much larger social movement. The decades between 1880 and 1930 are referred to as "The Progressive Era" and marked a period of American history during which the country was transitioning from an agrarian society to an industrial one. Reformers sought to address what they viewed as the evils of industrialism, and demanded that the government regulate industry, conserve resources, and look after the welfare of its citizens (Semel & Sadovnik, 1999). Reformers also advocated universal schooling, and believed education could eradicate some of society's ills.

It was within this social and political climate that John Dewey - the philosopher whose name is most closely associated with progressive education - became a major influence in American education. As professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy, Psychology, and Pedagogy at the University of Chicago, Dewey created the Laboratory School in 1894, where he was able to implement and test many of his progressive pedagogical practices. In the decades that followed, a number of independent schools were founded throughout the country, modeled after the Laboratory School and its principles.

While Dewey's contribution to the movement is immeasurable, progressivism was much larger than any single individual or any collection of independent schools. In fact, three different strands of progressive education flourished in the early twentieth century (Semel & Sadovnik, 1999). The first strand, modeled after the child-centered pedagogy of John Dewey and G. Stanley Hall, advocated individualized instruction tailored to the developmental stage and interests of the child. The second strand, known as social re-constructionism, emphasized community and the development of a more egalitarian society through schooling. The third strand, known both as administrative progressivism and social reform, emphasized the role of the environment in teaching and learning. Associated with the work of Edward L. Thorndike, and concerned with efficiency and scientific management of schools, administrative progressivism led to practices such as intelligence testing, the separation of students according to ability, and vocational education (Semel & Sadovnik, 1999). One historian argues that "one cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the twentieth century unless one realizes that Edward L. Thorndike won and John Dewey lost" (as quoted in Laboree, 2005, p. 280).

Yet, child-centered progressivism was a strong enough collective movement in the early twentieth century to support its own organization. The Progressive Education Association (PEA), whose membership peaked during the Great Depression, became best known for authoring the "Eight Year Study." The study proved that students educated in non-traditional academic settings did just as well, if not better, than their traditionally schooled counterparts - on measures of intellectual curiosity, extracurricular participation, drop-out rates, and grades - in both high school and college (Feldmann & Watson, 2003). The study - once referred to as “the best-kept educational secret of the twentieth century” - had little impact on the educational community (as quoted in Hayes, 2007, p. 28).

For 30 years, the principles of the Progressive Education Association and the progressive education movement would “fundamentally alter the course of American education” (Little, 2013). However, in the 1950s a “conservative swing of politics rendered the movement out of favor with the American education establishment” (Little, 2013).

Indeed, when John Dewey died in 1952, he had a mostly pessimistic view of the impact of progressivism, believing that it had failed to penetrate the foundations of educational institutions in America (Hayes, 2007). He may have been his own harshest critic at the time, but he would soon be joined by a chorus of critical voices. It was during this decade that traditionalists accused progressive educators of being anti-intellectual, and argued for a return to the basics of math, science, history, and English. Their concerns were fueled, in large part, by the Cold War, which would dominate U.S. foreign policy in the coming decades. With an aim toward winning the arms race with Russia, educators began emphasizing the importance of science and math education; when the Russians launched Sputnik in 1958, beating the U.S. into space, traditionalists' recommendations took on a new sense of urgency.

Many might have guessed that the launching of Sputnik was the last nail in progressivism's coffin, but once again, larger cultural and social shifts during the 1960s and 1970s impacted education significantly, and the progressive movement found itself reborn. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr.; the civil rights movement; the launching of the federal government's War on Poverty; and the war in Vietnam fostered a spirit of rebellion and need for change that trickled down to America's schools. Educators experienced a renewed commitment to issues of equity and access, while once again reevaluating traditional methods of...

Essay on Progressivism

Thesis statement: it is hypothesized that Progressivism was a wide and varied movement that changed American values and lifestyles having everlasting impact on American history.


Progressivism, ranging from 1880 to 1920, was a well-planned and well-organized movement in the United States having wide as well as diversified goals. Leaders of progressivism movement focused on humanity element and tried to make advancements by promoting liberation to stimulate human force along with exploiting human potential to remove restraints imposed by contemporary liberalization. The paper will present an overview of Progressivism as a wide and varied movement. It will also discuss the goals of movement and mention some of the prominent people who took part in it. At the end, the significance of Progressivism to America will also be highlighted.

Progressivism - A Wide and Varied Movement

Progressivism expanded in American cities and confronted political mechanism full of monopolies and corrupt leaders. For the resolution of diversified problems existing at the local and state levels, progressivism focused on promoting idea of public ownership of government run by professional city bosses. Leaders of the movement strived to resolve the issues created by the wave of industrialization. At the time of movement the main problems confronted by the American society was the gigantic growth of cities and industries. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans started migrating to the northern cities. This huge wave of migration being main cause of growth coupled with disastrous working conditions presented a worse scenario.

The new comers strived to adapt to entirely new conditions at one hand while trying hard to maintain their distinctive culture and language system on the other creating a complex situation. Wealth concentrated in few hands and a large segment of people were caught in the vicious circle of poverty. Low wage-rates, dangerous working conditions, and long working hours were among several grave problems faced by most of the Americans. Swift technological advancements and rapid speed of industrialization altered the life styles of Americans.

In this context, progressive leaders advocated and strived to introduce reforms for solving the grave issues. Progressivism movement was wide in nature with varying goals. It introduced urban reforms and had offensive attitude towards dishonest leaders and corrupt political system. Leaders of progressive movement favored taking ownership of public utilities by government supporting different social welfare programs to resolve mainly the problems of immigrants, working class, and poor. At the state level, Progressive movement introduced specific democratic reforms. The purpose of democratic reforms was to allow American citizens to select leaders as per their choice, independently and freely.

Basically, the roots of Progressivism had been in the transitional era of United States from a nation comprising farmers to a nation of consumers and employees manipulated by large firms, exploiting and misusing resources, supported by the corrupt government. Progressive movement started with the intentions to rectify these problems. Moreover, it focused on providing solutions to the issues raised by urbanization and industrialization, as discussed above.

Progressive leaders felt that their democratic reforms were threatened by the corrupt governmental policies and dishonest leaders. Progressivism confronted ending corporate power and to abolish monopolies. Democracy, they believed, was the solution of problems faced by most of the Americans, especially lower class. They tried to protect working people and aimed to break the vicious circle of poverty by eliminating the gap between different social classes.

It is pertinent to mention that Progressive movement was wide in a sense that it included both Democrats and Republicans. The movement heavily impacted the political structure at local, state, and national levels. It had significant influence on cultural and social life of America. It was, in fact, a dynamic movement introducing reforms at varied platforms including democratic, social, and political fronts. The agenda also had variety and diversification. It comprises social as well as political agenda. However, the main aims were elimination of corruption, protecting common people especially lower- class, elimination the continuous gap between different social classes, and promoting scientific as well as technological developments ensuring welfare of people.

With varying nature and wider in scope, Progressivism concentrated on providing effective tools to build trust of people in government and business organizations. However, a small group in the Progressive movement also supported ownership of production by government. Amendments to the Constitution showed their priorities at the political front as they provided new ways for electing senators and tried to eliminate monopolies. The wide spectrum of Progressivism can be viewed from the fact that not only it focused on fighting at the political platform, the movement tried to address the problem of urbanization. It is also pertinent to highlight the shortcomings of Progressive movement as their failure in the areas of limiting child labor and not addressing racial problems of blacks especially African Americans who had migrated from South. At the end of first phase of Progressive movement ranging from 1880 to 1920, the election of 1912 was fought by contenders with Progressive approach having varied goals from different labor issues to problems at political as well as social level. More power was given to Congress in this era. Election of Senators was to be made by the public and women gained voting powers in this particular era.

Goals of Progressivism and People who Took Part in It

Progressivism was a movement starting at the end of nineteenth century (1880) and ended in the second decade of twentieth century (1920). In this era tremendous changes at the economic, social, and political level were made. People taking part in the movement had diversified backgrounds, different political views, and varied social interests. It included political leaders from both Democrats and Republicans. The movement was led by people of different groups comprising teachers, political leaders, labor leaders, religious leaders, journalists, from both genders. It included famous people like; Theodore Roosevelt- President of the United States; Woodrow Wilson- President of the United States; Robert M. La Follette, former governor of Wisconsin.

Muckrakers, a group of journalists such as Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, exposed corruption practices in government and highlighted business scandals. They portrayed the miserable working conditions of poor and exploitations of large industries along with issues of concentration of wealth. Henry Ford introduced a lucrative pay scale for his workers during Progressive era. Among prominent ladies were Lucy Burns- an advocate of women's rights, and Jane Adams- a social worker and first women winner of the Noble Peace Prize. As regards goals of Progressivism, one of them was 'social welfare' aiming to provide social justice to everyone irrespective of social class. It strived to eliminate differences in social classes and supported attaining social justice by promoting the idea of charity and welfare by large organizations. For this purpose a large force comprising social workers was prepared and trained to perform their task effectively. Second goal of Progressivism was 'promotion of moral improvement', for example women's Suffrage by providing women the right to vote. Certain prohibition laws were introduced, for example Progressive leaders were of the view that usage of alcohol limited thinking and working of a person. Third goal was to provide 'economic reforms' by regulating especially large corporations to ensure independence and remove restrictions imposed by capitalism. The fourth main goal of Progressivism was 'efficiency'. Among other ideas, it included creating professional city manager to run affairs at local, state, and national level more effectively. Moreover, leaders of Progressivism reduced powers given to local wards through effective organization of city governments.

Lasting Significance of Progressivism to American History

The Progressive period is known for its tremendous successful efforts having everlasting impact on American economy and society by making remarkable changes at the social, economical, and political levels. Although, reformers of this movement belonged to a diversified group from labor and religious leaders, journalists, politicians, and teachers- both men and women- one thing common among them was to protect people, especially working class, solve problems of urbanization and industrialization, and concentrate on social welfare of American people. At the end of the movement by 1920, newly formed laws at state, local, and national level changed the entire scenario of America in all three major areas; economic, social, and political, having everlasting impact on the country.


Efforts have been made in the paper to present everlasting impact of Progressivism - a wide and varied movement from 1880 to 1920- that brought tremendous changes at the economic, social, and political levels of America. Goals of the movement and people who took part in it have also been highlighted. On the basis of arguments presented in paper it is concluded that Progressivism movement had an everlasting impact on America changing American values and lifestyles.

0 thoughts on “Essay Topics On Progressivism”


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *