Rethinking American Education in the Progressive Era

AHA Session 180
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 3
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Colorado Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
James L. Leloudis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
James L. Leloudis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Session Abstract

During the Progressive Era, American public education underwent a dramatic expansion and transformation, as school reformers rethought its organization, governance, curriculum and goals.  Historians of education have variously described it as a reflection of the progressive impulse writ large, an effort to find a “one best system,” or a project of social control.  As arguably the largest, most expensive, most invasive public project of the early twentieth century, public education was an important project worthy of study in its own right.  The papers on this panel go beyond these traditional frameworks for thinking about education reform in the period by drawing new questions and insights from new historical scholarship of the Progressive Era and twentieth century, including studies of American empire, “de facto” segregation and the spatial and structural dimensions of metropolitan inequity, and political development and state-building.  Individually and collectively, the papers on this panel offer new ways to think about the dynamics and significance of education reform and to rethink the history of education.    

However, at the same time, the papers explore how school reform intersected with and helped to shape other reform efforts and public policies in the period, including social welfare policies and state-building, imperialism, racial control, and residential segregation.  Karen Benjamin’s paper, for example, shows how residential segregation was actively structured within the urban South in the era in large part through school policies and building strategies.  Sarah Manekin’s paper explores the ways in which schooling was central to the American imperial project.  Tracy Steffes’ paper examines schooling as an underappreciated site of social governance over children, exploring how new state health, welfare, and labor policies were applied to children through the compulsory school.  Joan Malczewski explores schools as state-building projects, analyzing how private philanthropies sponsored educational reforms that expanded the public infrastructure for black education in ways that had myriad consequences.    

Consequently, the papers on this panel not only “rethink” American education, but they explore its connection to other public policies and projects in the era.  They thus also offer starting points to “rethink” major themes and problems in the Progressive Era and to demonstrate the salience of public schooling to them.

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