Schoolchildren may not fully appreciate the opportunity to receive an education, but it wasn't so long ago that instruction in the arts and sciences was reserved for a privileged few. Fortunately, concerned educators have worked to provide schools for all children and to develop the most effective teaching methods possible. Here, we feature two such reformers: Emma Willard and John Dewey.

Emma Hart Willard (1787-1870)

Unidentified photographer
Photograph, brown-toned platnum print, circa 1900 after circa 1850 daguerreotype, NPG.81.111
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Gift of Emma Willard School

The sixteenth of seventeen children, Emma Hart Willard grew up on a Connecticut farm in an age that generally thought most females incapable of absorbing much formal learning beyond the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Her father, however, did not take that view, and while she was taught the domestic arts that were to prepare her for future duties as a wife, in addition her father often made time with her to discuss abstract ideas such as philosophy and to encourage her pursuit of learning. Emma responded eagerly to this encouragement and in 1802 enrolled in the Berlin Academy. Within two years, she was teaching the school's younger pupils, and in 1806, she took over the task of running the entire academy for a term.

Soon after accepting a teaching position in Middlebury, Vermont, she met her future husband, physician John Willard. As was the custom, she abandoned her career in order to fulfill her domestic duties. However, the thought of educational discrimination against girls continued to bother her, and in 1814 Willard opened the Middlebury Female Seminary in her own home. The term "seminary" implied advanced learning in classics, arts, and sciences--a curriculum traditionally reserved for males. To prepare herself to teach these subjects, she tried to take classes at Middlebury College. Not surprisingly, the college denied her entrance because of her sex. Instead, she was forced to remedy the situation through a combination of self-instruction and tutelage from sympathetic friends. This stopgap measure proved adequate, and her seminary was soon offering ample demonstration that girls could meet the challenges of a rigorous academic program.

In 1819, Willard saw an opportunity to open her own school in Waterford, New York. Hoping to earn state financial support for the venture, she published An Address to the Public; Particularly to the Members of the Legislature of New-York, Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education, which described the benefits to society of better education for women. The pamphlet's well-stated arguments eventually exercised considerable influence in raising standards in female education. It did not, however, win state funding. Instead, the town of Troy, New York, provided the money, and in 1821, Willard opened the Troy Female Seminary, a private secondary school for girls. This institution, the first of its kind in the United States, continues today as the Emma Willard School.

Willard never advocated a radical alteration of women's role in society, but she did insist that girls were intellectually just as capable as boys. Along with the traditional academic subjects, a student at the Troy Female Seminary learned the art of being a "lady." Indeed, Willard was well known for her impeccable grace and style, which she imparted to a whole generation of America's elite young women. More importantly, Willard proved the ability of women to learn and teach. Graduates of the school were in high demand to staff the growing number of public schools for both girls and boys. By the end of her life, Willard could take satisfaction in an educational system that, thanks in part to her own efforts, included many more opportunities for women as both students and teachers.

John Dewey (1859-1952)

Josef Breitenbach (1896-1984)
Photograph, 1943, NPG.87.147
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

John Dewey was not only an influential philosopher and a respected experimental psychologist, but he was an educator and a social reformer as well. The son of a grocer, he attended public schools in his hometown of Burlington, Vermont. Later he graduated from the University of Vermont and taught school in rural Pennsylvania. Perhaps it was these origins that prompted Dewey's faith in the common man. Though he went on to spend his professional life in the elite circles of America's finest universities, he never lost sight of the needs and potential of ordinary citizens.

Dewey's philosophy was largely a reaction to the rising importance of science during the late nineteenth century. How, Dewey wondered, could the scientific method be applied to shaping individual and social behavior? For him, the answer lay in a process of enlightened inquiry, in which men and women engaged in experimentation and evaluation to determine the best course of action. Not only could individuals use the process to benefit their own lives, but whole nations could do the same through democratic participation. Thus, rather than reacting passively to the environment, both individuals and nations could assert a measure of control over their destinies by making informed choices.

The key, Dewey felt, was to train people from childhood in the art of rational deliberation. At the time, traditional schooling relied on rote memorization, strict discipline, and a minimum of student input. Dewey envisioned a student-centered environment, in which teachers adapted their curriculum to the needs and abilities of each child. The object was to help children use knowledge and experience to solve a wide variety of problems, not just achieve a mere absorption of facts and information. By taking advantage of the controlled atmosphere of the classroom, teachers could prepare students to grapple with the complexities of the real world.

Dewey published his philosophy in numerous writings, including The School and Society (1899), The Child and the Curriculum (1902), and Democracy and Education (1916). In addition, his ideas were put into practice at the Dewey School, now known as the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, founded and run by Dewey from 1896 to 1904. Still in existence today, the Lab School served as a testing ground for the latest theories of pedagogy and child psychology. Dewey's work perfectly captured the scientific spirit of the age, and progressive reformers quickly adopted his ideas in classrooms across the country. Eventually the progressive education movement would be harshly criticized for pampering children at the expense of academic performance, and even Dewey disapproved of its excesses. Nevertheless, many of Dewey's ideas have persisted in classrooms and schools around the world. More important, his philosophy has been the inspiration for many who hoped for rational, democratic solutions to the great social challenges of the twentieth century.

Department of Education
Educational Resources Information Center
Eisenhower National Clearinghouse
National Education Association
Association of American Educators
Association of Teacher Educators
The Education Alliance
Teach For America

Emma Willard
The Emma Willard School
The Biographical Overview of Emma Hart Willard
Educating Women in America, by Sally Schwager

John Dewey

Center for Dewey Studies, Southern Illinois University
American Philosophical Association