NUMBER 1062 • 11 OCTOBER • natural learning
“If I should tell you any secret of my life,” Francis W. Parker once wrote in a reminiscence, “it is the intense desire I have to see growth and improvement in human beings. I think that is the whole secret of my enthusiasm and study, if there be any secret to it, my intense desire to see mind and soul grow.” 3
Dewey once referred to Parker as the “father of progressive education”; certainly he was the first home-grown hero of the progressive education movement. Born in New Hampshire in the fall of 1837, he had embarked at the age of sixteen on a career as a country schoolmaster, interrupting it in 1862 to serve in the Union Army (whence the title “Colonel,” which he retained for the rest of his days). On his return from service, he found himself increasingly troubled with the ordinary school practices of his time, and during a period of teaching in Dayton, Ohio, he began avidly to read the works of contemporary educational theorists. When an aunt died and left him a small legacy, he decided to follow Horace Mann’s example and spend a period of study in Europe. In his two-and-a-half years abroad, he not only attended lectures at the University of King William in Berlin, but traveled widely through Holland, Switzerland, Italy, France, and Germany, eagerly observing the leading pedagogical innovations of the day. On his return to the United States, Parker was determined to sponsor similar changes in American education.
His opportunity was not long in coming. In 1873 the school board of Quincy, Massachusetts, sensing that all was not right with the system, decided to conduct the annual school examinations in person. The results were disastrous. While the youngsters knew their rules of grammar thoroughly, they could not write an ordinary English letter. While they could read with facility from their textbooks, they were utterly confused by similar material from unfamiliar sources. And while they spelled speedily through the required word lists, the orthography of their letters was atrocious. The board left determined to make some changes, and after a canvass of likely candidates, elected Parker to the Quincy superintendency of schools.
Things soon began to happen. The set curriculum was abandoned, and with it the speller, the reader, the grammar, and the copybook. Children were started on simple words and sentences, rather than the alphabet learned by rote. In place of time-honored texts, magazines, newspapers, and materials devised by the teachers themselves were introduced into the classroom. Arithmetic was approached inductively, through objects rather than rules, while geography began with a series of trips over the local countryside. Drawing was added to encourage manual dexterity and individual expression. The emphasis throughout was on observing, describing, and understanding, and only when these abilities had begun to manifest themselves-among the faculty as well as the students were more conventional studies introduced.4
The program was an immediate success and attracted national attention as the “Quincy System.” Teachers, school superintendents, and newspapermen descended on the schools in such numbers as to require restrictions to prevent interference with the daily work. Interestingly enough, Parker himself decried the fuss, protesting that there was nothing at all novel about the Quincy approach. “I repeat,” he wrote in his report of 1879, “that I am simply trying to apply well-established principles of teaching, principles derived directly from the laws of the mind. The methods springing from them are found in the development of every child. They are used everywhere except in school. I have introduced no new principle, method, or detail. No experiments have been tried, and there is no peculiar ‘Quincy System’ ” 5
Cremin, L., A. (1964) The transformation of the school: Progressivism in American Education 1876-1957. New York: Vintage Books Editions, pp. 128-130