Radical Roots

January 11, 2016

When they first conceived of Sarah Lawrence College, William Van Duzer Lawrence and then president of Vassar Henry Noble MacCracken drew heavily on progressive education ideas advanced by John Dewey. They set out to create a college where students could direct their own studies—a radical notion in 1920s America. Nearly a century later, Sarah Lawrence remains Ahead of the Curve.

Excerpted from Setting a New Ship A'Sail: The Founding of Sarah Lawrence College by Elizabeth Sargent

…MacCracken embraced the ideas of philosopher and educator John Dewey who believed that education could be a lever for social change by encouraging responsibility and individualism. The progressive education movement, based in part on Dewey's ideas, promoted creative expression, self-motivation, and individualized instruction, particularly in the elementary, junior high and high schools.

As an admirer of Dewey, MacCracken believed that colleges should give students control of their studies, allow them to direct their own goals, and encourage them to minister to society. When he became president of Vassar in 1915, his first concern was to update the curriculum to reflect these principles, and he tried to introduce several new courses. Some of these, such as a course called "euthenics," appeared to be an interdisciplinary approach to incorporating women's traditional roles into the pure and social sciences, but the new curriculum was not well received by the faculty. Frustrated by Vassar's resistance to what he perceived to be an innovative program, MacCracken saw Lawrence's proposal as a fresh opportunity to put his educational views into practice.

Continue reading this article in the Fall 2015 online issue of Sarah Lawrence magazine