A Survey of All Knowledge

Today’s blogger is Daniel Tanner, Board Chair of the Daniel Tanner Foundation. He reflects here on the writings of Frank Lester Ward, the subject of an article recently published in The Educational Forum.

In early 1961, while attending the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association in Los Angeles, the announcement was made that the book The Transformation of the School by Lawrence Cremin had just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history.

Unfortunately, the publisher’s representative at the conference had no copies for sale at the meetings. I soon obtained a copy after I returned home and found that once I opened the pages I could not put it down.

Beautifully written, yet richly documented, the book told the story of the life and passing of the movement for progressive education that was part of the larger social movement of progressivism in America from 1876 to 1957.

In Transformation I found only passing mention on how, early on in John Dewey’s tenure at the University of Chicago, a colleague there, Albion Small, called Dewey’s attention to a book by Lester Frank Ward that had been massively ignored and virtually forgotten.

Had it not been for Small, according to Cremin, “a whole generation of educators might well have missed his work.” Ward’s ideas on education, as outlined by Cremin, were profound and fascinating to my mind, but all too brief with no mention of how Dewey drew upon Ward’s ideas. And so I obtained from interlibrary loan a copy of Ward’s massive and musty two-volume work published in 1883, Dynamic Sociology or Applied Social Science.

Tracing every source I could find on Ward’s life and work, I found that Dynamic Sociology sold very poorly, fewer than 500 copies in 10 years. The two volumes ended with a concluding chapter of almost 100 dense pages under the title Education. The footnote on the first page of the chapter explained that it was “an abridgement of a far more extended treatise actually written ten years earlier” (1873).

Cremin’s Transformation begins with the year 1876, marking the opening of the progressive movement in American education. In the final chapter of Ward’s magnum opus, Ward presented his vision of the three universal curriculums to meet the needed democratic prospect for the 20th century. Ward admitted that no one knew the shape or form that would be taken by the three universal curriculums, but he presented in detail the guiding principles for the new curriculum synthesis that was left for John Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1916).

The lives of Ward and Dewey could not have been more different: Dewey, from a long line of Vermont heritage and security, and Ward from the American heartland and early years of laborious work and struggle. Largely self-educated, Ward managed to obtain degrees to qualify for careers in law and medicine, but his passion was in natural science.

Dewey’s opportunity for higher education was smoothly available in his chosen field of philosophy. Whereas Dewey did not discard the remnants of religious sentiment until his earliest adult years, Ward was an iconoclast, and examined deeply the comparative origins and influences of science and religion in society. Both men were greatly influenced by Darwin’s findings and ideas.

Ward held that through the evolution of the human brain, humanity was empowered to direct the progression of civilization. Ward and later Dewey contended that the course of human progress was to be shaped by scientific method or “the method of intelligence,” released through universal educational opportunity to meet the democratic educational prospect.

After working as a paleontologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, Ward’s writings eventually drew recognition to the extent that he became recognized as the founder of the field of sociology, although one could say it was the entire broad field of social science, as indicated in the title of Ward’s masterwork. At age 65, Ward was invited to join the faculty of Brown University. He was truly an orchestral man, so it seemed fitting that students at Brown flocked to his course, A Survey of All Knowledge. At his passing in 1913 at the age of 72, Ward’s copious collection of notebooks and records were burned by his wife.

Daniel Tanner is Professor Emeritus in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. He is author of Crusade for Democracy: Progressive Education at the Crossroads (SUNY Press, 2015), and coauthor (with Laurel Tanner) of History of the School Curriculum (Macmillan, 1990) and Curriculum Development: Theory Into Practice (4th ed., Pearson, 2007). 

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