John Dewey’s 1902 Fight for Music Education

Dewey in 1902, the year he fought for music in the Laboratory School.

Dewey in 1902, the year he argued for music in the Laboratory School.

[Update: here’s a link to my full article on Dewey and music education in the Journal of Research in Music Education (published in 2020).]

That the history of fighting for music education programs goes back over one hundred years is disheartening, but it is a comfort to realize that educators often had amazing allies. During a research visit to the Center for Dewey Studies I came across 1902 correspondence in which John Dewey argued to keep music education at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. Below, I share an abbreviated version as a contribution to Music in Our Schools Month, particularly for those currently working to keep quality programs in place during difficult economic times.

Dewey opened the Laboratory School in 1896, and he made sure that music was included. In his 1899 book The School and Society, he discussed the importance of music and art in education:

If I do not spend a large amount of time in speaking of the music and art work, it is not because they are not considered valuable and important—certainly as much so as any other work done in the school, not only in the development of the child’s moral and æsthetic nature, but also from a strictly intellectual point of view. I know of no work in the school that better develops the power of attention, the habit of observation and of consecutiveness, of seeing parts in relation to a whole. (Middle Works, v.1 p. 64)

Music had a place at the Laboratory School, but William Rainey Harper, President of the University of Chicago, put it on the chopping block when discussing a deficit in 1902. Harper wrote to Dewey:

The deficit on the School of Education is about $15,000. This, of course, is three times as much as we thought it would be. I do not think it wise to spend so much money as $2130 for Music… When a larger number of students come we ought to be able to do more things, but with a hundred students, it seems quite impossible to appropriate as much as $2130 for their instruction in Music, considering how small an amount of music they have. I shall be glad to have you think the matter over. (August 12, 1902 letter from William Rainey Harper to John Dewey)

Dewey replied to Harper two weeks later, noting the important role played by Eleanor Smith, who had founded the Hull-House School of Music in 1893:

The music is the weakest point in the professional instruction of the school. Miss Eleanor Smith, as you probably know, is a very remarkable musician and teacher, and will add both strength and dignity to the school. As a matter of general policy in the future, it seems to me that it may be wise to provide especially for those lines of instruction not provided for regularly in the colleges (the manual and fine arts, pedagogy, etc.). (August 26, 1902 letter from John Dewey to William Rainey Harper)

Harper’s reply backed down a bit, but also pulled an all-too-familiar move—trying to spread the cost by making the music teacher itenerant:

I agree with you that the music is a very important element and I take it that Miss Smith is the best woman we can secure, but it is a very necessary thing to reduce the expenses of the school in certain directions… I am quite anxious to have the music thoroughly developed. I am wondering whether Miss Smith cannot for the sum named do some work also in connection with the South Side Academy…” (September 24, 1902 letter from William Rainey Harper to John Dewey)

In the end, Dewey prevailed, and Miss Smith worked with the Lab School until 1904, alongside other music teachers. Some of what happened in the music classes is evident in a letter to the public concerning a program just before Thanksgiving, two months after Dewey and Harper corresponded. The program lists the musical numbers and games, and is strikingly familiar in its basic form to many programs I still see these days. Here’s an excerpt:

MARCH: Enterance of kindergarten, 1st., 2nd., 3rd., and 4th grades last with chairs.
Music: Come Ye Thankful People Come
MUSIC: Canticle
MUSIC: Hurrah Boys.
MUSIC: Wake Viol and Flute.
MARCH: During this the little children go out carrying the chairs

Games by kindergarten and 1st Grade
Indian Games 2nd Grade
PARTY: Over the hills, 3rd Grade. Scene from Miles Standish, 5th Grade. French Play by 6th Grade. Primary grades dismissed. 7th and 8th Grades Party (November 23 letter from University of Chicago Laboratory School to To whom it may concern)

The pleasure of working in an archive is that there is always the chance to come across something like this, and to share discoveries with others. Many music educators have experienced some version of Dewey’s story (budget cuts threaten music, appeal in part based on a dedicated professional teacher, survival for the moment). Some experience it every year—the wonderful teacher when I was in high school got a pink slip each year in part to drum up community support for the school’s budget, which can be taken as a convoluted but nauseating form of flattery.

The Center for Dewey Studies when I visited

The Center for Dewey Studies when I visited

Those wanting to know a bit more about Dewey and his arguments for the arts in society should head over to this post on Nick Jaworski’s blog, and of course I always recommend Dewey’s Art as Experience.

The correspondence I cite is available in the electronic edition, and you can also access this (and the lecture notes) at the Center for Dewey Studies. My thanks to those working at the Center for their help and generosity.


About Matthew

Music education: media, technology, and participatory music.
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