Monday, April 23, 2007

The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, 1896-1904 (the Dewey Years)

The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools are internationally known and respected. In order to fully understand and appreciate the factors that led to the establishment of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (known as the Dewey School from 1896 to 1901) one must not only inform themselves on John Dewey and his educational philosophy but also on William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago. A third individual who was influential to the organization and early development of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools was Colonel Francis Wayland Parker. The following brief description provides some historical context and reveals the relationships between John Dewey, William Rainey Harper and Colonel Francis Parker.

One cannot discuss the history of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, specifically the first years of the school, without giving significant credit given to William Rainey Harper. President Harper, along with John D. Rockefeller, had the early vision to make the University of Chicago a world class institution of higher education. During the first few years of the University of Chicago’s existence, President Harper was charged with the task of recruiting educational leaders from across the country to become faculty members. Although John Dewey was first to make contact with President Harper, it was President Harper who understood and agreed with Dewey’s vision and invited Dewey to Chair the Department of Philosophy and allowing him to develop the University of Chicago into a leader in pedagogy. Two years prior to coming to the University of Chicago to Chair the Department of Philosophy in 1896, John Dewey wrote to President Harper informing him what other institutions, including Cornell, Harvard, and Columbia, were doing in the fields of pedagogy and experimental psychology (Harms and DePencier, p. 3). It is notable that in 1894, when John Dewey wrote President Harper, the University of Chicago was only two years old and it was already being compared to the Ivy League. John Dewey’s tenure at the University of Chicago was from 1894 to 1904 until his departure to Columbia University.

After the Civil War, Colonel Parker served as the school Superintendent in Quincy, Massachusetts and then came to Chicago in 1880 to serve as Principle of the Cook County Normal School. In 1899 a wealthy philanthropist from Chicago, Mrs. Emmons Blaine, wanted to start a private school called the Chicago Institute to serve as a teachers college under the leadership of Colonel Francis Parker. Mrs. Blaine’s commitment to provide one million dollars was very appealing to President Harper and the Chicago Institute became the School of Education at the University of Chicago in 1901 (Harmes and DePencier, p. 7) or 1902 (Mayhew and Edwards, p. 12). The Dewey School had already been operational under the direction of John Dewey and the University’s Department of Pedagogy for approximately five years by the time that Colonel Parker and his Chicago Institute began their affiliation with the University of Chicago. Both Dewey and Parker were progressive but held many differing views on education. Parker’s school was heavily endowed while Dewey’s school had no endowment. For a couple of years, the University of Chicago operated two separate elementary schools, the Dewey Laboratory School and the Parker University Elementary School (Harms and DePencier, p. 7). In 1902 (Harmes and DePencier, p. 8) or 1903 (Mayhew and Edwards, p. 14), Colonel Parker died and after much discussion between President Harper and the trustees, Harper agreed to merge the two schools along with two other local schools (The Chicago Manual Training School and the South Side Academy) and John Dewey became head of the School of Education at the University of Chicago (Mayhew and Edwards, p. 14).


Harms, W., & DePencier, I. (1996). Experiencing education: 100 years of learning at The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Orland Park, IL: Alpha Beta Press.

Mayhew, K.C. & Edwards, A.C. (1966). The Dewey School: The Laboratory School at The University of Chicago, 1896-1903. New York: Atherton Press.

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