Off-campus UMass Amherst users: To download dissertations, please use the following link to log into our proxy server with your UMass Amherst user name and password.

Non-UMass Amherst users, please click the view more button below to purchase a copy of this dissertation from Proquest.

(Some titles may also be available free of charge in our Open Access Dissertation Collection, so please check there first.)

The liberal impulse in American schooling: Three historical case studies

James H Nehring, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Although democracy demands a pedagogy that provokes students to think independently (termed “liberal”), the dominant pedagogy in American schooling relies heavily on drill, memorization, and recitation. The purpose of this study is to shed light on two interrelated questions: (1) Why does a liberal pedagogy fail to gain ascendancy in American schooling? And (2) Why does a liberal pedagogy, despite its historical failure to enter the mainstream, keep coming back at all? The study begins by establishing a definition for liberal pedagogy by tracing its historical roots in selected figures and movements such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Froebel, Francis W. Parker, the Thirty Schools of the Progressive Education Association's Eight Year Study, and the Coalition of Essential Schools founded by Theodore R. Sizer. The study next examines three schools in the Boston area that exhibit a liberal pedagogy: The Temple School founded by Bronson Alcott in the 1830s, The Quincy Public Schools superintended by Francis W. Parker in the 1870s, and the Beaver Country Day School founded in 1920. A narrative of each school is presented based on mainly on archival research. Next, a cross-school comparison is made based on a set of analytical questions. Patterns and themes that emerge from the comparison constitute several findings, among them: (1) Though often labeled as “experimental” or “new,” schools driven by a liberal pedagogy are heirs to a tradition that is centuries old; (2) when institutional support is linked to school mission, the odds for success over the long term are greatly enhanced; (3) Urban-industrial culture, as the primary shaping force in American schooling for the last 150 years, has worked against the viability of schools with a liberal pedagogy; (4) Liberal schools have largely failed to expand their influence beyond the upper class; (5) Successful liberal schools must balance the tension between institutional permanence and educational performance; (6) Schooling for a democratic society necessarily includes commitments to both liberal pedagogy and inclusion of all children.

Subject Area

Education history

Recommended Citation

Nehring, James H, "The liberal impulse in American schooling: Three historical case studies" (2003). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3096306.