Radical Roots

Excerpted from Setting A New Ship A’Sail: The Founding of Sarah Lawrence College
By Elizabeth Sargent

Radical RootsWhen 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.

… 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.

Lawrence’s desire to found a new college for women occurred at a pivotal moment in the consciousness of 1920s America as the struggle between progressivism and conservatism reverberated in all strata of American society, especially with regard to the role of women. As Lawrence and MacCracken worked to define the institution and its ideology, questions relating to gender, education, and the place of women within modern culture converged. Should women's education be different than men’s? What type of educational institution could best manage the increasing demand for women’s education while still operating under the progressive rubric? Where was the modern woman’s place within society? Throughout the 1920s, a number of models of womanhood prevailed, including the flapper, the female consumer, the housewife, the career woman, the educated mother, and the feminist. The abundance of such varied models proved that women’s roles within society were evolving, and hence increasingly difficult to 
define.

As Lawrence and MacCracken began to design their women’s college, they explored various educational prototypes. By 1924, there were a number of educational options available to women, including the traditional liberal arts women’s colleges (known as the Seven Sisters), co-ed universities such as Michigan and Cornell, and finishing schools for the elite. Initially Lawrence was most interested in founding a finishing school. At MacCracken’s behest, however, he began to consider the idea of founding a junior college for women.

… MacCracken and Lawrence decided that their institution would uphold the individual as the central focus of its educational ideology. As Lawrence stated, “An effort will be made to discover the particular talent of each girl, after which she may specialize as far as possible in this trend of thought.” They also embraced an innovative curriculum that would include fine arts, drama, and music as formal courses rather than extracurricular activities. By including these programs of study, the incipient school stepped outside the bounds of the traditional liberal arts curriculum.

Originally published in The Bronxville Journal, Vol. 2 (2003) by the Bronxville Historical Conservancy