Childs, John L. (1889–1985)

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CHILDS, JOHN L. (18891985)

Professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, John Lawrence Childs was a leading member of the New York Progressives from the 1930s to 1960. Childs was born in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where he learned the value of hard work, which was for him both a moral and social obligation. Raised as a Methodist, he spent four years at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, graduating in 1911 with a degree in journalism. While at Madison he began working for the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). For three years he headed its Midwest chapter in Kankakee, Illinois, where he met and married his wife, Grace Mary Fowler, in 1915. The following year he sailed for China as a YMCA missionary working for most of the time in Peking (Beijing). During John Dewey's visit to China (19191920), he stayed for a short while with the Childses, and John Childs was impressed. Early in 1922 Childs returned to the United States, and in February 1923 began graduate work at Union Theological Seminary, which included two courses at Teachers College given by W. H. Kilpatrick. Childs returned to China eighteen months later. On his visit to China in 1927 Kilpatrick persuaded Childs to obtain his doctorate, and Childs moved back to New York.

Childs joined the faculty of Teachers College following the publication of his dissertation, "Education and the Philosophy of Experimentalism," in July 1931. In correspondence to Robert Miller, Kilpatrick described the book as "one of the very best pieces of thinking yet done in the field of the exploitation and criticism of Professor Dewey's ideas." Thus began Childs's close identification with the work of Dewey.

Almost immediately, Childs and Dewey coauthored two chapters in The Educational Frontier, edited by Kilpatrick. Several scholars noted that Dewey seemed to have flirted with social reconstructionism in these chapters. In a telling memorandum to Dewey, Childs wrote, "educational reconstruction and social reconstruction are correlatives, and, therefore, the two must develop together. Any attempt to work through the school problemto say nothing of the educational problem as a wholeinevitably leads into a consideration of the prevailing economic and social situation." Dewey stepped back somewhat from this position; Childs was committed to social reconstruction, and in 1937 joined the board of directors of the Social Frontier, having been a regular contributor to the journal almost at its inception in 1934.

Dean William Russell was not altogether pleased with Childs's radical position, but promoted him to associate professor in 1935 and to professor in 1938. In 1935 Childs joined the American Federation of Teachers, in which he became an important player. Russell put him in charge of a select committee looking into the demands of striking cafeteria workers at Teachers College. The report exonerated the strikers, and it received some publicity in both the New York and the national press. Childs resigned from the union in 1937 on account of its takeover by communist sympathizers. He later rejoined and took a leadership role in its postwar activities. He achieved greater prominence when he was elected state chair of the Liberal party, a position he held from 1944 until early 1947. Childs's political activities were an extension of his philosophical ideals; they were moral necessities. This missionary had in effect changed his allegiance from the work of the gospel, albeit a social gospel, to the work of educational and social reconstruction. In his writings he made apparent his commitment to a morality based not in the supernatural or transcendent, but one embedded in human experience.

In 1950 Childs published his most significant work, Education and Morals. Perhaps the major point of the book is that morality always exists in the making of choices in genuine life alternatives. If there is no choice there is no morality involved. (He never engaged in discussion of the existential notion of choice.) Thus the educational enterprise is at root a moral enterprise because it is involves constant choices on behalf of students. For Childs, moral goods existed in the context of democratic values and aims. In this view he was at odds with Boyd Bode, with whom at this time he began an extended correspondence. Bode felt that the pragmatic educational agenda related to method and the reliance on intelligence; Childs believed that it also required a democratic outcome. He did not, as did George S. Counts, call for indoctrination, but he felt as strongly. Bode only went as far as to say that the schools should promote the processes of democracy but not expressly its aims.

In his last major book, American Pragmatism and Education, Childs devoted a chapter to Bode. The book is a delineation of the principles of pragmatism, and in the opening of the book he outlines its major tenets.

Thought is intrinsically connected with action; theories and doctrines are working hypotheses potheses and are to be tested by the consequences they produce in actual life-situations; moral ideas are empty and sterile apart from attention to the means that are required to achieve them; reality is not a static, completed system, but a process of unending change and transformation; man is not a mere puppet of external forces, but through the use of intelligence can reshape the conditions that mold his own experience. (pp. 34)

If this statement sounds somewhat academic and remote from contemporary education, it is nonetheless an accurate and perceptive summary of pragmatic theory, and quite in line with Dewey's own views.

Childs's career was very much based on his interpretation and commentary of Dewey's work, and he was highly praised for both. He was a major speaker at Dewey's eightieth and ninetieth birthday festivities, and as well as the centenary celebrations; he wrote a chapter on education in Paul A. Schilpp's volume on Dewey in the Library of Living Philosophers ; he was the recipient of the John Dewey Society medal in 1965, as well as many other awards. Childs retired from Teachers College in 1955 and spent much of the next decade as a visiting professor at several universities. Upon his final retirement he moved to Rockford, Illinois, where he died in 1985.

See also: Curriculum, School; Philosophy of Education; Progressive Education.


Childs, John L. 1931. Education and the Philosophy of Experimentalism. New York: Century.

Childs, John L. 1950. Education and Morals: An Experimentalist Philosophy of Education. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Childs, John L. 1956. American Pragmatism and Education: An Interpretation and Criticism. New York: Holt.

Childs, John L., and Counts, George S. 1943. America, Russia, and the Communist Party in the Postwar World. New York: Day.

Dennis, Lawrence J. 1992. From Prayer to Pragmatism: A Biography of John L. Childs. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.

Lawrence J. Dennis

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Childs, John L. (1889–1985)

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