Rice, Joseph Mayer (1857–1934)

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Physician, journal editor, education critic, and originator of comparative methodology in educational research, Joseph Mayer Rice is recognized, along with Lester Frank Ward and John Dewey, as a major figure in the Progressive education movement in the United States.

Rice was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Mayer and Fanny (Sohn) Rice, natives of Germany who immigrated to America in 1855. Rice attended public schools in Philadelphia and New York City, where his parents and older brother, Isaac Leopold Rice, relocated in 1870. He attended the City College of New York, and in 1881 received a degree in medicine from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University. Rice, having established a successful private practice in pediatrics in New York City, became interested in the physical fitness programs offered by the New York City public schools. His research into these programs led to an interest in the schools as educational institutions.

In 1888, Rice traveled to Europe to observe the school systems of various countries. He settled in Germany for two years to study psychology and pedagogy at the universities of Jena and Leipzig. Although specific reasons for his decision to remain in Germany for these two years remain speculative, Rice's studies paralleled other American academics and educators who traveled to Germany during this time to learn the rudiments of empirical research and foundations for scientific pedagogy.

Rice observed the first laboratory of experimental psychology, directed by Wilhelm Wundt at the University in Leipzig, and studied Herbartism as it was conceptualized and enacted at the University of Jena and its laboratory school. The theories of German educator and philosopher Johann Freidrich Herbart, known as the originator of the science of education and of modern psychology, focused on the development of a cultured human being who strove to discover as well as be guided by the highest ethical values. Education, then, was a moral enterprise for Herbart. Although the corpus of Rice's writings extend well beyond this particular focus, Rice returned home from Germany in 1890, greatly influenced by his studies and with strong ideas about ways to improve elementary education in the United States.

An interview with Rice, focused on his school reform ideas, ran for three issues in the New York City weekly Epoch in July 1891, and the weekly published another series of articles by Rice from October through December of that same year. The Forum, a monthly magazine owned by Rice's brother, also published an article in 1891 in which Rice proposed two essentials for the natural development of the child: proper training of the teacher and a curriculum based on sound psychological principles. Rice maintained that these could be assured only when those who managed educational systems were themselves trained educators.

At the time, the Forum was edited by Walter Hines Page. Under Page, the monthly had published articles on education and social reform. Page was intrigued with Rice's ideas about pedagogy; thus, in 1892, under the sponsorship of the Forum, Rice conducted a six-month tour of thirty-six cities in the United States, visiting six to eight urban public elementary schools in each city. During this survey, Rice spent the school hours of every day observing actual classroom events. He talked with approximately twelve hundred teachers, met with school officials and school board members, interviewed parents, and visited twenty teacher-training institutions.

Rice devoted the summer of 1892 to the analysis of data from his survey of schools. From October 1892 through June 1893, the Forum published a series of nine articles by Rice, where he reported tedious, pedantic teaching in traditionally structured schools, unassisted superintendents responsible for the supervision of hundreds of teachers, and board of education reports portraying deplorable conditions of schools. As anticipated by Page, Rice's study generated outraged reactions among a public that heretofore had assumed a fully functioning and effective educational system. Rice's articles earned him a reputation (not a pleasant one among many professional educators) for bringing the topic of schooling into the public's eye, and, in effect, introducing muckraking to the field of education.

In the spring of 1893, Rice undertook a second survey of schools. This five-week tour focused on those schools said to represent new (Progressive) education. He visited schools in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, St. Paul, La Porte (Indiana), and Cook County (Illinois). These were schools that had expanded their curricula, as recommended by Herbartian theory, beyond the traditional "Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic," and had encouraged an integrated approach to curriculum and pedagogy. This study was reported in The Public-School System of the United States (1893) along with the nine original Forum essays, and continued Rice's critique of the public schools and their inadequate pedagogical knowledge.

Rice returned to the University of Jena in the summer of 1893. Upon his return, he was determined to further document his conviction that the wider curricula of the Progressive schools enhanced rather than detracted from students' overall achievement. Thus, Rice embarked on another Forum -sponsored tour of classrooms in 1895. This time he was armed with the first comparative testa school/student surveyever used in American education or psychology. During sixteen months of study, Rice administered his survey to nearly 33,000 fourth-to eighth-grade children, and he carefully tabulated modifying conditions such as age, nationality, environment, and type of school system. The survey focused, in part, on the pedagogy of spelling. Rice found no link between the time spent on spelling drills and students' performance on spelling tests. His study was far ahead of its time, not only methodologically but also pedagogically, as he pointed to "the futility of the spelling grind."

Rice served as editor of the Forum from 1897 through 1907. He retired in Philadelphia in 1915, the same year that he published his last book, The People's Government. He had married Deborah Levinson in 1900; they had two children. He died in Philadelphia, June 1934.

See also: Assessment, Classroom; Education Reform; Herbart, Johann.


Houston, Camille M. E. 1965. "Joseph Mayer Rice: Pioneer in Educational Research." M.S. thesis, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Rice, Joseph M. 1893. The Public-School System of the United States. New York: Century.

Rice, Joseph M. 1898. The Rational Spelling Book. New York: American Book.

Rice, Joseph M. 1913. Scientific Management in Education. New York: Hinds, Noble and Eldredge.

Rice, Joseph M. 1915. The People's Government. Philadelphia: Winston.

Janet L. Miller

Joseph Mayer Rice

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Joseph Mayer Rice

Joseph Mayer Rice (1857-1934) was part of the Progressive education reform movement of the 1890s that sought to untangle the public school system from the web of political corruption in which it was floundering.

Joseph Mayer Rice was a Progressive education reformer of the nineteenth century who believed that the moral duty of society was to improve the conditions of those who were weak and underprivileged. Children were seen by many to be the most helpless of American citizens, and so education reform became one of the most pressing concerns of many Progressives.

Advocated Improving a Child's Environment

As American society had become more industrialized throughout the nineteenth century, schools were viewed by many as the training ground for the future industrial work force. As such they emphasized discipline, punctuality, and the rote memorization of facts, rather than personal growth. In addition, school systems had been modeled after corporations, centralizing power with school superintendents and principals trained in management techniques. Progressive reformers called for the separation of politics and education and for the implementation of the latest educational theories, which were grounded in experience and based on scientific principles of how the child's mind best develops.

As the son of German immigrants, Rice was himself educated in the public schools of Philadelphia and New York City. He studied at the College of the City of New York and later at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia, which granted him an M.D. in 1881. He practiced in the hospitals of New York from 1881 to 1884 and had a private practice there from 1884 to 1888. It was during this time that he became interested in the prevention of disease among children. He came to believe, in true Progressive fashion, that the improvement of the child's social environment could best ensure the child's resistance to disease. This gradually led him to give up his medical practice and launch an extensive eight-year study of the school systems in Europe and the United States.

Took Survey of Public Schools

From 1888 to 1890 Rice studied psychology and pedagogy at the German universities of Jena and Leipzig. In Jena he studied under Wilhelm Rein, an influential educational theorist who inspired many American reformers. Rein's philosophy of education placed greater emphasis on the building of moral character over the consumption of information, an idea which gained much currency among Progressive reformers. When he returned to the United States, Rice undertook an exhaustive survey of the public schools. The research lasted from January 7 to June 25, 1892 and took him from the East Coast to the Midwest. Taking stock of his observations, Rice published a series of muckraking articles on urban education in the magazine The Forum in 1892 and 1893 that proved to be his most influential work. His criticism mobilized parents against the corrupt politicians who, in practicing graft and patronage, had allowed many public schools to fall into lamentable disrepair.

The nine articles Rice published in The Forum were collected in the 1893 publication The Public School System of the United States. In this book, Rice presented the results of his study of the public schools in thirty-six cities. The foundation of his work, he wrote, was the idea that the school was meant to serve the best interests of the child, not school officials or teachers; therefore, the spirit in which the book was written was "the same as that in which an advocate pleads for his client." He made a special plea to parents, using language charged with the urgency he felt in pursuit of his cause: "It is indeed incomprehensible," he wrote, "that so many loving mothers … are willing, without hesitation, to resign the fate of their little ones to the tender mercies of ward politicians, who in many instances have no scruples in placing the children in class-rooms the atmosphere of which is not fit for human beings to breathe, and in charge of teachers who treat them with a degree of severity that borders on barbarism."

A Wake-Up Call to Parents and School Administrators

The book was essentially a wake-up call to parents and administrators, exposing the inhumane conditions of many schools and giving examples of some "progressive" schools which could provide models for improvement. Rice found gross inequalities among the schools, concluding that those of St. Louis were "the most barbarous schools in the country" and that those in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Indianapolis, and LaPorte, Indiana, met his highest standards. He also outlined the differences between the "old" and "mechanical" forms of instruction, which relied on rote memorization and the recitation of "cut-and-dried facts," and the "new" and "progressive" methods of education, which emphasized the development of the child "in all his faculties, intellectual, moral, and physical." Most importantly, according to Rice, the old methods precluded any sympathetic bond between children and their teachers, who tended to view their roles as that of "lord and master" rather than "friend and guide," as the proponents of the new education preferred. The book was ultimately optimistic that school conditions would improve—provided that those in charge were made aware of the cruel, demoralizing atmosphere of so many institutions. Rice's work rested on the Progressive belief that the authority's task is to expose inhuman conditions and instill the desire for betterment; it is thus that improvement will follow.

Rice was chosen as the chief editor of The Forum and served in that capacity from 1897 to 1907. In 1898, Rice published The Rational Spelling Book, based on his studies of how children learn to spell. He argued against the popular theory that the more time children spent on a particular subject, the more they would learn. Instead, he discovered that ten minutes of spelling a day was sufficient to produce the results of those who had spent the entire day on spelling exercises. On October 10, 1900, Rice married Deborah Levinson, daughter of private language tutor Ludwig Levinson; they had two children. He later published two more books: Scientific Management in Education (1913) and The People's Government (1915). Rice also founded the Society of Educational Research in 1903. He died on June 24, 1934, in Philadelphia.

Further Reading

Westbrook, Robert, Dewey and American Democracy, Cornell University Press, 1991.

Rice, Joseph Mayer, The Public School System of the United States, Arno Press, 1969. □

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