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 on Joseph Mayer Rice

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

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