William Chandler Bagley (1874-1946) was an educator and theorist of educational "essentialism."
William Chandler Bagley was born March 15, 1874, in Detroit, Michigan, to William Chase and Ruth (Walker) Bagley. The family came originally from Massachusetts but moved west for his father's employment as a hospital superintendent in Detroit. Bagley attended high school in Detroit and in 1891 enrolled in the Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) to study scientific agriculture. He received his bachelor's degree in 1895, but finding no immediate employment in his field, he took a position as a teacher in a one-room school in the town of Garth, a lumber community in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
His interest in teaching awakened with this experience, and in the summer of 1896 he began studies at the University of Chicago in the field of education and learning theory. Then, after a second year teaching at Garth, he enrolled as a full-time student, on borrowed money, at the University of Wisconsin, completing his master's degree in 1898. He then began work toward a doctorate in education and psychology at Cornell University, studying with Edward Bradford Titchener, a leading laboratory psychologist at that time. He completed the Ph.D. degree in 1900 with a dissertation entitled "The Apperception of the Spoken Sentence." In the following year he was appointed to an elementary school principalship in St. Louis, and there he met and married Florence MacLean Winger. They had four children, two sons and two daughters.
Bagley's first faculty appointment was in 1902 at the Montana State Normal College at Dillon as professor of psychology and pedagogy and director of teacher training. He also served as superintendent of the local Dillon public schools, where he promoted such innovations as the use of college student teachers in the schools.
After several years there and in a similar faculty appointment at the State Normal School in Oswego, New York, in 1909 Bagley was appointed professor and director of the School of Education at the University of Illinois. During this period of expansion of American schools and of teacher education institutions, Bagley worked to create a strong faculty and to build an influential program in education at the University of Illinois. In 1917 he left Illinois to accept a professorship at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. There he organized a department for the study of normal schools and teacher education. He continued in this position at Teachers College until his retirement in 1939.
Bagley's central professional goal was to determine the scientific theoretical basis for the professionalization of teacher education. His writings, books, and journal articles were widely influential at a formative time in American education. Most notable was his textbook Classroom Management (1907), which was a guide for beginning teachers to help them master the necessary skills and techniques for effectively controlling the classroom. Over 100,000 copies of the book were sold, and it remained in print until 1946. Management of the classroom was perceived as a strict "chain of command" model. The building principal, he wrote, was like the captain of the ship who issued orders (i.e., the course of study) to the teachers, who in turn saw that each student executed the assigned tasks (skills and knowledge). An efficient school system in Bagley's view required the "unquestioned obedience" of teachers and of students to the authority of principal and superintendent, though, he wrote, there might be some latitude, some choice and initiative on the part of individuals in the actual day-to-day execution of the orders. The ultimate aim of education in Bagley's view was indeed efficiency—that is, social efficiency, or the "development of the socially efficient individual."
Other books by Bagley that were used extensively in teacher education classes were The Educative Process (1905) and Educational Values (1911), works that explored the limitations of the then current "transfer of training" theories and outlined his ideas on the need for a scientific basis for educational practice. For effective teaching, he stated, it is necessary that "an adequate conception of principles based on the best data that science can offer … be added to a mastery of technique." Science, he concluded, rather than narrow psychological studies, must be the foundation of good teaching.
Bagley was also active in other publications' efforts to advance the professionalization of teaching. As early as 1905 he organized the Inter-Mountain Educator, the first journal of education studies in the northern Rocky Mountain region. He joined with several colleagues to found and edit the Journal of Educational Psychology (1910). He was editor of School and Home Education (1912 to 1914) and of the Journal of the National Education Association (1920 to 1925), and he worked with the Carnegie Foundation to create the Society for the Advancement of Education and to edit its journal, School and Society, in his retirement years. He collaborated on several grade school textbook projects, the most notable of which was the History of the American People which was written in cooperation with historian Charles A. Beard.
As an educational theorist Bagley was best known for his statement of an "essentialist" position in education, a view that emphasized the firm facts of the physical and social sciences as the "essential" basis of subject matter that all students must acquire. The view stressed the conservative function of education: schools must pass on the accepted values of the society as well as the realities of scientific fact and should not concern themselves with the satisfaction of individual interests and desires. In a widely influential address in 1938, "An Essentialist's Platform for the Advancement of American Education," Bagley stated his socially conservative position in contrast with the "soft" pedagogy of the then current progressive education theory, which in his view overemphasized individual interests and freedom. It was time, he declared, to reassert the values of discipline, authority, tradition, and scientific truth. Language and mathematics skills were the essentials upon which any curriculum must be built, and these basics must underlie the socially useful curriculum and effective education for citizenship. The term "essentialist" passed from fashion by the 1950s, but the ideas contained in it remained a persistent force in American educational thinking over the years.
William Bagley remained active through continuing work with Teachers College students and colleagues in his retirement years. He died in 1946, at age 72, in New York City.
The following publications contain information on Bagley and his work: Erwin V. Johanningmeier, "William Chandler Bagley's Changing Views on the Relationship Between Psychology and Education," History of Education Quarterly (Spring 1969); Henry C. Johnson, Jr., and Erwin V. Johanningmeier, Teachers for the Prairie: The University of Illinois and the Schools, 1868-1945 (1972); and I. L. Kandel, William Chandler Bagley: Stalwart Educator (1961).