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The Importance of Being Urban

Designing the Progressive School District, 1890-1940

From the 1890s through World War II, the greatest hopes of American progressive reformers lay not in the government, the markets, or other seats of power but in urban school districts and classrooms. The Importance of Being Urban focuses on four western school systems—in Denver, Oakland, Portland, and Seattle—and their efforts to reconfigure public education in the face of rapid industrialization and the perceived perils [GDA1] of the modern city. In an era of accelerated immigration, shifting economic foundations, and widespread municipal shake-ups, reformers argued that the urban school district could provide the broad blend of social, cultural, and educational services needed to prepare students for twentieth-century life. These school districts were a crucial force not only in orchestrating educational change, but in delivering on the promise of democracy. David A. Gamson’s book provides eye-opening views of the histories of American education, urban politics, and the Progressive Era.

352 pages | 17 halftones, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2019

Historical Studies of Urban America

Education: Philosophy of Education

History: American History, Urban History

Political Science: Public Policy


“Thoughtful and thorough. . . Extended across four cities, Gamson’s work dispels the air of inevitability that too often accompanies discussions of educational modernization, opening the possibility of different categories and interpretive approaches in the future. If The Importance of Being Urban is in many ways grounded in old-fashioned approaches to the Progressive Era, it is this element that offers readers something strikingly new.”

Historical Studies in Education

“Gamson has produced the first major reinterpretation of the twentieth-century urban school district since David Tyack’s One Best System nearly half a century ago. Hardly the top-down behemoths that Tyack imagined, these city school districts engaged a wide range of popular initiatives and impulses. Gamson’s bold new book will require us to look anew at the promise of democratic urban schools—and, even more, at the promise of democracy itself.”

Jonathan Zimmerman, author of The Case for Contention

“Gamson tells a new story about progressive education that needs to be heard. Based on compelling case studies of Oakland, Denver, Portland, and Seattle, he shows how progressivism grew at the district level in urban school systems that were seen as laboratories for democracy. He argues that superintendents in rapidly expanding western cities experimented with an eclectic mix of policies and programs that replaced egalitarianism with problematic forms of equal educational opportunity that are still with us. The Importance of Being Urban should be required reading for anyone interested in understanding progressive education, education reform, and how we got the urban school systems we have today.”

Barbara Beatty, author of Preschool Education in America

The Importance of Being Urbanreveals, beyond doubt, that educational progressivism was no ugly stepchild of the “real” progressivism that animated so much of early twentieth-century American politics. Moreover, Gamson credits educational progressives with genuinely democratic impulses—a daring move in today’s historiographical landscape. His book is a welcome and revelatory intervention into battles over the soul of progressivism, past and present.”

Robert D. Johnston, author of The Radical Middle Class

The Importance of Being Urban is a signal contribution to the historical literature on turn-of-the-century educational Progressivism as practiced in four cities. Gamson avoids the popular ideological labels historians have used and shows persuasively that urban district leaders blended innovations into mixes of efficiency and pedagogical practices that historians will note for years to come.”

Larry Cuban, author of Teaching History Then and Now: A Story of Stability and Change in Schools

Table of Contents


Introduction: District Progressives and the Progressive School District

1 The Race for Urban Status
2 The Plans and Principles of District Progressivism
3 Educating Efficient Citizens in Oakland, California
4 Pioneering Practice in the Public Schools of Denver, Colorado
5 Competing Visions for a Progressive Portland, Oregon
6 Evolution Not Revolution in the Public Schools of Seattle, Washington
7 Conclusion: Designing the Democratic School District

List of Archives, Libraries, and Collections Consulted

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