University of Delaware
Robert Hampel, professor in UD's School of Education, has written a book on the career of Paul Diederich, a Progressive educator during the 20th century.

Hampel book

Anthology by Hampel tracks career of Progressive educator Diederich


1:40 p.m., June 3, 2014--Like other Progressive educators in the 20th century, Paul Diederich (1907-1998) criticized traditional education as dreary. Students had to memorize endless facts and formulas from a curriculum remote from their own interests. Classrooms were too austere, with teachers unilaterally establishing rules and issuing harsh punishment for misconduct. Diederich strove to make education more practical and pleasant.

Robert Hampel, professor in the University of Delaware’s School of Education, always found Diederich’s ideas intriguing. “As early as 1935, he raised major questions about the purpose of education and the structure of schools,” Hampel said. “He was a philosopher who thought about why we educate, and he was a tinkerer who knew how to change the particulars of schooling.”

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Hampel has written a book, Paul Diederich and the Progressive American High School that is part biography, part anthology. It follows Diederich’s career and includes fourteen essays on secondary education in the middle of the 20th century.

“I first encountered Paul Diederich when I read one of his papers in 1983. I was writing a history of high schools since 1940, and in the archives of the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton, New Jersey, I found his criticism of a book by former Harvard University President James Conant. Most educators praised Conant’s book but Diederich lambasted it with a bluntness refreshingly free of educationese or technical mumbo-jumbo,” Hampel said.

Several years later, he found another pungent Diederich essay, a long analysis of American schools in the early 1940s. After working on other projects, Hampel returned to Diederich in 2008, delighted that ETS had saved dozens of Diederich’s articles.

“I knew there was enough material for a book, but when I interviewed his daughter, I was thrilled to find that she had a large box of his letters — Diederich made copies of whatever he sent his best friend,” he said.

During his research, Hampel discovered Diederich’s work on the famous “Eight Year Study,” an ambitious effort in the 1930s to loosen the high school curriculum from the grip of college entrance requirements. He also designed a new course on “how we get the things we need” — and he wanted students to take it for 12 years. His notion of “needs” included love, work, beauty, truth and work. 

He felt that teachers should not avoid those overarching components of the good life for fear that parents might disagree on what the five objectives meant or how they should be formed.

Although few schools embraced Diederich’s social engineering, his specific proposals often took hold. He addressed topics that preoccupied schools — a leaner daily schedule, closer connections with colleges, more personal attention, new core courses, and lively instructional methods.

His advocacy of more relevant curriculum, a less stressful school climate, and better counseling was taken seriously by many schools.

In contrast to Diederich’s ideas, Hampel thinks the current reach of school reform seems modest. “At times, I wonder if we are wise for rejecting his radicalism, but I usually think we are timid for not thinking as boldly as he did.”

About the author

Paul Diederich and the Progressive American High School is Robert Hampel’s fourth book. He has also written several dozen articles on the history of education and educational policy. 

During his 30-year career at UD, serving as professor and interim director in the School of Education, he has been the recipient of the Distinguished Faculty Award, School of Education (1997); the University of Delaware Outstanding Graduate Advisement and Mentoring Award (2009); and the Excellence in Teaching Award, College of Education and Human Development (2013).

Article by Alison Burris

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

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