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Character Clearinghouse

Florida State University

A Woman’s Place is on the Campus: US Women’s Progressive Colleges in the 1930s (Part 2)

By Pamela C. Crosby

This short essay is a second one of a series of articles on the history and philosophy of women’s colleges in the 1930s, and part of a larger series on the history and philosophy of higher education and student affairs. Many women’s colleges of this decade emphasized a vital connection between the self-directed learner and the self-reliant individual who contributes to the well being of a democratic society. In the first part of this series, the author provided a brief overview of the role of the female student in selective women’s colleges as described in an article published in 1935 in the Journal of Higher education by Kathryn McHale, director of the American Association of University Women. In this second article of the series, the author focuses on the collegiate experience at Sarah Lawrence College in the 1930s.

In “Higher Education for Women Today” American Association of University Women director Kathryn McHale (1936) wrote that the starting point of a “modern college” is the determination of the “needs, interests, and aptitudes of the individual” (p. 113). As a result, the college and university must attempt to discover these essential aspects of students very early on in the student’s college experience.  McHale pointed to Sarah Lawrence College as one of the colleges that designed an individual curriculum around each student according to her distinctive needs and interests (p. 114). The college was founded in 1926, and its mission was to offer female students an education centering on life-long knowledge and practice. Sarah Lawrence was one of the exemplary progressive women’s colleges.

Beatrice Doerschuk, who was a director of education at Sarah Lawrence College from 1928-1946, characterized the progressive college as an institution that takes “responsibility for studying its students, for continuously learning to know and understand them as persons” (Doerschuk, p. 112). All of the college’s efforts are devoted to determining what the needs of the individual student are at a crucial time when they are undergoing rapid change and development.

“Such understanding,” she maintained,

implies acquaintance with physical qualities and habits, emotional responses, intellectual powers, interests, social adjustment—all of which are but different phases of the personality essential to each other, and all concerned in any adequate functioning of the person. (p. 112)

In order to put such curricula in place, the faculty adviser was the primary feature of academic planning so that the college can bring about the “greatest possible development of each student” (McHale, 1936, p. 114). An adviser met often with each student to aide her in “selection of content,”  “to act as a “clearing house on her problems,” and to guide her in correlating different fields of interest and study (p. 114).

Students were not required to choose a major course of study (Heinlein, 1936, p. 117). At the beginning  of a student’s educational journey, however, she made specific choices concerning her own curriculum, which was to serve as  a foundation of the her self-directed learning. Thus her studies were not imposed by organizational or logical structure of the subject matter, or instructional or college resources, but by her needs relating to interests, “personality,” “present development”  and the society in which she lived (Doerschuk, p. 113).  Such selection of content, methods, and activities “implied broadly defined and interrelated fields of study within which specific programs of work can be arranged for individual students” (p. 113).

Students conferred with faculty members representing three primary fields of study: art, science, and literature. At the close of two weeks of conferences with as many as seventy faculty or staff members, the student was expected to become more aware of what her interests and abilities were (Heinlein, 1936, p. 117).

The student as an individual was well aware of the importance of her connection with the community of which she was a part:

In  accepting the student as the unity and point of reference in an educational enterprise, the progressive college recognizes that each person is fundamentally group-formed, a group member, and individual within a community and is therefore, concerned that the conditions of the community shall be such as will be conducive to the development of good individuals. (Doerschuk, p. 114)

An example of a student’s “work record” is shown in President Constance Warren’s book A New Design for Women’s Education (1940). A work record included a report of each project in which a student was involved. Approximately fifty projects were recorded for this particular student, whose primary interest was Native American culture.

In her freshman year she studied “Introduction to Psychology” by completing a

general survey of Hopi culture, showing the effect of culture and customs of the Hopi on his personality [and] Descriptions of various phases of Indian life, including religion, fetes, and arts, showing how the white man has changed the Hopi. (p. 110)

The student completed fifteen other projects that year, including those categorized under the headings of biology, mathematics, and applied art. In applied art, the student “built a small primitive loom” (p. 113). Later she integrated two fields of study, Bible and primitive arts, to produce research on the religion of the Pueblo Indians. One summer she went on an archaeological expedition in New Mexico and during her last two years in college worked two days a week at an American history museum which culminated in a bibliography of Indian arts and crafts source material which she coauthored with a fellow student (p. 104). The bibliography was soon to be published, President Warren explained, by the Department of Interior! In her later years of college study, she combined her knowledge of primitive arts, anthropology, Spanish, and mythology with “experimenting  in qualitative analysis of elements,”  of  iron, carbon, and manganese, which are found in primitive pottery, as a chemistry project (Warren, 1940, 108-141).

Information in the work record about the projects included the instructors’ comments on the quality of the student’s assignments followed by the student’s report of  her readings and activities.

For a report on a project on mythology, the instructor wrote:

She has begun work with characteristic thoroughness and energy. . . . Her summer experiences [she spent a summer excavating a small pueblo in the Southwest] added considerably to her knowledge of and enthusiasm for anthropological material. She has gained plasticity of imagination and an eye for significant analogies and is utilizing intelligently the materials from her other sources.

The student wrote

Frazer:  The Golden Bough
Durkheim: Elementary Forms of Religious Life
Tyler:  Animism: Mythology in Primitive Culture
Wundt: Elements of Folk Psychology, Chapter I  (Warren, 1940, p. 135).

The faculty/student ratio at the time of the writing of President Warren’s book was approximately one to five and .6 students (Warren, 1940, p 270). Such a faculty/student ratio was an extremely critical component in translating the progressive philosophy of education to concrete experience. Director of Education Doerschuk emphasized to her audience of the Association of American Colleges: “Education must be self-education . . . the student herself must do the learning and . . . the learning is the important end, rather than the teaching” (1933, p. 113).


Doerschuk, B. (1933). What constitutes a progressive college? Statement by Miss Beatrice Doerschuk, of Sarah Lawrence College. Bulletin of the Association of American Colleges, 19(1), 109-115.

Heinlein, M. V. 1936).  Higher education for women today:  Introductory statement—Discussion.Bulletin of the Association of American Colleges, 22(1), 117.

McHale, K. (1936). Higher education for women today:  Introductory statement, Bulletin of the Association of American Colleges, 22(1), 113-119.

Warren, C. (1940)  A new design for women’s education. New York:  Frederick A. Stokes Company.

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