William Chandler Bagley Essay

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For more than thirty years, William Chandler Bagley was the nation’s leading thinker on teacher education. He also was a historian of education and an educational philosopher. In 1938, he became known as the founder of Essentialism in educational theory. His primary field, however, was teaching teachers, and his educational theory cannot be understood apart from his commitment to teacher education.

Bagley was born on March 15, 1874, in Detroit, Michigan. He graduated from Detroit’s Capitol High School in 1891 and attended Michigan Agricultural College from 1891 to 1895. He began his career as a teacher in the fall of 1895 when he taught in a one room school in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He completed his master’s degree in psychology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1898. He then moved to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he studied with psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener. He completed his Ph.D. degree in 1901.

In 1901, Bagley took his knowledge of psychology with him to St. Louis, Missouri, where he was an elementary school principal from 1901–1902. In 1902, he and his family moved to Dillon, Montana. He taught teachers from 1902 to 1906 at Dillon’s Montana State Normal School. He left Dillon in 1906 to accept a faculty position at the acclaimed Oswego State Normal School in Oswego, New York. Bagley remained at Oswego for only two years, however, before moving to the University of Illinois in 1908.

While at the University of Illinois from 1908 to 1917, Bagley worked to establish the university’s first teacher training program for high school teachers. He was successful at creating the School of Education at the University of Illinois in 1916. Bagley soon left Illinois, however, to teach and conduct research at Teachers College, Columbia University. This Teachers College position offered Bagley the opportunity to focus his efforts on improving the nation’s teacher training schools. He lived in the New York City area until his death on July 1, 1946.

For nearly fifty years, Bagley remained deeply committed to teaching teachers. He continued an American tradition in teacher education that began most prominently at Oswego in the 1860s with Edward Austin Sheldon. He published dozens of books and hundreds of articles during his almost fifty-year career. His major works include The Educative Process (1905), Determinism in Education (1925), and Education and Emergent Man (1934). He was both a scholar who labored to understand the history and philosophy of education and a practitioner who put these ideas into practice by helping to improve the nation’s body of teachers.


  1. Null, J. W. (2003). A disciplined progressive educator: The life and career of William Chandler Bagley. New York: Peter Lang.
  2. Null, J. W., & Ravitch, D. (Eds.). (in press). Forgotten heroes of American education: The great tradition of teaching teachers. Greenwich, CT: Information Age.

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