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Vivian Trow Thayer (October 13, 1886–June 25, 1979) is perhaps one of the most forgotten progressive educators of the 20th century. The ideals and educational theories he proposed and practiced almost are never examined in the same context as the work of other progressive educators such as John Dewey and Boyd Bode.

Thayer was born in eastern Nebraska and received his preparatory education at the Carroll Academy in Wisconsin and attended the University of Wisconsin from which he received his bachelor’s, masters, and doctorate degrees. While pursuing these degrees, Thayer also served as superintendent of schools in Ashland, Wisconsin.

Thayer was principal of the Ethical Culture High School in New York City for two years, but left to become a faculty member in secondary education at The Ohio State University. While there, he worked with Boyd Bode, and honed his editorial skills by serving as the editor of the American Review. He published his optimistic views on progressive education in The Passing of the Recitation (1928).

In 1928, Thayer returned to New York City as the educational director of the Ethical Culture Schools, a position he held for the next 20 years. Like Dewey at the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago, Thayer focused his efforts on the theoretical and practical education offered in the Ethical Culture Schools. These schools were sponsored by the Ethical Culture Society, a religious society for teaching supremacy of moral ends above all human ends and interest.

For Thayer, this position gave him the opportunity to conduct educational research influenced by Bode and his personal involvement with educational problems. Thayer and his colleagues (Bode and Dewey) identified three major groups within the Progressive Education Movement: the science of education group, child-centered education supporters, and interactionists. Thayer was critical of the excessive practices connected with the child-centered approach and opposed behaviorism because of its effects on American education. As chair of the Progressive Education Association (PEA) Committee on Secondary School Curriculum (1933–1940), Thayer instrumentally influenced the direction of the PEA’s Eight-Year Study.

Thayer recognized the importance of religion and was one of the original signatories of the “Humanist Manifesto I” published in The New Humanist (1933). This document focused on the scientific and economic changes between World Wars I and II and called for the recognition of humanism as part of thought and order.

During his tenure at the Ethical Culture Schools, Thayer developed his theory of interdependency, which emphasized interrelationships and interdependence among and between teaching staff and students. Though he originally wrote about these theories in the late 1940s, he elaborated on them in The Role of the School in American Society (1966).

After retiring from the Ethical Culture Schools in 1948, Thayer spent the next 10 years teaching at the University of Hawaii, the University of Virginia, and Fisk University. Throughout his educational career, he served in editorial positions for the American Review and the Journal of Educational Research. He received many notable honors, including being named a Kappa Delta Pi Laureate and a Pioneer Humanist of the Year (1964) by the American Humanist Association. He also received the Distinguished Lifetime Service to Education Award from the John Dewey Society (1969).

—Contributed by Linda L. G. Brown, The University of Texas at Austin

Thayer, V. T. 1928. The passing of the recitation. Boston: D.C. Heath.

Zepper, J. T. 1970. V. T. Thayer: Progressive educator. The Educational Forum 34(4): 495–504.

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