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Article 1: Progressive education, developing countries, and cultural deprivation.

This essay will discuss two educational programs to improve the living conditions of students from low income families that Pedro T. Orata conducted during the middle years of the twentieth century. The question this paper will investigate is whether Orata considered the people he was trying to help as being trapped by the conditions of poverty to the extent that they required the assistance of trained leaders to rise from their depressed circumstances. Although this paper is limited to the personal views of Orata, it may suggest something about the conceptions that progressive educators held about the problems of poverty in the first half of the twentieth century.

Orata's work serves as a test case for two reasons. First, famous progressive educators in the United States praised his efforts to use schools to improve people's living conditions. Second, in the Philippines, he received in 1971 the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service in honor of his accomplishments in education over 44 years. The award specifically mentioned his work creating barangay self-help high schools (Board of Trustees 1978). The Ramon Magsaysay Award was an extremely high honor. According to Clare Arthurs (2000), this award is the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

Gregorio C. Borlaza, who was Orata's biographer, reported that Orata worked to raise himself from conditions of poverty. Born in 1899 in the rural section of Supotima on his parents' small farm shortly after the Philippine American War began, Orata began attending school in 1907 when a school opened in the nearby town of Bactad. The Philippine teachers for the school had prepared for their work with American soldiers, who lacked appropriate training themselves. This meant that Orata did not have competent elementary instruction; however, he was able to attend a provincial high school about fifty kilometers from his home, where he studied under qualified American teachers. Making up for his deficient background, Orata graduated from the high school as valedictorian, he traveled to the United States to enroll in the University of Illinois in Urbana. Borlaza added that Orata's sister had earned the money Orata needed for the move by taking in borders, doing laundry, and fattening pigs. Upon graduating with honors, Orata received a scholarship for graduate studies at The Ohio State University, where he worked with Boyd H. Bode in The Ohio State Laboratory School (Borlaza 1984, 1-18).

The move to Ohio gave Orata the opportunity to learn the philosophy and the methods of progressive education. The OSU lab school had opened for the express purpose of participating in the Progressive Education Association's Eight-Year study. More important, Bode was such an advocate of the new education that the October 1938 issue of Time Magazine named him "Progressive Education's Number One Philosopher."

Orata finished his dissertation in 1928 and went to South Dakota to serve as a school principal for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs for the 1936-1937 school year. At this time, Native American affairs were undergoing a period of extensive reform. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Indian Reorganization Act, submitted as the Wheeler-Howard Act, in June 1934. Roosevelt's commissioner of Indian affairs, John Collier, hoped this legislation would prevent the sale of land from the reservations as had happened under previous administrations. In addition, Collier thought the act could encourage the creation of day schools to replace the boarding schools that had characterized reservation life. These day schools were to serve the specific communities, helping Native Americans improve their lives and learn about their traditions and culture. In his memoirs, Collier praised Orata for illustrating at Little Wound Day School the revolutionary nature of the efforts that Collier wanted the schools to undertake (Collier 1963, 195-198).

Willard Beatty was the chief of the Branch of Education of the U.S. Indian Service, and he claimed that he selected Orata to be principal of the Little Wound Day School because Bode had recommended him for the position. Before joining the U.S. Indian Service, Beatty acquired considerable experience with progressive educational theories. He had worked with Carlton Washburne in the Winnetka, Illinois Schools and he was superintendent of the Bronxville, New York schools. In both positions, he implemented progressive educational techniques. More important for this essay, from 1933 to 1937, Beatty served as vice president and president of the Progressive Education Association (Senese 1999, 35-37).


Orata's school was on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the southeast corner of South Dakota; it served the Oglala Lakota Sioux. Orata described the reservation as consisting of 3,000,000 acres of arid prairie. Five years of drought had made farming impossible and the land on which the Sioux had allowed cattle to graze was no longer useful. Although the Sioux who lived on the reservation had once hunted buffalo on the open plains, Orata contended that the federal government reduced them to penury by forcing them onto this reservation and giving them regular rations of meat and other foodstuffs. In 1936, some Native American families tried to raise a few cattle and chickens. Older men made artifacts that they could sell to tourists, such as bows and arrows, pipes, or war clubs, yet Orata estimated that only ten percent of the Sioux were independently self-supporting (Orata 1953, 11-12).

In the face of these circumstances, the Indian Reorganization Act sought to enable the Native Americans to support themselves and to manage their own affairs. As he assumed his duties as principal of the school, Orata organized the program to reaffirm five objectives that he drew from this aim of the act. They included economic independence, self-government, better housing, health improvement, and preservation of Native American culture. In his report, Orata explained how difficult it was for the Native Americans to learn the new attitudes to fulfill these objectives. For example, concerning economic independence, the land was in such poor condition that the Native Americans could not farm or raise cattle. They had to depend on government relief for their basic needs. Since they could not see any way to earn a living and remain on the reservation, they tended to feel that the government should care for them (Orata 1953, 17-18).

Orata claimed that the school had to restore the self-respect to a people who underwent conditions of forced deprivation, and he described the education that he sought to bring to Little Wound Day School as a form of learn by doing. Considering an academic curriculum to be a luxury that would aggravate the dependency of the Native Americans, Orata introduced various projects that he hoped would satisfy their needs and meet their interests. When the students did not recognize these activities as interesting, Orata explained to them how these projects could help them (Orata 1953, 206).

One of the first activities Orata organized was a school carnival. His hope was that the festivities would give every student the opportunity to conduct some sort of profit making business. Although he conceived of the carnival as a way to advance the idea of economic independence, he found it difficult to enlist the Native Americans' support. When the teachers met with the adults in the community to ask what parts they wanted to play, the adults expressed surprise that the school officials asked them what they wanted to do. Finally, they appointed a committee to decide what they could contribute. The committee decided the adults would perform a traditional dance at the carnival (Orata 1953, 32-33).

For two weeks, the students laid aside their texts and prepared for the carnival. The different classes discussed what they would do. They considered problems they might face and solutions they could consider. According to Orata, this was a painful process, and the teachers were tempted to impose preconceived plans. Like the adults, the students had difficulty choosing what they wanted to do. They claimed teachers should assign the appropriate tasks; however, Orata claimed that gradually, the students took some control (Orata 1953, 33).

After the carnival, Orata and the teachers asked students and the adults what they thought about the carnival and how it could be improved. It was clear that the adults and students had participated reluctantly. Although the adults organized a traditional dance for the carnival, they wanted the school to pay them for their performance and they expected a free dinner. When asked what should be done with the ten dollars profits, the consensus among students and adults was the teachers should decide how to spend it. In all, Orata could not find that they had taken responsibility for the event. Accordingly, Orata decided the carnival did not help the students or the adults to learn economic independence (Orata 1953, 34-35).

More successful projects followed. In the case of valuing economic independence, Orata and his teachers agreed that they should help the children recognize the value of resources and show them how to do things for themselves. To accomplish the first goal with primary or intermediate students, the teachers and the students examined the garbage can to measure the amount of food wasted every day. The students visited a dam to see how much effort went in to providing water to grow vegetables. Finally, they calculated the costs of the wasted food and determined how much athletic equipment or musical instruments it could purchase. Orata claimed the result was the students tried to save more food when they ate in school, and they started their own garden on the school grounds so they could produce it. This led to activities of canning the vegetables that they harvested and preserving the food for the winter (Orata 1953, 206-207).

For Orata, the measure of educational success at Little Wound Day School was the extent the people in the community learned to carry out their daily pursuits in ways that improved their lives. According to Orata, this could happen if the school became the center of the community activities, and if everyone realized that the educational process concentrated on the community's needs. This meant that schools could not concentrate on teaching children to pass written examinations because it was often the case that such exams did not relate to the problems facing the community (Orata 1953, 205).

Bode thought highly of Orata's work with Native Americans. For example, in the foreword of Orata's report of his efforts in Little Wound Day School, Bode praised Orata for offering examples of the ways teachers could deal with young people's concerns by building lessons on everyday experiences in the community. According to Bode, this was the best way to improve the social conditions of Native Americans. Bode added that education would become the means to reinforce a democratic social order if all teachers took Orata's ideas to heart (Bode 1953, 4).

Thirty years later, Murray and Rosalie Wax raised questions about Orata's attitude toward the Native Americans when he was the principal in the Little Wound Day School. The Waxes concluded a study of the same reservation in 1964, and they found that many employees of the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the reservation knew of Orata's extensive reports and they quoted his views approvingly. This was disconcerting to them because they claimed that Orata expressed a patronizing view of Native Americans in his reports. For example, the Waxes quoted Orata as expressing the view that the Native Americans on the reservation avoided work whenever possible and that their unwillingness to exert themselves prevented them from improving their living conditions. The Waxes added Orata claimed that the Native Americans did not adhere to the ethos that he had followed to rise from poverty to respectability, lacked a value system, and could not improve their living conditions unless they adopted a Protestant ethic similar to his own. Although the Waxes acknowledged that Orata did not use the concept of cultural deprivation, they claimed his view was consistent with this theory and that the officials in the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs considered the American Indians in the 1960s to be culturally deprived (Wax 1964, 15-18).

The term, cultural deprivation, meant that the conditions of poverty caused the people who lived within it to surrender their ambitions and to forego any interest in changing their status. Although the concept rejected a view of genetic inferiority, it expressed the belief that people born into poverty had attitudes that ensured they would remain there (Riessman 1962, 11-30).

The Waxes' conclusions about officials in the U. S. Bureau of Indian Affairs should not be surprising. The statements about the need for a unique curriculum for a type of community education for Native Americans that Orata made in 1953 were similar to the sentiments that James Conant expressed in 1961 in his book, Slums and Suburbs, about education for economically deprived people. Conant had visited what he called slum schools in ten cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. He found that most of the children were African Americans whose families had moved from farms in Southern states searching for better opportunities. Conant noted that social discrimination prevented them from achieving those goals, and the academic programs in the urban schools did not help the children. Since the parents had little education themselves, Conant recommended programs to help the parents as well as the children and to provide appropriate vocational training for them all (Conant 1961).

More important, many federally funded programs for schools serving children from economically deprived families built their programs on an ideology of cultural deprivation after U.S. President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty in his State of the Union Address in January 1964, and these terms appeared in government documents. For example, in 1965, the U.S. Congress passed and Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which Title I was entitled, "Better Schooling for Educationally Deprived Children" (Bailey and Mosher 1968, 48-49).

The Waxes' article implied that the essential aspects of the cultural deprivation theory influenced progressive education long before it became popular in government circles. Nonetheless, the fact that officials espoused a theory imputing powerlessness among the residents of Pine Ridge was ironic. This area had served the Sioux chief, Sitting Bull, as the site of a last defensive measure against detachments of the U.S. Calvary in 1890. The Sioux opened the Oglala Lakota College on the reservation in 1971, and two years later members of the Sioux nation held an armed protest, the Wounded Knee Incident, in Pine Ridge that inspired other Native American groups to pursue changes in reservation policies. These activities did not illustrate feelings of powerlessness.

Nonetheless, Orata may have held this view, and the Waxes illustrated it with evidence from Orata's records of his work in the Little Wound Day School. Orata left the Pine Ridge Reservation after one year to return to the Philippines to advance education in his homeland, but his ability to contribute to his native country's development had to wait. The Japanese Army imprisoned him when they occupied the country from 1942 to 1945.

After the war, from 1948 until 1960, Orata lived in Paris, France where he worked for the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization in its division of Fundamental Education. According to his biographer, Orata was able to visit projects in developing nations during this time and send articles describing what he saw to a Philippine newspaper. These articles offered suggestions that people in the Philippines might follow to improve their conditions (Borlaza 1984, 60-61).


After retiring from UNESCO, Orata returned to the Philippines, where he started a movement for barangay high schools. The first three barangay high schools began in 1964 in Orata's home town of Urdaneta, Pangasinan. According to Ly Chanh Duc, director of Southeast Asia Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) Innotech, there were three important innovations to the barangay high schools. Local villages built them using the talents of the people and the available resources. The students financed the schools by engaging in profit making enterprises, and the academic subjects the students learned in the school contributed to their successes in these projects (Chanh Duc 1978, vii-viii).

Orata claimed that by 1978 there were more than 2,000 such schools enrolling over 300,000 students in rural areas where previously there had been no high schools. According to Orata, barangay high schools had spread without support from the government. Orata encouraged the people to use the resources that were available to them. For example, when an elementary school was built in the area, the high school classes used spaces of that school building when the younger students were not there, and the high school students used the equipment when it was idle. The district supervisor, the elementary school principal, and a few elementary school teachers worked with the high school students when they had time. For this extra work, they received a small honorarium. This extra money came from the students, who worked on projects for their classes that earned money, such as fattening pigs. The students used the profits to pay tuition for the high school. The students made many of their own appliances for the subjects, such as science classes, that required tools, such as microscopes or scales. Finally, local firms, wealthy families, and some charitable foundations contributed funds to support the students (Orata 1978, xii-xv).

Although the poverty in rural areas limited educational opportunities, Orata believed that some of the difficulties were advantages. For example, he noted that when the students had to build their own microscopes, they developed strong interests in science. Other family members helped the students find materials to build the instruments. Since they had made the microscopes, they were not afraid of the equipment and understood how to use it. Orata compared this practice to the requirements of student watchmakers in Switzerland who had to spend their first year of study making their own equipment (Orata 1978, 68).

Orata claimed that he developed the self-help high schools for three reasons. First, in those schools, the students repeated the experiences that he had undergone as a young man. Orata boasted that he had scored poorly on intelligence tests, but he had succeeded because he worked steadily. He believed self-help schools gave other students the opportunities to develop such persistence. Second, his experiences in South Dakota convinced him that the concept of a community school held promise for improving living standards of people in low income families. Finally, in his travels with UNESCO to many different parts of the world, he learned that self-help schools at all levels were an essential tool for the improvement of living conditions in developing countries (Orata 1978, 18-19).

The aims of the self-help high schools that Orata listed were similar to the aims he adopted in Little Wound Day School. He tried to teach the students to think and to weigh values. He wanted them to learn how to work, earn money, and recognize the value of resources. He tried to show that the academic subjects offered solutions to everyday problems. Finally, he wanted the students to become leaders in their communities and avoid involvement with criminal activities (Orata 1978, 15-16).

When Orata wrote that he wanted the students to learn to earn money, he was not speaking about vocational education programs that prepared children to work in established businesses. In the 1970s, many youths in rural communities could not proceed to college and there were few jobs available in the villages. Nonetheless, Orata believed the graduates of barangay high schools could become self-supporting adults if they learned as students to raise pigs or chickens for sale and how to cultivate out-of season vegetables they could sell. In addition, they should learn how to raise fish they could sell (Orata 1978, 27).

To show the worth of these activities, Orata quoted the results from two school districts. In one of them, the 127 students earned a total of 8800 Philippine dollars in a year. In another, the 40,000 students earned a total of over a one and half million Philippine dollars during one school year. Although these sums ranged from 69 to 37 Philippine dollars per student, Orata argued that the students could take up these activities as their occupations upon graduation if nothing else was available to them. Orata thought these were worthwhile endeavors that contributed to the economic development of the country (Orata 1978, 28).

As for the academic subjects, Orata retained his view that traditional academic subjects were a luxury that economically deprived groups could not afford. Instead, he called for the curriculum in the barrio high schools to be presented in ways that made academic subjects appropriate to conditions in the rural areas. This did not mean that the objectives or the framework of the studies should differ for well-to-do urban students and for economically deprived rural children. It meant the applications differed. For example, when learning about the flow of water in physics classes, the students could see how to help farmers with irrigation projects. Since the students in traditional and in barangay high schools learned the dynamics of water pressure, the students from all the high schools could to go on to college (Orata 1978, 71).

The academic subject that Orata thought was most important was science, which included the various types of science that high schools could teach. These areas had practical and ethical significance. The practical applications could improve the living conditions, when the high school students learned about converting garbage into compost or about the proper construction of outhouses to prevent the transmission of disease. One ethical aspect of science concerned the ways the practical application of some scientific finding that improved the lives of the people because this alerted the students to the need to follow such principles (Orata 1978, 77-97, 113-122).

In general, Orata followed well known principles of teaching science. He used the subject to teach students about their environment. It pointed ways to improve agriculture and sanitation. The classes taught the students to make careful observations and accurate reports, and science taught them to consider evidence before making a decision or a judgment. Orata added a new element to these four principles. It was to have the students form a plan for village improvement that was based on the science they had learned. To make this a community wide endeavor, the adults participated in forming these plans and implementing them (Orata 1978, 123).

Science occupied an important place in the curriculum of the barangay high schools because the scientific method was the pattern that Orata wanted the students to follow when they learned to think. In his description of barangay high schools, Orata did not describe how people think beyond saying that they had to go beyond facts to meanings, ideas, and ways of thinking and doing. Nonetheless, he had explained how people think in his doctoral dissertation that was published in 1928.

In his dissertation, Orata followed the ideas of his teacher, Boyd Bode, to construct an argument for the transfer of training. Using the then-popular idea of the stimulus response arc, Bode had argued that people avoid mud puddles because walking through water meant wet feet. In this simple statement, Bode suggested how a stimulus carried with it a meaning that implied the result of the response. When the sky was cloudy, it meant rain. People carried umbrellas to avoid ruining their clothes. These meanings became concepts when the concrete situation or object was not present. The concepts were essential to planning any activity (Orata 1928, 161-162).

In his dissertation, Orata argued that thinking and concept formation had to be stressed in the classrooms. This meant that teachers had to show the social meanings of academic subjects. He added that such revisions would provide a means of reorganizing schools to further intelligent participation in the life of the community (Orata 1928, 178-179).

In his description of what teachers should do in the barangay high school, Orata wrote that teachers should raise questions about what the pupils should do in a variety of situations, such as riding on a bus or doing their chores. Orata suggested that teachers could present these situations with several options for behavior and encourage the students to weigh the consequences of various acts. He offered several examples in his book. Orata's hope was that such exercises would enable the students to expand their store of meanings that they associated with various situations. One example that he posed described a taxi driver whose car was occupied by a group of men stopping to offer a ride to a girl. The question was whether the girl should accept the offer (Orata 1978, 129).

According to Orata, a benefit of the barangay high schools was that those schools taught the students to work so they could earn their school expenses. He thought that the students would accept doing manual labor when they were adults because they did it in the high school. He thought this would be a breakthrough in the Philippines because most Filipinos considered working with their hands as undignified. This was a prejudice that derived from the colonial mentality, and it existed in all social classes. Although many schools had tried to eliminate this prejudice, they did so by making labor an extra-curricular activity, which made practical work appear less significant than abstract academics (Orata 1978, 140-141).

Although Orata praised the barangay schools for making work an aspect of an integrated curriculum, he did not seem to think that this was an aspect that only schools for low income rural youth should undertake. He noted that the Philippines celebrated Labor Day by having children in all schools learn about the dignity of labor. It would be better, Orata added, if the celebration of Labor Day came after the students had spent a month on some useful community activity. He did not think they could appreciate the importance of labor by marching in parades or listening to speeches. Most important, the students would know more fully about the value and the dignity of labor if their parents and other community members noticed the value of the work the students had done (Orata 1978, 150).


When Orata described the attitudes of Native Americans in Little Wound Day School, he implied that they suffered from cultural deprivation. His thoughts seemed to change when he described education in the Philippines. Although he acknowledged that affluent children in America studied academics, he wanted all children in the Philippines, regardless of social class, to participate in practical activities that taught them the value of labor. It is possible that Orata changed his attitudes because he made those statements more than forty years apart. It could be that he saw the people in his own homeland differently than he saw Native Americans. This paper will suggest that the differences arose from Orata's effort to apply the ideas of progressive education to different situations.

In his educational ideas, Orata seemed to apply the plans he saw in the University School of Ohio State University. According to the description the University School members published in their report of the experiences during the Eight Year Study, the teachers and the students worked together on tasks of common interest in ways that provided for each individual to develop as fully as possible. The criterion for selecting curriculum experiences was whether or if they would fit the needs that were common to all. Accordingly, the activities in the University School promoted democratic values by providing for practice in cooperative living (The University School 1943).

In the University School, the academic subject matters appeared in the same functional way that Orata wanted them to appear in the Little Wound Day School and in the barangay high schools. At the University School, science was concerned with meeting the needs of maturing individuals and helping them learn to solve problems. Mathematics was used to solve problems the students faced in their lives rather than as an abstract subject, and social science became ways to solve the problems facing people during the Great Depression, which was then in force. These included such studies as the appropriate relation of government to business. Furthermore, the students in the University School engaged in cooperative projects similar to the carnival that Orata recommended for Little Wound Day School. In the University School, the project was a Christmas pageant. Students and teachers spent from Thanksgiving to Christmas planning and carrying out the project, devoting considerable class time to this project. Not only were the decorations elaborate, the pageant included a three hour play that required every member of the school to accept a role as an actor. There was no audience (The University School 1943).

The important difference between the curriculum in the University School and Orata's idea of appropriate curriculum for the schools he directed in North Dakota and in the Philippines was that the major effort in the University School focused on critical thinking rather than on the improvement of living standards as it did in Orata's schools. Nonetheless, in both situations the teachers wanted to help students improve their communities. In the 1930s, the United States was faced with serious economic problems and many commentators suggested that Roosevelt was wrong to raise taxes on the rich. Under these conditions, schools should suggest intelligent ways to solve the wider economic problems. In developing countries, the problems facing the community were more practical than political. Under such conditions, schools could help by teaching about water pressure in ways that students could apply the information to crop irrigation.

Such descriptions suggest that the progressive educational ideas of Orata did not fall prey to the paternalistic notions that plagued later views of cultural deprivation. When progressive educators tried to teach children about democracy, the same ideal could appear differently in different contexts. Critical thinking is an important element of democracy, but physical health is also an important element in a democracy.

Joseph Watras

University of Dayton


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Author:Watras, Joseph
Publication:American Educational History Journal
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:9PHIL
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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