Towards an Understanding of Progressive Education and "School": Lee Dick's 1939 Documentary Film on the Hessian Hills School

by Craig Kridel

Jan 1, 2012
The documentary film School was commissioned by the Progressive Education Association for screening at the 1939 New York World's Fair. While filmed and produced by Lee Dick (one of the few female documentary filmmakers working in New York City at that time), the American Film Center coordinated the production with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation (RF). This project was conceived by the American Film Center as an experimental effort in low cost production and was described in a Newsweek article as the "first professional sound-and-dialogue documentary movie ever made on 16 millimeter film." This was not the only "first" claim made on behalf of the film. Lee Dick maintained that School was the first documentary film to abandon the use of a commentator. As she stated in a local newspaper article, "Let the children tell their story in their own way for it is a picture about real children in a real classroom." Entitled merely "school," the project sought to represent progressive education as endorsed by the Progressive Education Association (PEA), and I suspect that the generic title is an allusion to the closing paragraph of John Dewey's 1938 publication, Experience and Education, known to all members of the organization, where he asserts that what is needed "is education pure and simple" with "no qualifying adjectives" and no names or slogans.
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