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United States of America and Its Educational History

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At the turn of the 20th century the United States of America inherited a large flux of immigrants seeking opportunity in a nation recently converted from an agrarian economy to one of industrialization. Urbanization had taken over the country as well, however, these were not the only major changes occurring. Along with the new immigrants came and increase in student enrollment in secondary schools, rising from 358,000 in the 1889-1890 academic year to 2.5 million by 1919 (Tozer, p. 85). As more and more immigrants entered the States, prejudices evolved towards them from a national fear of competing for jobs with foreigners and hate deriving from WWI. The mounting immigrant population would create numerous conflicts that the public would rely on schools to solve.

One such conflict was the traditional methods of teaching, such as the “Toe the Line” idea, that seemed (much like factory work) to have a decomposing effect upon students. Education of the time was viewed as “faculty psychology”, meaning the mind had many “faculties” that could be built-up through exercise (Tozer, pg. 104). This approach basically used the pupils’ memories to strengthen intelligence and capability to think rationally. Although this technique was very inflexible, the concept intellectual exercise was a benefit. Educators realized a response was necessary for urbanization, industrialization and vast immigration; this would come about from new psychological tactics to reject the classical curriculum (and its rote learning) into student needs. The new thought was progressive education and it had four main components: 1) traditional curriculum should be replaced with a varied curriculum based on student needs 2) Learning should not be rote, but based on activities 3) School goals should reflect societal conditions and 4) Schooling should help solve social problems (Tozer, pg. 107). The incorporation of the new progressive education ideology into the schools of America was strongly divided between two interpretations, those being developmental-democracy and social-efficiency.

The design for developmental-democracy consisted around direct participation of society and citizens would solve problems from rational thought (Tozer, p. 106). The prominent leader of this movement was John Dewey, for he believed within democracy (much like Jefferson) people must be educated to actively participate in society, however, for the education these people received to be triumphant, the people must contribute to democratic life (Tozer, p. 107). He believed the new education “needed more attention, not less, to subject-matter” (Dewey # 7). In order to achieve this, Dewey felt students should act democratically in their learning activities (rivaling the traditional method of a non-responsive classroom). He felt with the old teaching styles children were “going to lead a life of slavery” (Tozer, p. 108), rather than use their innate abilities: creativity, curiosity, constructive and social agents.

Dewey stated in his philosophy of education that teachers should “cultivate” child experiences into learning (Dewey # 7), and if the students interact with activities based on their interests, the students would seek more education. His ideology was not quite child-centered, but more along the lines of learner-centered, with teachers not being just instructors, but mentors as well. This would contribute to the “all-around growth of every member of society” (Tozer, p. 108). The movement also pushed for knowledge from activities in relation to life and schools to be “democratic laboratories” (Tozer, p. 107) that would allow education to prepare students for change in society. Dewey also strongly advocated schools to “never educate for vocations, but should always educate through vocations” (Tozer, p. 109). This argument displaces the followers of a developmental-democracy from those who believed in social-efficiency.

The social-efficiency view of progressive education primarily attempted to achieve an orderly society with experts in power over the masses, then again the movement was not against democracy completely, they felt that schools should prepare students to realize “evident or probable destinies” (Tozer, p. 107). Charles Eliot would become a leader of the social-efficiency movement and also believed education should groom students for their destinies. His objectives to rid of the traditional school were 1) social stability 2) employable skills 3) equal education and 4) meritocracy. Because of high drop out rates, and inherent racism, he became a promoter for vocational education. Eliot came from a wealthy background and therefore, felt compassionate for businesses rather than the laborers and wanted schools to teach students to be respectful to management in the workforce (Tozer, p. 111). The U.S. Bureau of Education stated in 1914 “The public schools exist primarily for the benefit of the State rather than for the benefit of the individual” (Tozer, p. 112).

Schools began to incorporate activities designed to prepare students to “take their places” (Tozer, p. 112) in the urban, industrialized world and with vocational education, the interests of the state would be served with a stable society. As a result, students would be ready for the workplace with employable skills they learned in school through vocational activities. Of course this education was to be equal according to Eliot, but to the contrary, the education would have equal opportunity, but as long as races were separate, the age-old expression of “separate but equal” would still apply. Finally, Eliot’s meritocracy would have instructors help locate and educate talented students to become democratic leaders of the future; those of course left out would follow some sort of vocational track to prepare for a life of laboring. Although Horace Mann declared schools would be “the great equalizer”, as well as Dewey (Tozer, p. 114), society would follow Eliot’s methods and inequality would surface. Eliot followed the intuition that the meritorious would rise to control the masses through supposed equal opportunity and complete democratic society. This theory was also motivated through social-Darwinist aspects and the belief that Dewey’s ideal of bettering students is not always the best fit (as proven with high drop out rates at the secondary level).

At the time Eliot’s methods seemed suitable for the country with increased immigration. I say this because many foreigners came to the United States in search of work because the industrialization of Europe made jobs less available. Eliot’s plan, however, just appeared to be a “quick fix” for businesses and the corporate elite to acquire a large working class, while on the other side of the sphere, let immigrants get hold of wages but never truly rise up in society to affect the “pure American stock” (Tozer, p. 110) already established in the nation. In addition Eliot’s plans were racist and discriminatory in which the schools were to become factories themselves by producing “pre-destined” laborers to serve those in power. I consider John Dewey’s movement to have been a better proposal for education at the turn of the 20th century. The developmental-democracy movement sought to educate based on the needs of the students through their concerns and interests.

With the United States changing rapidly year after year, Dewey’s school environment aimed at growth, and a flexible classroom to have students meet changes around them. This process would be more democratic than Eliot’s because each student would have the opportunity to rise up, whereas in Eliot’s meritocracy, only the select few would become leaders if they were deemed worthy of the honor; those not worthy would be vocationally educated for they would one day be a part of the working class (Tozer, p. 112). Vocational education within the developmental-democracy would allow students to make connections with activities based on occupations to the classroom, as well as the outside world (Tozer, p. 108). Both methods did solve the problems with the traditional teaching routine by 1) ridding of classical curriculum, use of vocation (but for different purposes on both sides), learning by doing, and applying education to everyday societal problems (Tozer, p. 117). In different ways, both progressives aimed at displacing the classical framework of education.

Today’s schools are very much developmental-democracy, but in limited manners. Although curriculum is very diverse, with many more courses to offer than ever before (such as computer graphics), the state still requires many classes to be taken; such as mathematics, English, and foreign languages, in order to continue on to a college education. Vocational education is applied in the classrooms constantly, with such activities as “Current Event” conversations and such extra-curricular activities as Model United Nations. To the contrary, many students lose interest with general classes and vocational opportunities, through DAVEA for example, allow students to train for occupations while still in school (work-study programs do this as well). In other words, it seems to be that vocational education for job placement is now the students’ choice, as it well should be.

President Bush’s education agenda seems, on the other hand, is very much developmental-democracy promoting, but leans towards social-efficiency is some facets. I say this because Bush’s plan forces “annual, statewide assessments” that are reported by race, income, and other categories to display progress of “various subgroups” (“No Child Left Behind”, p. 1). This follows Eliot’s followers of social-efficiency because they used the IQ test to use science as a means to assess “evident and probable destinies” (Tozer, p. 116). The ACT and SAT tests themselves virtually determine a student’s plans after high school, those who perform well move on to college, those who don’t, typically become a blue-collar worker. The curriculum may have changed, but the meritocracy Eliot created seems to be quite present.

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United States of America and its Educational History. (2019, April 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 26, 2023, from
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