Educating “the Great Army of Incapables”

IT WAS NOT hard to see that to prepare student minds (as well as student bodies) for a truly “higher” education, there would have to be preparatory institutions above the elementary grade open to all citizens. The obvious answer to this need was the “high school.” The expression itself was an Americanism which had appeared earlier in the nineteenth century to describe any school beyond the elementary level where students were taught “all those branches which fit a young man for college.”

To complete a democratic apparatus of education, these high schools would have to become universal, free, and public. Never before in any modern nation had there been such a need, simply because the opportunity to enter institutions of higher learning had never been so widespread. Now, about 1900, when the American people found themselves possessed of a vast array of colleges and universities for the benefit of everybody, they began to wonder how “everybody” was going to be prepared.

The free public high school, which would prove one of the nation’s most significant, most distinctive, and least celebrated institutions, was an American invention. For all practical purposes, it was to be a creature of the twentieth century. As late as 1890, the high school had touched only a tiny minority of the American people; of the nation’s children aged 14 to 17 years, the number enrolled in all high schools and private secondary schools amounted to less than 7 percent. Of that number, only an insignificant percentage went on to college. In 1897, when President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard described “the function of education in a democratic society,” he was announcing a hope and not recording a fact. “Democratic education being a very new thing in the world,” he explained, “its attainable objects are not yet fully perceived.”

ELIOT’S HOPE WAS to emancipate every American by putting him on a path of schooling which might conceivably lead him to the most learned professions. There would still be a traditional ladder of learning: each student, having chosen his ladder, would advance from the simpler to the more complex, always climbing up. For the democratic mission was to open all careers to all men of talent. A newer version of Thomas Jefferson’s system for Virginia in the late eighteenth century, Eliot’s plan, too, aimed to sift out the ablest, regardless of wealth or class, so they might advance in learning.

The struggle for the high school and the debate over its proper role in American democracy would focus once again a question that had recurred throughout American history and that would bedevil the nation in the twentieth century. It was in some ways the central problem of modern democracy, for it was nothing less than the question of the meaning of human “equality.” Was the good society one which allowed all citizens to develop their natural differences, including their natural in equalities? Or was it a society which tried to make men equal? Did “equality” mean the maximum fulfillment of each, or did it mean the leveling of all?

This question was nowhere more sharply posed than in education, and especially in the high school. For the elementary schools, offering only the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic, presumably offered something which could be profitably consumed by all citizens, except only those few retarded or defective. But the “high” school was something else. If it was to be the road to a “higher” learning, then perhaps all citizens might not be equally qualified to go up the road. Should the high school, then, be a sieve, to select out those who could from those who could not profitably go on to a college or university? And then what should be done for each of these groups? Should a comparable share of the public tuition be expended on those unable to take the college path?

From the beginning, two different views with quite different emphases battled for control of the new American high school. In the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, Eliot held that the duty of democratic education, in addition to preparing a whole literate populace, was to cultivate the natural aristocracy, so that the whole community could benefit from the fulfillment of its ablest citizens. And so that educational resources would not be wasted on those unable to employ them profitably. This view required rigorous standards, the same for all.

Opponents of this view, who also were enthusiasts for the free public high school, were led by G. Stanley Hall, whom we have already met as a founder of child study and the discoverer of adolescence, and by John Dewey, a disciple of Hall, who was destined to be the most influential exponent of the New Education. Fearful of a “natural aristocracy,” these new philosophies of democratized education espoused the cause of those whom Hall called “the great army of incapables.” Hall agreed that President Eliot’s scheme for a uniform high school, where subjects would be taught in the same manner to all students, would open the way for more poor boys of superior talent to go on to college. But, Hall asked, what of those vast numbers “for whose mental development heredity decrees a slow pace and early arrest”? They needed special treatment. While Eliot did not deny that there were hereditary incompetents, he insisted that these were only an “insignificant proportion” of schoolchildren. “Any school superintendent or principal,” said Eliot, “who should construct his program with the incapables chiefly in mind would be a person professionally demented.” It was precisely these “incapables” about whom Hall was primarily concerned.

The distance between Eliot on the one hand and Hall and Dewey on the other was a measure of how far the new American religion of education would move beyond the Old World institutions of schooling. For while Eliot, reformer though he was, still thought and talked about “subjects” of study, Hall, Dewey, and their followers thought and talked about the pupil. While Eliot aimed to emancipate the student from narrow, antiquated subject matters, giving him a freedom to “elect” the subjects of greatest interest, the others aimed to liberate the student from subject matter, to emancipate him to be himself. While Eliot’s changes meant a radical reform, the Hall and Dewey proposals implied a revolution. And this revolutionary new view of education would transform the secondary school in America from an institution providing specialized learning for a few (as it was and still remains in most of the world) into something else much harder to define, an expression of a new American religion.

CHARLES W. ELIOT himself was an apostle of one of the less radical sects of this new American religion of education. Born in 1834, the only son of a wealthy Boston civic leader, he graduated from Boston Latin School and Harvard College (1853) where he remained as instructor in mathematics and chemistry. In 1863, when Harvard would not promote him, he resigned, traveled abroad, and then returned to a professorship of chemistry at M.I.T. Early in 1869 Eliot’s two articles on “The New Education: Its Organization” in the Atlantic Monthly attracted wide attention. Later that year Harvard, which only recently had refused to name him an associate professor, elected him president of the university. The election was not without controversy, but was finally approved by a divided vote of the Harvard Overseers. Throughout his forty years as Harvard’s president, and until his death in 1926 in his ninety-second year, Eliot remained a figure of intellectual adventure and of controversy. But because he spoke from Harvard, the most venerable American institution of higher learning and the inner sanctum of New England Brahminism, he was doubly persuasive as a spokesman for his version of democracy in American education. More than any other American educator, he was qualified to give an aura of respectability to the tendencies of the New Education.

“Conditions of business and ways of living in America,” Eliot wrote in 1869, “are fundamentally different from European habits and conditions. An average American does not eat, drink, sleep, work, or amuse himself like an average European…. The spirit of a European school cannot but be foreign in many respects to American habits…. We have inherited civil liberty, social mobility, and immense native resources. The advantages we thus hold over the European nations are inestimable. The question is, not how much our freedom can do for us unaided, but how much we can help freedom by judicious education.” If democracy, the freedom to move up and to be oneself, distinguished America, then, Eliot argued, it must also distinguish American education. He therefore championed new ways to bring democracy into education: by giving every American the opportunity to choose what he wanted to learn, by opening the paths for growth, by liberating all from the artificial barriers of wealth and of class.

Eliot began at Harvard. There he opposed the traditional aristocracy of subjects, which still ranked Latin, Greek, and mathematics above modern subjects like English, French, German, history, economics, or the natural sciences. He believed every student should have the opportunity to grow in his own way, to make his own choices, to be stirred by his own interests. Over strong faculty opposition he introduced his system of “free electives,” which meant a new equality of subjects and a new freedom for students to study whatever they wished. By 1894 a Harvard undergraduate could earn a Bachelor of Arts degree by taking (in addition to English and a modern foreign language) the required number of courses in any subjects of his choice.

The same democratic motives which led Eliot to open up choices for Harvard students made him a reformer in the secondary schools. There the besetting evil was to force an early choice on the pupils and their parents. Bcause there were two kinds of secondary schools, one preparing for college and the other preparing for “work,” children were irrevocably classified at the age of ten or eleven. Eliot declared that he refused

to believe that the American public intends to have its children sorted before their teens into clerks, watchmakers, lithographers, telegraph operators, masons, teamsters, farm laborers, and so forth, and treated differently in their schools according to these prophecies of their appropriate careers. Who are to make these prophecies? Can parents? Can teachers?… I have watched many hundreds of successful careers which no one … could have prophesied of the runners at twelve years of age; and I have always believed that the individual child in a democratic society had a right to do his own prophesying about his own career, guided by his own ambitions and his own capacities….

To liberate the American child, then, to emancipate him from his poverty and his ancestry, to allow him to fulfill himself, required a single kind of secondary school, the same for all.

Eliot wished to make this possible, first by changing college-entrance requirements to give admission credit for “modern subjects” and then by changing the standard high school courses to include subjects equally useful to all. When Eliot became president of Harvard in 1869, the only subjects counting for admission to the college were Latin, Greek, elementary mathematics, ancient history, and geography. Thirty years later, under Eliot’s influence, all sorts of modern subjects—including the English, French, and German languages; English, European, and American history; physics, chemistry, and physiology—were accepted.

The report on American secondary education which Eliot prepared as chairman of the National Education Association’s Committee of Ten (1892), urged higher standards and greater uniformity in the high schools: more “modern” subjects should be taught to all, and all subjects should be taught in the same way to all students. This was a wide departure not only from the venerated European traditions of the French lycée and the German Gymnasium but from the established American practice which still took for granted that all girls, and the boys who did not intend to go on to college, needed no more than an “elementary” education. “Secondary” education, following the European tradition, was needed only to “prepare” the young man for the university, which meant giving him more Greek and Latin, more ancient history and mathematics so that he could meet the university requirements. A secondary education and a college preparatory education had been the same.

It was this rigid, academic emphasis that had led Benjamin Franklin back in 1743 to propose another kind of post-primary school, to be called an “academy,” which would offer mathematics (not then taught in “Latin Schools”), modern languages, science, modern history, and geography. Franklin, too, had aimed to widen the knowledge of all young Americans, including those who did not intend to be teachers, clergymen, doctors, or lawyers. Between the Revolution and the Civil War some 1,300 “academies” had been founded all over the country; they were generally private institutions, aiming to provide a better post-primary education for children who were not going on to college. Phillips Andover Academy (chartered in 1780) and Phillips Exeter Academy (1781), Erasmus Hall (1787), and others which later became eminent as college-preparatory schools had been established not only to teach young men academic subjects “but more especially to learn them the great and real business of living.” Before the mid-nineteenth century, however, a new kind of public secondary school had begun to appear in the United States.

The first public high school in the American pattern was opened in Boston in 1821. This “English High School” for boys aged 12 to 15, whom it admitted by examination, aimed to prepare them for “mercantile and mechanical employments.” A separate high school for girls was opened in 1826, but it was so popular that within two years its operating costs exceeded the city’s budget, and it was closed. A Massachusetts law of 1827 required, under heavy penalty, that every community of 500 families provide some such school offering classes for ten months a year. Philadelphia Central High School, which opened in 1837, was “imposing in appearance, convenient in its location, and equipped with all the devices [including an astronomical observatory] that an acute and interested Board could secure.”

Now there was a High School Movement, hoping to provide some post-elementary education for all citizens, and as a result more than three hundred high schools were in existence in the United States before the Civil War. The development, however, was not without opposition from taxpayers. The legislature of Pennsylvania received more than thirty thousand petitions against its education law of 1834, from citizens who objected because they believed the public high school to be an unconstitutional burden on the taxpayers and an undemocratic interference with the rights of parents to control the education of their own children. But the state supreme courts one by one upheld the laws establishing public high schools, on the grounds that the state constitutions did justify the provision of an educational minimum at public cost. Not until 1874 did the classic statement by Chief Justice Thomas M. Cooley of the Michigan Supreme Court (30 Michigan Reports, 69) finally dissolve doubts of the legality of the tax-supported public high school.

FOR THE SHAPE AND DIRECTION of the public high school, the doctrines and preachings of G. Stanley Hall had decisive implications. We have seen how he developed new attitudes toward the morality of children, how child study led him to belief in a child-centered curriculum, and how his discovery of adolescence led him to espouse a high school where the adolescent himself was the only important subject matter.

His teachings were reinforced, popularized, and given practical effect by his more prosaic and even more prolific disciple. John Dewey, a Vermonter who had studied under Hall at Johns Hopkins, was to be the most influential American educationist and the most representative American philosopher of the twentieth century. Dewey lived to be ninety-three and he influenced American life until the very end. He left scores of books on every subject, from art and logic and language and morals to manual training, politics, and foreign policy. His writings are colloquial and pedantic, lucid and obscure, easy and unintelligible. Although few would deny that he was America’s leading philosopher, many philosophers, with good reason, called him an anti-philosopher. While he was the nation’s leading apostle of education, some respected educators called him the leading American enemy of education.

Dewey made his most interesting suggestions on the frontiers between traditional man-made boundaries: between ideas, between activities, between professions, and between ideas and action. And Dewey spent his life breaking down barriers, trying to let experience flow. He spoke for the future, an America where old landmarks were to be dissolved, so that men would be more free, though perhaps more lost, than ever before. He pushed the American promise to its extreme. He made an America of the mind. And he brought men new promise, new hope, and new bewilderment.

At his seventieth-birthday celebration in 1929, Dewey described himself as “a man who was somewhat sensitive to the movements of things about him. He had a certain appreciation of what things were passing away and dying and of what things were being born and growing. And on the strength of that response he foretold some of the things that were going to happen in the future. When he was seventy years old the people gave him a birthday party and they gave him credit for bringing to pass the things he had foreseen might come to pass.” He foresaw the mystery of America being transferred from the continent out there inwardly into the experience of Americans.

In Burlington, Vermont, where Dewey was raised, he had seen a burgeoning citified America surrounded by families on farms. And he was impressed by how the distinction between “schooling” and “education” seemed to tyrannize and narrow experience. The school that he saw was a world of individual recitation, where children learned reading, writing, and arithmetic, all of which had very little to do with their later life on the farm. The family farm, the world of sharing, of learning-by-doing, was where the boy or girl received his real “education,” his preparation for the tasks of life. Dewey’s New Education could have been described as his effort to make the school as much as possible like the old family farm, where children learned by doing, and enjoyed joining in common tasks.

In School and Society (1899), Dewey told how the transformation of society was requiring the transformation of schools:

Back of the factory system lies the household and neighborhood system…. The clothing worn was for the most part not only made in the house, but the members of the household were usually familiar with the shearing of the sheep, the carding and spinning of the wool, and the plying of the loom. Instead of pressing a button and flooding the house with electric light, the whole process of getting illumination was followed in its toilsome length, from the killing of the animal and the trying of fat, to the making of wicks and dipping of candles. The supply of flour, of lumber, of foods, of building materials, of household furniture; even of metal ware, of nails, hinges, hammers, etc., was in the immediate neighborhood, in shops which were constantly open to inspection and often centers of neighborhood congregation. The entire industrial process stood revealed, from the production on the farm of the raw materials, till the finished article was actually put to use. Not only this, but practically every member of the household had his own share in the work. The children, as they gained in strength and capacity, were gradually initiated into the mysteries of the several processes.

We cannot overlook the factors of discipline and of character-building involved in this: training of habits of order and of industry, and in the idea of responsibility, of obligation to do something, to produce something, in the world. There was always something which needed to be done, and a real necessity that each member of the household should do his own part faithfully and in cooperation with others.

As the old family farm disappeared, Dewey argued, the school had to be reshaped into an effective substitute.

He assumed that preparation for life was a preparation for an intelligible world. But would this assumption be old-fashioned in late-twentieth-century America? Could an educational system be “progressive” if it aimed to recapture life on a Vermont farm?

The first reform of education was to make “school” and “society” into one. “Education,” Dewey preached, “is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” The school was not a place where boys and girls acquired knowledge and skills for adult use, but was itself a living community. The ideal community, then, was a vast school in which all shared the processes of learning-by-doing; the ideal school was a whole community. “The school, as an institution, should simplify existing social life; should reduce it, as it were, to an embryonic form. Existing life is so complex that the child cannot be brought into contact with it without either confusion or distraction.”

Dewey and his wife showed what all this meant in the Laboratory School that they set up at the University of Chicago. There the emphasis was on “activity” rather than on discipline, on doing rather than on learning. Instead of reciting their lessons, the children examined stones and insects, made things with hammer and saw, conversed and discussed and conferred. “There is a certain disorder in any busy workshop; there is not silence; persons are not engaged in maintaining certain fixed physical postures; their arms are not folded; they are not holding their books thus and so…. Our whole conception of school discipline changes when we get this point of view.” While dissolving old notions of discipline, Dewey also dissolved subject matter and even curriculum. All subjects merged in a community of action.

Incidentally, as Dewey idealized activity he erased many of the old distinctions in philosophy. Philosophers had ranked entities by putting the concrete individual fact or experience at the bottom, and giving the place of honor to the abstract, generalizing absolute. In Dewey’s new world there was no place for such hierarchies.

Dewey’s grand encompassing aim was “growth”—growth for every citizen, and growth for the society. And this became the elusive aim of the New Education. Growth, a mysterium tremendum, a promise of salvation, was the heart of the new religion.

Everybody knew what growth meant, yet nobody knew its limits. Knowledge could be acquired, learning could be possessed, but growth was a process. As Dewey explained:

If we go back a few centuries, we find a practical monopoly of learning. The term possession of learning was, indeed, a happy one. Learning was a class matter. This was a necessary result of social conditions. There were not in existence any means by which the multitude could possibly have access to intellectual resources. These were stored up and hidden away in manuscripts. Of these there were at best only a few, and it required long and toilsome preparation to be able to do anything with them. A high priesthood of learning, which guarded the treasury of truth and which doled it out to the masses under severe restrictions, was the inevitable expression of these conditions. But as a direct result of the industrial revolution … this has been changed. Printing was invented; it was made commercial. Books, magazines, papers were multiplied and cheapened. As a result of the locomotive and telegraph, frequent, rapid, and cheap intercommunication by mails and electricity was called into being. Travel has been rendered easy; freedom of movement, with its accompanying exchange of ideas, indefinitely facilitated. The result has been an intellectual revolution. Learning has been put into circulation … a distinctively learned class is henceforth out of the question. It is an anachronism. Knowledge is no longer an immobile solid; it has been liquefied. It is actively moving in all the currents of society itself.

Dewey might have gone further. Knowledge was not only liquefied, it was rarefied, dispersed into the atmosphere, where it could not be confined or defined.

WHEN DEWEY HAD MADE Growth the sacred end and Activity the sacred means, education was not only modernized but thoroughly Americanized. Knowledge would become a kind of motion picture of the mind, which offered its meaning only in movement. Since youth was the period of greatest growth, it was inevitable that Americans should idealize youth as the period of most vivid knowing. And the problems which the New Education bequeathed to modern America were akin to the problems which came from the idealizing of change and expansion in many other areas of life.

Growth for what? Activity toward what end? “The objection,” Dewey noted, “is that growth might take many different directions: a man, for example, who starts out on a career of burglary may grow in that direction, and by practice may grow into a highly expert burglar. Hence it is argued that ‘growth’ is not enough; we must also specify the direction in which growth takes place, the end toward which it tends.” Dewey’s answer was that there was a test, there was an end: more growth. The burglar’s growth was not what it should be because his growth as a burglar did not promote his “growth in general.”

Dewey protested when his disciples tried to circumscribe the New Education (which they dogmatized into “Progressive Education”). “Growth as education and education as growth” meant that only by growing could one discover how and in what direction one could grow. “Learning is a method of growth and … the educative process does not consist in acquiring a kit of tools but is a process of learning means and methods of human growth which can never be fixed but must be constantly developed.” He was appalled at the “conversion—or perversion—of means and methods into a fixed, self-sufficient subject-matter.”

As the New Education prevailed, Americans became increasingly puzzled over the meaning of education. This puzzlement itself somehow made it all the easier for Americans to invest education with a religious aura. Because Americans could never be confident of what education really was, they could, for that very reason, be the more persuaded that it should and could be given to everybody. In a democracy, was it not everybody’s right to grow? And to receive from his community all the necessary means of growing?

The new American institution in which the faith of the New Education became embodied and most widely diffused was the American high school. After 1890 the high school grew at a fantastic pace. While, as we have seen, in 1890 less than 7 percent of the nation’s population aged 14 to 17 were in high school, by 1920 the figure had reached one third, by 1950 the figure was three quarters, and every year going up, until by 1970 the number was near 90 percent. The new American religion of education was becoming universal, and the high school was every citizen’s place of worship.

At an earlier stage of American history, too, the public school had been where children of immigrants were taught to speak American, a place for “Americanizing.” But these aspirations and subject matters of the American public schools, while intimately expressive of main currents of national history, had not been radically new. Horace Mann, in his classic Report of the Massachusetts Board of Education (1847), had declared that American education would be “the great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance-wheel of the social machinery” and what he called “intellectual education” was to be the means of removing poverty and securing abundance. Mann was arguing that a valuable ancient commodity, once reserved to the privileged few, should now be diffused to all. The American public school, though organized in newly communal ways, still taught Old World subject matters.

But the New Education transformed the very meaning of the school and of school-taught “knowledge.” Its creature was the American high school; and even more plainly than the elementary schools, the high school bore the American mark. “Of all the departments of education,” the editor of the School Bulletin noted in 1899, “the high school is the most firmly entrenched. The stone which the builders at one time seemed likely to reject has become the head of the corner. The high school is the people’s college. Its principal should be an educational bishop for the community. The building should be in the best location, and the handsomest in town.” When the National Education Association reported and adopted its Seven Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education in 1918, it declared the credo of the new American high school. The “Main Objectives” which they listed, without regard to priority, were: “1. Health. 2. Command of fundamental processes. 3. Worthy home-membership. 4. Vocation. 5. Citizenship. 6. Worthy uses of leisure. 7. Ethical character.” High school principals made these their commandments. The National Congress of Parents and Teachers (whch had originated in 1897 as the National Congress of Mothers) adopted the Seven Cardinal Principles as their national platform, and made the theme of their 1928 convention how to apply these “to The Whole Child’ from babyhood through his high school years.”

After the Russians launched their sputnik into orbit in 1957, some Americans, suspecting that the Russian success was a product of a more solid school curriculum, began to wonder whether American education had dissolved into a vague and purposeless national mystique. In 1959 when James Bryant Conant, then recently retired as president of Harvard University, looked back over the preceding half-century, he recalled, in the tradition of his predecessor President Eliot a half-century before, “how enormous was the power of the twin ideals of equality of opportunity and equality of status … the American people had come to believe that more education provided the means by which these ideals were to be realized.” The great symbol was the American public high school, “an institution which has no counterpart in any other country,” and Conant viewed the high school as the crux of the problem of increasing knowledge in a democratic America. While he urged improvements in curriculum and a minimum size for an effective high school, he reaffirmed the democratic faith in “a high school accommodating all the youth of a community.” While this faith was national, its hallmark was diversity and local control. “When one tells a foreign visitor that we have tens of thousands of local school boards with vast powers over the elementary schools and the high schools, he is apt to say, ‘This is not a system but a chaos.’ To which I always reply, ‘But it works; most of us like it; and it appears to be as permanent a feature of our society as most of our political institutions.’”

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!