One hundred years ago, the United States was in the middle of an education revolution. High schools had barely existed in the nineteenth century; then suddenly they enrolled a quarter of 15- to 18-year-olds, and were growing fast. In 1917, Progressive education reformer David Snedden, who served as the Massachusetts commissioner of education, surveyed the high school landscape and looked to the future, laying out a vision he expected to become reality by 1925. Today, a lot of it still hasn’t come to fruition.
Snedden wrote that the schools he saw around him focused their energy on “the mastery of certain forms of highly organized knowledge,” asking students to demonstrate their learning by repeating rote facts or by “performance of definite exercises.” The high schools had bigger goals than that, though: “the training of mind, the ennobling of character, the in-breathing or evoking of persistent cultural interests, the kindling of the civic sense and the like.” But Snedden complained that these dreams “guide us very little in the actual tasks planned or under way in the teaching of Latin, German, English, physics, ancient history, algebra, mechanical drawing, lathe-work, or commercial geography.”
Snedden hoped that, by 1925, schools would have worked out practical ways to pursue those broader ends. He imagined a four-part mission for secondary schools: promoting health, strength and physical well-being; helping students find personal interests in art, science, politics, or other fields that would become lifelong fields of study; developing civic knowledge and moral “backbone” to guide citizen participation in an increasingly complicated society; and providing vocational training in real-world settings.
In language that sounds familiar today, Snedden acknowledged that schools often produced “vague” results and “intellectually flabby” students. But, in contrast to many modern education reformers, he insists that “the way out of this difficulty is not that of simply making all studies hard, of setting more rigorous examinations, of ‘firing’ weaker pupils, or of appealing in the sense of fear and the methods of ‘driving’ generally.”
Instead, he expected the high school of 1925 to offer interesting chances for students to play amateur scientist, make art, and try out vocational paths they might enjoy. Rather than demanding high standards and grittily determined pupils, his school of the future would allow all students to design their own areas of study and personal training under the guidance of “advisory agencies” within the school. He argued that educators should assume that pupils and their parents “are disposed to do the things educationally that will prove most profitable to them.”
“We may hope that the doctrine of the innate depravity of secondary-school students, as well as the doctrine of the incorrigible imbecility of their parents, will have been rendered innocuous, if not obsolete,” he added.
Over the one hundred years that followed, the educational ideas of the Progressives informed the direction that many schools took. But, at a fundamental level, the doctrine Snedden so despised has still not lost its hold on education policy.
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