The 1900s Education: Topics in the News

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The 1900s Education: Topics in the News



One of the greatest social issues of the 1900s was the impact of millions of new immigrants on American culture. Many native-born Americans were concerned that these "foreigners" did not share America's history and social traditions. The schools were viewed as the logical site where immigrant children could be exposed to America's customs and standards of dress and behavior. The theory was that the schools would help to assimilate, or absorb, the new immigrants into the United States's social and political mainstream. "Education will solve every problem of our national life, even that of assimilating our foreign element," stated one New York City high school principal in 1902.

The "Americanization Movement" was started in the 1890s by such patriotic organizations as the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), which believed that it was their duty to teach "American" values to immigrants. A related group, the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR), spent much of its annual income on programs that would demonstrate American traditions to the nation's newest citizens. Their efforts were even supported by the federal government. The U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor supplied funds to the SAR to print and distribute a pamphlet that (in fifteen different languages) announced the virtues associated with being a patriotic American.

In schools, the Americanization Movement provided instructors with classroom materials that stressed American history and heroes like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln. One of the most frequently taught lessons was the need to obey the law. Students were also instructed in other methods that would more quickly allow them to remove any sign of their "foreignness." Immigrant boys and girls were told to speak English, dress in an American style, and always conform to American social customs. There was also concern that immigrant children were coming to schools without the proper means to care for themselves. Instructions were given on how to improve academically and on health tips, such as which foods to eat. The desire to Americanize students was so extreme that, in some cases, teachers would change their students' names to make them more "American sounding." For example, "Carlos" sometimes became "Charles" and "Maria" became "Mary." The main goals of the Americanization Movement were to provide new immigrants with the skills they needed to act like Americans and to eliminate any signs of cultural difference that might cause them to become isolated from the mainstream population. Students were taught how to read and speak in English, to fill out forms, and various other skills. It was hoped that they would, in turn, provide their parents with this much-needed information.


In the earliest years of the twentieth century, educators concentrated on determining the manner in which children learn and the subjects that are most important in shaping their intellectual and social skills. There were many disagreements among scholars on how best to teach American children. Educators generally fell into two opposing camps. "Traditionalists" believed that the mind, just like the body, is strengthened by frequent exercise. They stressed that mental activities were vital to develop a keen intellect, so they encouraged classroom teachers to emphasize frequent drills, memorization exercises, recitation, and strong academic discipline. An intellectually vigorous student was thought to be stimulated by such difficult subjects as Latin, Greek, and mathematics. Traditionalists resisted any change to the standard school curriculum that they felt would distract students from the core areas of study. The Traditionalists were opposed by the "Progressives," who believed that each individual

child learns differently. One of the leading Progressive educators, Granville Stanley Hall (1844–1924), maintained that too much uniformity in schools hurt the child's naturally spontaneous impulses. Hall went onto say that humans progress through various stages of development and that one of the most significant stage is adolescence, the period between childhood and adulthood. Adolescents, he believed, were being educated incorrectly by the Traditionalist curriculum of rote memorization and repetitive drills. Hall and his fellow Progressives had three main beliefs about the nature of education. Above all, they strongly valued the scientific method as a basis for a good education. Secondly, they believed that strong educational institutions were the best tools for improving society. And finally, they believed that educators should focus mainly on students' individual needs. Although Traditionalist educators dominated the period from 1900 to 1909, the Progressives' ideals became increasingly more dominant over the next fifty years.

Kindergartens and Americanization

Although kindergarten classes were relatively rare between 1900 and 1909, many educators thought that younger children were the best candidates for the Americanization process. Their minds were easier to shape than those of older children who had grown up accustomed to foreign traditions. In 1907, one early supporter of using kindergartens as centers of Americanization, Bruce James, said that in a child's earliest years a student can "breathe in the American spirit" through classroom "songs and flag drills [and] by its elementary practices." In 1909, the founders of the National Kindergarten Association (NKA) announced their belief that all public school systems should organize kindergarten programs to promote the ideals of assimilation.

One of the nation's leading Progressive educators was Jane Addams (1860–1935), who was a pivotal force in America's settlement house movement. The settlement house movement, which began in England, was a loosely organized group of individuals and institutions that attempted to ease the harsh conditions endured by the poor in the late nineteenth century. Settlement workers stated that it was the moral duty of a society's educated members to close the gap between the rich and poor. They

Prep Schools

Although there were relatively few college preparatory schools during the early 1900s, those that did exist were most influential. Located primarily in the northeastern United States, "prep" schools, such as Exeter, Groton, and Hotchkiss, were highly regarded as fine educational institutions. Prep schools instructed students from some of the nation's most distinguished families. Many of the century's leading political figures were prep school graduates. Most of these schools were established between 1880 and 1910, and all were boarding schools for boys only. Prep schools were designed to mold a student's intellect and moral character to fully prepare him to face the challenges of college. These schools were financed by donations from wealthy philanthropists and catered to the cultural elite. High tuition costs made it impossible for boys of the middle and lower classes to attend these schools. Between 1900 and 1909, the average American adult worker earned $600 per year; most families thus could not afford to send their sons to study at these exclusive schools.

demonstrated their commitment to this ideal by living among the urban the poor, many of whom worked in factories. Their residence (or "settlement") in the neighborhood was to be a center of education. The best-known settlement in the United States was Addams' Hull House, located in Chicago. There, the neighborhood's immigrants and poor could participate in a variety of programs such as summer schools, concerts, and clubs designed to improve their lives. Children at Hull House were encouraged to be creative in their educational pursuits. Traditionalist demands for a set curriculum were set aside in favor of finding ways to connect the students' studies to their family lives. Furthermore, the Progressive idea of emphasizing the arts was a main feature of a Hull House education, as children were exposed to courses in music, drama, dance, poetry, and art appreciation. Not only was Hull House committed to improving the neighborhood through work in the classroom, but Addams and her supporters also fought for social justice as they demanded better pay for industrial workers and other improvements. The members of Hull House achieved many of their goals, which included clean and safer streets, improvements in health care, more parks and playgrounds for local children, and better working conditions.

Vocational education was another major Progressive idea that gained prominence during the decade. Progressives felt that a good education not only filled students with knowledge, but also provided them with a means to succeed within society. Many schools began to advocate the need for vocational education, which prepares students to become members of the workforce. In earlier decades, youngsters often learned vocational skills from family members or by serving as an apprentice to a craftsman. Schools now began to offer this training in order to produce laborers who could function better in the changing economy. Due to the strong emphasis on vocationalism during this era, many schools were referred to as "factories." By 1910, vocational programs were operating in twenty-nine states.

Students were often separated into different educational tracks while in school. On one track were the supposedly more intellectual students, who would follow a traditional academic curriculum. The other track consisted of students who were taught an industrial skill. Tests were used to determine on which track a student belonged. Although these tests were supposed to be "scientific," they frequently were used to remove the poor and racial or ethnic minorities from the academic track.

Ethnic Differences in High School Entrances: Providence, Rhode Island, 1900

Ethnic GroupPercent Entering High School
Native whites, native parentage36
Native whites, Irish parentage11
Native whites, other parentage23
English, Scots, Welsh8
All other immigrants13
Total, all groups18


During the nineteenth century, the academic requirements for graduating from college were quite low. Students spent much of their time socializing and applying little effort to their studies. However, between 1865 and 1910 leading educators attempted to raise university standards through more intense academic requirements, which demanded strong scholastic achievement. Still, the first decade of the twentieth century is not remembered for its excellence in higher education. Fewer than one hundred American colleges and universities were considered to be academically challenging.

A university education was almost exclusively limited to white males from the upper classes. Nevertheless, women and minorities did make some inroads in higher education during the decade. Women made up 35 percent of college undergraduates in 1900 and 39 percent by 1910. In some institutions, female students endured discriminatory practices, as many educators believed that women were not suited to higher learning. Benjamin Wheeler, the president of the University of California, expressed a common attitude when he told his female students, "You are not like men and must recognize the fact.… You may have the same studies as the men, but you must put them to different use." Women, said Wheeler, were at the university "for the preparation of marriage and motherhood." At some colleges, female students were required to stand at attention until all their male counterparts were seated.

The Rise of Business Schools

Many businessmen of the nineteenth century did not believe a college degree was necessary to achieve success in the financial world. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie wrote in 1902 that those interested in careers in business should avoid college because the curriculum "injured" their minds. However, attitudes began to change during the 1900s as business-minded individuals recognized higher education could be an important asset. Slowly, schools of business were established at colleges throughout the nation. In 1908, Harvard opened its Graduate School of Business Administration after noticing that many of its undergraduates were choosing careers in business. By 1910, two-thirds of America's 150,000 undergraduates were enrolled in courses geared toward careers in business, like engineering or accounting.

African Americans also encountered numerous restrictions in their efforts to receive a college education. Segregation laws limited blacks' opportunities for social, economic, and educational advancement. However,

some African Americans did attain college degrees, often at historically black institutions. The leading African American scholars of the era were Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) and W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963). They had differing viewpoints on African-American higher education, but agreed that education was crucial to the ultimate success of black Americans.

Born a slave, Booker T. Washington was the most prominent African American at the turn of the century. Upon being freed from slavery after the Civil War, Washington attended a newly opened school for blacks in West Virginia. He later attended the Hampton Institute, a training school for blacks. He eventually took a position at the Tuskegee Institute, a black college, in Alabama. Washington made headlines when, in an 1895 speech in Atlanta, he advocated that blacks and whites should attempt to support each other for the betterment of all. However, he did not support the idea of integration. Instead, he advocated the controversial position that blacks must stop demanding racial equality. He also stressed that whites must work toward ending discriminatory practices. His "Atlanta Compromise," in which he seemed to be trading social equality for economic opportunity, angered many blacks. Washington claimed it was better for most African Americans to learn a trade or an employable skill rather than acquire a "book education." Under his leadership, the Tuskegee Institute stressed industrial and vocational education over traditional academics.

Pay Discrimination in Southern Classrooms


Black teachers$255-$311
White teachers$215-$790
Black teachers$319-$412
White teachers$342-$676
Black teachers$243-$340
White teachers$418-$940
North Carolina
Black teachers$204-$268
White teachers$207-$506
National Average$724-$1,102

The leading opponent to Washington's view was Du Bois, a brilliant scholar who graduated from Fisk University and Harvard, where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate. In 1903, he published The Souls of Black Folk, a series of personal and historical essays. In an essay titled "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others," he attacked Washington's accommodating attitude toward segregation. He was certain Washington had harmed the cause of black equality by not advocating the necessity for African Americans to enter higher education. Du Bois believed that the African American community should strive to educate the "Talented Tenth," that portion of their race who possessed the ability to advance in academics. In his essay "The Talented Tenth" (1903), he wrote: "The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth, it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races."


Between 1900 and 1909, many education reformers demanded better schools throughout America, especially in the South, where academic standards were particularly poor. The most significant problem facing

reformers in the South was racial segregation. The educational opportunities available to black and white students were very different. The races attended separate schools and never mixed either academically or socially. Southern schooling was unequal, as the best schools, teachers, textbooks, and equipment were reserved for white students. African Americans had little political power and therefore could not employ political means to demand equal treatment for their children. Ironically, Progressive educators who journeyed South to improve educational standards often caused more harm than good to black Southerners, as their efforts primarily benefited the white schools. The Southern Education Board, which was created to improve the schools of all southern children, limited its aid to black schools due to pressure from white politicians.

Another significant hurdle to improving southern education in the 1900s was that many poor whites (called "Plain Folk") believed the public schools were not necessary to the lives of their children. The Plain Folk claimed a formal education did little to prepare a child to face the hardships of everyday life. They felt the primary goal of education was simply to teach children how to live and work, and such instruction could be done informally, out of the classroom. The belief that education was a "waste of time" caused many southern parents to send their children to school only infrequently. It was not until after World War II (1939–45), when laws were passed by state legislatures compelling school attendance, that these attitudes began to change.

Some improvements in southern education were achieved during the decade. The most significant, perhaps, was the hiring of better-trained elementary and secondary school teachers. Northern philanthropists funded the education of many new teachers in the South. They believed that a better educated populace (which possessed solid reading and mathematical skills) was necessary for the development of a strong labor force and vibrant national economy.

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The 1900s Education: Topics in the News

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The 1900s Education: Topics in the News