The 1910s Education: Topics in the News

views updated

The 1910s Education: Topics in the News



When the United States entered World War I in 1917, a number of prominent educators recognized the conflict as a struggle between good and evil. Because much of the American educational system was based on British theories, the academic world naturally aligned with the Allied Powers (Great Britain, France, and Russia) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey, and Bulgaria). So strong was the support for the war among educators that the New Republic magazine editors labeled the conflict "the thinking man's war." The article continued, "College professors, headed by a President [Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924)] who himself is a former professor, contributed more effectively to the decision to go to war than did farmers, businessmen, or politicians."

A few college professors became actively involved in the war effort. For example, Harvard chemistry scholar James Conant (1893–1978) began researching the production of poison gas for use against the enemy, as well as the development of gas masks to protect our own soldiers from the fumes. In 1917, the editor of National History Review established the National Board for Historical Service in order to spread ideas in support of the war through academic lectures and articles. History professors organized a lecture bureau, which provided people qualified to speak about the war effort at high school commencements, teacher training sessions, and similar occasions. The group also edited informational booklets on war topics, published a book of war-related poetry, and sponsored essay contests for students and teachers.

Academics volunteered to work for the Committee on Public Information (CPI), a group set up by the government to publicize official war policy and give the American public "the feeling of partisanship that comes with full, frank statements concerning the conduct of the public business." Many important scholars wrote tracts and public announcements for the CPI. Still, the group's main intention was to spread the ideas of President Wilson and his administration as propaganda (material designed to favor one viewpoint) rather than as unbiased academic documents. In fact, a number of scholars working for the CPI translated foreign language newspaper editorials and accounts of the war. Through this process, the CPI and its scholars were determined to catch foreign subversives who might be publishing opinions in opposition to the U.S. government.

By early 1918, 157 campuses had instituted military training programs for student-soldiers. Colleges and universities, as well as technical and trade schools, began teaching radiotelegraphy, automobile repair, and sheet metal work to nonacademic drafted men. Many young men who were enrolled as college students also received military training. As a result of the Morrill Act of 1862, all land-grant schools were required to prepare their male students for war. By the fall of 1918, all universities offered military training under the auspices of the War Department. On October 1 of that year, 140,000 students at 516 schools were inducted into the Students' Army Training Corps (SATC). They would not be called into active service until they received their degrees or turned twenty-one, whichever came first. Many officer candidates and technical experts were groomed on university campuses.

The academic podium had long been a soapbox for free speech, but this situation changed when the United States entered into the war. No longer did college administrators tolerate radical opinions. Dissenters were dismissed from academic positions. In June 1917, Nicolas Murray Butler (1862–1947), president of Columbia University, declared, "What had been tolerated has become intolerable now. What had been wrong-headedness was now sedition [revolt against lawful authority]. What had been folly was now treason." It would be many years before the campus paranoia that led to such disturbing closed-mindedness was replaced by the freedom of expression more traditionally linked to university life.


Universities such as Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago pioneered the concept that upper-level schools should not only pass along the best of traditional knowledge, but also encourage the creation of new knowledge through scholarship and research. Another modern notion about education, that the state was obliged to provide higher education to all citizens, originated in Michigan and Wisconsin. The quality of Michigan's institutes of higher learning was ensured by revenues from state taxes. The University of Wisconsin took its responsibility to the state literally, developing educational programs that helped provide expert knowledge to leaders and workers in agriculture, as well as forestry, utilities, banking, railroads, and government. The University of Wisconsin, the University of Michigan, Columbia University, and Pennsylvania State College were among the first schools to sponsor extension programs to make higher education available to tens of thousands more people than the .05 percent of the population who were then enrolled in colleges or universities.

During this decade, adults who had not had the advantage of full-time university study could now attend lectures and participate in correspondence schools for academic credit. The new, broader availability of higher education would bring important changes to those without the money or family connections needed to pursue a college education. Previously, most people could expect to earn no more than high school diplomas. Now they could obtain bachelor degrees through extension programs and other alternatives designed for working adults, qualifying themselves for more interesting jobs and higher wages, and increasing their knowledge of fields of study such as science, business, literature, and mathematics.


The philosophies of progressive education, which encouraged a humanistic, developmental approach to teaching and learning, had its roots in many separate theories about the emotional and physical wellbeing of the child. Progressive education's principal representative in the United States had been Francis Parker (1837–1902), who founded schools in the late nineteenth century to teach a flexible curriculum and self-expression to children, instead of traditional subjects. It was John Dewey (1859–1952), however, who set down formal, intellectual foundations for progressive education. Many of the methods of progressive education were taught at the Teachers College at Columbia University during the tenure (1909–30) of one of its leading advocates, William Heard Kilpatrick (1871–1965). One of Dewey's disciples, Kilpatrick is known as the father of progressive education.

In 1919, a group of educators gathered in Washington, D.C., to found the Progressive Education Association (PEA). They believed that children should develop naturally with freedom for initiative and self-expression in an interesting environment. They also believed that children should have a genuine interest in their studies. Teachers were to be guides, not taskmasters. They were to be aware of the physical health of pupils and make sure the children learned in wholesome and healthful environments. Teachers were to maintain scientific studies of their pupils to ensure each child's development. Progressive schools were designed to operate in cooperation with parents to fulfill the child's needs. These schools provided leadership in educational movements, and were laboratories for new ideas as well as the best of traditional methods.

Progressive education continued well after World War I (1914–18). As it evolved, some schools exaggerated the freedom and creativity of the movement and ran excessively permissive programs that were soundly criticized by Dewey.

For most of the 1910s, the normal school (a two-year institution that trained teachers) was the most common training program for elementary school teachers, and even for rural high school teachers in certain states.

The Ideal Teacher…Circa 1917

In 1917, the superintendent of schools in Port Chester, New York, published the following portrait of the ideal teacher:

Voice: should be well modulated, clear and winning with correct pronunciation and wide vocabulary.

Manners: should be that of cultured ladies and gentlemen.

Conduct: should possess a character indicated by irreproachable actions reflecting high ideals and purposes.

Work Habits: should be systematic, accurate, prompt, cheerful, and masterful in thought and action.

Self Control: should reflect ease, poise, and a judicial and thoughtful attitude.

Inspirational Force: should be strong in encouraging thought-provoking, ambition-arousing, growth-promoting, and success-inspiring action.

Leadership: should be evident in all actions.

Executive Ability: should display initiative and resourceful action.

Cooperation: should be loyal, frank, kind, sympathetic, and helpful.

Common Sense: should display this in refusing to gossip, in conforming to the customs of the community, and in a saving sense of humor.

Attitude: should be optimistic, enthusiastic, respecting the superintendent, trusting the principal, liking associates, loving pupils, while smiling, and radiating good cheer.

Source: Elmer Redmund, "Teaching Efficiency," American School Board Journal, 51 (March 1917): p. 45.

A person who had completed two years of high school could enroll in a two-year normal school to learn basic academic subjects, review topics covered in elementary schools, and then practice teach under the supervision of an experienced teacher. However, throughout the decade, education theorists were adjusting the teacher's role from an adult who simply imparted knowledge to a developmentally oriented guide who helped each student learn individually. As a result, more sophisticated training became necessary, so colleges began offering four-year teacher training programs. With the Teachers College at Columbia University leading the way, many institutes of higher learning developed well-rounded, diverse programs to prepare teachers according to progressive education principles. By 1920, 450 colleges offered four-year teacher education degrees.

During World War I, U.S. military personnel responses to survey questions about education prompted educators to step up reform programs. Statistics showed that in the Midwest, fewer than 10 percent of the teachers had more than two years of high school education. The surveys noted high levels of physical defects among the soldiers, indicating the need for health education in rural schools. Responses also brought to light high levels of illiteracy among people who were born in the United States, and special literacy problems among immigrants. These surveys provided a significant opportunity to re-evaluate the level of education in the country. Recognizing that such problems existed in U.S. education proved to be the catalyst for increased education reforms in the 1920s.


As farmers added machinery to their farming procedures and factory workers encountered the tools of modern industry, the need for special training became clear. Most workers could look at a rake or a hammer and figure out its proper usage. When it came to motor-driven machinery and specialized agricultural and industrial implements, however, workers needed more than a salesman's demonstration or even a typed manual to learn to operate them safely. The total value of agriculture products was less than $5 billion in 1900 but grew to almost $8.5 billion by 1910. By 1919 farm products totaled close to $12.5 billion. This growth was due to the increased use of farm machinery.

Throughout the 1910s, public schools became increasingly responsible for vocational training. In earlier years, young people had been apprenticed to experienced workers known as journeymen in order to receive on-the-job training. That system fell apart with the growth of labor unions, which placed formal limits on the number of apprentices a company could hire. It was left to the public schools to take up the slack in vocational training. Particularly in the North, schools developed cooperative education programs that combined studies in conventional academic subjects with vocational instruction. These programs were often supported by major industries and retailers such as General Electric, department store magnate John Wanamaker, Sears Roebuck, and National Cash Register. These companies knew the importance of helping young people to learn trades related to every field of business and industry.

Agricultural training began expanding in the early 1910s. Not surprisingly, the areas in the forefront of this movement were the farming regions of the Midwest. Wisconsin led the way with the establishment of tuition-free, two-year county schools that taught farming and home economics. Soon, additional schools opened across the country. By 1915, 4,665 high schools were offering agriculture courses. Such programs were spurred on by the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which offered federal dollars for extension courses in agriculture and home economics. The Smith-Hughes Act followed in 1917, granting funds directly to schools for the teaching of agricultural, industrial, and commercial courses. By the close of the decade, the federal government made available $3 billion for the training and salaries of vocational teachers, federal supervisory tasks, and research about vocational education. The money was dispensed to the states by the Federal Board for Vocational Education (FBVE).

As in agriculture, the business sector of the economy was growing more complex. Students who intended to enter the world of commerce by taking jobs in department stores, banks, and offices needed special training

to operate new machinery and work with more sophisticated business systems. To meet the need, school systems in major cities began setting up secondary commercial schools, some with five-year programs, to prepare pupils for the business world. Courses were given in stenography (writing in shorthand), bookkeeping, and business English. By 1918, high schools around the nation reported 278,275 students were studying commercial education curricula.


The majority of secondary schools in the 1910s offered three curriculum options for young women: academic studies, home economics, and teacher training. The U.S. Bureau of Education announced in its 1917 to 1918 Biennial Survey of Education that 73 percent of girls enrolled in secondary schools opted to take the academic course, while 10 percent chose home economics, and a mere 2 percent were preparing to be teachers. John Dewey and other progressive educators were designing education programs for females with an eye toward their future participation in the community. On the other hand, conservative groups feared that secondary education for young women could lead them away from marriage, homemaking, and child-rearing. What was clear to both conservatives and progressives was the fact that young women were making up a large percentage of the high school population. In 1918, 57.9 percent of secondary school students were female.

The home economics movement, fueled by federal grants through the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 and the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, emphasized the agricultural lifestyle. Young women were taught how to grow fresh vegetables in gardening clubs and then learned to can the vegetables they had raised. In 1918, the U.S. Bureau of Education reported that home economics courses were growing at a rate of one thousand per year in public schools. Courses such as cooking and sewing became mandatory for girls in upper-level elementary school grades, and were electives for secondary school students. By 1919, young women were able to spend school time in model apartments and child-care centers, where they learned many aspects of keeping house and raising children firsthand.

Attending college was an unrealistic goal for all but a very few female high school graduates. Those who were able to study beyond secondary school often attended business colleges to become secretaries and bookkeepers, or they enrolled in normal schools for teacher training. Those who were able to attend liberal arts colleges and universities were from the wealthy or upper middle class. In the early twentieth century, the number of women on college campuses rose substantially, from 32,485 in 1898 to 128,677 in 1919. Still, many colleges persisted in not allowing women to enroll, particularly schools in the South, and many postsecondary schools attended by women were for females only.

Besides teaching and secretarial work, another typical vocation for women was nursing. During the 1910s, nursing education was being formalized in order to attract more highly educated women. The physical damage done to so many soldiers in the war demonstrated the need for trained nurses. Medical science was in a period of growth as well. To provide the resources for nursing students to acquire this growing body of theoretical and scientific knowledge, major colleges and universities began to develop nursing departments. By the close of the decade, sixteen leading universities had organized their own nursing programs, and another fourteen had established affiliations with nursing schools. Twelve universities even had graduate studies programs in nursing. By 1920, 54,953 women were enrolled in nursing degree programs.

The New Woman on Campus

Women on college campuses during the 1910s often considered themselves to be "new women," who were freed from traditional roles by recent social reforms. In some ways, they foreshadowed the "flappers" of the Jazz Age. As late as 1907, when men were allowed to attend dances at women's colleges, couples were only supposed to walk to the music. A man and a woman were forbidden from dancing together. Then several women at Smith College rose up against the system and danced "the forbidden waltz" with their male guests. By 1913, certain couple dances were permitted at colleges across the country. An untamed dance such as the "turkey trot" was banned at Barnard College in 1915, and the tango remained on the forbidden list at a number of Midwestern campuses. In 1912, a male graduate school student at the University of Chicago lambasted tango dancing: "This wriggling will soon lead to a nervous breakdown for innocent girls."

Source: Barbara Miller Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1985), pp. 102–04.

Throughout the decade women had only very limited access to jobs in medicine, law, theology, or higher education. These professions were considered suitable only for men. Young women were discouraged from pursuing these careers, and when they actually did successfully attain positions as doctors, lawyers, clergy leaders, or professors, they were often criticized for taking jobs away from men. Many colleges prohibited women from applying for legal or medical degrees. Even so, in 1919, 888 women were enrolled in medical courses, 1,171 in law courses, and 874 in theology courses.


In general, schooling in the South was lower in quality than in the rest of the country. In 1910, the average annual school term in the region lasted only 121 days, and no compulsory attendance laws were in existence. As the decade progressed, improvements were made to establish a longer school year, compulsory attendance through eighth grade, and higher wages for white teachers. In 1915, an average of $8.50 was spent on each child in a southern school, compared to $22.19 per child in the North. That was a marked improvement from the turn of the twentieth century, when only $3.00 per child was spent per year in the South. On the whole, Southern colleges and universities also lagged behind the rest of the country in budget expenditures and overall quality of education.

The South was the poorest section of the country, and its education system was a reflection of its economic condition. During the 1910s, steps were taken to attempt to better educate the southern population. For instance, laws limiting and prohibiting child labor were enacted throughout the South from 1904 to 1918. Once children were no longer a legal source of cheap labor, compulsory school attendance laws could be implemented and enforced.

According to the U.S. census of 1910, 90 percent of the African American population resided in the South. While all southern schools suffered from the problems of the region, African American students bore the heaviest burden of the impoverished system. Black students and white students were segregated, or separated by race, in their schools. Black public schools remained open only three to four months per year, and minority teachers were paid only $17 to $25 per month. This was less than the salaries of black convicts.

Prior to the 1910s, African American educator Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) and his Tuskegee (Alabama) Institute had established a system of industrial education for blacks. Students worked in manual jobs to help pay for their training, which emphasized learning a trade and building character. Opposing Washington was a group of people who formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910. The NAACP stood for political equality and civil rights for blacks; in their view, Washington's emphasis on industrial education was not in the best interests of people of color.

In 1911, African American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) wrote that Washington was leading black people backward into slavery

with his limited model of education. The controversy was, perhaps, over the question of whether or not some career education and training was better than nothing for a minority population with few job opportunities. Washington relied on funding from northern white philanthropists to

keep his own school running, and he realized that state and federal aid would be needed to improve the quality of African American public schools. Yet he undoubtedly knew that if African Americans ever became well educated, they would be likely to demand more civil rights—rights that all-white legislatures in the North and the South were not likely to grant them. Washington believed that such an upheaval would limit the northern support on which the Tuskegee Institute depended and result in a backlash against educated African Americans. Despite the growing movement of black intellectuals to raise standards and conditions in their public schools in the South, the inferior, segregated system would keep training southern blacks mainly for industrial vocations and dole out limited education, in general, for decades to come.

About this article

The 1910s Education: Topics in the News

Updated About content Print Article


The 1910s Education: Topics in the News