The 1920s Education: Overview

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The 1920s Education: Overview

Following a trend towards progressive education which began earlier in the twentieth century, reforms continued in school curricula, teacher training, and styles of instruction during the 1920s. In accordance with the progressive education movement (which focused on educating the whole person instead of enforcing the memorization of key facts), educators conducted laboratory studies, tracked educational statistics, and published the results of their findings. The resulting body of work described the habits and performance of the American student. These studies were analyzed and used to enact further reforms in educational psychology and philosophy.

Meanwhile, with the return of American troops at the end of World War I in 1918, many new babies were born. That population increase led to larger elementary school enrollments in the 1920s. The number of students enrolled in secondary schools and institutions of higher learning also rose dramatically. All this expansion caused a building boom in public school districts. Adding to the increased enrollments in secondary schools was the nation's added awareness of the role that public education played in helping young adults find suitable jobs. Throughout the decade, more vocational programs were set up in public schools. Those programs drew support from businesses and corporations willing to sponsor potential workers of the near future. At the same time, a huge population of immigrants had settled in the United States. The need to educate those new Americans in language, literacy, customs, and citizenship sparked a nationally organized movement to establish evening classes in many schools.

As more Americans acquired secondary education, a good number decided to continue learning in degree programs at colleges and universities. Educators made strides to enact reforms on campuses to create curricula of academic interest and practical use to the many Americans who were entering business, agriculture, or service careers such as teaching. Colleges and universities were being expanded and reorganized to meet the needs of modern society in the 1920s. Among the programs to be rethought and expanded were sports and athletics. In the 1920s, higher learning extended to the playing fields, where football, baseball, swimming, and golf became popular team sports. Since the economy was prospering, many families now had the assets to send the younger generation to college. Furthermore, once a student graduated, a variety of suitable jobs were available, making the choice to pursue higher education an economically sound decision.

Public school systems were supported mainly through state and local taxes. That situation resulted in inequality among school districts. Those who lived and went to school in upscale cities and wealthy suburbs had more books, better buildings and equipment, and teachers who were higher paid and often better trained. Those pupils in poor rural areas had to make do with what little their school districts could put together. Standardization in schools through federal bureaucracy and government legislation was still in its infancy.

Lingering fears from World War I also had their effect on American education. Following the "Red Scare" of 1919 and 1920, some Americans feared communist infiltration of the school systems. In certain public schools and on college and university campuses, the administration required teachers to sign oaths stating that they were loyal Americans and not communists. At institutions of higher learning, professors with unconventional ideas sometimes were distrusted to the point of being dismissed. As the decade progressed, however, these demands for compliance were deemed unconstitutional. As these restraints were reversed, school administrators still concerned themselves with arguments surrounding free speech and academic freedoms. One of the most fiery debates of the decade centered on the instruction of the theory of evolution in schools. This controversy affected the school curricula in a number of states, and resulted in one of the most highly publicized trials of the early twentieth century: the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925.