6.1 A short history of education in the 20th century

“We want one class of persons to have a liberal education
and we want another class of persons,
a very much larger class of necessity,
to forgo the privileges of a liberal education.”
— Woodrow Wilson (1909)

This section is part of a extensive analysis of Woodrow Wilson’s famous wish: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privileges of a liberal education.”

A much more comprehensive history of the The deliberate dumbing down of America is provided by Iserbyt [2003]. Much of this can be generalized to the rest of the western world.

Liberal and vocational education

During history there has always been a clear division between the education of the elite and the ‘training’ for the rest of the population. Wilson’s desire for a two class society separated by differences in education was a wish of the economic elite of that time, represented by extremely well-financed philanthropies such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegy endowment later supported by the Ford Foundation {Lionni:1993wb}. In their eyes, the American economy needed many more workers than thinkers. So a plan was hatched in which the desired transition was brought about through a gradually increased influence of focused education bureaucrats at the cost of teacher control. A point man in this transition was David Snedden. Labaree has analyzed Snedden’s role in depth in a recent article “How Dewey lost: The Victory of David Snedden and Social Efficiency in the Reform of American Education” (Labaree, 2011). This article outlines a confrontation of ideas of which Labaree writes:

Snedden’s ideas come across as educationally narrow, politically conservative, and quaint. He argues that “social economy” calls for a system of vocational education that prepares the “rank and file” to become efficient “producers,” asserting that this form of schooling needs to be separated from liberal education, which — although its purposes “are as yet shrouded in the clouds of mysticism” — may still be useful for those who are the “utilizers”. In contrast, Dewey’s ideas seem to resonate better with current political, social, and educational, thinking. He charges that Snedden’s system of “narrow trade training” leads to ”social predestination“ and argues instead for a broad vision of vocational education that has ”as its supreme regard the development of such intelligent initiative, ingenuity and executive capacity as shall make workers, as far as may be, the masters of their own industrial fate." (P163–164)

The core difference between Snedden and Dewey is ‘self-empowerment’. In Dewey’s case making all students master of their own industrial fate. In Snedden’s case the separation between the ‘producers’ and what he refers to as “the utilizers of the rank and file” empowers the utilizers; in fact it makes the utilizers more feudal lords than leaders, and consequently the rank and file ‘serfs’. Snedden seemed never to be bothered by or even aware of this attempt to reintroduce servitude.

Snedden’s ideas on education

In a 1900 speech at the Stanford Alumni Society, which won him a professorship at Stanford before even having been involved in master level education, Snedden is quite open about the intentions that were to become the core of the social efficiency movement.

I want especially to consider that education as it affects the rank and file of society; for it we are right in thinking that training for leadership will largely become the function of university, it still remains true that the most careful consideration must be given to those who will do duty in the ranks, who will follow, not lead. (Labaree, 2011)(p 171, emphasis added)

So education was explicitly aimed at becoming either a leader of follower, depending on the type of school one was allowed to go to. Note that Snedden uses the (oxymoronic) phrase “training for leadership.” Snedden never seemed to have a clear conception of education other than training, in fact anything beyond training was — for him — “shrouded in the clouds of mysticism” (Labaree, 2011)(p 171).

Snedden himself was educated in a one-room school in California in the 1870s. One-room schools at the time were organized such that the lower year students were educated by higher year students and the higher years students by the teacher, who, of course, was responsible for the progress and development of all. This ensured that all students saw the material at least twice: once as pupil and once as teacher. This system, as all educators know, provides one with a whole new level of understanding of the material compared to only learning passively. One-room schools had a core-curriculum of literacy, mathematics, and a strong focus on the history of Western thought and attention for practical skills of local significance. Teachers were free to select the topics of interests in accordance to the interests of the students and the availability of material, which was typically not in a simplified form and was revisited multiple times to allow for the development of different levels of understanding of the same material. With so much freedom and a crucial role of the teacher, not all schools may have been up to standards. However, if one reads popular literature of that age or reads letters from ordinary soldiers during the civil war it is easy to be impressed by the high level of active literacy as apparent from the complexity and depth of the arguments and clarity of thought. Overall, this educational system was working well and it allowed the rapid build-up of the United States as an economic, intellectual, creative, and industrial giant. It also led to a highly vocal and effective work-force that the economic elite wanted to bring under control [Lionni, 1993].

Whatever the quality of his education, at age 21, in 1889, Snedden became a teacher himself and he started to think about educational reform. Labaree describes:

Snedden’s interests in education for social efficiency appeared quite early in his career. As a teacher in the early 1890s, he avidly read the works of Herbert Spencer, which he acknowledged in his memoirs as having “laid de groundwork for [his] subsequent thinking.” As a student at Stanford, his strongest connection was with Edward A. Ross, a sociologist who at the time was developing the ideas for his most influential book, published in 1900, called Social Control. From these two thinkers, he drew a rather literal understanding of their central constructs — social Darwinism and social control — which shaped all of his later work as an educational reformer. (p165–166)

Informed by these ideas and helped by influential protectors — such as the president of the recently opened Stanford University, the same who offered him the professorship on the condition that he at least finished a master program — Snedden started to contribute to the programme of educational reform that the later US president Woodrow Wilson announced in his 1909 speech. In 1914 Snedden wrote:

It is the writers’s conviction that the most useful definition of liberal education now available is that which defines it primarily in terms of education towards higher utilization. Man stands, to the world about him, in a twofold relationship. He is a producer of utilities on the one hand, and on the other, for his own growth and development, he must utilize utilities. That education which trains him to be a producer is vocational education. That eduction which trains him to be a good utilizer, in the social sense of that term, is liberal education.

Note the inconsistency in his reasoning. On the one hand he makes a sweeping statement saying that “man” — denoting each of us — is both a producer and a user of benefits, which is trivially true. But then, seamlessly, he promotes a two-class society in which one type of “man” is trained to be a producer of benefits and the other the type is to become a user of benefits, which contradicts his previous sentences. In addition this quotation shows that he has no understanding whatsoever about what a liberal education actually is other than that it leads, in his eyes, to a class of utilizers. He does however have a clear idea about training. Labaree (2011) describes these (quoting Snedden) as follows.

Vocational preparation needs to take place in separate schools, which “must, to a large extend, reproduce practical processes, must give the pupil many hours of each working day in actual practical work, and must closely correlate theoretical instruction to this practical work.” As a result, “The vocational school should divest itself as completely as possible of the academic atmosphere, and should reproduce as fully as possible the atmosphere of economic endeavor in the field for which it trains.” In addition “the pedagogical methods to be employed must be those involving concentration, painstaking application to detail, and continuity of purpose,” and these need to be precisely tailored to the skill demands for each occupational specialty. (Page 165, italics added)

So an academic atmosphere is seen as a threat to successful vocational preparation. Note that Snedden writes “the field for which it trains”. Snedden’s 1914 publications resulted a number of articles in The New Republic where Dewey responded to Snedden’s profoundly practical ideas.

How bureaucrats took control from educators

Although Dewey was not at all against vocational education he wrote (with a proper use of ‘training’):

“I object to regarding as vocational education any training which does not have as its supreme regard the development of such intelligent initiative, ingenuity, and executive capacity as shall make workers, as far as may be, the masters of their own industrial fate.” (p 167)

Dewey was acutely aware of the social implications of the vocational education as proposed by Snedden, and he urged all committed educators to resist moves in that direction.

“I am regretfully forced to the conclusion that the difference between us is not so much narrowly educational as it is profoundly political and social. The kind of vocational education in which I am interested is not one which will “adapt” workers to the existing industrial regime; I am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that. It seems to me that the business of all who would not be educational time-servers is to resist every move in this direction, and to strive for a kind of vocation education which will first alter the existing industrial system, and ultimately transform it.”

It is interesting that Dewey, who in contrast to Snedden, was a prolific researcher of education, makes a distinction between “educational time-servers”, who simply go through the moves required from an educator, and educators who care about the quality and content of education that they provide the students with. He urges the latter to alter the existing system and ultimately transform it. Although Dewey had arguments where Snedden had statements and was clearly the winner of the battle of ideas, it was in the end in vain. Snedden’s side “won”, not because of superior arguments but because:

the old system of common schooling for all, aimed at providing broad education for the citizenry of a republic, seemed increasingly out of touch with the social and economic order, with its radical division of labor, growing class and ethnic differences, and explosive expansive mode of corporate capitalism. This was a time that was primed to be responsive to the argument that the new order required and educational system that aimed to be useful and socially efficient in dealing with the period’s emerging social problems. Snedden was just pushing this idea. (Labaree, 2011) (p 182)

In fact Snedden was as, described by Labaree (p183) an academic failure:

He was a self-styled scientists who never did anything that remotely resembled scientific study, an educational sociologist who drew on the clichés of the field — social Darwinism and social control — without ever making an original contribution. In his written work he never used data, and he never cited sources, which made sense, since he rarely drew on sources anyway. His books and journal articles took the form of proclamations, scientific pronouncements without the science; they all read like speeches, and that was likely the source of them.

He had not become a professor in education because he was a deep thinker like Dewey, but exactly the opposite, because he was a shallow thinker: a “producers of utilities” to be used by utilizers. Labaree concludes:

In this sense he was more a propagandist than a theorist or thinker, someone who borrowed ideas without understanding them and then promoted them relentlessly. The ideas sounded authoritative and gave the impression that they were building on into arguments, but they were largely a collection of numbered lists and bullet points. He was a man who would have warmly embraced PowerPoint. In his work, portentousness abounded; it was all about riding the wave of the future and avoiding the undertow of the past. He was an educational leader whose effectiveness arose from being temperamentally a member of the rank and file. He relentlessly promoted vocational education for the socially efficient society of the future by proposing curricula that routinely prepared students for the tasks that characterized the jobs of the past railway telegrapher, streetcar motorman). He was so eager to be relevant that he gradually made himself irrelevant even within the administrative progressive movement that he helped lead. (p183)

The administrative progressive movement was the main tool the economic elite, referred to as “we” in Woodrow Wilson’s quote, had invented to ensure that a very much larger class, [would] forgo the privileges of a liberal education. The strategy to bring about desired change is a classic example of the Hegelian dialectic in which a debate is initially framed in terms of one extreme point of view (thesis), under control of those who want change, to oppose a well-reasoned nuanced approach (antithesis). This leads quite natural to shift (synthesis) towards the extreme position. Labaree describes this a follows:

Being extreme at this stage of reform is quite useful, whereas the kind of nuanced approach that Dewey took, with its abhorrence of the very dualism that Snedden loved, was not conducive to launching an effective movement of educational reform. Therefore, the administrative progressive movement was able to become firmly established and positioned for growth because of Snedden’s flame throwing. Put another way, a useful idiot, who says things that resonate with the emerging ideas of his time and helps clear the ideological way for the rhetorical reframing of a major institution, can have vastly more influence than a great thinker, who make a nuanced and prescient argument that is out of tune with his times and too complex to fit on a battle standard.
In part because Snedden was an Extremist, the tendency in American education leaned strongly his direction and away from Dewey. What we ended up with was a school system that reflected the main elements of the social efficiency agenda: a differentiated curriculum, the de facto tracking by social class, and a school system whose purpose is viewed through a vocational lens (education for human capital development), even if vocational courses never gained more than a relatively marginal part of the curriculum. (p184)

After his role as “agent provocateur” he had outlived his usefulness and his extremism was more a liability than an asset for the bureaucrats of the ‘administrative progressive movement’ that gradually became the force that shaped not only American education, but education all over the Western world. The role Snedden was allowed to play was not to succeed in turning all public schools in vocational schools, but to frame the debate so that control over education was transferred from the dedicated educators to administrators and the “educational time-severs” that, as Dewey warned, were more in love with the regime than with the students under their care. More importantly, it also entailed a transition from teacher control over education to centralized control (by the economic elite (Lionni, 1993)). Allowing a gradual nation-wide control over all aspects of schooling.

Labaree outlines how fragile student-centered education is compared to with one that aims for economic productivity.

The pedagogically progressive vision of education — child-centered, inquiry based, and personally engaging — is a hothouse flower trying to survive in the stony environment of public education. It won’t thrive unless conditions are ideal, since, among other things, it requires committed, creative, energetic, and highly educated teachers, who are willing and able to construct education to order for students in the classroom; and it requires broad public and fiscal support for education as an investment in students rather than an investment in economic productivity.
But the administrative progressive visions of education — as a prudent investment in a socially efficient future — is a weed. It will grow almost anywhere. Erratic funding, poorly prepared teachers, high turnover, dated textbooks — all of these may impede the socially efficient outcomes of education, but they do not prevent reformers form putting in place the central structure of social efficiency in the school system: a differentiated curriculum organized around a conception of education for work. The weed of social efficiency grows under difficult conditions, because its primary goal is to be useful in the narrowest sense of the term: It aims for survival rather than beauty. But Dewey’s vision of education defines success in her richness of learning that is experienced by the child, and this is not possible without the proper cultivation. (p185)

Snedden was actually a typical product of the type of education he promoted so relentlessly. He was narrow-minded, impervious to arguments, and not at all bothered by inconsistencies or his own lack of knowledge. He adopted ideas without understanding them and pursued them relentlessly. All-in-all he was a prime example of the authoritarian “producers of utilities” that he aimed to create, but was impervious for that as well. For his handlers he must have been the ultimate irony: the authoritarian to educate more authoritarians.

He had no clear conception of what made ‘the utilizers’ different from him and at the same time he found it difficult to believe that schooling could be anything else than preparing for servitude. And although he acknowledged class differences he had no idea what made the classes different. For him education beyond training was “shrouded in the clouds of mysticism”. And to varying degrees this is the case for most of the bureaucrats and educational “time-servers” that gradually took over education in the twentieth century and who started to make everything “efficient”, standardized, and measurable. These bureaucrats, and not Snedden, shaped public education in the vision of Woodrow Wilson and his supporters and these ensured that the benefits of a liberal education would most assuredly forego a large class of people: as much in the United states as in the rest of the Western World.


  • Iserbyt, C. T. (1999). The deliberate dumbing down of America (pp. 1–738). Ravenna, Ohio: Conscience Press. Retrieved from http://www.deliberatedumbingdown.com/MomsPDFs/DDDoA.sml.pdf

  • Lionni, P. (1993). Leipzig connection : a report of the origins and growth of educational psychology. [S.l.]: Heron Books.