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Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform

Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform

by Diane Ravitch

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For the past one hundred years, Americans have argued and worried about the quality of their schools. Some charged that students were not learning enough, while others complained that the schools were not furthering social progress. In Left Back, education historian Diane Ravitch describes this ongoing battle of ideas and explains why school reform has so often


For the past one hundred years, Americans have argued and worried about the quality of their schools. Some charged that students were not learning enough, while others complained that the schools were not furthering social progress. In Left Back, education historian Diane Ravitch describes this ongoing battle of ideas and explains why school reform has so often disappointed. She recounts grandiose efforts to use the schools for social engineering, even while those efforts diminished the schools' ability to provide a high-quality education for all children. By illuminating the history of education in the twentieth century, Left Back points the way to reviving American schools today.

Source: Simon & Schuster Last Updated: 05/07/2001
Last Sent to NetRead: 11/18/2007

Author Bio
Diane Ravitch is one of the nation's foremost historians of education and a leading education policy analyst. Her landmark books deeply influenced the national discussion of education standards in the 1980s and 1990s. She has been a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and at New York University. She served in the U.S. Department of Education as assistant secretary in charge of education research. She currently holds the Brown Chair in Education Studies at the Brookings Institution, edits Brookings Papers on Education Policy, and is a member of the National Assessment Governing Board. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Alan Wolfe The New Republic Left Back is the most important book written in many decades about America's most important public institution.

Gail Russell Chaddock The Christian Science Monitor Diane Ravitch's latest — and best — history of education reform in the United States...could help frame the education debate for the twenty-first century.

Joseph Adelson The Wall Street Journal Does much to convey what went wrong with the schools — and what is still right about them.

Richard Rothstein The New York Times An important new book.

New Republic
Left Back is the most important book written in many decades about America's most important public institution.
—Alan Wolfe
Christian Science Monitor
Diane Ravitch's latest—and best—history of education reform in the United States...could help frame the education debate for the twenty-first century.
—Gail Russell Chaddock
Wall Street Journal
Does much to convey what went wrong with the schools—and what is still right about them.
—Joseph Adelson
New York Times
An important new book.
—Richard Rothstein

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: The Educational Ladder

In the closing years of the nineteenth century, Americans prided themselves on their free public schools. Most children attended the public schools, and Americans felt a patriotic attachment to them. Unlike Europe, which was burdened with rigid class barriers, in America it was believed that the public school could enable any youngster to rise above the most humble origins and make good on the nation's promise of equal opportunity for all. Oscar D. Robinson, the principal of the high school in Albany, New York, declared that "the famous simile of the educational ladder, with its foot in the gutter and its top in the university, is in this favored country no poetic fancy, but portrays in vivid language a fact many times verified in the knowledge of every intelligent adult."

The schools were expected to make social equality a reality by giving students an equal chance to develop their mental powers to the fullest. William A. Mowry, the school superintendent in Providence, Rhode Island, believed that the schools would abolish caste in America: "Your bootblack to-day may be your lawyer to-morrow, and the rail-splitter or the tanner or the humble schoolmaster at twenty years of age may become the chief magistrate of fifty millions of free people before he is fifty." What was most important was not learning a trade but learning intelligence and virtue. As people became more intelligent and broad-minded, he believed, the community would improve. He declared, "Let the doors of the school-house, the 'brain factory,' be open to all the children; and the child once started on the career of learning, let him not find those doors ever closed against him."

This was the American dream, the promise of the public school to open wide the doors of opportunity to all who were willing to learn and study. The schools would work their democratic magic by disseminating knowledge to all who sought it.

Americans were especially proud of their common schools, the schools that included grades one through eight. By 1890, 95 percent of children between the ages of five and thirteen were enrolled in school for at least a few months of the year. Less than 5 percent of adolescents went to high school, and even fewer entered college. Beyond the age of thirteen, there were large gaps in opportunities to attend school. Race, poverty, and location certainly narrowed access to schooling. Neither a high school diploma nor a college degree, however, was required to get a good job or to succeed in business. The growing economy had plenty of jobs, especially for those who had gained the literacy that was supplied by the common schools; only those who planned to enter the learned professions (law, medicine, the ministry) found it necessary to go to college.

At century's end, there was no American educational "system." There were thousands of district schools, hundreds of colleges and universities, and scores of normal schools that trained teachers. The federal bureau of education, headed by a U.S. commissioner of education, had no control over local schools; its sole function was to collect information about the condition and progress of education. Education was very much a local matter, controlled by lay school boards made up of businessmen, civic leaders, and parents. State education agencies were weak, small, and insignificant; each state had a department of education, but its few employees had little or no power over local school districts. Even big-city school districts had few supervisors. The public schools of Baltimore, for example, had 1,200 teachers in 1890 but only two superintendents for the entire school district.

Despite local control, the American public school was remarkably similar across regions. Everywhere the goals were few and simple: Children learned not only the basics of reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic, but also the basics of good behavior. Principals and teachers considered character and intelligence to be of equal value, and neither was possible without "disciplining the will," which required prompt, unquestioning obedience to the teacher and the school rules.

The common schools emphasized reading, writing, speaking, spelling, penmanship, grammar, arithmetic, patriotism, a clear moral code, and strict discipline, enforced when necessary by corporal punishment. The values they sought to instill were honesty, industry, patriot-ism, responsibility, respect for adults, and courtesy. The schools were vital community institutions, reflecting the mores of parents and churches; events at the local school, such as spelling bees, musical exhibitions, and speaking contests, were often important community events.

When the muckraker Dr. Joseph Mayer Rice visited public schools in thirty-six cities in 1892, he complained bitterly about the quality of education that he saw. In New York City, the school he visited was "the most dehumanizing institution that I have ever laid eyes upon, each child being treated as if he possessed a memory and the faculty of speech, but no individuality, no sensibilities, no soul." Recitation by classes "in concert" was common. In Baltimore, the children added long columns of numbers, singing "in perfect rhythm," "one and one are two; two and one are three; three and one are four," and so on. In Boston, the children sang together, "N-a-m-e, n-a-m-e, name; e at the end of the word makes the a say its own name, e at the end of the word makes the a say its own name; h-e-r-e, here; h-e-r-e; e at the end of the word makes the e say its own name, e at the end of the word makes the e say its own name." In Cincinnati, children were singing and spelling words. In Saint Louis, teachers cut students off with remarks such as "Speak when you are spoken to" and "Don't talk, listen," and continually reminded students, "Don't lean against the wall" and "Keep your toes on the line."

Teachers seldom had much pedagogical training, so they relied mainly on time-tested methods of recitation from textbooks. Regardless of locale, textbooks were similar, as competitive publishing houses copied one another's best-selling books. The publishers hoped for a national market for their textbooks and knew that their products would be judged by members of local school boards, for whom continuity and tradition counted more than innovation. The school reading books were usually published as a series of four to six graduated texts; the first one or two taught reading, and the rest were compilations of good literature, usually selected to illustrate ethical and moral precepts.

The stories, poems, speeches, allusions, aphorisms, and fables in the readers introduced American children to a common literary tradition. The celebrated McGuffey Readers contained excerpts from writers such as Shakespeare, Hawthorne, and Dickens. First published in 1836, the McGuffey series dominated the textbook market in the latter half of the nineteenth century, eventually selling more than 120 million books. They were handed down from student to student and read out loud over the family dining table. When Theodore Roosevelt lambasted critics as "Meddlesome Matties," a generation of Americans recognized the allusion to a familiar story in McGuffey's. Other popular textbooks contained many of the same poems and speeches, making cultural touchstones of such pieces as Robert Southey's "The Battle of Blenheim," Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Village Blacksmith" and "Paul Revere's Ride," John Greenleaf Whittier's "The Barefoot Boy," and Marc Antony's oration in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

The reading textbooks of the common schools emphasized the importance of proper elocution and public speaking; they encouraged students to read out loud. Public speaking was considered excellent preparation for the duties of life in a democratic society, such as participating in local politics and community lyceums. In daily lessons, boys and girls learned to pronounce words and syllables with accuracy and care. Tongue-twisting exercises taught elocution:

The sun shines on the shop signs.

She sells sea shells. Shall he sell sea shells?

Six gray geese and eight gray ganders.

Round the rough and rugged rocks the ragged rascal ran.

The old cold scold sold a school coal-scuttle.

Then there was the classic tale of Peter Piper, which amply exercised the lips and tongue:

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers;

Did Peter Piper pick a peck of pickled peppers?

If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,

Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?

The school readers and history textbooks favored patriotic selections. Children recited the stirring words of Patrick Henry, George Washington, Daniel Webster, Abraham Lincoln, and other noted Americans. Rote memorization was common, especially in learning history and geography. This method had mixed results. With the rote method, children amassed a solid store of facts that they could use to understand more complex material, but they also might memorize words, phrases, even lengthy passages without understanding their meaning.

The history books taught facts and patriotism. In the textbooks, the greatest national events were the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Children studied the justice of the American cause in the former and the perfidy of the Southern states in the latter (unless they attended school in the South, where textbooks portrayed the Southern cause sympathetically). The textbooks described American history as a stirring story that demonstrated the importance of liberty, independence, and resistance to tyranny.

Literary readers echoed the same themes of courage and patriotism. Students often memorized and recited pieces such as Whittier's "Barbara Frietchie," "The Debate Between Hayne and Webster," Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade," and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

Geography lessons taught pride of country and often racial pride (and racism) as well; racial stereotyping was commonplace in the geography books. The facts of geography were of great importance, including such matters as the height of important mountains and the names of continents, oceans, and rivers. Geography was often taught by chants and rhymes, which was referred to as "singing geography." One popular chant consisted of the name of the state, the name of its capital city, and the name of the river where it was located. One popular chant began

Maine, Augusta, on the Kennebec,

New Hampshire, Concord, on the Merrimac,

and went on to include each of the states. The schoolhouse would often ring with geography chants. Some teachers used music to teach the alphabet and the multiplication tables as well, with students marching up and down the aisles of the classroom singing (to the tune of "Yankee Doodle Dandy"), "Five times five is twenty-five and five times six is thirty..."

In mathematics, teachers "drilled" students in "mental arithmetic," requiring them to solve mathematical problems "in their head," without a pen or pencil. Children were expected to stand in front of the class and answer such problems as:

How many square inches in a piece of paper six inches long and four inches wide?

Reduce to their lowest terms: 12×16, 24×36, 16×28, 28×49, 32×36.

Henry paid ¼ of all his money for a knife, ⅛ for a ball, and ⅛ for a necktie: what part of his money had he left?

A harness was sold for 3/4 of 4/5 of what it cost. What was the loss per cent?

Educators thought of these exercises as a valuable form of mental gymnastics. For many children, though, they were surely mental drudgery.

The common school was dedicated to correct spelling, and spelling lessons were conducted every day. Competition was keen, and sometimes public exhibitions were held for parents and the community. Some teachers divided their class into teams, which competed with each other. Or a teacher would line up the entire class and give spelling words to the child at the head of the line; when that child missed a word, the next in line would "go to the head of the class." Schools competed with each other, and sometimes entire communities would participate in the spelling bee, showing off the prowess of the best spellers.

The aim of the common school was clear: to promote sufficient learning and self-discipline so that people in a democratic society could be good citizens, read the newspapers, get a job, make their way in an individualistic and competitive society, and contribute to their community's well-being.

The Missing Rung of the Ladder

At the end of the nineteenth century, almost every community had an elementary school, but public high schools were sparse. By 1900, there were nearly one thousand colleges and universities (of widely varying quality, some no more advanced than high schools) scattered across the country. In between was a melange of public high schools, private academies, and preparatory departments of colleges. There could not be an educational ladder from "the gutter to the university" unless public high schools were as readily available as common schools.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, most secondary education was supplied by thousands of small private academies. Most offered not only the classical curriculum of Latin, Greek, and mathematics, but also modern subjects such as history, science, and English, and practical subjects such as bookkeeping, surveying, and navigation.

As the economy changed from agrarian to industrial and commercial, and young people began to need more education, many cities — including New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit, Saint Louis, San Francisco, and Dubuque — opened public high schools. These new schools existed in "every variety and quality" and usually offered both classical and modern studies. Reluctant taxpayers grumbled and occasionally sued to block public funding for public secondary schools, and critics complained that they were elitist and unnecessary. Nonetheless, enrollments in the new public high schools soon eclipsed those in the private academies.

Most towns viewed their new public high school as a source of community pride. In Nineveh, Indiana, the township high school was credited with raising "the standard of intelligence, of morality, of taste, and therefore, of life among the people. While a few in the township are opposed to higher education, the vast majority favor the school and would not do without it." Of the high school's twenty-two pupils, half commuted from outlying farms. The curriculum consisted of Latin (including two books of Caesar and three of Virgil), mathematics, English literature, history, geology, physics, rhetoric, geography, and civil government. This was not an atypical high school. Every high school worthy of its name offered Latin and mathematics, the mainstays of the classical curriculum.

The people of Nineveh, Indiana, may have been happy with their high school, but the leaders of American education regularly debated what high schools should teach and to whom. As secondary enrollments steadily grew, ardent advocates of different persuasions contended over the future direction of the high schools, over whether they should educate students for college or for work, what they should teach, and whether they should have a required program for all.

It was an era of wrenching social and economic change, of rapid industrialization, high immigration, and increasing urbanization. It was a period in which social reformers sought strategies to combat the ill effects of these changes, especially in the cities, where living conditions for the poor were abysmal. Among intellectual leaders, Charles Darwin's theories of evolution challenged established truths in virtually every field of thought. Political and social reformers were convinced that the old order was dying and a new, dynamic, progressive order was being born.

Utility or Knowledge?

As Americans debated the future direction of education, discussion veered between two poles of thought, as represented by the ideas of Herbert Spencer and Lester Frank Ward. Each of them articulated an influential worldview. To one side was education for utility, to the other was knowledge for general intelligence.

In the 1850s, the English philosopher Herbert Spencer asked, "What knowledge is of most worth?" and concluded that the purpose of education was "to prepare us for complete living." Every study must be judged by whether it had "practical value" and would be "useful in later life." Classical education had no intrinsic value, he wrote, and survived only as "the badge marking a certain social position." The knowledge that was of most worth, he believed, was knowledge for self-preservation: gaining a livelihood, being a parent, carrying out one's civic duties, and producing and enjoying art. Spencer believed that the best way to attain useful knowledge was by studying science, which in the mid-nineteenth century was not taught by most schools and colleges. In education, he asserted, utility was the measure of all things.

In the United States, Spencer's prestige was immense. Historian Henry Steele Commager observed that "It requires an effort of the imagination, now, to appreciate the dominion that Spencer exercised over American thought in the quarter century or so after the Civil War and, in some quarters, down to the eve of the First World War." Much of Spencer's popularity was due to his exposition of social Darwinism. The doctrine of "survival of the fittest," he claimed, justified laissez-faire government. In an age of individualism, Spencer's justifications for social Darwinism struck a resonant chord, but so too did his emphasis on utility in education among a practical people who were already inclined to doubt the value of book learning. Historian Lawrence A. Cremin described Spencer's book on education as "probably the most widely read in America." His utilitarian ideas were later embraced by the progressive education movement, which ignored Spencer's opposition to state-supported public education.

Spencer's laissez-faire philosophy was opposed by the remarkable polymath Lester Frank Ward. Ward has been called "the philosopher, the protagonist, even the architect, of the modern welfare state." Born in the Midwest in 1842, he attended public schools for a few years, then taught himself Latin, Greek, German, mathematics, French, botany, geology, and paleontology, served in the Civil War, and worked for the federal Bureau of Standards, the U.S. Geological Survey, and other government agencies. In his spare time, he earned degrees in law and medicine. By dint of his own reading and experience, he became an accomplished scientist, a founder of the field of sociology, and the first president of the American Sociological Society.

Ward believed that the government should take an active role in improving social welfare. He challenged those like Spencer (and his American disciple, William Graham Sumner of Yale University) who believed that the laws of nature required laissez-faire policies. Writing in 1884, Ward maintained that "the laissez faire doctrine is a gospel of inaction, the scientific creed is struck with sterility, the policy of resigning all into the hands of Nature is a surrender."

Ward mocked advocates of laissez-faire by pointing out:

When a well-clothed philosopher on a bitter winter's night sits in a warm room well lighted for his purpose and writes on paper with pen and ink in the arbitrary characters of a highly developed language the statement that civilization is the result of natural laws, and that man's duty is to let nature alone so that untrammeled it may work out a higher civilization, he simply ignores every circumstance of his existence and deliberately closes his eyes to every fact within the range of his faculties.

If such a theory were correct, said Ward, "There would have been no civilization, and our philosopher would have remained a troglodyte."

Ward insisted that the fundamental difference between man and other animals is that "the environment transforms the animal, while man transforms the environment." All inventions, all art, all practical advances, all civilization are the fruits of intelligence, not nature; by the application of intelligence, human institutions are capable of changing the physical and social world. Government, Ward argued, is a human invention, and government should be consciously used to improve intelligence and social conditions.

A passionate egalitarian, Ward believed that the most important source of inequality was the unequal distribution of knowledge. "I know of no other problem of applied sociology that society can solve until this one is solved," he wrote. Unlike Spencer, Ward insisted that "state education is far better for the pupil" than private education. He wrote in Dynamic Sociology(1883), "The lowest gamin of the streets here meets the most pampered son of opulence on a footing of strict equality. Nothing counts but merit itself. Pupils take their places according to what they are, not what they are called."

The main purpose of education, Ward argued, was to equalize society by diffusing knowledge and what he called "directive intelligence" to all. He literally believed that knowledge was power. He considered education "the great panacea" and insisted that access to knowledge was the key to all social progress. He wrote, "There is no need to search for talent. It exists already, and everywhere. The thing that is rare is opportunity, not ability." The greatest advances in civilization had been created, he held, by men who had had opportunities for education and the leisure to think. With unyielding optimism, Ward maintained that "the potential giants of the intellectual world may now be the hewers of wood and drawers of water. On the theory of equality, which I would defend, the number of individuals of exceptional usefulness will be proportionate to the number possessing the opportunity to develop their powers." Those who stood to benefit from education were not a fixed percentage of the population, as many believed. Ward felt that the entire population would gain if there were more and better educational opportunity.

Throughout his career, Ward defended "intellectual egalitarianism." He insisted that not only all classes but all races were equally capable of learning and employing the social achievements of mankind. Against both popular and scholarly opinion, he argued that "the lower classes of society are the intellectual equals of the upper classes." The difference in intelligence between those at the bottom and those at the top, he held, was due not to any difference in intellect but to differences in knowledge and education. The main job of formal education, he held, was to ensure that "the heritage of the past shall be transmitted to all its members alike," not just to those who are deemed to be part of the most intelligent class. All children, he contended, should have the right to the accumulated knowledge of the past: the information, intelligence, and power that come from studying humankind's inheritance of arts and sciences.

Apostles of Liberal Education

The two most influential educators in the 1890s were Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard University, and William Torrey Harris, U.S. commissioner of education. As vigorous proponents of liberal education, they believed that the primary purpose of education was to improve society by improving the intelligence of individuals. They insisted that schools in a democratic society should aim to develop the intelligence of all children fully, regardless of their parents' social status or their probable occupation. Both asserted that the same quality of education should be available to all children. Together they represented the mainstream consensus about American education at the approach of a new century.

Eliot, though prominent in higher education, took a keen interest in the schools. After graduating from Harvard in 1853, he taught mathematics and chemistry at Harvard, served on the Boston Primary School Committee, and studied European school systems. In the spring of 1869, he attracted wide attention with articles in The Atlantic Monthly advocating "the new education." Criticizing the narrow classical curriculum of ancient languages and mathematics in American colleges, he called for the addition of modern studies such as science, modern foreign languages, and English literature. That same year, he was appointed president of Harvard University. A strong advocate of both higher standards and electives, he raised the university's admission requirements and eliminated required subjects.

In the late 1880s, Eliot became a national leader in discussions about schooling, which was an unconventional role for the president of Harvard University. Aware of the poor quality of many high schools, he referred to them as "the gap between the elementary schools and the colleges." He knew that the rural population — three quarters of the American people — had little access to secondary schools; that only one state (Massachusetts) required districts to establish high schools; and that more than 80 percent of colleges and universities reluctantly maintained their own preparatory schools to compensate for inadequate high schools. Eliot insisted that more and better schools and common standards were needed.

Eliot urged educators to shorten the grammar school course by eliminating redundant work in arithmetic and grammar while introducing natural sciences such as botany, zoology, and geology, as well as physics, algebra, geometry, and foreign languages. Eliot opposed lockstep recitations and memory drills, especially the customary practice of memorizing geographic facts and grammatical rules. He wanted students actively involved in laboratory demonstrations, where they would be expected to observe, weigh, measure, and do fieldwork.

Many educators thought that these advanced studies were beyond the reach of many children, but Eliot insisted that "We shall not know till we have tried what proportion of children are incapable of pursuing algebra, geometry, physics, and some foreign language by the time they are fourteen years of age." He noted disapprovingly that "we Americans habitually underestimate the capacity of pupils at almost every stage of education" in comparison to Europeans, and consequently many capable students never got the chance to study advanced subjects.

Eliot opposed uniformity in education. Recognizing that children differ in many ways, he suggested that the public schools should "promote pupils not by battalions, but in the most irregular and individual way possible." A good model, he thought, was the country district school "in which among forty or fifty pupils there are always ten or a dozen distinct classes at different stages and advancing at different rates of progress." The uniformly low expectations of the current program, he said, actually denied children of the poor equal access with children of the rich to the best education of which they were capable.

Eliot believed that a convention of experts should be able to agree on the best way of teaching every subject and which topics should be studied. Once these determinations were made, he expected, there would be clear teaching standards for every subject, even though not all children would study the same subjects or move at the same pace while studying them.

It was not subject matter, however, that was important to Eliot; rather, it was mental power, the power to think, reason, observe, and describe. The object of education, he frequently said, was to gain mental discipline, what educators in the late twentieth century would call "critical thinking skills." To develop the power of observation, he held, "it does not matter what subject the child studies, so that he study something thoroughly in an observational method." It was unimportant to Eliot "whether the student write an historical narrative, or a translation from Xenophon, or a laboratory note-book, or an account of a case of hypnotism or typhoid fever, or a law-brief, or a thesis on comparative religion; the subject-matter is comparatively indifferent." No matter what was taught, what mattered most to Eliot was the development of clear thinking.

In the 1890s, Eliot was a spokesman for liberal education. He believed that the essential purpose of education was to improve the power to think and reason well, and that all youngsters should develop these capacities. As the mass of people gained these powers, he thought, society as a whole would benefit.

W. T. Harris: Egalitarian Traditionalist

The other great advocate of liberal education during this era was William Torrey Harris. Unlike Eliot, who endorsed mental discipline (the training of the mind) as an end in itself, Harris believed that certain academic subjects were the indispensable foundation of a liberal education. Born in Connecticut in 1835, Harris left Yale without graduating because of his dissatisfaction with the classical curriculum (Latin, Greek, and mathematics) and his eagerness to study "the three 'moderns' — modern science, modern literature, and modern history."

When he was twenty-two, Harris moved to Saint Louis, where he became an elementary school teacher. Eleven years later, he was named superintendent of schools. At the time, he was also a leading Hegelian scholar and founder of The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. In 1880, he moved to Concord, Massachusetts, to work with Bronson Alcott on philosophical matters. In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison appointed him U.S. commissioner of education, and he served in this office until 1906.

For most of the twentieth century, generations of students of education learned nothing of Harris's ideas or contributions, because he scorned the fashionable pedagogical bandwagons of his time. Today, he is usually and unjustly referred to as a "conservative" whose work as an educator confirmed the status quo. As historian Herbert M. Kliebard has noted, Harris "earned a reputation as a conservative in educational policy" because of his "lukewarm reaction" to his fellow pedagogues' enthusiasms such as manual training, child study, and specialized vocational training. This unjust reputation was cemented by historian Merle Curti's derogatory treatment of Harris in 1935. Writing in the depths of the Great Depression, Curti found Harris wanting because he had criticized socialism. Because Harris was out of step with Curti's progressive views, Curti concluded that his educational ideas were as deficient (i.e., conservative) as his economic ones.

In his own era, however, Harris was a reformer, an advocate of modern subjects, and a tireless crusader for universal public education. As superintendent of schools in Saint Louis and later as U.S. commissioner of education, Harris struggled against taxpayers' opposition to public high schools and new subjects. In his reports to the public, Harris argued unceasingly that the purpose of education was to give the individual the accumulated wisdom of the human race, and that this was a public purpose fully deserving the support of the entire community.

Like his friend Lester Frank Ward, Harris maintained that public education benefitted the public. Under his leadership, the Saint Louis public schools added science, art, music, and drawing to their curriculum and made kindergarten a regular part of the school system. Harris denounced excessive reliance on rote memorization, claiming that it produces "arrested development (a sort of mental paralysis)" and causes the mind to lose "its appetite for higher methods and wider generalizations." As U.S. commissioner of education, he encouraged colleges to broaden their entrance requirements to include modern subjects, not just the time-honored classical curriculum.

Being a Hegelian, Harris regularly delivered extended disquisitions on the relationships among the state, civil society, the family, and the individual. His reports as superintendent in Saint Louis were unlike any written by other school superintendents before or since. In addition to the customary statistics about the school system's needs, he often reflected on the purpose of public education. In his annual report of 1872, for example, he explained that the right kind of moral education could not be obtained from private tutors, because only in public schools did pupils learn the disciplined behavior necessary for life in a civilized community.

His praise for the liberating power of good habits, discipline, and self-control did not endear Harris to later generations of progressive educators, who believed that the child needed to be liberated, not reined in by artificial conventions and external authority. Harris thought that "a system which proposes to let the individual work out his education entirely by himself...is the greatest possible mistake. Rousseau's doctrine of a return to nature must also seem to me the greatest heresy in educational doctrine."

Harris held that schooling strengthens both the individual and the community by enabling the individual to "live over in himself the lives of his fellowmen without having actually to make all the original experiments and suffer all the temporary defeats and disappointments" of others. "The lowest savage" learns the traditions of his own tribe and learns from hearsay, he said, "but it is incomparably more useful to be able, by means of books and the printed page, to have access to the observations of all men who have observed and reflected in all times and all places." Other institutions — the family, the church, the state, and the industrial community — also educate, but only the school gives individuals the inestimable power of reading and writing, which opens to them the ability to learn from others, to "climb the heights of achievement" for the rest of their lives. The habits and self-control taught in school, Harris claimed, teach "directive power," by which he meant a combination of ingenuity, initiative, persistence, and the ability to work with others (Lester Frank Ward called this "directive intelligence"). Directive power strengthens the individual and, in doing so, promotes social and economic progress.

Harris defined the essentials of the curriculum as the five windows of the soul: "Illiterate man is shut up in the dark tower of ignorance, and the school undertakes to illuminate and emancipate him by opening windows on five sides (for this tower is a pentagon). It teaches arithmetic, geography, history, grammar, and literature." He held that "arithmetic quantifies...geography [in which he included the sciences] localizes....Grammar fixes and defines speech....History deals with human progress....Reading...includes the mastery of literature." To Harris, these were the five essential ingredients of knowledge in the common school curriculum.

The process of education adds to "the child's experience the experience of the human race. His own experience is necessarily one-sided and shallow; that of the race is thousands of years deep, and it is rounded to fullness. Such deep and rounded experience is what we call wisdom." Unlike other institutions in society, the special purpose of the school, he argued, is that it teaches students how to acquire, preserve, and communicate intelligence. Once the conventionalities of learning have been mastered, "the youth has acquired the art of intellectual self-help; he can of his own effort open the door and enter the treasure-house of literature and science. Whatever his fellow men have done and recorded, he can now learn by sufficient diligence of his own." The goal of education, as Harris saw it, is freedom, self-dependence, self-activity, and directive power. The educated person with a trained mind and a disciplined will would be prepared to solve the practical problems of daily life.

Harris frequently heard complaints about the expense of providing education to the children of common laborers. He contended that good education must be for all children, not just the children of the prosperous. It wasn't right, the critics said, to make children aspire beyond their "station" in life, to which Harris replied, "The critics of our educational system are never done with telling us that its results are to make the rising generation discontented with its lot. As if this were a defect rather than the greatest glory of an educational system!" Unlike many of his peers, Harris understood that the age of industrialism had introduced a constant "shifting of vocations" and that the best preparation for any youngster was not a trade but "versatile intelligence," which would enable an individual to learn to operate new machines and invent new ones.

Harris defended the teaching of Latin in public schools as egalitarian. In America, he maintained, "The children of poor people have the same opportunities here that the children of rich people have to improve their condition and to obtain directive power if they make the same outlay of industry and intellectual preparation." He believed that the American public would reject a school system that provided one kind of education for the children of laboring people and a different kind for the children of the rich and powerful. Such inequality, he held, would be completely unacceptable in the United States.

Harris defended classical studies on unusual grounds. Traditionalists talked about mental discipline, and educational progressives wanted school to be more practical and more like everyday life, but Harris spoke of the value of "self-alienation." He believed that education should involve "a period of estrangement from the common and familiar. The pupil must be led out of his immediateness and separated in spirit from his naturalness, in order that he may be able to return from his self-estrangement to the world that lies nearest to him and consciously seize and master it." Without a period of self-alienation, the student would remain "merely instinctive and implicit." To create self-alienation, Harris suggested that the student needed to be removed from his familiar surroundings and allowed to "breathe the atmosphere of the far-off and distant world of antiquity for several years of his life."

His concept of self-alienation explains the fascination that many young children develop for learning about dinosaurs or lost civilizations, which are remote from their own lives. What Harris called self-alienation is the learned ability to step away from one's immediate experience and view it with critical perspective.

A strong proponent of intellectual development, Harris was an outspoken critic of manual training, which was a highly acclaimed innovation in the 1880s. Advocates of manual training wanted to introduce practical studies into the high school, such as woodworking, metalworking, and patternmaking. Harris set such activities on a par with games of "marbles, quoits, base-ball [or] jack-straws." Such learning, he said, may be educative, but "it is not properly school education." Harris drew a sharp distinction between the casual learning that children pick up spontaneously and the purposeful education that teaches them to comprehend beyond what they can see and touch: "Man elevates himself above the brute creation by his ability to withdraw his attention from the external world of the senses and give attention to energies, forces, producing causes, principles. He can look from the particular to the general....He can see in a cause its possible consequences."

The great power of education, Harris suggested, was not gained by repeatedly performing an action, such as sawing wood or welding two pieces of iron. No, its great power derived from the ability to think, reason, and generalize. For Harris, the use of intellect was man's quintessential power, hardly to be compared to the mundane task of learning how to use a few tools. Intellect grows not from manual labor, he argued, but from active engagement with language, literature, science, mathematics, and history. Not only did manual training lack intellectual value, said Harris, it had no vocational value either, since only 8 percent of the nation's laborers worked in wood or metal.

Despite Harris's low regard for manual training, the movement was not to be denied. It became one of many movements that periodically swept through American education, as zealous education reformers, businessmen, and philanthropists searched for a panacea to make education useful to employers and more attractive to students. The promoters of manual training were certain that working with hand tools was just the right preparation for the new industrial age, and Harris appeared to be an old fogy.

Interest in manual and vocational training soared: Baltimore opened the first public manual training high school in 1884. Other cities added manual training courses to their high schools. Private manual training schools were launched in Saint Louis, Toledo, Cleveland, Cincinnati, New Orleans, New York, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, many with business support. Many cities added courses in industrial trades such as carpentry, plumbing, bricklaying, metal and machine work, sewing, and cooking to prepare young people for jobs. Business leaders hailed industrial and technical education, expecting that it would contribute to the nation's industrial growth and perhaps to their own corporate growth as well.

The popular enthusiasm for manual training may have annoyed Harris, but it was merely a mote in his eye. A far larger issue was what to do about the connection between the high schools and the colleges. On this question, Harris and Eliot were in agreement. Both disliked the overly prescriptive nature of college entrance requirements, especially the insistence by many colleges that students must study Greek and Latin to be admitted. Neither man was an enemy of the classics, but they wanted American colleges to admit students who had not studied the classical curriculum. Together, they found a way to influence the growth of the curriculum in the nation's thoroughly decentralized schools.

The Debate About Educating Black Children

As white educators were struggling to define the program of the public high school, black educators were struggling to expand access to publicly supported elementary schools for black children. Only a third of black children in 1890 attended any school at all, and few had any access to high school.

The African-American population was concentrated in the rural South, where educational opportunities were meager for blacks and whites alike, and where white hostility to the education of blacks was intense. In the late nineteenth century, barely a generation after the abolition of slavery, most southern blacks were poorly educated, trapped in grinding poverty as sharecroppers or tenant farmers, and politically disenfranchised. Southern legislatures adopted Black Codes to curtail the rights of blacks and to preserve whites' control of the social and political order. The development of schools for black children in the South relied on the framework established by the Reconstruction-era Freedmen's Bureau, as well as missionaries, churches, northern foundations, and local people of both races; public funds for black primary education were provided reluctantly and inequitably.

The most prominent African-American leader at the turn of the century was Booker T. Washington. Born into slavery, Washington was educated at Hampton Institute at Virginia, which was known for its philosophy of industrial, vocational, and moral training. In 1881, Hampton's president, General S. C. Armstrong, selected Washington to lead a new state-chartered normal school for blacks in Tuskegee, Alabama. Though only twenty-five, Washington proved fully equal to the task, not only establishing Tuskegee as a major institution but eventually winning recognition as the nation's best-known spokesman for black Americans.

Washington was a masterful fund-raiser who maintained good relations with northern white philanthropists, enlightened white southerners, and other black leaders. Tuskegee emphasized industrial education, teacher training, and character building; its students learned certain skilled trades, farming, and homemaking skills, as well as personal hygiene and manners. Its curriculum was in the mainstream of progressive education, providing the type of practical education allegedly suited to students' needs and the needs of their communities. In his history of black education in the South, James D. Anderson assailed the Hampton-Tuskegee model of industrial education; he maintained that it was designed as second-class education to keep blacks in low-skilled jobs and preserve the racial caste system.

In 1895, Washington delivered a major address at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. Directing his remarks to southern whites, he reassured them that blacks intended to work hard, downplay their grievances, and acknowledge that "there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top." He pledged that whites could count on black workers to be "patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful," and to "stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach....In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." Washington sought to allay southern whites' concerns about the willingness of blacks to accept their role at the bottom of the social order. A reporter who was present that day wrote that at the end of the speech, "Most of the Negroes in the audience were crying, perhaps without knowing just why."

Both whites and blacks applauded Washington, but the African-American intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois several years later deplored his message of deference. Du Bois, who graduated from Fisk University, received a doctorate at Harvard, and was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, attacked Washington's Atlanta speech as a surrender of the black population's civil and political rights.

Washington's program, he charged, "practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races." Du Bois was outraged because Washington had not objected to racial prejudice and the denial of black suffrage; had counseled submission to civic inequality; and had deprecated the value of black higher education, which would limit the numbers of black teachers and handicap blacks' education at every level. Du Bois deplored Washington's failure to proclaim that "manly self-respect is worth more than lands and houses, and that a people who voluntarily surrender such respect, or cease striving for it, are not worth civilizing."

Du Bois questioned whether industrial education was the best strategy for the black population. To rely wholly on industrial education, he warned, would be a mistake, for it would preclude the education of future leaders, who would require a liberal education. He insisted that "the Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men," whom he called the "Talented Tenth." Du Bois asked, "Can the masses of the Negro people be in any possible way more quickly raised than by the effort and example of this aristocracy of talent and character? Was there ever a nation on God's fair earth civilized from the bottom upward? Never; it is, ever was and ever will be from the top downward that culture filters."

To have a Talented Tenth, he wrote, the best of the younger generation must go to college and university, there to gain the intelligence, knowledge, and culture that are transmitted from generation to generation. The Talented Tenth, he believed, would supply the leaders and teachers of future generations. Du Bois could not imagine a successful system of common schools nor even good trade and industrial schools without an adequate supply of well-educated teachers, as well as teachers of teachers.

Thus, while white educators were debating whether the educational ladder should be open to all students and for how long a common education should be offered, black educators were worrying about how to secure the very lowest rungs on the ladder for black children and debated which educational strategy (industrial education or liberal education or a combination of both) was likeliest to improve the prospects for blacks' advancement.

The Committee of Ten

In the 1890s, educators often complained about the absence of any organized system for college admissions. Nearly half the nation's colleges had either low entrance requirements or none at all. Many colleges accepted only those students who passed their own examinations, while others accepted all applicants from certain preapproved schools. High school principals and headmasters groused about "domination" by the colleges, whose requirements determined what they taught. Colleges that gave their own examinations often had maddeningly explicit requirements for prospective students, such as testing students' ability to translate certain passages from Homer or Herodotus. Principals objected to preparing boys and girls differently for twelve to fifteen colleges, each with its own requirements in foreign language, science, history, and literature, particularly when only a handful of them were preparing for any college at all. Educators wanted a predictable system of education, instead of the informal, haphazard situation that had evolved over the years. Like the practitioners of other nascent professions at the time, educators sought order and stability.

In an age marked by the development of systems and organization, the schools seemed helter-skelter, lacking uniformity or standards. What should be taught? To whom? At what age? For how long? What were the best methods? What subjects should be required for college entrance? Should "modern" subjects such as history and science be accepted for college admission? Should students be admitted to college who had not studied the ancient languages? Should there be different treatment, even different curricula, for the great majority of students who were not college-bound? Should high schools offer manual training and commercial subjects?

In the absence of any general agreement about these nettlesome issues, each school and local district arrived at its own answers. In 1892, the leading organization of professional educators, the National Education Association, responded to the debate by doing what had never been done before: it created a national committee, the Committee of Ten, to study the issues and offer constructive proposals. Never before had a national body been established to make recommendations to the nation's thousands of school districts and hundreds of colleges. At a time when other professions were trying to organize themselves, it seemed perfectly reasonable that professional educators would assert that their expert judgment was superior to the hodgepodge created by the uncoordinated actions of thousands of individual schools, school boards, and colleges.

The Committee of Ten, the nation's first blue-ribbon commission to study the schools, brought together the nation's two best-known proponents of liberal education, Harvard President Charles W. Eliot and U.S. Commissioner of Education Harris. Eliot was chairman of the committee, which included four other college presidents, three high school principals, and a college professor. Both Eliot and Harris were well known among educators as reformers and proponents of the modern subjects.

The Committee of Ten published its report in 1893. For years afterward, its recommendations were hotly debated. The high schools, said the committee, should be committed to academic excellence for all students in a democratic society. They should foster the continuous intellectual growth of their pupils through study of the major academic disciplines. The report urged that young people should go as far in school as their talents and interests would take them.

The Committee of Ten assumed that every child would benefit by receiving a liberal education of the highest quality. Its most controversial recommendation was that all children should receive an academic education, differentiated only by which foreign languages were learned. The committee noted that it was "a very general custom in American high schools and academies to make up separate courses of study for pupils of supposed different destinations." It opposed this kind of differentiation, declaring that "every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil so long as he pursues it, no matter what the probable destination of the pupil may be, or at what point his education is to cease." It recognized that not all pupils would "pursue every subject for the same number of years; but so long as they do pursue it, they should all be treated alike."

The Committee of Ten insisted that the secondary schools of the United States "do not exist for the purpose of preparing boys and girls for colleges." Only a tiny proportion of high school graduates would ever go to college. The main purpose of the high school was to prepare all its students for "the duties of life," whether they planned to go to college, went to work immediately after graduation, or left high school without graduating.

The report of the Ten was a reform document. It urged colleges to admit students who had not studied the classical languages. It supported new subjects such as history, the sciences, and modern foreign languages as coequals with Latin, Greek, and mathematics. It recommended active teaching methods instead of rote memorization. It endorsed the democratic idea that all students should receive a liberal education.

The report represented a melding of the objectives of liberal education (i.e., a curriculum of rich content) and mental discipline (i.e., the training of the mind). The members of the committee agreed that a person with a well-trained mind would be well prepared for any path in life. But the Committee of Ten did not say that any subject at all was equally valuable for mental discipline; a well-educated person must have a mind that was not only well trained but well furnished with knowledge. It left decisions about manual training and commercial subjects to individual high schools.

Almost immediately, the report came under fire from opposite directions. On one side were the traditionalists, who saw the report as an insult to their own field. Classicists were outraged by the committee's suggestion that colleges admit students who had not studied Latin; Greek professors complained bitterly that Greek was being downplayed. Other traditionalists were disturbed by the proposal that the modern subjects — science, history, and modern foreign language — should be considered equal in value to the classical subjects.

The cry went up among classicists that the report of the Ten supported "equivalence" among all studies for mental discipline and college admission, regardless of their inherent value. Since so many classicists had made the mistake of justifying the ancient languages solely on the basis of their value for mental training, they correctly saw that "equivalence" threatened their very survival. If English or German or chemistry were as good for mental discipline as Latin, why would anyone study Latin?

Attacking from the other extreme were critics who objected to the report's support for academic education for all students, even those who did not plan to go to college. These critics claimed that the Committee of Ten was dominated by college men, that it had neglected practical studies such as manual training, and that its proposed programs were too difficult for most students. They complained that the report would lead to the overeducation of those who were bound for the labor force and that it was the work of aristocrats who wanted to impose a narrow college preparatory curriculum on everyone.

One Massachusetts educator, W. R. Butler, scoffed at the idea of offering the same kind of education to all high school students. Students, he wrote, are of widely varying capacities: this "procrustean bed...will necessitate more stretching and cutting off of legs than the pedagogical world has ever before known." To those who contended that the high school should offer all students the chance to qualify for college, he replied that "in other countries the choice of courses must be made almost at the beginning of school life, while we in America allow a postponement of the choice for eight or nine years." Butler saw no good reason to offer the same kind of education to both kinds of student: "No builder thinks of laying the same foundation for a cottage as for a ten-story block." Besides, he observed, most high school students and high school graduates were girls, and "the higher education of girls is of doubtful utility to the race."

James H. Baker, a member of the Committee of Ten (and a former high school principal), had a different objection. He opposed the implication that "the choice of subjects in secondary schools may be a matter of comparative indifference." He insisted that "Power comes through knowledge; we can not conceive of observation and memory in the abstract." He wanted a stronger statement about the value of certain subjects, otherwise "we might well consider the study of Egyptian hieroglyphics as valuable as that of physics, and choctaw as important as Latin."

Six months after the report's release, Charles Eliot responded to critics who had charged that college men who knew nothing about the schools were trying to dominate the high school. Eliot maintained that educational reform had an essential unity, regardless of the age of the students. Certain principles, he said, were paramount whether one was concerned about college-age youths or kindergartners.

First, it is important to direct instruction to individuals, not to groups or classes; the best education recognizes that each student learns "at his own rate of speed." At whatever age, he said, "we must learn to see straight and clear; to compare and infer; to make an accurate record; to remember; to express our thought with precision; and to hold fast lofty ideals." These were the elements of mental discipline to which Eliot was unswervingly loyal. Eliot reiterated his well-known support for students' choice of studies, although he contended that "school programmes should always contain fair representations of the four main divisions of knowledge — language, history, natural science, and mathematics; but this does not mean that every child up to fourteen must study the same things in the same proportions and to the same extent." He looked forward to the day when American teachers, like American professors, would become masters of their subject so that they could teach it expertly to children of all ages and capacities.

Nothing Eliot said could satisfy G. Stanley Hall, president of Clark University in Massachusetts, who was the report's most caustic critic. Hall was relentless in his efforts to tarnish the report. Renowned at the turn of the century as the founder of the child study movement, Hall derided the proposal that every subject "should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil so long as he pursues it." Calling this "a masterpiece of college policy," Hall declared that "this principle does not apply to the great army of incapables, shading down to those who should be in schools for dullards or subnormal children, for whose mental development heredity decrees a slow pace and early arrest, and for whom by general consent both studies and methods must be different." This was demagoguery on Hall's part, since the numbers of children who were incapable of benefiting from an academic curriculum were certainly not a "great army."

Hall challenged the report's claim that "all subjects are of equal educational value if taught equally well." This implied, he said, that "shorthand, Greek, agriculture, mathematics, sewing and surveying, elocution and drawing, the humanities and science, pure and applied knowledge, and all the newest as well as the oldest branches, if taught alike well, have equal educational worth....I can recall no fallacy that so completely evicts content and enthrones form." Of course, the report had recommended only the humanities and sciences, not shorthand, sewing, and other nonacademic subjects. Hall's coup de grace was his charge that the report asserted that "fitting for college is essentially the same as fitting for life," for this was the image that stuck. The report, which did assert that a good solid liberal education was the best way to prepare for "the duties of life," now stood accused of wanting to push all children into what Hall described as a "sedentary, clerical, bookish, and noetic" education, with the attendant evils of coaching, cramming, and examinations.

Having ridiculed the report, Hall wrote admiringly of European school systems, where students received different educations on the basis of career choices made before they reached their teens. Hall's allegations of elitism were especially ironic because the Committee of Ten had emphasized that all children — especially those who were not going to college — should have the benefit of a liberal education.

In 1905, Eliot tried one last time to refute Hall's attacks. In a democratic society, he reasoned, "the classification of pupils, according to their so-called probable destinations, should be postponed to the latest possible time of life." While Europeans were accustomed to classifying children early in their lives as "future peasants, mechanics, trades-people, merchants, and professional people," and giving them an education appropriate to their future role, this was not the American approach: "In a democratic society like ours, these early determinations of the career should be avoided as long as possible, particularly in public schools." The American public, he predicted, would object to having its children "sorted before their teens into clerks, watchmakers, lithographers, telegraph operators, masons, teamsters, farm laborers, and so forth and treated differently in their schools according to these prophecies of their appropriate life careers. Who are to make these prophecies? Can parents? Can teachers? Can university presidents, or even professional students of childhood and adolescence?" Eliot insisted that "the individual child in a democratic society had a right to do his own prophesying about his own career, guided by his own ambitions and his own capacities." As for Hall's claim that the population included a "great army of incapables," Eliot replied that "any school superintendent or principal who should construct his programs with the incapables chiefly in mind would be a person professionally demented."

The Legacy of the Committee of Ten

The report of the Committee of Ten was influential for a decade or so after it was issued. Colleges increasingly accepted modern academic subjects for admission, and high school enrollments in Latin rose. Some states, cities, and schools tried to align their curricula to the report's recommendations. The public schools, however, did not remove the distinctions between students who were preparing for college and those who were not; as historian Edward A. Krug notes, the schools added modern academic subjects to what was required for college preparation, and "the idea of a college-preparatory curriculum became as rigidly fixed from this point of view as it had ever been with reference to Greek."

One of the most significant legacies of the Committee of Ten, at least indirectly, was the establishment in 1900 of the College Entrance Examination Board, which was created to offer a common examination for many different colleges. The College Board achieved what Eliot had been seeking, which was to set uniform standards for each academic subject, while allowing schools maximum flexibility about what to teach and relieving colleges of the burden of administering their own entrance examinations. Each year, the College Board consulted with teachers and college professors and issued a syllabus to help students get ready for the examinations. High schools no longer had to prepare students for different entry requirements at different colleges.

The Committee of Ten showed the power of reform by commission. Its example spurred a frenzy of professional activity as educational leaders discovered a potent tool for organizing themselves, seeking public support, and asserting the claims of their expertise. Hardly was the ink dry on the Ten's report when new commissions and committees were established to promote education reform, including a committee of five, a committee of seven, a committee of twelve and a committee of fifteen.

In time, as the progressive education movement came to prominence, the Committee of Ten report became an object of scorn. Progressive educators considered it a misguided elitist effort to impose a college preparatory curriculum on everyone. The Ten, said the critics, had ignored individual differences and social needs. Its report was reactionary, old-fashioned, elitist. It was a relic, consigned to the dustbin of history by a rising tide of contempt for the academic curriculum.

The negative reactions to the Committee of Ten report gave rise to myths about the American public high school in the late nineteenth century that proved useful to foes of the academic curriculum. The high school of this era, reformers said again and again, had been an aristocratic institution, devoted solely to those who were preparing for college; its curriculum had been determined by the colleges; most students had been compelled to take Latin and Greek to enter college; most of its students had gone to college; it had ignored the needs of non-college-bound students. None of this was true. In the 1890s, most high school students — indeed, most high school graduates — did not go to college.

Public high schools at the turn of the century were not devoted solely to academic studies. They commonly offered nonacademic courses such as bookkeeping, music, art, drawing, manual training, and surveying. Isaac L. Kandel, a scholar noted for his international studies of education, found that the nineteenth-century American high school was characterized by "remarkable flexibility" of curriculum as compared to European secondary schools and that "it was rather difficult to understand this charge, which was admittedly very widely accepted."

Historians David L. Angus and Jeffrey E. Mirel concluded that the high schools of the late nineteenth century, far from being rigidly traditional, had offered a variety of courses for students who planned to go to work: commercial courses, normal training for future teachers, surveying, manual training, mechanical drawing, and electives in art, music, and physical education. In reality, there had been great variation among high schools, and no two of them had been alike.

Another version of this myth depicts late-nineteenth-century public high schools as "schools that taught Greek to the college-bound." In fact, in 1890 only 3 percent of high school students studied Greek, and by 1910 Greek enrollments fell to less than 1 percent and few public high schools even offered it.

Latin was a different story. Evidently students, their parents, or their teachers valued the study of Latin, and students took it even when it was not required. In his study of secondary schools at the turn of the century, Theodore R. Sizer described Latin as "one of the most popular courses in the curriculum, even for children who had no thought of going on to college. Its appeal was not only that it supposedly refined the taste and disciplined the mind....Its appeal was in its tradition of culture, its symbolic mantle of refinement."

In 1890, about one third of all secondary students took Latin. The Committee of Ten may have encouraged even more Latin study, because by 1900, fully 50 percent of all high school students were taking Latin. Even a decade later, despite the fact that the high school enrollment had doubled from 1890 to 1900 and doubled again by 1910, Latin enrollments remained at 50 percent (with more girls than boys enrolled). To the extent that Latin enrollments serve as a gauge, the academic curriculum seems to have reached a high-water mark in the years from 1900 to 1910. And this was so even though the overwhelming majority of high school students were not preparing to enter college.

As the century opened, American education seemed to be firmly committed to the ideals of liberal education. There seemed to be a broad consensus among educators and parents that the purpose of schooling was to improve a youngster's ability to think and reason well through studying certain essential subjects. Behind this consensus was an implicit understanding that access to education was a democratic right and that the role of the school in a democratic society was to provide not just the three R's but access to the knowledge and thinking power necessary for every citizen. The promise of liberal education was that all children would study the same knowledge that had once been available only to elites. Opponents of liberal education, however, rose like dragons' teeth from the soil in the following decades, never understanding the promise, never seeing why children of workers and farmers needed the kind of education once deemed appropriate only for the elite.

Copyright © 2000 by Diane Ravitch

Meet the Author

Diane Ravitch is one of the nation's foremost historians of education and a leading education policy analyst. Her landmark books deeply influenced the national discussion of education standards in the 1980s and 1990s. She has been a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and at New York University. She served in the U.S. Department of Education as assistant secretary in charge of education research. She currently holds the Brown Chair in Education Studies at the Brookings Institution, edits Brookings Papers on Education Policy, and is a member of the National Assessment Governing Board. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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