How Liberal Education Was Stolen from the People


Edward L Thorndike, who pioneered the intelligence tests that sorted young people into ‘appropriate’ tracks.

It sounds terribly sensitive and pragmatic to provide an education which is ‘suitable to the needs of the less academic’, but when we examine the historical origins of this concept, it becomes increasingly clear that it is aimed at denying the majority an academic education, in the name of rationalist social engineering imposed by a cultural elite.

In-school vocational education was invented just over a century ago by those who claimed that most children could not access the academic curriculum. In Left Back, Diane Ravitch describes how, early in the twentieth century, as huge numbers of immigrants poured into America from southern and eastern Europe, professors in the newly created schools of education speculated about how to integrate these new arrivals, whom they presumed to be of feeble intelligence and dubious character.

Their solution was to place them on a track towards a certain type of work as early as possible, and provide them with practical training, rather than a general academic education. In fact, it was common among the pedagogical experts to consider it dangerous to provide a liberal education to the seething masses who were arriving at Rhode Island. It would give them ideas above their station.

Unsurprisingly, the working people were not calling for this a century ago. On the contrary, a rapidly increasing number were enrolling in high schools during the first few decades of the twentieth century. And despite the efforts of the experts, the high schools remained largely traditional for a generation after theories about vocational education and a differentiated curriculum were first proposed. Those reactionary old schoolmasters and schoolmistresses continued to fill the poor children’s heads with antiquated knowledge, whatever the experts might say.

But over time, as younger teachers began to replace the old guard, progressive ideology tightened its grip. They had been trained in the latest methods by the experts, so they knew that it was cruel to impose an academic education on all these feeble minded children. No, they should spend their elementary education discovering nature, and their later years should be spent fitting them to be hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Thus it was that America lost the noble ideal of nineteenth century educators, who had believed in providing a liberal education to all, so that anyone, whether the son of a lawyer or of a carpenter, could develop his intellect as far as he wished. American idealism gave way to American pragmatism.

The old idealism did not fit into the twentieth century, the century in which big business wanted docile employees and consumers, and big government wanted docile clients. It was these interests that funded the schools of education, and it was these interests that provided the underlying motivation for denying a liberal education to the majority in the name of rationalist social engineering.


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