The Despotic Origins of U.S. Public Secondary Education

This article is part of a project that critically analyzes the historical and present day purposes of U.S. public education. Related articles focus on the history of Common Schools, the undemocratic nature of Local Control and the finacialization of education via Social Impact Bonds and Personalized Learning. The point of this project is to further expose the underlying social control function of U.S. public education and the interests it has consistently served over time, which cannot be extracted from the undemocratic nation-state it was designed – and continually redesigned – to preserve. 


Stoking nationalism with fears of “Another Black Republic”

During the 1890s, as patriotic fervor was sweeping the nation, the flying of the nation’s flag on school grounds and within classrooms was normalized, whereupon students were required to pledge allegiance to the nation’s flag on a daily basis. This morning ritual was initiated by a signal from a teacher or principal, where students, in ordered ranks, started with their hands to their side, facing the flag. Another signal was given and every student was required to give the flag the military (Bellamy) salute – right hand lifted, palm downward, to align with the forehead and close to it; and repeating together, slowly: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.” At the words, “to my Flag,” the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereby all hands immediately drop to the side. Starting in the 1930’s and continuing to the present day, students are required to stand in the same obedient fashion, except with their right hand to their heart, as they recite the pledge of allegiance.

This ritual served to further align the social control function of the Common School movement with a more advanced stage of U.S. nationalism that served U.S. imperialist pursuits, tied to the nation’s white supremacist foundations. At the turn of the 20th century, capitalism’s proclivity for crisis was fomenting rebellion within the U.S. through massive labor strikes, struggles for universal suffrage and relief from poverty as a major depression gripped the nation due to overproduction. In response, the nation’s political and economic elite significantly expanded U.S. pursuits of overseas markets for American goods and investment capital. Long salivating over the commercial possibilities of Caribbean and Latin American markets and trade outposts, government and business focused their sights on Cuba. At the time Cubans were rebelling against Spanish rule, and the fact that a majority of the Cuban population was Black provided a convenient rationale for U.S. military intervention. These events required the intensification of the social control apparatus of U.S. nationalism – well oiled by its highly effective and profitable role in the conquest of North America – as a means to deflect attention towards an external “threat.”

In doing so, the Cleveland administration agitated white fears that a Cuban victory could lead to “the establishment of a white and a black republic.” In an 1896 article in The Saturday Review, a young rising star Englishman named Winston Churchill, whose mother was American, wrote: “A grave danger represents itself. Two-fifths of the insurgents in the field are negroes” who might “in the event of success, demand a predominant share in the government of the country . . . the result being, after years of fighting, another black republic.” That other Black republic was, of course, Haiti; of which the U.S. has relentlessly worked to destroy (initiated by Jefferson) since a Black slave rebellion established the nation in 1804. Churchill would go on to be known as one of the most racist U.K leaders of the 20th century, which was quite the feat. Always one to brutishly cut to the chase, the soon to be celebrated “war hero” and president, Theodore Roosevelt, wrote to a friend in 1897, “In strict confidence . . . I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one.”

This racist and profit-driven war machine also resulted in the U.S acquisition and occupation of the Philippines, resulting in a protracted war against armed Filipino freedom fighters. By some estimates, over one million Filipinos died, along with the pillaging of the country’s natural resources. In 1902, president Theodore Roosevelt summarized the essence of the war against the Filipino people by claiming it, “involved not only the honor of the flag but the triumph of civilization over forces which stand for the black chaos of savagery and barbarism.”

In his 1909 book titled Changing Conceptions of Education, influential education historian and administrator, Ellwood P. Cubberley was explicit about how public education needed to be refashioned to meet capitalism’s domestic and international demands. He believed that the Spanish American War of 1898 served:

…to concentrate attention once more on the advantages of general education. It was “the man behind the gun” who won. The trained artisan is to be the private; the trained leader the captain; and an educated, sober, capable, and industrious people the base of supplies for the national armies of the future. Whether we like it or not we are beginning to see that we are pitted against the world in a gigantic battle of brains and skill, with the markets of the world, work for our people, and internal peace and contentment [social cohesion] as the prizes at stake.

Cubberley went on to note, “that the great battles of the world in the future are to be commercial rather than military or naval” and the “great educational lessons to be learned from a study of the educational political and industrial progress of the German Empire…are at last beginning to take root with us.” Cubberley thought it was critical for public education to be “adapted to the needs of the future rather than to the needs of the present or the past” and by doing so, an “industrial and vocational” education needed to be widely instituted “if we wish to continue to prosper as a nation.”

Prior to the Spanish-American War, the U.S. had already intervened militarily to establish or protect U.S. economic and political power in Argentina, Chile, Haiti, Hawaii, Nicaragua, Korean, Panamá, Samoa, Greece, Uruguay, Japan, Tripoli, Colombia, Mexico and Korea. These imperialist interventions were only a warm up for what would ensue over the next three decades, let alone the 20th century. In contrast to Ellwood P. Cubberley’s 1909 proclamations, U.S. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Bulter, characterized the nature of U.S. militarism in 1935 based on his personal involvement:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested.

Strengthening the Infrastructural Power of Ideology

By 1890, as public secondary education was slowly evolving as an alternative to private academies and seminaries and was being scrutinized, portrayed as too disorganized, pluralistic, inefficient and in need of being aligned with the new economy and emerging national interests. These rumblings were the beginnings of what many establishment historians, along with Harvard University economist Claudia Goldin, refer to as the “high school movement” within the “human capital century.” According to Goldin, this framing describes how a “set of republican institutions” established a “host of changes” that allowed “the United States to respond to the increased demand for skill…with a set of New World preconditions.” Following a nationalistic script, Goldin explains how “By the early 20th century the United States began to endow a large fraction of its youth with skills in formal, school-based, academic settings, using a system termed here the U.S. template. The United States achieved mass secondary (and later mass higher) education because of a set of virtues. The virtues enabled the supply-side institutions to respond to the demand-side shift.”

The “republican institutions” that were steering this virtuous agenda included federal and state officials, capitalists, scholars and religious-based charity organizations. These influential groups – as agents of the founders original cultural political and economic aspirations – were debating the social aim of secondary education as a means to buttress domestic instability due to mass inequality while simultaneously expanding U.S. hegemony internationally. For these purposes, new scientific reasoning was being attached to long held cultural scripts that justified systems of domination as means to rationalize new or improved instruments of social control. At the time social control theories were being applied to new scientific concepts of efficiency in support of white supremacy and class domination and rationalized through the “science” of Social Darwinism and eugenics.

These reform efforts to expand infrastructural power as a means to strengthen social cohesion were tied to what is known as the Progressive Era. According to education professor Ann Gibson Winfield, many of these Progressive Era reformers, “were consumed by a defensive strategy that called for the eradication of the socially inferior and the preservation of ‘old stock’ American values and genetic material.” Others, according to the Social Welfare History Project, were motivated by “democratic ideals and social justice” and “made themselves the arbiters of a ‘new’ America in which the origin story myths of the founding fathers (liberty, equality, justice) could find a place within the nation’s changing landscape.” Of course, the actual “ideals” of the founding fathers were already well in place and working quite efficiently.

A group of white male scholars and leading college presidents, who were focused on the social aims of education based on the ideals of “American Democracy,” began to meet in the early 1890s, taking a more custodial and opportunity-based stance on schooling. They believed that all (white) students – regardless of their class positions – should receive intellectually stimulating curriculum that equally prepares them for college and/or work. They articulated their position in 1893 as the National Education Association’s Committee on Secondary School Studies (Committee of Ten). Aiming to establish a standardized curriculum, the Committee of Ten recommended that all public high schools should follow a predetermined college preparatory, liberal arts curriculum that did not differentiate between students heading for college or work.

As education reformers made concerted efforts to design the twentieth century high school, so did big business, positioned to further consolidate power and influence in government and public opinion. Beginning in 1860, capitalists began to organize themselves nationally, and between 1890 and 1920, various commercial and trade associations flourished; and setting the agenda for secondary education was a major priority. One such group was the National Associations of Manufacturers (NAM), which formed in 1896 and was highly influential in shaping education policy with a focus on vocational secondary education based on the differentiated German system. NAM members were concerned that the efficient skills-based German model of schooling disadvantaged American manufactures in world markets.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, this was a period when the “need for a closer relationship between government and business” became more “obvious” since organized labor was presenting a clear and present threat to the progress of the nation. This concern led President Taft to recommend to Congress in 1911 that a centralized business organization be created to be “in touch with associations and chambers of commerce throughout the country and able to keep purely American interests in a closer touch with commercial affairs.” In 1912, Taft called “for a conference in Washington of commercial and trade organizations” which resulted in the establishment of the “Chamber of Commerce of the United States” whereby “Business had found its voice.”

Educators, businessmen, social workers, clergy, charity groups, large labor unions – most Progressive Era reformers were either beneficiaries or agents of, or skeptical participants in, the all encompassing free-market based Efficiency Movement, which considered all aspects of society to be riddled with waste and inefficiency. The “progressive” remedy required expertise within the fields of science, engineering, technology and the new social sciences to develop quantifiable methodologies and road maps that would guarantee a less wasteful and more cohesive, productive and predictable industrial society. For this to happen, government, business and civil society were largely aligned in a common nationalistic aim of designing a model capitalist “democracy.” Theirs was the founders “democracy,” yet now it would be more firmly anchored by a comprehensive public secondary education system.

In 1894 British writer and Social Darwinist Benjamin Kidd popularized the term social efficiency in his internationally celebrated publication Social Evolution. Kidd postulated that social efficiency entitles “superior” races to control the raw materials of the world because, “the last thing our civilization is likely to permanently tolerate is the wasting of the resources of the richest regions of the earth through the lack of the elementary qualities of social efficiency in the races possessing them.”

According to Jennifer Karns Alexander, the author of the 2008 The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control, the ideology of efficiency when applied to society was conceptualized from the merging of two prevailing schools of thought during the 19th century – Darwin’s theory of evolution and the theories of celebrated microeconomist Alfred Marshall. Speaking to this idea, technology historian Peter Sutton explains how their commonality was based on:

…the insight that within large-scale dynamic systems (ecological and economical respectively), measurable differences in individual efficiency could make the difference between success and failure over the long-term. In business, as in nature, success in the competition for limited resources was determined by the extent to which methods that minimized waste and maximized output could be perfected…these lines of thinking increasingly permeated a wide range of intellectual matters by mid-19th century, linking efficiency with ideas of social progress and commercial growth.

Alexander goes on to claim that for both Darwin and Marshall “efficiency meant increasing and sophisticated organization necessarily accompanied by sacrifice: the death and extinction of less-adapted and less-specialized organic beings and the loss of autonomy by those engaged in all but the most mentally demanding forms of labor.”

The rulers and beneficiaries of the industrialized society, who saw themselves as the most adapted and most specialized (hence genetically superior), believed that efficiency served a conservationist function of preserving the natural order of a hierarchical society and world. Of course, from the perspective of those at the bottom of this “food chain,” this conceptualization is antithetical to the promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” a promise intended for the nation’s opulent. This notion of efficiency therefore authorizes the “less-adapted” and “less-specialized” human beings to be treated as disposable economic maximizers, whose only value is judged by their level of productivity as disciplined instruments within highly controlled profit seeking systems.

The instrument of social efficiency zeroed in on education while consensus was simultaneously building amongst the elite that, in the same vein as common schools, public secondary education should be established as a foundational institution for social control as a means to ensure adherence to the social aims of industrial capitalism. Drawing on Social Darwinism the social and scientific movement of eugenics quickly emerged within the new science of human genetics, providing the foundation for social efficiency in establishing science-based rationales for race and class hierarchies. Eugenicists advocated putting limitations on political participation based on race and class, arguing the U.S. ruling class was in grave danger of “committing racial suicide” resulting from the precipitous reproduction of the genetically inferior, combined with the steady decline in the birthrate of the genetically superior. To address this social crisis, eugenicists advocated for a range of prescriptions, including mandatory segregation, sterilization, immigration restriction, and legal prohibition of interracial marriage. Newly developed Intelligence Quotient (IQ) tests soon became an instrument to reinforce the hegemony of eugenics and social efficiency, and over time became the basis for standardized tests generally, as a means to efficiently sort and rank students according to race, gender, class and ability.

U.S. sociologist, eugenicist and renowned social control theorist Edward Ross is recognized as conceptualizing social efficiency to serve as a means for social control. In his 1901 book titled Social Control, Ross was primarily concerned with how democratic societies can be structured to reinforce dominant social orders. With regard to education, Ross’s ideas centered on how the state, its schools, along with its disciplined agents (teachers), can serve as a far superior socializer (compared to genetically inferior parents) and the most powerful instrument of social control by instilling “the habit of obedience to an external law which are given by a good school discipline.”

Some social efficiency educators recognized mass public education’s potential as a remedy to the moral and social ills associated with new immigrants. In line with Horace Mann’s views, Ellwood P. Cubberley promoted public schooling’s role in civilizing the “illiterate” and “docile” immigrants flooding in from southern and eastern Europe who lacked “in self reliance and initiative” and did not “possess the Anglo Teutonic [German] conceptions of law, order, and government” and therefore diluted “our national stock” and corrupted “our civic life.” According to Cubberley, the aim was “to break up these groups or settlements, to assimilate and amalgamate these people as a part of our American race, and to implant in their children, so far as can be done, the Anglo Saxon conception of righteousness, law and order, and popular government, and to awaken in them a reverence for our democratic institutions and for those things in our national life which we as a people hold to be of abiding worth.” In Cubberley’s 1922 book titled A Brief History of Education (a widely used textbook in teacher education programs), one section was labeled “The Education of Defectives,” and another “The Education of Superiors.” In the latter section, Cubberley complained that:

All the work…relating to the work of defectives, delinquents, and children for some reason in need of special attention and care has been for those who represent the less capable and on the whole less useful members of society – the ones from whom society may expect the least.

Within this worldview, public education needed to be standardized and made more efficient. Instead of an academically grounded curriculum and student-centered instruction, public schooling was to serve a larger “social mission” with a curricular focus on practical vocational knowledge and future “life experiences.” Beginning in 1903, Frederick Winslow Taylor was rapidly gaining attention by industrialists with his Scientific Management model of industrial production, which went on to gain prominence within the social efficiency movement, when he published “Principles of Scientific Management” in 1911. Scientific Management rapidly replaced older, craft-based, manufacturing methods with what became the prevailing principles of large-scale industrial manufacturing within assembly-line factories.

The development of this model was partially in response to factory managers concerns about workers’ motivational problems, also called “soldiering,” which is when workers attempt to do a minimum amount of work in the longest amount of time. As a remedy, Taylor’s model (Taylorism) emphasized the standardization of work, through a division of labor, where factory managers constantly monitored and scientifically measured worker productivity. He suggested they do this by conducting time and motion studies on shop floors, monitoring workers with stopwatches and documenting their level of efficiency and productively at every step of production. Individual worker’s pay was then to be tied directly to output through piece-rate wages. Of course, this method was ultimately about maximizing profits through the application of soul crushing and body battering methods, which played a major role in the unionization of factories over the proceeding decades.

Educating the “worm eaten stock”

John Franklin Bobbitt, a leading curriculum scholar, ardent follower of Taylor and head of the Department of Education at the University of Chicago published “The Elimination of Waste in Education” in 1912. In it, Bobbitt likened schools to factories, referring to them as “plants,” claiming that each “plant” should be operated “according to recently developed principles of scientific management, so as to get a maximum of service from a school plant and teaching staff of minimum size.” Bobbitt’s contributions went well beyond the hierarchical and standardized physical organization of schools and their curriculum. His conceptualization of education for the future labor force was one of dehumanization and commodification. Bobbitt viewed students as “raw material” and schools as factories and classes as the assembly line that manufactured “a uniform, standardized product” designed with the singular intent of reproducing and maintaining existing social orders.

Teachers were disciplined factory workers who utilized the most efficient means to ensure that students (as raw material) were molded and sorted according to the narrow vocational standards, cultural scripts and mental dispositions that served private industry and other nationalistic aims. School administrators were the factory managers who monitored, directed and disciplined teachers – as assembly line workers – throughout the production process.

Bobbitt’s model of schooling was highly influential and shaped public education for decades to come, on many levels. His views, like many of his contemporaries, were also explicitly infused with the ideologies of white supremacy and class superiority propagated by eugenics. In his 1909 article titled “Practical Eugenics,” Bobbitt declared, “If a child is well-born” of Anglo-Saxon “stock” and is thus genetically superior, “he possesses high endowment potential” and is “protected from adverse influences…and abundantly responsive to the positive influences of education.” Bobbitt went on to explain:

…if, on the other hand, the child…springs from a worm-eaten stock, if the foundation plan of his being is distorted and confused in heredity before his unfolding begins, then the problem of healthy normal development is rendered insoluble before it is presented. Such a child is difficult to protect against adverse influences, and he remains to the end stupidly unresponsive to the delicate growth factors of education.

Bobbitt continued, in this piece, with a warning to his colleagues concerning the sinister processes that were unfolding in 20th century America. He went on to express distress about the decreasing birthrate of the Anglo-Saxon “stock” and how this would result in a “drying up of the highest, purest tributaries to the stream of heredity.” He proceeded to diagnose the problem as being the increasing birthrates and immigration of those who are not from the “strains of our imperial race,” which are causing a “rising flood in the muddy, undesirable streams” into society. Bobbitt also pondered the problems facing eugenics, which in his words is “the newly-arising science which seeks to improve the inborn qualities of our race” and while “it is easy to see the practical advantages to result from an application of its principles…it is not at all easy to see how it is to be done.” Apparently he found the solution to this “problem” when he published “Elimination of Waste in Education” two years later.

Expanding on the broader impacts of eugenics on U.S. education, Rethinking Schools noted in 2014:

The United States has a long history of using intelligence tests to support white supremacy and class stratification. Standardized tests first entered the public schools in the 1920s, pushed by eugenicists whose pseudoscience promoted the “natural superiority” of wealthy, white, U.S.-born males. High-stakes standardized tests have disguised class and race privilege as merit ever since. The consistent use of test scores to demonstrate first a “mental ability” gap and now an “achievement” gap exposes the intrinsic nature of these tests: They are built to maintain inequality, not to serve as an antidote to educational disparities.

In his book, Unequal by Design, Wayne Au writes:

It is important to recognize that the technology of standardized testing, beyond its role in I.Q. and eugenics, proved to be a pivotal technical, conceptual, and ideological apparatus in the ascendancy of the application of scientific management and models of capitalist production to education. Tests as a technological instrument enable education to operate in several ways. They determine universal norms and standards through which to classify, construct comparisons, mark deviance and sort human populations under the pretext of scientific objectivity. Through the establishment of universal objectivity, standardized tests also commodify those who are being measured by the tests, allowing for students to be viewed and treated as products. Commodification therefore permits learners to be categorized and sorted as ‘things’ and creating conditions for systems of production to be monitored, surveilled, and ultimately disciplined.

Standardized testing, with its foundational concepts of scientific objectivity and students as commodities, is designed to serve as a crucial apparatus in the maintenance of the American cultural myth of meritocracy, which posits that everyone has the chance to work hard and compete freely to attain educational, social and economic success.

Because of this fact, any historical examination of the establishment of universal public education must expose its social engineering aims through the intersection of scientific management and eugenics. It is hard to imagine how an institution with these designs – while constructed to serve the cultural, political and economic power structures of an inherently unequal, undemocratic and violently racist nation state – could ever be reformed to serve any emancipatory purpose.

The Institutionalization of Efficiency

David Snedden, a Columbia Teachers College professor and Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, was one of the most influential social efficiency leaders during the 1910’s and played a major role in propelling vocational education into all of the domains of power by the end of the decade. Snedden’s ideology of education is described by Emery Hyslop-Margison as being:

…a vocational training model that responded directly to the specific labor force needs identified by industry. Under his scheme, vocational education would be structured to direct non-academic students into required labor force roles for which they were deemed best suited. He argued that educators should simply accept the industrial social system and its accompanying class structure as an inevitable fact of life, and channel their energies toward ensuring its efficient operation. According to Snedden, the primary purpose of vocational education was meeting labor force needs and preparing students with assumed limited intellectual capacities for immediate employment in industry.

Two of Snedden’s major influences included Edward Ross (social control) and leading Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer. Snedden is best known for mentoring and launching the careers of key leaders in the social efficiency movement.

Between 1900 to 1917 over 30 bills were introduced in Congress in support of vocational education based on calls from agricultural and manufacturing trade associations for the federal government to provide aid to further vocational education in secondary schools. In 1903, Carroll D. Wright, a former Massachusetts Senator and the first U.S. Commissioner of Labor, was appointed to be a member of the Massachusetts Commission on Industrial and Technical Education (also known as the Douglas Commission). The Douglas Commission – named after then Massachusetts governor William Lewis Douglas (and owner of the world’s largest shoe manufacturer) enacted legislation in 1906 establishing Massachusetts industrial education, making it “the Grandfather of Vocational Education.” In 1908, the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton Massachusetts was the first Vocational Technical school to open in the country. At the request of industry and key social efficiency leaders, Massachusetts carved out a separate public vocational education system that, according to education historian Melvin Barlow, served as a model for “industry leaders and educators from other states of the nation.”

In 1907, Wright became the second president of the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education (NSPIE), which was established in 1906 for the purpose of distributing federal funds to states “to assist in focusing public opinion in favor of an educational system that would give boys and girls who enter at an early age…an adequate preparation for industrial efficiency.” NSPIE was composed of prominent social efficiency educators, many industry trade organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as well as the National Education Association (NEA) and the Democratic Party. The American Federation of Labor was also on board since this was a period when its membership was composed of the more elite “skilled tradesmen.” NSPIE was the major player in the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act. In a 1909 article written by Carroll D. Wright about NSPIE, he shared some of their legislative strategies, some of which were first deployed in Massachusetts:

…the methods for propaganda must of necessity vary, and obviously they should be based on a full knowledge of local conditions. The board of managers therefore at the start adopted the plan of organizing in each state a nucleus of interest from which wise and effective activity might radiate. In accordance with this view, an effort was made to establish state committees in all states of the Union… And it is worthy of note that, although practically all invitations to serve on these committees were necessarily extended by letter, prominent men and women everywhere readily responded to the call… ready to preach the gospel of practical education for efficiency whenever the opportunity might arise.

David Snedden disciple Charles A. Prosser served as the Deputy Commissioner of Industrial Education in Massachusetts between 1910-1912, leaving this post to serve as the Secretary of the NSPIE until 1915. Prosser went on to be known as the father of vocational education in the U.S. and the author of the Smith-Hughes Act. Smith-Hughes is recognized as a milestone in federal intervention in establishing extensive vocational education in U.S. public secondary schools, for the purpose of preparing the 20th century workforce that industry demanded. It marked a major victory for the social efficiency movement in that it established a tracked and differentiated system of schooling for poor and working-class students who were “predestined” to not be worthy of a liberal arts education and postsecondary education. The timing of Smith-Hughes was not coincidental; it was enacted during a time of hyper nationalism that was fueling the nation’s first large-scale war of imperialism. Facets of the massive domestic propaganda machine during the “Great War” (World War I) focused on competing against the highly regarded and efficient German vocational education system. Many critics also charged that the U.S. public education system was still not delivering adequate job training during a period when technology was rapidly changing, further raising suspicion by some of its underlying social engineering purpose.

The practical nature of social efficiency’s approach to schooling made for a persuasive sell by its powerful and highly influential proponents, particularly by framing it as a means of social mobility. Many working people, immigrants and moderate unions supported the utility of having a legitimized and highly structured education system that is aligned with economic realities, providing relevant skills and greater opportunities for their children’s future. The public at large was also easily convinced that this model of education made good economic sense. Besieged by the era’s cult of efficiency, it was difficult to dispute the common sense cultural script that productivity enhancing discipline and skills, which promote economic stability, growth and an investment in human capital would provide a higher return on investment for industry (and therefore society) and dividends for individual investors (taxpayers).

Twenty-five years after the National Education Association released the Committee of Ten report with its emphasis on intellectual development of all white children, the NEA formed the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, chaired by another Snedden disciple, Clarence Kingsley. This Commission was tasked with forming the social efficiency doctrine for secondary education, resulting in a 1918 report titled “Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education.” In this report, the commission prescribed seven aims of secondary education: (1) Health, (2) Command of fundamental processes, (3) Worthy home membership, (4) Vocation, (5) Citizenship, (6) Worthy use of leisure, and (7) Ethical character. These standardized aims of schooling defined an ideological curriculum that efficiently shaped students to be disciplined and self regulating citizens according to the political, economic and military aims of more intensive forms of U.S. nationalism. As in the past, the social control instrument of nationalism was again fortifying U.S. imperialism, while suppressing growing leftist resistance domestically, which was gaining traction in electoral politics, labor unions and in massive opposition to “The Great War.”

Deviating from the practice of establishing separate vocational schools that were advocated by Snedden and others, “Cardinal Principles” recognized that segregating white students on a large scale into two separate school systems with two different curriculums based on social class would be politically indefensible. Instead of one system for vocational students as future producers and followers and another for liberal arts education students as future consumers and leaders, the report advocated for the establishment of vocationalized and tracked comprehensive high schools. The differentiated curriculum recommended by “Cardinal Principles” proposed to align coursework with the expected destinations of students based on social class. This became the template for public secondary education that would go on to predominate throughout the 20th century and is not only reflective of the evolution of social efficiency, but is also viewed as being highly influential in the entrenchment of standards-based education.

The “Cardinal Principles” designers’ break with the social efficiency tenet of segregated schools for working-class white students was not about adopting new worldviews, but was more about adhering to the empty promises of U.S. democracy and to accommodate a relatively influential opposition. Those being accommodated were those on the “rational left,” the liberal education reformers aligned with John Dewey who believed that democracy could coexist with American capitalism and white supremacy; and the politically moderate craft union movement associated with the American Federation of Labor. According to education professor David Labaree, “The way the Cardinal Principles report wove together the themes of social efficiency and democracy provided the rhetorical structure for this compromise” and “allowed the social efficiency strand of the progressive movement to have a lasting impact on goals and curricular organization of American education.” Similar to the social cohesion or “social unification” purpose of Horace Mann’s common schools, “Cardinal Principles” proposed comprehensive public high schools, where white middles-class students would mix and form common personal and social bonds with white working-class students, thus reducing envious tensions based on their family’s differing incomes and social agency. According to Herbert Kliebard the differentiated high school was designed “to reflect the needs of an industrial society through a differentiated curriculum” while also attending “to the significant differences in ability as well as the multifarious needs of an industrial democracy.”

Ultimately, this model of schooling served an important assimilation function in that it created an integrated common space in schools (yet with segregated coursework) as a means to have more “enlightened” students model American values and conduct for working-class students, particularly new immigrants. This environment also served to normalize – and cultivate acceptance of – the larger inequitable and socially stratified society. This socialization project was in line with a nationalistic script popularized during that time, which portrayed the U.S. as a wondrous “melting pot” where all nationalities, cultures, ethnicities and classes (from Europe) could come to America (as the land of opportunity) and live as one big socially cohesive white society.

With the understanding that secondary schools would be the site where differentiation would be most prominent, the Junior High School (and the Middle School) was created for the purpose of determining children’s capacities and to sort them accordingly before entering high school. As Kliebard goes on to explain:

There had, after all, been a whole new institution created, the junior high school, and with the influx of mental testing into the schools on a mass scale after World War I, that institution could devote itself to determining the true nature of the “raw material,” leaving the high school free to provide the differentiated curriculum that the social efficiency reformers so insistently demanded.

The original design and intent of primary and secondary public education provided the foundation for a model of schooling that would endure throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century. Yet, struggles over curriculum at the federal, state and local levels were significant; often reflecting the influences of intellectual and cultural movements, struggles for political, economic and social protections and humanistic and holistic approaches to education. These influences were consistently undermined or reversed by anti-intellectual and imperious social efficiency interests that are embedded within the state-capitalist pact that is intrinsic to the founders’ cultural political economy. Thus, mass public education stayed the course of its original mission of preserving the inequitable, violent and undemocratic structures of white supremacy, settler-colonialism, capitalism and heteropatriarchy.

Tim Scott is an educator, critical theorist and social worker who has been a community and union activist and organizer for nearly 20 years. This work has involved holding union leadership and staff positions (lead organizer and field rep); anti-racism work; global justice organizing (“anti-globalization movement”) within international networks resisting IMF/World Bank/free-trade/structural adjustment policies; harm reduction advocacy within LGBTQ networks; resisting US/UN Iraq Sanctions; Single-Payer Health Care organizing; anti-war/Counter Military Recruitment work; grass-roots media (radio & publication) and being a public education activist. Read other articles by Tim.