Education through the decades

Back a couple weeks ago when we went to do research at Northwestern University one of the sources I found was an Encyclopedia called American Decades. I originally just looked up the sections on vocational education within these encyclopedias. This past week when I went to find American Decades, I found that not every decade included a section on vocational education but that the education chapter in each volume was extremely helpful in relation to vocational and industrial education. In general, an overview of the big ideas and concepts of the decade were included and explained, relating to the reasoning behind education reform even when it wasn’t necessarily “vocational.”

The encyclopedia starts in the twentieth century, with the first volume covering what happened in the United States from 1900-1909. Before the turn of the century, universities in the U.S. attracted students mainly interested in pursuing business or a traditional profession like ministry, law, or medicine. However it was in this decade that a bachelor of arts degree became a prerequisite to go on to advanced training for a professional program – in order to increase the quality of training. A similar message was being received when it came to industrial training. For example, under Booker T. Washington, the Tuskegee Institute “emphasized the training of young black men and women in practical, workplace skills.” The standardization of the education of such skills was happening across the country, starting with something like the Gary Plan. Devised by William Wirt, the school superintendent in Gary, Indiana, the program was designed to make education as efficient as possible by having schools open later and for a majority of the year, extending vocational programs to become a staple in the curriculum by rotating half of the students in a traditional academic setting for part of the day and then switching with the other half of the students in either shop, lab, the auditorium and the playground. At the time, the learning of these vocational skills shifted from an education that was gained from family or an apprenticeship to one taught in school. some of the first vocational schools in the U.S. opened from 1906-1909, establishing a standard model for many years. For example, Independent Technical School in Newton, Massachusetts offered multiple education programs: day industrial school for boys and one for girls, evening industrial school for men and one for women, day homemaking school, evening practical, continuation school, and agricultural school. Basically, people began to see vocational and industrial work as the future of the country and began to look at people in terms of an economic unit when educating them.

Looking back to the late 1880′s, settlement houses began to appear, the most prominent one being the Hull House (1888). The focus of the settlement house was primarily to provide education and social justice. The educational programs and services were set up to help immigrants, both young and grown, “the educational efforts of a settlement house should not be directed primarily to reproduce the college-type culture but to work out a method and an ideal adapted to adults who spend their time in industrial pursuits.” For the older students at settlement houses, vocational education ended up becoming a focus that was not just for industrial training but to understand the history and nature of the industry.

I then moved onto looking at the second volume of American Decades which covered the years of 1910-1919. This decade saw a continued increase in students receiving a secondary education; which resulted in a need for the more standardized curriculum that was developed in the previous decade to be used. At this time the institutionalization of industrial, agricultural and commercial vocational studies was the most dramatic change the high school curriculum experienced. While the number of technical and vocational schools and colleges continued to grow, specific systems were established. For example, in the South, Washington’s Tuskegee Institute “favored equipping the black population to make their way materially and socially in their southern rural environment,” which was a concept based on the philosophy of Virginia’s Institute, stating that “students must engage in manual labor not merely to defray a part of their school expenses or to learn a trade but to develop mind and character.” This institute and other country training schools were a prevalent reality for black students in the South from 1910-1919.

Basically the changing economy increased the demand for vocational training of the new methods and skills for farming and industrial work. The Board of Education in Chicago ended up setting the precedent of industrial training when putting in course provisions in cooperative education. So the students would learn arithmetic, English, drawing, architecture, and woodworking for three months of the year and then the rest would be focused on vocational instruction. During this decade training for a position in agriculture as well as the service industry were popular options, making agricultural and commercial secondary schools an option.

Amidst this change in the education system came the question of how this would shift the expectation and place of women in society. The issue was with the message that women needed education in order to get congenial work and to secure financial independence, but they still were needed to be homemakers. There was a fear that by having women obtain a secondary education and most likely working was “disinclining women for marriage.”

While this is just some of what the first two decades of twentieth century education in the U.S. was dealing with, I’m interested to see how vocational education continued to shift through the rest of the century.