So, what happened?

The Push toward Illiteracy: The Progressives’ War on Learning

The essence of the Progressive education movement is the notion that the primary goal of education is the “socialization” of the child and that this is more important than academic training—more important than studying literature, history, science, math. The leading Progressive educators differed on some points, but all agreed that a “narrow focus” on academic training must give way to something that focused on the “whole child.”

Nor were they vague regarding what this meant. For example, famed social worker Jane Addams (1860–1935) was an early Progressive educational reformer who grumbled, “We are impatient with the schools which lay all stress on reading and writing, suspecting them to rest upon the assumption that all knowledge and interest must be brought to the children through the medium of books.”

By the mid-1920s, psychologists had developed seventy-five IQ tests to gauge the intellectual ability of students of all ages. Each year during this era, some four million students took an intelligence test. As educational historian Diane Ravitch notes, “the public schools employed the tests to predict which students were likely to go to college and which should be guided into vocational programs.” However, “the decision became a self-fulfilling prophecy, since only those in the college track took the courses that would prepare them for college.”

To Progressive educators, the IQ tests provided the cutting edge of a scientific approach to proper schooling and gave the imprimatur of science to those reformers who sought to push millions of students away from academic education and into vocational training.

Related to this, shortly after World War I, several Progressives created the field known as “Curriculum Studies.” John Franklin Bobbitt at the University of Chicago (and others elsewhere) held that curriculum design was a complex field that could be mastered only by experts who were fluent in the new scientific approach to education.

Prior to World War I, a school’s curriculum had been designed by community school boards and educators who knew the local parents and their expectations. At the time, almost all towns and neighborhoods desired their children to learn “reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography, and nature studies in the common [elementary] schools, and they wanted the high schools to teach Latin, a modern foreign language or two, mathematics, literature, grammar, the sciences, ancient history, English history, American history, drawing, [and] music.” This was what parents generally demanded, and this was what the schools provided.

No more, proclaimed Bobbitt and his peers. Local school board members, teachers, and parents had not studied the literature of the new science of education. They were not conversant with the rationale or the methods or the outcomes of IQ testing, and they were clueless regarding techniques for determining children’s future professions and assigning them to the educational track congruent with their intellectual capacities. They were, therefore, as unqualified to design an educational curriculum as they were to critique Einstein’s theory of relativity; both were jobs for trained experts. As Ravitch writes:

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