The fourth-grade reader included selections from Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the fifth-grade text, readings from William Shakespeare.

These were not the textbooks of the elite but of the masses,” explains Thomas Sowell. “From 1836 to 1920, McGuffey’s Readers were so widely used that they sold 122 million copies.” …

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.” She wanted the schools to engage students in group activities and prepare them to work in the factories.

Lawrence Cremin, a leading scholar of Progressive education, wrote of Addams’s theory, “Industry . . . would have to be seized upon and conquered by the educators.” The writer Charles Sykes adds, “In particular, she [Addams] thought modern man needed to be trained and educated in collective, group activities, which she invoked as the ‘spirit of teamwork.’”

This emphasis on group work was a theme that would be sounded over and again by Progressives and their intellectual descendants.

Progressive educators claimed that their theories and methods were based on science. In particular, they employed and emphasized the importance of IQ testing.

During the early 20th century, researchers in Europe and America developed tests designed to identify not merely a student’s knowledge, but his capacity to learn. In 1916, Lewis Terman, a professor of educational psychology at Stanford University, drawing upon the earlier work of French psychologist Alfred Binet and other researchers, developed the Stanford-Binet intelligence test (known today as the IQ test), which henceforth would be used to measure a student’s intellectual ability. Terman hoped that the intelligence test would “facilitate progressive reforms in education, especially identification of the feebleminded and the gifted, curricular differentiation, vocational guidance, and grouping based on students’ ability.”

Terman and many others advocating widespread IQ testing in the schools were eugenicists who despaired that “there is no possibility at present of convincing society that they [so-called feebleminded persons] should not be allowed to reproduce.”

The next best thing was to segment the students to ensure that the intellectually gifted received cognitive training and those of less intelligence were taught vocational skills.

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.