A History of Education: The American Educational System, 20th Century (The Comprehensive High School: New Subjects)

[Editor’s Note: This is the 46th in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

Along with the modification of traditional subjects, the comprehensive high schools of the 1920s also began to offer new courses. One of the most successful was undoubtedly physical education, or PE as it became known. While exercise had always been part of a student’s school day, deliberate, programmed exercise was a way of providing both girls and boys with a way to become healthier, which benefitted society. You can read more about how physical activity helps education in our blog here.

Music, and instrumental music instruction, were also incorporated into the new curriculum. Many social reformers believed it would “elevate” the tastes of Americans, associating that elevation with a concurrent elevation in moral behavior. While initially filled with classical European composers, music education by the end of the 1920s began to include the wildly popular jazz movement, despite the objections of traditionalists who believed it would “corrupt” students’ morals.

A third category introduced revolved around personal moral behavior, with the dominant subjects being alcohol education and sex education. Both topics were – and still are – contentiously debated as to their appropriateness for the classroom.

The 1920s was the decade of Prohibition, so many schools felt it incumbent upon them to preach on abstinence and the negative consequences of drinking alcohol. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, alcohol education split into two camps. The first remained in the abstinence-based approach, while the second promoted “education about alcohol,” a format designed to help students formulate their own opinions.

Sex education never had a consensus opinion. Progressives wanted some type of “social hygiene” class that would help decrease the spread of venereal diseases and unwanted pregnancies, but conservatives felt that any mention of the topic would lead to premature interest and unwanted experimentation. Many schools simply avoided the issue entirely. Those who chose to discuss the topic generally went for a “too boring to be suggestive” approach, making the class more of a clinical recitation than a titillating subject.

Extracurricular activities, scheduled school activities performed outside the classroom, were also introduced at this time. Progressives pounced on the idea to foster “school spirit,” a harmonious social identity that could reduce the class distinctions prominent with industrialism. School spirit was designed to create “fans,” also known as fanatical supporters, usually of a sports team. Like the patriotism fostered during the early years of the century, being a fan demanded “allegiance without room for debate.”[1]

School spirit also helped Americanize students, especially those of immigrant families, by cutting some ties to the home, family, and neighborhood they belonged to, helping students form peer relationships through these activities.

Most activities we now think of as “extracurricular” were originally formed and run by the students themselves, and they were highly exclusive. Fraternities and sororities were the key social pillars of high schools at the beginning of the 20th century, and they reproduced strict hierarchies of social status, primarily aligned along financial and ethnic lines. Administrators wanted to counteract student loyalty to these groups by fostering school-wide spirit through athletic competitions with other schools and friendly competitions between the different grades, and in these respects, they were largely successful. Today, some aspect of “school spirit” is found at just about every school, not just in the high schools, but also in the elementary and middle schools.

Interestingly, sports represent a prime example of adults appropriating and redirecting student-run activities. School-sponsored competitions in the late 19th century were largely intellectual, where library societies and debate clubs were the norm. Any type of sporting event was likely to be informally organized by the students themselves. As change swept through the comprehensive high schools, though, educators began to see that, for teenage boys, physical competition was attractive. They thought that if they could appropriate such competitions and tie them to school attendance and performance, the boys would be more likely to remain in school instead of dropping out in large numbers. As a result, they encouraged boys to become “sports heroes” and girls to cheer them on in a sanctioned manner – cheerleading.



To read part 1: Introduction, click here.

To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.

To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.

To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.

To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.

To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.

To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.

To read part 8: China, click here.

To read part 9: The Olmecs and the Maya, click here.

To read part 10: The Islamic World: Basics, click here.

To read part 11: The Islamic World: The Golden Age, click here.

To read part 12: The Renaissance, click here.

To read part 13: American Educational System Overview, click here.

To read part 14: European Influences, Jon Amos Comenius, click here.

To read part 15, European Influences,  Froebel, click here.

To read part 16, European Influences, Herbart, click here.

To read part 17, European Influences, Herbert Spencer, click here.

To read part 18, Colonial Period, Puritans, click here.

To read part 19, Colonial Period, New England Books, click here.

To read part 20, Colonial Period, Massachusetts Education Laws, click here.

To read part 21, Colonial Period, Harvard College, click here.

To read part 22, Early National Period, Benjamin Franklin, click here.

To read part 23, Early National Period, Benjamin Rush, click here.

To read part 24, Early National Period, Thomas Jefferson, click here.

To read part 25, Early National Period, Noah Webster, click here.

To read part 26, Early National Period, Educational Ordinances, click here.

To read part 27, Early National Period, Dartmouth College/Yale Report, click here.

To read part 28, Common School Period, Horace Mann, click here.

To read part 29, Common School Period, Mary Lyon and Mount Holyoke College, click here.

To read part 30, Common School Period, McGuffey Readers, click here.

To read part 31, Common School Period, Catholic vs. Protestant Education, click here.

To read part 32, Common School Period, Compulsory Education, click here.

To read part 33, Common School Period, African American Education, click here.

To read part 34, Common School Period, National Education Association, click here.

To read part 35, Common School Period, Morrill Land Grant Acts, click here.

To read part 36, Common School Period Wrap-Up, click here.

To read part 37,  Leadership in Transition, click here.

To read part 38,  A Time of Reform, click here.

To read part 39,  School Choice and Structure, click here.

To read part 40, Vocational Education, click here.

To read part 41, Curricular Differentiation, click here.

To read part 42, The Great War, click here.

To read part 43, the Educational Ladder, click here.

To read part 44, Two New Rungs, click here.

To read part 45, Comprehensive High School,  click here.



[1] Urban, Wayne J., Wagoner Jr., Jennings L., and Gaither, Milton. American Education: A History, 6th edition. Routledge: New York, 2019, pp. 207-209.


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to blogger@acereader.com.

1 thought on “A History of Education: The American Educational System, 20th Century (The Comprehensive High School: New Subjects)”

Leave a Reply