A History of Education: The American Educational System, 20th Century (The Great War: A Turning Point)

[Editor’s Note: This is the 42nd 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.]

After the period of frustrated debate in the late 19th and early 20th centuries over the direction of the educational system in the United States, the world changed, and education changed with it. America didn’t enter World War I until late in the game (1917), but its effects rippled throughout society in ways that reframed the question of who we were as a people and in which direction we wanted to go.

One of the first things to change was the teaching of German in both public and private schools. A language usually offered with English in cities that had large German immigrant populations, it was pulled from the curriculum. In addition, teachers and administrators with German surnames, or names that sounded German, came under scrutiny, and school curricula were scrutinized for any pro-German leanings.

Schools themselves grew into an activist platform supporting the American war effort. The Student Army Training Corps, among other groups, brought military training onto college campuses, with spinoff courses appearing in the high schools. However, schools also began to require loyalty oaths of their staff, and anyone found not 100% behind America’s involvement in the global conflict often lost their positions.

One of the lesser-known effects of the war on education came with the development of intelligence testing. Mental testing was present during the progressive era, but its creator, a Frenchman named Alfred Binet, had been primarily concerned with testing individuals. During the war, though, the army accepted the American Psychological Association’s offer to develop intelligence tests that would target groups. Initially used to identify potential candidates for officers’ training school, these tests were later used to screen recruits who might have difficulty with the mental challenges of military service.

The success of these group tests led supporters to look for other applications during the postwar years, and the most obvious choice was to use them in the rapidly expanding public school system where educational research was focusing on ways to measure student potential and progress. Testing quickly gained in popularity, but it wasn’t without its critics. The progressive liberal journal The New Republic published articles that lauded testing’s value when used on individuals but questioned its appropriateness for lumping people into groups. Some outspoken educators felt the indiscriminate labeling based on intelligence tests was a clear and present danger to democracy itself.

One such criticism came from William C. Bagley, a Columbia Teachers College professor, who attacked the intelligence tests as unduly restricting educational opportunity. He believed the test could be useful in determining an individual child’s readiness for a given subject but was inappropriate when used to restrict educational services.

In addition, Black educators and scholars definitively linked test results to cultural and environmental factors, arguing that such tests were biased toward certain populations but against others, the latter being primarily minorities and immigrants.

Despite the criticisms, though, school administrators pushed the tests’ importance as part of the modernization movement that was gaining ground, and they became an integral part of the new comprehensive high school that flourished in the postwar years.


Next week: A guest blog

In two weeks: The Educational Ladder


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.



[1] Urban, Wayne J., Wagoner Jr., Jennings L., and Gaither, Milton. American Education: A History, 6th edition. Routledge: New York, 2019, pp. 204-205.


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.

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