A History of Education: The American Educational System, Leadership in Transition (William T. Harris and Francis W. Parker)

[Editor’s Note: This is the 37th 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.]

Education transitioned from the common school era to the modern, bureaucratic school system toward the end of the 19th century. This change can be best understood through opposing ideas of two of the period’s leading educators. The first was William Torrey Harris, who was born in Connecticut in 1835, but who moved to the Midwest in search of new economic opportunities in land development. While there, he also began to teach, eventually taking a position in the St. Louis public schools.

Harris combined a career in educational administration with his scholarly interest in philosophy, becoming superintendent of the St. Louis school system. But while he tried to link the schools’ program to the new industrial society, and while he believed modernization was key to human progress, his idealistic philosophy was a poor fit for the science, technology, and industry needed to transform the country.

Harris was keenly aware of the how Horace Mann had revolutionized the common schools, and he sought to regiment the St. Louis schools along Mann’s ideals by organizing the school system along the lines of industry; that is, he wanted to produce a uniform product. He emphasized order, punctuality, morals, and discipline in his curriculum. He believed good students would go on to make good industrial employees, and those employees would form a model industrial society.

Ultimately, though, Harris was limited in his educational commitments, as revealed by his disagreements with educator Calvin Woodward, the founder of the Mechanical Training School at Washington University. Woodward, an engineer, divided the curriculum between “mental” subjects and “manual” ones, teaching his students how to implement the theories they learned into real-world applications.

Harris felt that manual training in public schools would be “intrusive;” for him, the moral and intellectual training currently available in the public schools was substantial enough for students to find their place in the new social order. Anything that replaced traditional subjects were “exotic” and unrelated to students’ higher mental functioning.

Harris, though he eventually lost the battle with Woodward, refused to yield in his views while in charge of the St. Louis public schools. But though the educational status quo held for the moment, change was coming, just as the country itself was changing to meet new needs and challenges.

On the other side of the leadership divide was Francis W. Parker, born in 1837 in New Hampshire and who taught in country schools at a young age before serving in the Union army during the Civil War. After the war he returned to teaching, this time in Dayton, Ohio, but he became disenchanted with the conventional approaches to teaching.

Parker traveled to Europe to study the educational reforms taking place there and read widely in educational theory. He was particularly drawn to Pestalozzi’s theories and Friederich Froebel’s ideas about educating the very young. When he returned to the United States, he took over the superintendent’s position in the Quincy, Massachusetts, public schools, using his considerable personal charisma to espouse the value of educational reform.

As superintendent, Parker started to overhaul Quincy’s elementary curriculum. He discarded drill, recitation, and rote memorization in favor of a system built around children’s natural curiosity of the world around them. As an example, he believed children should learn to read by using their own words and with simple sentences as opposed to simply memorizing the alphabet. Arithmetic, he felt, would be better absorbed through the study of objects and their properties than simply learning a list of rules. He consulted with teachers to learn about any difficulties, advising them on ways to impart the new curriculum by demonstrating the new pedagogy himself.

Experts came from around the country to see his new ideas in action and to learn from them.

A few years later, Parker left to take on the role of district superintendent in Boston, but in this much larger bureaucracy with a more politically diverse population, he was unsuccessful. Undeterred, he moved on to the position of principal of the Cook County Normal School in Chicago. As in Quincy, the power of his personality and his control of the system as a whole led to the implementation of the “new education.”

He formed a “practice school” to go along with the “normal school.” There, he replaced textbooks with student-produced materials and reorganized the curriculum, so all subjects were integrated into a single unit. Reading, spelling, and grammar became “communications,” art stressed student expression, and science was taught through nature added to students’ personal experiences. Also included were music and physical education. The school became a jewel in the developing educational system of the country, and, unlike Harris, he helped transform what education would be moving into the new century.


Next week: 20th Century, A Time of Reform


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.



[1] Urban, Wayne J., Wagoner Jr., Jennings L., and Gaither, Milton. American Education: A History, 6th edition. Routledge: New York, 2019, pp. 162-164.


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.