A History of Education: European Influences on the American Educational System (Herbert Spencer)

[Editor’s Note: This is the 17th 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.]

The last European influencer we’ll discuss in this series is Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), known as one of the leading Social Darwinists of the 19th century, and a man who gained much of his higher education through reading. As a Social Darwinist, Spencer helped promote the theory of evolution, the process by which all things change over time from the simplest form to the most complex.

Spencer was the individual who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” which depicted a continual struggle among species that resulted in the strongest species surviving and multiplying while the weaker species died out. In his book “Synthetic Philosophy,” he applied the evolutionary process to many branches of knowledge, including biology, psychology, sociology, and ethics.

Spencer was a product of his time, an agnostic who believed the only way to gain knowledge was through a scientific approach. He wanted to replace the theological educational systems of the Middle Ages with his own system that held all knowledge could be placed within the framework of modern science. Science, in his opinion, was the only way to gain “useful” knowledge, and it was through this knowledge that people learned to live in society, specifically the society dominated by the Industrial Revolution and the rise of specialized professions.

Spencer was a non-conformist who hated authority and strongly emphasized individualism, especially as it related to education. In his work “Social Status,” he stated that the government should play a limited role in society, especially in the schools. He didn’t believe in the public school system, feeling that it failed to prepare children to live in modern society. Instead, he pushed the idea of a private school system that competed for the brightest students. Because of the evolutionary process of conflict and struggle, Spencer felt that the “best” and “strongest” would rise to the top. The rest didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

Spencer, quite unsurprisingly, stressed the importance of the sciences in the schools and felt that learning should be a sensory experience where a student interacted within his/her environment: a naturally slow, gradual, and inductive process. He also believed children should be encouraged to explore and discover, which would allow them to acquire knowledge naturally, and that education should be a pleasant experience, with the least restrictions possible. Activities, though, should be limited to those that would allow the student to survive in society. To that end, he opposed rote memorization and recitation; placed special emphasis on the physical, biological, and social sciences; and dropped the “outdated” teaching of English grammar and literature.

In addition, Spencer was one of the major proponents of modern curriculum theory. His ideas of a science-based curriculum created quite an uproar in England, because the major focus of education there continued to be Latin, Greek, and literature.

Spencer put forth his ideas in “What Knowledge is of Most Worth?”, stating that this question had to be answered before any curriculum was chosen or any instruction began. And once a curriculum was implemented, it had to advance both survival and progress. To achieve advancement, Spencer outlined five activities: self-preservation, performance of occupations, child-rearing, social and political participation, and recreation and leisure, all of which would contribute to successful living. While England balked at these ideas, the United States widely accepted them, as change was not resisted.

Today, education continues to be influenced by Spencer’s Social Darwinist theories. In the United States, we still implement the idea, in some form, of curriculum activities based on human needs; we discuss voucher systems for private schools and a smaller role of government in education; and we stress the importance of teaching skills that help students to become individuals who contribute to the good of society. In fact, not only does Yale University use Spencer’s textbook “Study of Sociology,” but sociology as a discipline became so as a result of Spencer’s work.


Next week: A guest blog. This series will return in two weeks, February 7.


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.



[1] Keb, Julie Ann. (June 15, 2004). History of American Education Web Project. Retrieved from https://www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/spenser.html.


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.

2 thoughts on “A History of Education: European Influences on the American Educational System (Herbert Spencer)”

Leave a Reply