Being careless with education history

Earlier today, Duke professor Cathy Davidson uploaded a rebuttal to the New York Times article by Matt Richtel on technology’s limits, a retort that included the following passage:

Keep in mind public, compulsory school was invented in the 19th century because of the industrial age which needed a certain kind of focused worker who understood the new divisions of labor. Keep in mind one product of the industrial age was the steam-powered press and machine made paper and ink that put books into the hands of the middle class for the first time in history. Pundits worried that people wouldn’t know how to read those books wisely and well.  No preacher mediated the message. But schools could do just that. If our forefathers mandated school for the first generation of mass readers, why wouldn’t we mandate that schools today address the technology that is in the hands of our students today? Wouldn’t that be utterly irresponsible?…

Those tests… were invented for the industrial age, and for a model of efficiency exemplified by the Model T.  We cannot keep educating kids for the efficiencies of 1914 (when the multiple choice test was invented).1

I will let others address Davidson’s vision of what teaching with technology is supposed to do, but I cannot let this misunderstanding of education history pass unnoticed. The bulk of this entry is an explanation of how Davidson’s thumbnail history is wrong, and the last part is an exploration of why she and many others misuse such thumbnail myths.

Telescoping the “creation” of public schools into a single image

In Davidson’s picture of the past, the development of public schools happened in a coherent fashion in “the industrial age” with the characteristics she does not like all tied to social-control motives: compulsory schooling tied to a clock, schooling designed for shopworkers’ complicity with order, theological orthodoxy to counter the new print era of dime novels, and standardized testing invented at the moment of industrialization’s apotheosis: assembly-line factories. There are historians of education who make this argument, but the writings are generally from the mid-1970s and not what Davidson cites explicitly as education history.2

For someone claiming to be on the cutting edge of learning, Davidson could and should have done better. Neither economic nor education history is as monolithic or coherent as she portrays, and she telescopes more than a century of change into a rhetorical moment. Fundamentally, it makes no sense to talk about either “the industrial era” or the development of public school systems as a single, coherent phase of national history.

If you think industrialization is the shift of large portions of working people to wage-labor, or the division of labor (away from master-craft production), then the early nineteenth century is your era of early industrialization, associated closely with extensive urbanization (in both towns and large cities) and such high-expectations transportation projects as the Erie Canal or the Cumberland Road project (as well as other more mundane and local transportation improvements). That is the era of tremendous experimentation in the forms of schools, from legacy one-room village schools in the hinterlands to giant monitorial schools in cities to academies and normal schools and colleges and the earliest high schools in various places. It is the era of charity schools in cities and the earliest (and incomplete) state subsidies to education, a period when many states had subsidies to what we would call private or parochial schools. It is also the start of the common-school reform era, the era when both workers and common-school reformers began to talk about schooling as a right attached to citizenship, and the era when primary schooling in the North became coeducational almost everywhere. It was an era of mass-produced textbooks. It was an era when rote learning was highly valued in school, despite arguments against the same. And, yes, the first compulsory-school law was passed before the Civil War… but it was not enforced.

Maybe you think industrialization is the development of railroads, monopolies, national general strikes, metastasizing metropolises, and mechanized production. Then you mean the second half of the nineteenth century, and that is the era where the structural dreams of common-school reformers largely came to pass with tuition-free schooling spreading in the North, the slow victory of high schools over academies, more (unenforced) compulsory school laws, a pan-Protestant flavor to schooling without official religious education, the initial development of a parallel Catholic parochial school system when Catholic leaders became convinced the public schools were hostile to their interests, the first research-oriented universities, a broad diversity of languages of instruction through the Midwest and south to Texas, the development of extensive age-graded self-contained elementary classrooms in urban school systems, the bureaucratization of many such systems, the (contentious) development of public schooling in the South, and the era when segregation laws were written at the tail end of the 19th century. It was also an era of mass-produced textbooks, and an era when rote learning was highly valued in school, despite arguments against the same.

Or maybe you think industrialization was assembly-line factories, private-worker unionization supported by federal law, the maturation of marketing techniques and the growth of a consumer economy, major economic crises, the introduction of cars and trucks, the mechanization of agriculture, and brutal, mechanized wars. Then you’re talking about the first half of the twentieth century. That was an era of rural-school consolidation forced by states, continued racial segregation, efforts to Americanize immigrant children and force them to speak English only in schools, the first legal successes in undermining segregation, the growth of (mostly small) high schools across the U.S. and tracking within those schools, the growth of standardized testing for local administrative purposes (including tracking), the evolution of normal schools into teachers colleges, and the slow separation of higher education into secondary and tertiary levels. It was the era when several regions of the country first experienced a majority of teenagers graduating from high school. It was also an era of mass-produced textbooks, and an era when rote learning was highly valued in school, despite arguments against the same. It was an era when compulsory school laws were finally enforced at selective ages, when child-labor opponents first failed and then succeeded at efforts to limit child labor by legislation… aided significantly by the Great Depression and the mechanization of agriculture, as teenagers found fewer opportunities for full-time work.

The point here is not to substitute a different reductionist view of education history for Davidson’s but to point out the folly of a sloppy “industrial-era education” label for a basket of school characteristics Davidson does not like (primarily formal curricula, an emphasis on physicality of schooling, and standardized testing). Of course there is a relationship between economic developments and the way people argue about schooling, because there is a long history of associating schooling with upward mobility and social needs. But those economic arguments have always competed with other arguments about the purposes of schooling, and the institutional developments in schooling do not neatly match up against economic history. To take one example, probably the closest match to “giant factory-like schooling” would be monitorial schools of the early nineteenth century, most commonly associated with Englishman Joseph Lancaster, where one adult would be in charge of up to several hundred students, with the more advanced students as “monitors” of their classmates. American monitorial schools were much larger than almost all of the small factories that existed in the same cities, and they died out long before either mechanized dominance of industry or assembly-line factories. School history is not just a story of bureaucracies meeting some nebulous economic demand.

“Industrial era” schooling as foil

Davidson’s misuse of education history irritates me not because it has errors but because it uses a thumbnail version of history as a rhetorical foil for her arguments about what education should be … in this case, instead of what she says is the legacy of education history. Cathy Davidson happens to dislike standardized, multiple-choice testing and a script of schooling revolving around an academic curriculum and a teacher’s authority as a knowledgeable adult. Those with very different views often use the same thumbnail education history as their foil as well. To other folks, the reason why we must have accountability with quantitatively-measured tests is because industrial-era education is not enough for the new, competitive global economy. Different perspectives, same fundamental error.

History is not a storehouse of mythic images from which you can or should draw caricatures to make your point. Well, people often treat it as such, and I expect politicians to use it in that way, but not well-informed fellow faculty. In the end, Davidson’s reliance on historical caricature is a disappointment and undermines her credibility.

Bart writing on the board after using "industrial era education" as a rhetorical foil

Bart writing on the board after using "industrial era education" as a rhetorical foil


  1. One minor quibble I will not explore in depth is the error Davidson makes in associating standardized testing with a single test developer in the 1910s. The early development of standardized testing was between 1890 and 1920, involved a number of key individuals and developments, and at the end of World War I, and produced dozens of standardized tests for academic subjects in addition to the nascent “IQ” tests coming out of WW1. []
  2. Davidson cites only three works, all from the 1980s: Larry Cremin’s second ginormous volume of his trilogy, Carl Kaestle’s Pillars of the Republic, and Michael Katz’s 1987 essay collection. And at least in the essays she has written this year, she ignored the conflict-ridden nature of 19th century education history that both Kaestle and Katz described. []

4 responses to “Being careless with education history”

  1. CCPhysicist

    Stupid software. I’m not going to re-type it all just because the captcha code must have timed out.

    I’ll just say that anyone who thinks a “writing about literature” assignment is innovative was never around the kind of highly personalized guided learning environment of my middle school almost a half-century ago … in an industrial city at that! Failing to notice the industrial use of computers to DRILL students in that AZ classroom, like failing to notice the district’s justifiable concern that they got a minor one-time uptick in reading scores while the rest of AZ had their scores soar, suggests a narrow view that writing on a $2000 SmartBoard is obviously better merely because it uses a computer.

    Newer-is-better also gave us “look say” guessing as a form of ‘reading’ instruction.

    I’ll also add that I couldn’t tell if Davidson’s aversion was to standardized testing per se or simply because that state doesn’t use computer-based ones. I haven’t noticed any difference in the reliability of placement at my CC as we shifted to an adaptive computer-based system. All that matters is that the outcomes it measures are plausible, and that seems to be the case.

  2. Glen S. McGhee

    For all the misleading generalizations that Davidson makes about the history of education, one correlation does stand out: enrollments are tied negatively to employment.

    Aside from compulsory schooling among the Puritans (and Owenites), enrollment trend lines lagged behind unemployment. This “unemployment” was tied to industrialization in important ways, and is one of the reasons that “compulsory” education in this country lagged in the South.

    Davidson’s slightly Gatto-ish perspective fares far better with the rise of compulsory education in Prussia, and before it, Austria, where the cultural intent was far more explicit. There is a not-very-small cottage industry of history of education writers following the lead of John W. Meyer and his associates in tying the fortunes of education to the rise of global polity and statism.

    In any case, Davidson must feel like she is in the front line of some kind of protest movement, or she wouldn’t be so shrill. Other than that, she would benefit from an acquaintance with Hal Hansen’s account of the history of education in the US and Germany. But then again, I think we all would.

  3. Paul W. Bennett

    History, as you well know, is subject to as many abuses as it is uses, particularly in the field of educational policy making and media spinning. Cathy Davidson’s response to Matt Richtel’s New York Times feature article is but the most recent example.

    Educational policy making, at least in Canadian education, operates in what amounts to an historical vacuum. Every new policy initiative is received like manna dropped from the heavens. Historical examples are “cherry-picked” to support the initiative and neatly summarized in the media “talking points.” Progressive educational panaceas are routinely presented as new innovations when they amount to “warmed-up leftovers” or re-cycled projects “re-branded” for the 21st century educational world. Few bother to question the origins of policies or to probe into the historical and social context over time.

    Perhaps we are being too harsh with Professor Davidson. Being careless with education history is a regular happening in the world of education.

    Six months ago, I published a book on the history of the “contested schoolhouse” in Maritime Canada, covering the origins of public schooling to the evolution of the modern bureaucratic education state (up to 2010). I had the field completely to myself because no book had been published on the subject since 1970… My interpretation lends support to your contention that Davidson’s explanation of the “creation” of public schools was crudely reductionist, pinning it all on stages in industrialism. It was far more complex than that in Canada as well as the United States. For a link to the book, see

    Being careless with education history is one thing; being oblivious to its complexity is quite another.

    1. Glen S. McGhee

      I would be interested in your reaction to Hansen’s short article, if you have the time.
      Also, do you agree with his conclusion about “governance” being so central to public education, in all its aspects (essentially a constructivist argument, I believe).
      Thanks, Glen