Skip to main content

When the battle began for education's soul

The Great War prompted reformers to demand change in schools - and the fight between progressives and scientists continues today

The Great War prompted reformers to demand change in schools - and the fight between progressives and scientists continues today

When, at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, TES declared that "every great war in the modern world has been followed by changes in education", it probably had little idea of the scale of the impending classroom revolution. Educators and policymakers interested in schooling embraced the war as an opportunity to promote their ideals. Advocates of scientific efficiency and utilitarianism as well as progressive educators may have had their differences but they were agreed on one point: the old ways of schooling had to be reformed out of existence.

The main driver of the reaction against traditional education was the conviction that it could not provide the human resources necessary for modern warfare or for post-war reconstruction. Classic liberal education was frequently denounced as old-fashioned or too academic and irrelevant to the needs of students and society. German schools with their focus on technical skills and science were favourably contrasted by some in Britain with their own "archaic" ways. "The most formidable institutions we had to fight.[were] not the arsenals of Krupp, or the yards in which they turned our submarines, but the schools of Germany," remarked Prime Minister Lloyd George in 1918. The modernisation of education was increasingly declared essential to the nation's technical and commercial future.

Science or spirit?

The reaction against liberal education acquired its most systematic form in the US. Even before the outbreak of war, schools faced a barrage of criticism for their failure to introduce business values and the "science of efficiency" into the classroom. During the conflict, the call for "educational efficiency" was coupled with demands to redefine the purpose of schooling. In 1918, this anti-academic turn was ratified by the publication of the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education by the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education. This report endorsed social efficiency as the goal of American education.

This objective went hand-in-hand with the new science of IQ testing. Devised to assist the recruitment of soldiers into the army, the systematic introduction of group intelligence testing by schools became an important legacy of the war. The era of quantifying students' intelligence and achievement had arrived.

Utilitarian calculations about the role of education were coupled with the belief that it could mobilise support for government policy. Governments have always regarded schools as institutions for the political socialisation of children, but education's role as a promoter of "national spirit" significantly increased during the Great War. This experience of using schools as weapons of government war policy was not forgotten in 1918. Official reports on post-war reconstruction frequently assigned the task of fostering national strength and vigour to schools.

An aristocracy of ability

On both sides of the Atlantic, there was a palpable reaction against the traditional ethos and wasteful organisation of schooling. Calls for reform were often motivated by the belief that educational opportunities had to be extended to cultivate a workforce trained in scientific, technical and administrative fields. In Britain, the 1918 Education Act raised the school leaving age from 12 to 14. Although not implemented till 1921, this represented the first in a series of reforms that would eventually lead to the 1944 Education Act. The author of the 1918 act, Herbert Fisher, president of the Board of Education, believed that it was necessary "to create an aristocracy of ability".

Although the act fell far short of his meritocratic ideal, its drafters recognised that the state had an important responsibility for the provision of a comprehensive system of schooling. After the war, the question was not if but when a system of public education accessible to everyone would be established.

One of the most significant outcomes of the conflict in terms of schooling was that it strengthened the influence of progressive education. The movement's American guiding spirit, John Dewey, mobilised his supporters for a war that he hoped would provide "genuine possibilities" for "a fair adventure".

Many progressives believed that the atmosphere of war would increase the appeal of their ideas. In England, the progressive educator Henry Caldwell Cook wrote of the "spiritual freshening" it had brought to education. His colleague Edward O'Neill represented the German enemy's disdain for freedom as an expression of the destructive values of traditional education. Progressive educationalists contrasted their flexible pedagogy with what they criticised as the rigid Prussian method associated with pre-war traditional schooling.

The progressive critique of traditional education resonated with the post- 1918 demoralised mood. Calls to break with the past possessed significant cultural appeal and many educators hoped their progressive child-centred ethos could help create a brave new world. From their perspective, the older generations were beyond redemption - reform could come about only through the efforts of children. Their ideals flourished alongside post- war disenchantment with the moral status of adulthood.

The post-1918 era of uncertainty also benefited the so-called scientific methods developed in the US. Educational psychology promised the conclusiveness of science and its claim to produce "findings" and "objective data" helped to establish a new source of pedagogic authority. Even today this exercises a decisive influence, with critics of utilitarian education feeling obliged to preface any remarks with the claim, "research shows.".

Professor Frank Furedi's First World War: still no end in sight is published by Bloomsbury

Preparing for war

TES is partnering with Wellington College's conference, Schools amp; the Great War Centenary: How Schools Should Best Prepare, taking place on Thursday 13 March. Speakers will include Michael Morpurgo, Ian Hislop and Jeremy Paxman.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you