How the 20th Century Shaped High School Reform

High school is one of the most important periods in education. However, what exactly that means for what high school should look like and what needs to be done for students going through those years has been highly contentious throughout the years. Over the course of the 20th century, high school went through a series of reforms and experiments that helped shape it into what it is today.

To start, the structure and purpose of the high school presented a challenge for 20th century educators, because they disagreed about whether to emphasize preparation for college or for a vocation. Life-adjustment education, which emerged in the mid-1940s, was the perfect solution, for its supporters, to the conundrum of the secondary school. Vocational education and life-adjustment advocates believed schools should prepare students for their role as responsible adults and that young people should be trained in a vocation and educated in life skills. In the case of the latter, schools would be responsible for teaching students in areas such as industrious habits of mind, personal hygiene, and sociability.

This vocational approach to education received strong opposition from a number of critics, including Robert M. Hutchins, who was the president and chancellor of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1951. Hutchins believed that the intellectual tradition of education should rest on what he saw as the fundamentals: grammar, logic, rhetoric, natural science, philosophy, and mathematics. He believed it was unwise for education to focus curricula on knowledge that might become obsolete.

Historian Arthur Bestor was also highly critical of the anti-intellectual focus of life-adjustment education. Like Hutchins, he believed that a loss of intellectual training would cause a loss to the industrial prosperity of the nation. From Bestor’s perspective, the primary purpose of school was to develop the intellectual potential of young people. Bestor also placed a special focus on the education of teachers and the requirement that all receive a liberal arts education as part of their training.

Life-adjustment education was popular from roughly 1945 through 1958. A shift back toward the importance of math and science education occurred with the launching of Sputnik, a Soviet Union satellite, in 1957. In the Cold War era, the United States felt threatened by the visible scientific dominance of the Soviet Union. Immediate attention was turned to the math, science, and foreign language capabilities of U.S. students. In the meantime, life-adjustment education critics proposed that years of schooling based on that approach was to blame for the United States’ secondary educational position, when compared to the Soviet Union. This criticism contributed to the eventual demise of life-adjustment education.

To learn more about the history of American education and how it became what it is today, read on in our other articles about how U.S. schooling has changed since its inception back in the days of the early settlers into the system it is today.

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