Culture epoch theory holds that the civil and religious history of a people is characterized by a succession of ever more complex and sophisticated periods that are distinguishable from one another and that the study of children reveals a parallel development. The theory essentially holds that history is a record of progress from the primitive to the civilized state and that individual abilities, mental as well as physical, also progress from the simple to the complex.
Adherents of this theory believed that, as children grow, their interests and abilities are analogous to those periods their people have passed through as they progressed from early savagery to their present highly civilized state. The relationship between the historical periods and the developmental stages of the individual thus called for a curriculum that included ordered historical content that would interest children as they grew from one stage to the next.
Culture epoch theory is often conflated and confused with but is clearly distinguishable from recapitulation theory. That confusion may be attributed to the idea expressed by C. C. Van Liew in the first sentence of his article on “culture epochs” in the First Yearbook of the National Herbart Society: “the individual recapitulates the experience of the race in his development.” This idea, which gained widespread currency in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, can be traced back to Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776–1841). In the United States, the theory’s acceptance and use by American Herbartians (for example, Charles De Garmo, Charles McMurry, Frank McMurry and C. C. Van Liew) was based on the interpretations of Tuiskion Ziller (1817–1882) and Wilhelm Rein (1847–1929).
- Darroch, A. (1901). Alexander Herbart and the Herbartian theory of education: A criticism. London: Longmans, Green.
- Stafford, D. K. (1955). Roots of the decline of Herbartianism in nineteenth century America. Harvard Educational Review, 25, 231–241.
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