Models of manual training or industrial education were created in Europe and imported to the United States in the nineteenth century. The first U.S. implementation of this training was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and it quickly became a dominant paradigm in secondary education. The idea was that it would produce skilled but compliant workers for growing U.S. businesses. This entry looks at the history of this type of education in the United States.
Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827), a Swiss educator and reformer, is considered to be the father of manual training (industrial education). In his system of education for children, he combined manual training and work with a general education. Interest in manual or industrial training, however, didn’t develop in the United States until the 1870s, when manual training was seen as a potentially important curriculum for use in secondary schools.
The breakthrough came at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, where materials were exhibited from the Moscow Imperial Technical School that included theoretical training in specialized fields such as drafting, chemistry, and civil and mechanical engineering, as well as practical courses in carpentry, metal turning, forging, and wood turning. The materials on exhibit included drawings, tools, and models, and they were based on the curriculum of Victor Della Vos, the school’s director, which stressed that students learn the principles of design involved in the manual arts rather than learning only through an apprenticeship and copying the work of others.
In his system, it was essential that students learn how to properly use the tools involved in each of the manual arts and that they learn the mechanics of each area. Thus, as an example, students were introduced in their woodworking course to every type of joint that could be made. The idea was that they would learn the mechanics of the joint and then be free to make and create things on their own—not just slavishly copy the work of others.
John D. Runkle (1822–1902), president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), immediately realized the importance of the exhibit when he saw it at the exposition. When he returned to Boston, he proposed setting up a shop at MIT for training engineering students as well as a School of Mechanic Arts for secondary students. The training would be based on the Della Vos method.
Secondary School Adoption
Calvin M. Woodward (1834–1915), dean of the polytechnic faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who had experience as a secondary school teacher and principal, picked up on Runkle’s notion of establishing mechanic arts schools at the secondary level. Some believed that if secondary students were trained under the Della Vos method, national production levels could double and wages would increase.
Woodward felt that manual training should be part of the general curriculum, not just at polytechnical schools but in the public schools as well. In 1880, the Manual Training School, a secondary school connected to Washington University and under Woodward’s supervision, began offering a three-year program that combined the basics of a high school curriculum (mathematics, English, drawing) with training in how to use tools. Woodward adapted the project method (in which practical problems were solved during a specific period of time). At the school, students actually designed and then produced a project. Students could take a foreign language as prep for entering a college, but most entered the workforce directly after graduation.
The immediate success of the school encouraged public schools in cities such as Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New Orleans to open their own publicly supported manual training high schools. Not everyone was impressed with manual training; both educators and labor organizations opposed Woodward’s methods. Some in organized labor felt that manual training schools threatened traditional apprenticeship programs. When extended down into the elementary grades, many believed that manual training programs preempted the study of more traditional subjects.
Perhaps the most prominent educator to criticize the manual training movement was William Torrey Harris, who was superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools (1868–1880) and then U.S. Commissioner of Education (1889–1906). Harris believed that the manual training curriculum emphasized the physical development over the spiritual development of the student. By spiritual development, Harris meant the tools that would make it possible for the child to learn about the mysteries of the human mind and of nature. He said that grammar, literature and art, mathematics, geography, and history were the “five windows of the soul” necessary for children, particularly the children of the working classes, to successfully participate in culture and to learn more about themselves and nature.
In spite of such opposition, the manual training movement continued to grow into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, manual training methods based on the Swedish Sjlöyd system—a craft model based on Swedish folklore and craft traditions—were introduced. Significantly, the Sjlöyd system extended manual training to children at the elementary level.
Ultimately, manual training received wide support because it was believed that these schools would provide the technical training necessary for workers in modern factories, while at the same time instilling a sense of industriousness and pride in one’s work. In doing so, the needs of the industrial system were reinforced, along with the creation of compliant workers and citizens.
- Bennett, C. (1937). History of manual and industrial education. Peoria, IL: Manuel Arts Press.
- Cremin, L. (1961). The transformation of the schools: Progressivism and American education, 1876–1959. New York: Vintage.
- Fisher, B. (1967). Industrial education: American ideals and institutions. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
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