Science, Technology, and Education: Historical Perspectives Essay

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Throughout American history, science, technology, and education have influenced one another in innumerable ways. This interplay has led to the establishment of institutions and ideas that have fundamentally shaped the experiences of students and educators alike. The intellectual, social, and cultural foundations of nineteenth-century education in particular were profoundly influenced by the impact of science and technology, as summarized in this entry.

Intellectual And Social Foundations

How did science and technology affect nineteenth century education? Consider the following two ways: (1) the relationship between the expansion of knowledge and the curriculum and (2) the influence of scientific theories on ideas about access to education. In the first case, science failed to penetrate American higher education to any substantial degree until the early nineteenth century. Scientific knowledge generated from the so-called scientific revolution as well as developments in mathematical sciences during the eighteenth century far outstripped what was taught in colonial colleges. The classical curriculum tended to dominate the seventeenth and eighteenth-century undergraduate course of study.

During the first two decades of the nineteenth century, however, college leaders began to recognize the vast explosion in scientific knowledge and its lack of study in higher education. Reform efforts appeared with the purpose of expanding scientific course offerings and increasing science faculty. In 1800, rare was the college that employed a single faculty member devoted exclusively to scientific studies. By 1860, these same institutions commonly had four. Social forces and developments during the antebellum period, such as rapid industrialization and the professionalization of science, facilitated the expansion of science instruction in education.

With the rise of industry came the decline of the apprenticeship model of education. The apprenticeship model had long afforded working classes a source of instruction that provided for social mobility. An apprentice would work for a master and, over the course of an extended period of time, learn all aspects of a trade and become a “master” in the process. Factory life provided no such social mobility, and thus, calls for practical and scientific instruction to replace the disappearing apprenticeship model encouraged the establishment of new kinds of institutes of technology, such as the Rensselaer School (1824) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (1861). As such, social and intellectual forces came to bear on American education during the antebellum period in ways that not only transformed programs of study but also changed the composition of faculty at traditional colleges and inspired the creation of new institutions.

In the second case, scientific theories developed in nineteenth-century biology and geology had an impact on ideas about human nature and thereby influenced access to education. One of the most often-cited examples emerged from the work of Edward Clarke, a Harvard University professor of medicine. In 1874, he published Sex in Education, which described case studies of what he perceived to be the debilitating effects of higher education on women. Stress on the mental faculties of his subjects came, he argued, as a result of their attempts to complete advanced courses of study.

Although access to education of whatever form is socially constructed, Clarke sought to settle the matter of “separate spheres,” the ideology that placed women at home and men in the world of work, on a scientific basis. “The question of [the] woman’s sphere, to use the modern phrase,” he stated in Sex in Education, “is not to be solved by applying to it abstract principles of right and wrong. Its solution must be obtained from physiology, not from ethics and metaphysics” (p. 12). His conclusion: Women should not attend higher education and should not attempt rigorous classical or scientific studies.

To add credibility to his conclusions, Clarke framed his work within biological theories then in ascendancy, such as Darwinian evolution, and suggested that women were less developed than men; that the physiology of women, therefore, could not tolerate the mental strains that men could; and that women would, over time, be at risk of evolving male properties and characteristics if coeducation were permitted. Although Clarke’s impact was limited, the debates raised by his work revealed attempts to transform commonly accepted social norms into scientific terms for the purpose of shaping educational policy.

Similar scientific arguments about educational access were made with reference to race and class. Some supporters of industrial education for African Americans during the postbellum period, such as Samuel Armstrong, founder of the Hampton Institute, viewed the development of races in evolutionary terms. Herbert Spencer, a social scientist who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” argued by way of evolutionary metaphor that it was irrational to support government interventions such as public education that might aid the poor and weak in society. Both held ideas about access to education for minorities or the poor based on what they perceived to be scientific claims. Their ideas—particularly in the case of Spencer, who sold more than 300,000 books in America—reflected a broader, socially constructed sentiment.

Cultural Foundations

How have cultural and educational forces had an impact on the development of science and technology? Consider (a) the intersection of slaveholding culture, science, and education and (b) cultural debates over the curriculum. During the antebellum period, the culture of educational institutions in the South took a form different from those in other regions of the country. Slaveholding culture produced a turbulent, even violent society that was mirrored at southern colleges and university. Although institutions of higher education in other regions were not free of violence, the nature and character of acts differed: Attacks on property were more common in the North, whereas attacks on persons were more common in the South.

Several scientists, such as F. A. P. Barnard, James Joseph Sylvester, and William Barton Rogers, remarked on the differences between regions while in southern institutions and claimed this cultural attribute as one reason why they left the South. The loss of active scholars and educational reformers, such as Rogers who left, in part, to establish MIT in Boston, hindered the development of science and technological instruction in the southern states.

Meanwhile, mid-nineteenth-century debates over the curriculum reflected cultural differences between classicists and scientists. It also affected mechanics’ institutes and their attempts at diffusing middle-class morality to the working classes. In the first debate, scientific studies began to displace the classical curriculum. Concerns over the crowding of the curriculum emerged in response to reform efforts to change the undergraduate course of study and faculty composition and to establish independent institutes of technology, some of which offered exclusive attention to scientific and practical studies.

In some cases, the culture of classicism overlapped with the culture of religion. This meant that, with the process of modernization and the displacement of religion as a central authority in society, curricular change met resistance when it came to the addition of such sciences as biological evolution. Many of the battles associated with this culture clash were fought in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly, the North American Review, the New Englander, and Scientific American. For some writers, nothing less than western civilization was at stake in the outcome. Both sides of the classical-scientific divide attempted to define what it meant to be an educated individual and the necessary prerequisites to achieve this end.

While traditional colleges debated what programs to offer, working classes at mechanics’ institutes received technical education that often advanced middle-class cultural views on morality. Among the notions that influenced the mechanics’ institute movement was the view that technical studies would be salutary to working classes in developing responsible attitudes toward alcohol and sexuality. In addition, libraries were carefully constructed so as not to include works that might inspire radical political ideologies. As such, from the view of founders and other civic leaders, the aim of courses in chemistry, mathematics, natural philosophy, and practical studies had more to do with creating middle-class gentlemen rather than preparing scientists and technicians.

Legacies of many nineteenth-century debates continued to appear throughout the twentieth century. Contemporary versions of the “crowding of the curriculum” have stemmed not from the expansion of science but from developments in humanistic and multicultural studies; however, proponents of basic forms of cultural literacy, such as E. D. Hirsch, have generated for their view similar arguments to those of nineteenth-century classicists who rejected increased attention to scientific studies. Meanwhile, the struggle for coeducation was, for the most part, not fought in scientific terms or through the use of scientific metaphors. But early twenty-first-century claims about differences between male and female physiology have been used to argue for a modifying of Title IX that secures equitable funding of women’s athletics. These claims raise the prospect that socially constructed ideas about access may resurface along scientific lines.


  1. Angulo, A. J. (2005). William Barton Rogers and the southern sieve: Revisiting science, slavery, and higher learning in the Old South. History of Education Quarterly, 45, 18–37.
  2. Clarke, E. H. (1874). Sex in education. Boston: Osgood. Montgomery, S. L. (1994). Minds for the making: The role of science in American education, 1750–1990. New York: Guilford.
  3. Rhodes, S. (2004). Taking sex differences seriously. San Francisco: Encounter Books.
  4. Winterer, C. (2002). The culture of classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American intellectual life, 1780–1910. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  5. Zschoche, S. (1989). Dr. Clarke revisited: Science, true womanhood, and female collegiate education. History of Education Quarterly, 29, 545–569.

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