America’s Rejection of the German Industrial Education Model

Written by Kerry Ellard on November 5, 2021

“Industrial training” came to mean many things in the late 19th-century and early 20th-century. These debates indicate the different conceptions of the purpose of education that would coexist throughout the 20c.

As a Boston newspaper columnist put it the early 1900s, there were three kinds of education being discussed under the “industrial label”:

  • “...higher education for the technical profession, such as is provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.” (In other words, becoming a scientist or engineer.)
  • “....general technical and commercial education, such as is furnished by high schools of commerce and technical institutions for working men already employed in the trade.” (This is quite similar to talk of “up-skilling” or “professional advancement courses” for employees in response to the rise of the “knowledge economy.”)
  • “...special technical education, such as is given in trade schools which train boys and girls for particular branches of employment.”

The columnist noted only this last kind was controversial: trade unions objected to it, presumably because it threatened their control of market supply and agreements with employers.[1]

This raises the question...was industrial education even needed? No one objected to the first two, which were already being supplied in line with demand. The objections of unions to the third suggest that a system was already in place. If unions were constraining the number of properly-skilled workers to an unacceptable degree, this was a political problem that could not be solved by simply expanding publicly-funded industrial education.

Advocates of the third were unable to propose a realistic plan beyond not classical, which they equated with “literary.” In 1913, one proponent noted that in the first half of the 19th century, Boston and NYC had public schools in which girls, newly admitted, were given industrial training in schools—mainly sewing projects—" defended upon the ground that none of the professions were then open to women,” whereas “all the professions were open to the boys, and indeed a choice of some profession was deemed essential to worldly success.” He also noted that this ceased mid-century, as women became more likely to purchase rather than make most of their own clothes.[2] It also became more common for households in the rising middle class to employ servants to handle such matters.[3] 

After the Civil War, industrial education for male students was pursued, mostly in the west, where it was not very successful:

“One of the principal causes [for the popularity in the west] was doubtless the fact that this was purely an agricultural state and the idea that special agricultural training should come with training in other subjects made a stronger appeal than in older regions of the East. Probably the frontiersman felt little need of a purely literary training, but like all other individuals, hailed with delight an indication that at last his special occupation was being recognized as all-important and worthy of having definite instruction given in it. Many schools sprang up which took the significant name of "farmers' academies." These schools seem to have been like other classical schools, with greater emphasis upon the industrial, particularly the agricultural. Soon the idea ran to an extreme, however, and numbers of schools got no farther than incorporation, while others sprang up with a mush-room growth, only to suspend operation within a few months. In general, all these schools were but unsuccessful attempts to meet a little understood, but nevertheless recognized, need.”[4]

This 1913 assessment matches complaints from the 1870s and 1880s quoted in "Industrial Revolution & American Education", about the lack of success in agricultural school development. Nothing had changed, apparently, leading a 1913 advocate of industrial education to remark that “the only institutions which seemed to meet success at all along these lines were the schools established for the benefit of the colored people," which were still doing well. He expressed suspicion that white Americans irrationally distanced themselves from industrial education for this reason. However, Booker T. Washington’s 1903 remarks about industrial education, which will be discussed in an upcoming piece, show that this assessment is incorrect.

The true problem lay elsewhere. Boston newspaper columnist “The Social Settler” commented that the “possibilities” of “technical education” had been “illustrated notably in Germany,” when a reader complained of insufficient enthusiasm for industrial education. The Settler’s reassurance to the contrary indicates his or her concern about the issues inherent in the debate: vagueness of purpose, speculative value, especially when judged based on foreign results, classism, and the need for society-wide coordination:

“...Industrial education promises to bring a measure of relief from the evils of unemployment, poverty and revolutionary unrest. To heighten the industrial efficiency of the people is to guarantee social peace and progress. This advantage of industrial education is not so evident in the period of bounding prosperity, such as we are now enjoying, as it will be in some later period of hard times...It is tolerably clear that the only way in which the New England States can hold their own in manufacturing industries is by developing the finer and specialised branches of production. To do this means increased trade training....[opposition] from the trade unions, will tend to disappear...as the need of industrial training of all sorts comes to be more fully understood...

[The New York City Industrial Education Society has released the following mission statement:]

‘...European countries have long recognised the great importance of this subject, and their industries and their workmen are yearly reaping Increasing benefit from this recognition. Old methods of training for industrial vocations have become Inadequate. New methods that take into account the changed nature of modern condition....must be developed. From the nature of the case the problem of Industrial education is necessarily a general social problem, and although experiment and demonstration must depend largely upon private initiative, the situation can be met in the largest sense only by state or community action.’”[5]

Translation: “Europe is doing this thing called ‘industrial educational education,’ so it clearly needs to be done. The world has changed and we must respond to the current and future needs of industrial society...which we’ll figure out eventually. But society must be ready to mobilize, so that it can adopt new methods as soon as they are known are about.” This mission statement perfectly encapsulates the underlying reasoning of the education debates at the time of the creation of the modern system. The paucity of useful pedagogical content is striking: methods, objectives, and designs are not explained, the benefits to Europe are not enumerated, and "The Social Settler” could only pay homage to the broadest abstractions, evidently buzzwords in the debate: “efficiency,” “possibilities,” “Germany,” “advantage.” It was not unusual to see reassurances that the “great importance” of “the subject” was “recognized.” It was an early example of the “politics of recognition,” and many of the proponents appeared to be mostly concerned with using it to establish themselves as certain kind of person or express broader anxieties, aspirations, and judgments.

The actual impact that the “industrial” concept had on education is easiest to understand when boiled down to a series of concrete concerns that reliably came up, though often far from explicitly.

"The Social Settler" noted that many parents found it difficult to keep their children in public school after the age of fourteen or fifteen. He was clearly talking about relatively poor parents who needed their children to become self-supporting (or, in the cause of a daughter, supported by a husband), or help with the family business or farm as soon as was reasonably possible. They wanted their children to be educated in the basics and were not proposing to put young children to work in factories, but young adults were another matter (many entered college around age 15 at this time). Industrial education was “the only kind that holds out sufficient attractions to induce parents to make further sacrifice to that end,” meaning that, unlike advanced academic study, it offered a clear prospect of practical or economic benefit to the average student.

By the early 1900s, classism was frequently taken for granted: “It is indeed the only education possible for a large percentage of the children of the working class.” This tracks Dewey’s equally vague and suggestive remarks that for “historical reasons,” most students left school in their early teens, a state of affairs he presented as obviously unacceptable in 1915, and that vocational training programs had been set up to convince certain families it was worth their while to send kids to school for a longer period. They were not intended to function solely as vocational programs, Dewey emphasized.

Other commonly remarked upon subjects were the association of industrial education with low social status, the unwillingness of educated people to commit to a life of manual work in their own community, and the failure of most agriculture schools. For decades, many industrial education proponents failed to understand that most Americans either saw no use in their ideas or rejected what they perceived to be relegation to a permanent class of disempowered people.

What ended the decades of vibrant, if vague, “industrial education” debate? The answer seems to have been World War I. Most proponents idealized the German system of education, and some got very close to advocating that America model itself after the German Empire in every possible way. In 1910, a nationally-circulated article on the wonders of German-style industrial education ended with the following call to action:

“We are beginning to realize that after all every child is not going to be educated into a doctor, or a lawyer, or a minister. We are beginning to realize that the school can be made a stepping-stone not only to the so-called higher professions, but to the factory and the mill and the mine. Those who are still in doubt as to the practical value of industrial education, those who require visual proof for conversion, may find it by turning to the German empire. But Germany did not confine her efforts at increased industrial efficiency to industrial education...Germany today stands foremost among all nations in this conservation of the life and the health of the Industrial man through efficient sanitary administration and the regulation of occupations in the factories and the mines...”[6]

Even before the war, this approach was alienating to many Americans, a fact to which proponents seemed oddly oblivious. Not to mention that it simply did not make sense, as Dewey tried to explain, America and Germany faced different historical and contemporary circumstances. The desperate situation of 19th-century European workers had made this an attractive vision for many, but it is hard to see why Americans would be eager to send their kids into factories, mills, and mines, or embrace the creation of a paternalistic state and permanent labor class.

Yet such reports made no attempt to hide the classism and general determinism that German education was based around. Within the German system one set of schools was “attended by the economically least favored hundreds of thousands,” who necessarily left school at fourteen to “earn their daily bread.” Most regions required an additional year or two of off-hours school for these children, where they learned about German culture, bookkeeping, and especially drawing, with boys given some preparation for local trades if they existed; or administrative training “in all cities of importance.”[7]

Additionally, unlike the American model, the model was explicitly aimed at turning a large portion of students into factory workers, which suited the rapidly industrializing Germany. Noting that “excellent trade schools are found in every locality having an important manufacturing industry,” one proponent reassured Americans that “girls, who do not prepare for factory work by studying a trade, may-learn sewing, mending, darning, tailoring, ironing and cooking...” Then it emphasized that only “the more fortunate girls and boys” had a shot at continuing their education in fields like mining, chemistry, and engineering, which were the main source of Germany’s technical prestige.[8]

For most American children, this system could offer them nothing they did not already have access to. It could only waste their time with mandatory schooling in skills they could acquire at home, on the job, or in public schools. The German system served the needs of the state, not those of the student or worker as an individual, or those of the American public sphere. Additionally, during World War I, the American public sphere became a dangerous place for ideas viewed as sympathetic to Germany in any way. With America now seen by many educated people as an international competitor, the discussion shifted to technical, scientifically-planned and tracked education. and scientific training more generally, American discourse took on a less deterministic view during the Cold War, where innovation and individual excellence in STEM fields replaced social engineering as the key to the scientifically perfected future.[9]

Lest we see a repeat of the “industrial education” debate, today’s education reformers must make sure that their theories correspond to the needs of their community.

[1] “The Social Settler,” Boston Evening Transcript, November 28, 1906.

[2] Aldrich, F. R. “Industrial Education in the Early Nineteenth Century.” The Elementary School Teacher 13, no. 10 (1913): 478–85. http://www.jstor.org/stable/993637.

[3] This was not only true for poor or northeastern women, although they had more pre-winter knitting to do! Mary Todd, who married Abraham Lincoln, who came from a well-off family, attended a Lexington, KY private school (public school systems were not common in 1820s outside of northeastern cities), and as her relatives later remembered:

“Mary was about eight years old when she entered the academy of Dr. John Ward, located in a large, two-story building...Dr. Ward...was a native of Connecticut who had been [an Episcopal] bishop [in] North Carolina...Kindly, scholarly, benevolent, he was nevertheless a strict disciplinarian. Far in advance of his time, he believed in coeducation, and his school numbered about 120 boys and girls from the best families in Lexington...’Early morning recitation was a peculiar regulation of Dr. Ward's academy, and during the summer months the history class assembled at five o'clock... Mary was far in advance over girls of her age in education. She had a retentive memory and a mind that enabled her to grasp and thoroughly understand the lessons she was required to learn. It was a hard task but long before I was through mine she had finished hers and was plying her knitting-needles. We were required to knit ten rounds of socks every evening.”

[4] Aldrich, F. R. “Industrial Education in the Early Nineteenth Century.” The Elementary School Teacher 13, no. 10 (1913): 478–85. http://www.jstor.org/stable/993637.

[5] Boston Evening Transcript,November 28, 1906.

[6] La Follette’s Magazine, quoted in The Oshkosh Northwestern, February 12, 1910.

[7] “The study of German Includes Incidentally penmanship, history, geography; arithmetic, emphasizes, bookkeeping, cheeks, drafts, loans. Interest, discounting; drawing is early given a practical turn. As a training for the mind, and eye, and manual dexterity, and the development of a keen sense of the foundation stone of all industrial training.” Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] American progressivism has always had two main strains: a social justice strain and an industrial or scientific strain. The former tends to get the most attention now, but the original Progressives were defined by their technocratic impulses. Many were strangely devoid of moral sentiments, but many others built administrative systems or political crusades that they hoped would bring the world in line with their moral or social visions. Their faith in a fundamentally different future brought about by the laws of history or science is what distinguished them from non-progressives, not their support for specific beliefs or policies.

Kerry Ellard

Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.