Industrial Education Explained

Written by Kerry Ellard on October 29, 2021

What Was Industrial Education?

My piece on factory education highlights a now mostly-forgotten fascination of Progressive-Era education reformers: “industrial education.”

The general foundational concepts of "industrial education" survive under other names, but the fact that they were the center of intellectual theorizing and non-partisan policy discussion in an earlier era is rarely acknowledged. In this piece, I will explain more about 'industrial education,' which was the subject of significant debate in the early 20th century and a focus of Dewey's criticisms.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, “industrial education” was all the rage among college-educated Westerners. One could say it had taken the place of the Prussian model as the ideal, had it not originated in the newly unified German state, dominated by the Prussian model it had assimilated. In reality, it was simply a shift in emphasis away from the comprehensive, centralized design of the system to its focus on technical training, a development connected to Germany’s goal of rapidly becoming an industrial powerhouse.

By 1900 Germany had succeeded, using different methods than the British Empire it was partly emulating. Circumstances led the country to invest more in research, especially in the fields of chemistry, motors, and electricity.

At the same time, other European countries had created what they called “Industrial Schools” in their major cities, financed by the government. They trained poor children, both boys and girls, in trades.

This had been the meaning of the term “industrial school” in the U.S. as well—a trade school for indigent children, namely confined to New York City and funded by local philanthropists or city government, in the hopes of giving them the means to self-sufficiency and functional lives. Many attendees were orphans who had no parents to arrange their education, and, in fact, the term “industrial school” in the 19th-century US was often interchangeable with “orphan asylum”.

After the Civil War, the victorious Republican Party used federal power to set up non-residential trade schools with similar aims (self-sufficiency and meaningful community participation as a citizen) in rural areas, especially in the South. Some of these specifically targeted adolescents who had been born into slavery, or whose parents had been, or Native American children. However, these programs aimed at training independent tradesmen who could thrive in their own communities were mostly small-scale and short-lived.

Post-war changes to the American landscape resulted in a rapid shift in norms that became visible by the early 1870s. The visions of American education reformers began to converge more with those in Europe and focused on what they took to be the radically different needs of modern society.

This was the root of much of the intellectual fascination with Germany, which was unique in that its educational revolution (prior to unification, in what was then Prussia) preceded its industrial and political (democratic) revolutions. Prior to the nineteenth century, education reformers had focused on "ennobl[ing] the individual” (usually elite male individuals) and helping him or her effectively navigate “the existing social system.” Over the course of that century, however, the focus shifted to public education, or one that served the state and/or society in a more direct way. The first half focused on making a nation both better and more efficient by means of a standardized public school system. As the twentieth century neared and nationalist sentiment intensified, public education ”came to be considered a factor of national competition to increase economic and military efficiency.” Fears of falling behind—whether other developed nations or “the times“—moved beyond reformers and governments to the public at large.

The details of this are beyond the scope of this piece, but something resembling the modern American school system (exemplified by the modern American high school model) began to take shape. Such schools were local creations, following a model that was popularized in northern cities, and which moved further out between 1890 and 1920, when the “industrial education” craze took off.

This was one of many Progressive Era education trends, but its proponents generally had a narrower technocratic view of society than more well-known Progressive-era education reformers like John Dewey. They attempted to reorient high schools around the needs of the rising industrial society, away from liberal arts or classical education. While Dewey criticized the narrow, job-focused approach, which was often bluntly classist and elitist, few advocated the creation of obedient factory workers. Some saw industrial education as a way of creating more local businessmen and farmers. Their particular visions were often hard to discern, in part because the needs of a constantly changing “industrial society” remained speculative.

Some believed a socialization function was paramount. Others envied the systematic German model and used the term “industrial education” as a synonym for German-style higher education in specialized scientific fields, or German-style vocational training, especially preparation for trades that involved technical skills. In 1912, the state education committee of Wisconsin, which had a large German-American population, remarked that “more instructions related to industrial occupations” should be added to the curriculum, “although continued education for citizenship ought not to be neglected.”

The urban situation was more complicated. In 1872, Massachusetts established an “industrial school” system, with “industrial education” defined by law as “to consist in imparting a knowledge of drawing, designing and molding, of the use of tools and machinery, and of the art of cutting and making clothing, and of the use of the needle.” It was reported that such schools “are now in successful operation in Europe, and especially in Germany, where children...attend, educational institutions similar to our public schools, and, in addition, are required to spend two or three hours in practical schools, where a thorough knowledge is imparted of drawing, designing, modeling, spinning, weaving, dyeing, mixing of colors, and of the use of tools...”

Neither vision ever really took off, as the concept involved too many contradictions. Those Dewey highlighted in 1915 were never overcome or even addressed head-on. Most of the problems resulted from trying to import European programs into America, which had social structures that contradicted the basic social assumptions of the programs. Namely, America lacked rigid class divisions, as even Horace Mann, known as an admirer and importer of European systems, had once taken pains to point out. Lifelong poverty, or lifelong working-class membership, was not a concept accepted by most Americans, and it was certainly not something acknowledged as an official policy.

By the time the industrial school movement took off, reformers often adopted the classism taken for granted in Europe. It is difficult to see how these models could operate without class constraints, as they were training people to work in institutional, collective, and complexly hierarchical environments.

Dewey had tried to call attention to this, in a less direct manner than Mann, reflecting the changing norms and expectations of American intellectual culture.


  1. See the footnotes of that piece for more information.
  2. Since Germany industrialized later, it was able to model its factories after those of Britain, “thus making more efficient use of its capital and avoiding legacy methods in its leap to the envelope of technology.” Additionally, “the German concern system (known as Konzerne), being significantly concentrated, was able to make more efficient use of capital,” Germany was not “weighted down with an expensive worldwide empire that needed defense, and “following Germany's annexation of Alsace-Lorraine in 1871, it absorbed parts of what had been France's industrial base.” See Wikipedia contributors, "Second Industrial Revolution," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Second_Industrial_Revolution&oldid=1051322039.
  3. “The economic argument is straightforward and points back to Prussia…schools [are] treated as factories that produce what the state needs: able administrators and bureaucrats in the context of the emerging Bismarckian welfare regimes and, later, workers in the industrial economies.” Kevin D. Williamson, ”Harvard Law Takes Aim at Homeschooling,” National Review, April 30, 2020, https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2020/05/18/harvard-law-takes-aim-at-homeschooling/.

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.