Prior to the 19th century education was available primarily to the social elite of society.  A classical education demanded familiarity with great works of western civilization literature – the Latin and Greek texts that withstood the test of time to define civilization as it was perceived in the Western world (DeBoer, 1991).  It attempted to train a student’s mind to think, rather than for a specific purpose.  It is the antecedent of collegiate liberal arts education, and contrasts directly with knowledge accumulation leading to expertise in specialized practice.  Classical education was available only to the upper class, who had the time and resources to intellectually grapple with its philosophical implications without having to spend significant time and energy struggling to survive.  Historically, education for the working class allowed them to manage responsibilities of life.  Education for the upper class translated into philosophical satisfaction.  The 19th century changed dominant views concerning education.

In his 1860 essay “What Knowledge is of Most Worth?” Spencer (1924) determined that education related to the maintenance of good health was most valuable.  He declared that reading, writing, and arithmetic were important for employment, but beyond those subjects most of what was taught in school was largely irrelevant to student life.  He advocated science as a way to understand manufacturing processes (physics) and maintain health (biology).  He argued for practical education in child rearing and using science to instill moral discipline through independent thought and self-responsibility.  The second half of the 19th century changed the face of higher education as well.  The Land-Grant College Act of 1862 created educational institutions that focused on agriculture and industry, providing higher education opportunities to people who were not part of America’s social elite (Duderstadt, 2002).  In the 1890s Thomas Huxley (1901) promoted the teaching of science in schools and universities because it was such an enormous part of all of human knowledge.  He emphasized modernization – science was a way to understand the modern world and it permeated every trade and profession.  He stated that skills of observation and induction were best developed by science.

The 19th century was a time of great scientific and technological achievement.  Technology spawned by scientific advances began imposing itself upon the lives of people.  Prominent examples include cement (1824), telegraph (1837), internal combustion engine (1858), dynamite (1866), telephone (1876), light bulb (1878), steam turbine (1884), and automobile (1885) (“19th Century Inventions”, 2004).  Late in the century, the Committee of Ten, a group of ten college and school leaders, was created to standardize college preparation requirements.  In its report, the committee recommended four curriculum high school models with science representing 20 percent of a student’s total time in high school (DeBoer, 1991).  The professors of science who served on the committee were certainly interested in promoting their own views of the value of science education, especially since they were transforming an education tradition based on the classics that was historically available only to a small, elite group.  Science education, particularly science laboratories, played a major role in the introduction of constructivism and guided discovery to high school classrooms (DeBoer, 1991).


At the turn of the 20th century, science was becoming an increasingly important part of university study.  The establishment of graduate education gave the university an increasing role in training students for careers (Duderstadt, 2002).  With the arrival of the assembly line in 1903 and its accompanying industrial model, the factory system, more scrutiny was given to education on all levels as a means of economic advancement.  The practical aspects of education were further enhanced by the experience of World War I with clear military benefits emerging from soldiers who were able to read, write, and follow directions.  The percentage of students educated in high school was increasing.  In 1890, about 6.7 percent of 14-17 year olds were in high school.  In 1920, that percentage had jumped to about 32.3 (DeBoer, 1991).  The increasing number of students pressured schools to provide a practical education that students could use no matter what their professions after high school.  Technology in factories generated prolific quantities of goods.  Applying technology to cope with an increasing student population was a natural consequence of the success of the factory system.  In the 1920s, technology was targeted primarily towards performance assessments.  World War II brought astounding implementation of new technologies.  A few examples include proximity fuses, solid fuel rockets, synthetic rubber, radar, and the atomic bomb.  Scientific advances achieved during the war convinced American political leaders that science was a major factor in national survival for both military and economic reasons (Rudolph, 2002).  The National Science Foundation (NSF), founded in 1950, coordinated federal government support of university research and catapulted the role of science and technology in the academic community.  The NSF remains the only agency of the United States federal government dedicated to the support of education and fundamental research in all scientific and engineering disciplines.  Passage of the GI Bill following World War II provided affordable educational opportunities to millions of veterans.  Their enthusiastic response greatly expanded the role of higher education in American society.  After the launch of satellite Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957, technologies began to become incorporated in pedagogy principally in the form of films and television (Rudolph, 2002).  The PC revolution, beginning in the 1980s and continuing into the 21st century, makes it possible to give computer technology a central role in pedagogy since all students can have access to a computer.  Networks of the 1990s further extended the powerful communication capabilities of computerized electronic information systems.  New technologies herald an interactive experience in education.  Schools will still have classrooms where teachers and students will meet but lectures with passive listeners will give way to active engagement on the part of students with collaborative technologies (Duderstadt et al., 2002).  School systems in the United States have spent billions on technology.  Traditionally about 60 percent of education technology money is spent on infrastructure — the hardware, software, and networks that allow high-level programs to run and information to be shared (Angelo, 2002).  Return on that investment is still not definitive (Cuban, 2001) but interest in digital learning remains strong.  In October 2006, the MacArthur Foundation committed $50 million supporting research in the field (“Building the Field of Digital Media & Learning”, 2006).


19th Century Inventions 1851 - 1899. (2004). Retrieved December 29, 2004, 2004, from

Building the Field of Digital Media & Learning. (2006). Retrieved October 21, 2006, from

Cuban, L. (2001). Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

DeBoer, G. E. (1991). A History of Ideas in Science Education : Implications for Practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Duderstadt, J. J., Atkins, D. E., Brown, J. S., Gomory, R. E., Hasselmo, N., Horn, P. M., et al. (2002). Preparing for the Revolution: Information Technology and the Future of the Research University. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press

Huxley, T. H. (1901). Science and Education: Essays by Thomas H. Huxley. New York: D. Appleton.

Rudolph, J. L. (2002). Scientists in the Classroom. New York: Palgrave

Spencer, H. (1924). Education: Intellectual, Moral and Physical. New York: A. Appleton