This year in history: 1917
In 1917, the Progressive Era (c. 1880 to 1930) was in full swing. Pragmatism, the belief that effectiveness determines value, was gaining influence as the government’s role in daily life expanded. Education, as arguably the most powerful means of societal control, naturally went all in. Today, classical Christian schools offer a striking deviation from the Progressive Era path taken by American public education.
PRAGMATISM AND THE SCHOOL
In the educational overhaul of the Progressive Era, pragmatists intentionally turned away from the age-old belief in the inherent value of the human soul—the Imago Dei. If the Imago Dei imparts value to the human soul, pragmatism is the ultimate dehumanizer. Laws like the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 reflected the progressive mindset. On the surface, the act was simply a way for kids to learn more practical skills. Underneath, its core belief was that people’s value is their productivity and their contribution to society. It differentiated between those who deserved a “higher” education and those who only needed to be taught a skill. In either case, the goal was effectiveness, not formation.
During this same year, in 1917, the Lincoln School, a progressive laboratory school (described in the previous issue), was founded. John Dewey, often called the father of modern American education, spearheaded the school’s educational remodel and helped summarize progressive ideals.
There is no god and there is no soul. Hence, there is no need for the props of traditional religion. With dogma and creed excluded, then immutable truth is dead and buried. There is no room for fixed and natural law or permanent moral absolutes. 1
These and other events indicate a marked shift from the classical education model—and the belief in a higher purpose—that had been in place for hundreds of years in Western civilizations.
EUGENICS AND OTHER SURPRISING LAWS
Surprising laws are passed when higher purposes are traded for lower ones—when the Imago Dei is replaced by data-driven value. If you doubt the power of belief systems to quickly change the course of society, these Progressive Era laws might change your mind.
The Eugenics movement began in earnest around 1880 and was significant during the Progressive Era. Think “selective breeding,”“forced sterilization,” and “The Talented Tenth.”
While many eugenics-based laws and organizations were created during this time, here are some highlights. The first state to introduce a compulsory sterilization bill was Michigan in 1897. The American Breeder’s Association was the first eugenic body in the U.S., established in 1906. Indiana enacted the first compulsory (forced) sterilization legislation in 1907. The Eugenics Record Office (ERO) was founded in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, in 1911. An IQ of 70 or lower meant sterilization was appropriate in North Carolina, where social workers had the power to designate people for sterilization (2,3). Most of these laws were eventually overturned.
In 1922, The Oregon Compulsory Education Act was passed. The law required all school age children to attend only public schools. Sending your children to a private school became a criminal act. This law was eventually overturned.
The Sixteenth Amendment
In 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment was passed. Congress, for the first time in American history, was given the power to tax income and the IRS was born. It is significant that federal involvement in education began shortly thereafter with laws like the Smith-Hughes Act.
THE POWER OF PURPOSE
During the Progressive Era, education became about training citizens to be productive and to do their part to keep society functioning smoothly. Too often, the word “education” today seems to mean little more than data, skills, and bubble tests.
The classical side of the educational coin is much more hopeful—because education is the unique endeavor of eternal souls of infinite value created in the image of God for joy. Truth, goodness, and beauty are for everyone.