Lessons From a Century Ago

Just over one century ago, inspired by such educational philosophers as John Dewey, a select group of educators worked out a sound plan for public schools in the United States.  Industrialism, the imminent end of the First World War, and the expanding influence of our country had made the need clear for public education to keep pace with a rapidly changing society and anticipate developments to come.  With this in mind, the Commission for the Reorganization of Secondary Education published a report entitled The Seven Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education.  Largely as a result of this, a 13-year plan emerged, starting with kindergarten and culminating in many places in three or four years at a comprehensive high school.  Students received instruction in academic content, vocational skills, and home economics.

In essence, the Cardinal Principles report represented a proactive and visionary body of concepts that by the middle of the 20th century made public education in this country an example for the rest of the world to follow.  While segregation–both as official policy and later in de facto form–restricted access for racial minorities, most of America agreed upon the importance of public schools and that they were a priority worth paying for.

Then began a trend of reactivity and fear.  Teachers today learn in their preparatory training of the concern that arose from the Soviets’ launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and of the publication in 1983 of A Nation at Risk, two of several critical events that brought public pressure to bear on schools to ensure that America remained the greatest nation on Earth, however vague and undefined the concept of greatness may have been.

And now, 36 years after A Nation at Risk prompted educational leaders to emphasize math and science instruction–often at the expense of critical comprehensive content such as the arts and civics–the crisis in American K-12 public education has deepened.  Individual schools–and sometimes entire school districts–demonstrate advances in the promotion of learning and growth in their students, but public education as an American institution finds itself mired in a cycle of faddish methods phasing in and out of fashion.  Fragmentary philosophies fall far short of a unified understanding of the true needs of our children and our society. The most recent attempt at a cohesive plan on a national scale resulted in the Common Core, which was simply unable to unify parents, teachers, and educational leaders in a common vision.

Yet, despite this, the original seven principles published 1918 reveal much about what our society and our educational system has failed to address in preparing children for their own futures and for their participation in shaping our democracy.  Over 100 years after the Cardinal Principles report, we would do well to consider the timelessness of these priorities and their persistent importance. They appear below for the consideration of all who truly care.


From The Seven Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education:

(Brief annotations appear in parentheses.)

  1. Health
  2. Command of fundamental processes (Reading, writing, and mathematics)
  3. Worthy home membership (Being a responsible member of a family and household)
  4. Vocation (Career readiness)
  5. Citizenship (Awareness and participation in a constructive democratic process)
  6. Worthy use of leisure (Meaningful use of spare time)
  7. Ethical character

10 thoughts on “Lessons From a Century Ago

  1. Thank you for your post. I agree, we could all do well by revisiting the seven principles and seeing how they are reflected in our current classroom, school and district. I appreciate your thoughtful writing.

    1. Thanks–number 6 is much on my mind. I worry that many of us kill spare time with idle activities. Technology lures us in that direction…

  2. Thank you for this purposeful, thoughtful, and timely post. These 7 core principlas are indeed timeless and so worthy of revisiting. Thank you. Speaking of fads, I often wish the pendulum would maintain the middle position for a while.

  3. Very well-written and thought-provoking post! I think it would be worthwhile for our country to look at those 7 principles again. 🙂 ~JudyK

  4. This is a great reminder of what is fundamental in education. It’s pretty clear that we have taken a departure from what it means to be a citizen in a democratic country- also, I wholeheartedly agree with your comment above. Our use of idle time leaves much to be desired- technology is a culprit but so is the “busyness” of the modern world. In the end, I believe we are raising little adults. We need to instill abilities and structures that allow our children to be their best, not just to follow where the breeze takes them in the next educational fad.

  5. I started my career in 1981, just before A Nation at Risk was published; that study has been widely debunked in the intervening years, and while its important to know and understand the origins of public education, it’s also vital to recognize there’s vast disagreement on what that means. I can’t help but wonder about the missing voices from the 7 principles. And how we define leisure and its value differs among various individuals and groups.

    1. Apt points about the composition of the commission issuing the report (largely white and male) and the putative definition (vague, really) of leisure. The commission made an astute prediction that the 20th century would bring about at least as many changes as the 19th, and they were correct that economic output would increase substantially, leaving Americans in general with a corresponding increase in quality of life and make for more leisure time. They knew they could not predict the particular implications, however, and they wisely included that sixth principle so as to make explicit that there would be that challenge ahead. This proved prescient, as within a decade film would have sound, radio would become a nationwide mass medium, and after the Second World War, that free time provided the media with an impressionable audience to consume entertainment for sustained periods. We all know the rest.

  6. Number three and number six strike me as be as being gravely deficient in many of the students I encounter within the past 5 years. Electronic games seemed to have nullified a child’s active engagement in family life as well as their engagement in a variety of unstructured leisure pursuits. Rarely do I see children playing outside anymore, and rarely do children reply in the affirmative when I ask them about household chores or time spent together with family. This piece and the concise list that follows is a great reminder of what we should continue to strive for, but how to do it without committed family involvement? Im not sure….

    1. You and I seem to have the same concerns about those two items. I just responded to another reader’s comment that the rise of our mass media culture was the kind of phenomenon the commission that put together the report seemed to suspect was ahead. During the second half of the last century, entertainment media fragmented our society into many target audiences and in critical ways drove age groups–and by extension, families–apart from each other. This has had profound and devastating implications for education, community, and family.

  7. When we look at the fact that education hasn’t changed much, in most schools, in the last couple of hundred years then it isn’t very surprising that these principles are still applicable.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s