An Outline of the Historical Impact of Secondary Education in the United States

Up to the middle of the nineteenth century the secondary school played an important role all over the world. It still continues to be so in most countries, the United States excepted. The meaning and scope of the secondary education in the United States cannot be clearly defined. It is composed of different historical factors, some of which we shall endeavor to analyze in this work.

According to Paul Monroe’s textbook titled ‘‘Principles of Secondary Education,’’ there are several distinctions the secondary education in the United States has succeeded in creating:

Distinction based upon the nature of the process: training vs. instruction. Transition from moral education to intellectual education, from habit formation to thought formation. It was restricted to the superior classes, resulting in a ‘‘superior social product.’’

Distinction based upon subject matter and appropriate method combined. A consideration for human experience is developed, this human experience being best obtained by a judicious study of languages (Greek and Latin) and literature. ‘‘While subject matter and method have thus been most influential, at least in determining the scope of secondary education, writes Paul Monroe, its purpose with given peoples or in given periods has often been determined by other considerations. And at present the distinction furnished by subject matter and method is conspicuously inadequate, even to determine scope.’’

Distinction based upon professional preparation. Secondary education in its origins was supposed to prepare children for professional life. With the development of the universities, however, it had lost this function and acquired more abstract duties. It now serves to prepare students to enter higher institutions, a particularity much criticized by Nicholas Butler in ‘‘The Meaning of Education’’- ‘ Whatever that entrance examination demanded, and in some cases just a trifle more, has been taught; whatever such examination did not call for, no matter how important or valuable it might be for a boy’s education, has not been taught. The secondary school has been too largely dominated by the college; and in few cases has that domination been other than unfortunate.’’ Jean de Viguerie, a French historian, adheres to a similar point of view, when he talks about the development of utilitarianism in education, where only such things are taught, that are considered to be ‘useful.’ He also distinguishes the Christian and secular education in this matter, explaining, that the difference consists in the attitudes of each of these forms of education towards knowledge: in Christian education knowledge is considered good in itself as coming from God; in the secular kind of education, only that knowledge is good, which is useful. Such an attitude, which most schools have adopted all around the world is deemed by Jean de Viguerie as deficient, because it does not allow for an overall development of the human person and can make people lose their cultural heritage (‘‘Les Pédagogues’’ by Jean de Viguerie).

Class distinction. During the 17th, 18th and most of the 19th century education was a mark of the nobility and the superior class. It was solely intellectual and highly unpractical.  With the entrance of women in educational institutions the degree of this distinction has lessened a little, but even to this day some people tend to choose certain schools for social reasons to increase or support their social standing or to acquire a certain status among other people. Monroe writes ‘‘This factor of class significance is one of the causes for the difficulty of developing in the United States a more strictly vocational type of secondary schools similar to those in European countries.’’ 

Distinction by social selection. Education is a preparation for professional life, consequently, only those are chosen who have stronger social leadership skills. This factor lies underneath all those previously stated. This principle has been at work all throughout history, especially in Europe. In the United States, because of a democratic approach, it was possible to combine both the democratic and the selective function of the secondary education, by creating selective courses, where every one could choose their field of knowledge, according to their interests. 

Distinction based on physiological and psychological age. A differentiation based on the physical and psychological characteristics of each particular age that became the basis for age limits in education. This idea was first introduced by Rousseau, it determines the time when the student changes from the elementary to the secondary school, which is the time when a child becomes an adolescent. 

Distinction based on the students’ interests and abilities. The same thing that has already been said earlier: the method of selective courses, developed historically in the United States, has been very beneficial in American education, although it is continually in need of many improvements. 

The American secondary education is a mixture of all these historically developed factors that have been stated above, which came into existence for the most part thanks to the pedagogical influences that have been at work throughout history. Jean de Viguerie considers these influences to be bad, the reason being that they have been exercised by people who knew little or nothing at all about children, but they wrote books and, thus, were called pedagogues or those who treated the theory of education. 

All educational practice has only one goal, to create good citizens, and it is towards this end that all the methods and ideas in education have been chosen. Consequently, what we see in our society today is a reflection of the ideologies that have been prepared by centuries of cultural and philosophical development.