Modern European Influences on American Education Research Paper Starter

Modern European Influences on American Education

Beginning in the 17th century, as European powers colonized North America, they brought their ideas on education to the New World. After the colonial period, European ideas on education such as Herbartism (or New Education) began to find fertile soil in the United States, to be followed by the teachings of the truly transatlantic school of pedagogy called Progressive Education. In the 20th century, child-centered European views of education manifested in Montessori schools, as well as European-led theories of child cognitive development from Piaget and others, made lasting impacts on American teacher education and inspired movements such as unschooling and vocational education. For the past century, and continuing to the present, American and European pedagogues have engaged in an ongoing project of comparative educational research, strengthened by advances in technology, making today's educational influences between Europe and the United States truly bi-directional.

Keywords Cognitive Development; Comparative Education; International Education; Montessori Schools; New Education; Pedagogy; Progressive Education; Teacher Education; Unschooling; Vocational Education


During the colonial era, prominent American thinkers such as Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson carried on a lively, if at times contentious, exchange of ideas with leading thinkers in Europe. A theme that would continue throughout the 18th and 19th centuries was the American admiration for European culture on the one hand and their disdain for European social inequalities on the other. Americans like Jefferson put these inequalities down to anti-egalitarian proclivities within the European society, which he claimed were reinforced through the continent's education system.

While not following every European fashion, Americans sought to take the best ideas of the Old World and apply them in their circumstances in the New World. Beginning in the 19th century, Americans traveled to Europe to see European education firsthand:

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Americans were to be found increasingly traveling abroad, chiefly to Western Europe and particularly to Britain, France, and the German principalities. Benjamin Silliman, John Griscom, Calvin Stowe, Alexander Dallas Bache, William C. Woodbridge, and, of course, Horace Mann were among the first successful American students of international and comparative education (Fraser, 1968, p. 301).

But to live in America, to promote its general welfare, one required a distinctly American education -- even if that education retained some largely unspoken European influences. This national pride was evident everywhere, particularly after American independence. Thomas Jefferson put it well in a 1785 letter to an American correspondent living in Europe who sought his advice on the best European schools for Americans: "But why send an American youth to Europe for education? What are the objects of a useful American education?" (cited in Wagoner, 1993, p. 3)

American education began as a heavily modified form of the British system that was its colonial inheritance, but over time, as the nation grew in size and influence, ideas on education from mainland Europe also began to influence American intellectuals. After the Civil War, and for several generations, it became commonplace for American scholars to train for at least a year in German universities, where they absorbed current European ideas on topics including education. These leading German thinkers included Hegel (a great influence on John Dewey), Friederich Froebel and Johann Herbart. Influential British thinkers on education included Herbert Spencer and his ideas about applied Social Darwinism.

Nonetheless, there never was an uncritical American acceptance of European ideas on education:

It should not be supposed, however, that Americans unanimously welcomed foreign ideas either imported by foreign commentators or brought back by returning American educators. William C. Woodbridge, an editor of one of America's first educational journals and an extensive traveler in Europe wryly noted that "we are aware that there is much sensitiveness in our country in regard to foreign improvements-and have received some hints of the danger of exciting it." Accordingly, some limitation must be placed on the efficacy, influence, and acceptance within America of "foreign" reports on its educational system (Fraser, 1968, p. 301).

Education Comes of Age

In the final decades of the 19th century, a movement called New Education took root in America as a reaction against entrenched methods of teaching history and other subjects. First developed in Germany by Johann Friedrich Herbart, supporters of New Education argued that students should be taught to think systematically and to ask questions, rather than memorize lists of facts. For example, supporters of New Education taught that the classroom syllabus should be organized around themes or units to get at common truths common across historical events. According to Herbart and the disciples of his New Education philosophy, education's grand purpose was delivering moral and ethical lessons.

American educator John Dewey (1859-1952) continued this thread in the early decades of the twentieth century with his emphasis on learning by doing. Dewey and other educators introduced a school of thought called Progressive Education, where importance was placed on tapping the life experience and cultural background of students in preparing and delivering lessons. They believed in the concept of learning by doing, and they stressed that students should be active, rather than passive, learners.

By the turn of the 20th century, Progressive Education had pervaded all aspects of society on both sides of the Atlantic, and pedagogic influences became largely bi-directional. "There is no doubt that the turn-of-the-century educational reform was an international phenomenon" (Biesta & Miedema, 1996, p. 2).

Since that time there has been an increasingly fruitful dialogue between American and European educators, helped along in recent decades by the rise of a global communications network that includes email and the Internet. But one would do well to heed Foucault's remark that discussions about influence often tell one more about the individual making such connections than it does about the thinkers themselves.

This essay will focus on contributions to American education made by European thinkers who flourished in the 20th century. The thinkers discussed below contributed to the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, enriching the subject of education reform and helping to take pedagogy in new directions. The respective influences of European thinkers on American public education - direct or indirect - can be seen in the discussions and writings of their contemporaries, or sometimes even more clearly in retrospect.

Émile Durkheim: What the Student Owes Society

As a sociologist of education, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) believed that education was important to the preservation of the social order because it helps individuals feel a part of something greater than themselves. This feeling, he said, is reinforced through learning about fellow countrymen who made the world a better place.

Durkheim has been criticized by educators in previous decades because of his belief that the role of education is to reinforce social roles. But his thinking that education should be tailored to the abilities and skills of individual students, therefore solidifying a division of labor in society, has been widely adopted, particularly in vocational education.

Durkheim's ideas also have some resonance in the context of today's American public schools, where some attribute relatively poor educational outcomes to a breakdown of order within the classroom. Given this assumption, Durkheim's views seem more relevant than ever. As two recent commentators on Durkheim's work note, "Today there is an increased concern for the teaching of basic morality in schools, as discipline continues to break down. The changes that are now occurring point, certainly indirectly,...

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