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In: Journal of Curriculum Studies  41 (June 2009), H. 3, pp. 361-391 (excerpt and contents). Download:

Deutsche Zusammenfassung: Seitdem Edward Krug in seiner großen Studie “The Shaping of the American High School, 1880--1920” (1964) den Begriff „social efficiency“ als Ausdruck zur Charakterisierung von "progressiven" Pädagogen benutzt hat, ist er aus der amerikanischen Erziehungsgeschichte nicht mehr wegzudenken. Doch die Fixierung seiner Schüler und Nachfolger auf David S. Snedden, Franklin Bobbitt und W. W. Charters als alleinigen Vertretern des Erziehungziels "soziale Effizienz", und das heißt dann der Anpassung der Kinder und Jugendlichen an die gegebenen, Aufstieg und Chancengleichheit verhindernden sozialen und ökonomischen Bedingungen des Kapitalismus, ist eine grobe Fehlinterpretation. Nicht technokratische, sozial-konservative Curriculumspezialisten wie Snedden, Bobbitt und Charters gaben die allgemein akzeptierte Definition vor, sondern liberale, humanitär gesonnene Philosophen, Soziologen, Politologen wie John Hobson, Lester Ward und John Dewey.

Summary: Contemporary historians of education associate the term ‘social efficiency’ with a group of US educators who, in the 1910s and 1920s, aimed at creating a technocratic school and a conservative society of social stability and harmony. However, an investigation of the origin of the term indicates that ‘social efficiency’ began its career in 1894 in the UK with the writing of Benjamin Kidd. From the outset, Kidd’s social Darwinist position was disputed by sociologists and philosophers who interpreted the term from a humanitarian point of view. It was the broad, liberal approach inspired by John Hobson, Lester Ward, and John Dewey—and not the narrow, utilitarian approach propagated by David Snedden—that educators took up when they employed the term ‘social efficiency’ to define the main aim of education.

On the eve of the 20th century, British politics and social philosophy were fascinated by the idea of ‘efficiency’. ‘At the present time, and perhaps it is the most notable social fact of this age’, wrote the London Spectator in 1902: 'there is a universal outcry for efficiency in all the departments of society, in all aspects of life. We hear the outcry on all hands and from the most unexpected of persons. From the pulpit, the newspaper, the hustings, in the drawingroom, the smoking-room, the street, the same cry is heard: Give us Efficiency, or we die.'

Indeed, efficiency was the watchword of a generation engrossed by the belief in science and technology, in social progress and social education, in the superiority of business values, and the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race. It was a conviction cutting across the conventional distinctions between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, ‘left’ and ‘right’, ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’. And it did not end at the UK border. Like their British colleagues, US politicians, businessmen, and scientists embraced the ‘gospel of efficiency’. Like them, they discussed untiringly how they could improve the ‘national’, ‘industrial’, and ‘scientific efficiency’ of their country, company, or college.

Educators were no exception to the rule. Teachers, principals, and superintendents declared ‘efficiency’, or ‘social efficiency’, the primary aim of education. In fact, social efficiency was a term so pervasive in US educational thought during the first decades of the 20th century that Edward A. Krug (1964), in The Shaping of the American High School, saw fit to speak of what he called the ‘social efficiency movement’. The social efficiency movement got under way, Krug argued, when the problems of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration became overpowering and demanded a far-reaching educational reform (pp. 249–283). The proponents of the reform—a diverse group of sociologists, philosophers, and educators—wanted the school to give up its preoccupation with academic contents and individualistic notions and to take up a social mission by making useful knowledge and life experiences the centre of the curriculum. Krug claimed that ‘social mission’ could mean two things. It could mean ‘social service’, i.e. the self-expressive tendencies of the child were to be reconciled with the demands of society. This was John Dewey’s (1859–1952) broad, humanitarian approach. And it could mean ‘social control’, i.e. the interests of society were to supersede the needs of the child. This was Edward A. Ross’s (1866–1951) narrow, utilitarian approach. Integrating both positions, Krug contended that the promotion of social efficiency became a movement which brought together ‘conservatives’ like David S. Snedden (1868–1951), Charles A. Prosser (1871–1952) and Charles A. Ellwood (1873–1946), and ‘progressives’ like Samuel T. Dutton (1849–1919), Colin A. Scott (1861–1925), and Nathaniel Butler (1853–1927). In trying to locate the origin of the term ‘social efficiency’, Krug pointed out that Michael V. O’Shea (1866–1932) from the University of Wisconsin considered publishing a book on ‘social efficiency’ in 1904. But Krug added that William C. Bagley (1874–1946), afterwards to become the leader of the essentialist movement, was the first to write one—a year later—with his The Educative Process (Bagley 1905). His perceptive chapter on the subject in that book was to almost single-handedly establish ‘social efficiency’ as the main aim of

Since Krug’s compelling research, two trends have been noteworthy. First, influenced by Walter Drost’s (1967) biography of David S. Snedden, the meaning of social efficiency has been narrowed to a conservative, fundamentally illiberal approach to curriculum construction, emphasizing the training of useful skills and the preparation of pupils for specific occupations and predetermined social roles. Secondly, inspired by the studies of Raymond E. Callahan (1962) and Samuel Haber (1964) on the ‘efficiency craze’ in school administration and progressive politics during the 1910s, the meaning of the term has been broadened to include Frederick W. Taylor’s (1856–1915) scientific management schemes for the realization of financial profits and social harmony—and, occasionally, Edward L. Thorndike’s (1874–1949) psychological measurement techniques for the mechanical improvement of teaching and learning—as predecessors of the movement. Thus, Herbert M. Kliebard (1986) would claim in his The Struggle for the American Curriculum that the ‘social efficiency interest group’ emerged as a result of contemporary scientific, technological, and business ideals and aimed at the creation of ‘a coolly efficient, smoothly running society’ (p. 28). What David Snedden, W. W. Charters (1875–1952), and Franklin Bobbitt (1876–1952) had in common, Kliebard argued, was their interest in a curriculum designed to make ‘social utility’ the supreme criterion for the selection of subject matter and school subjects.

By and large, the picture has remained unchanged. For more than 40 years, historians of education have accepted Krug’s findings concerning the origin of social efficiency, and they have agreed to Drost’s narrow, utilitarian usage of the term and his contention that there exists an antagonism between efficiency, social stratification, and vocationalism on the one hand and democracy, equal opportunity, and liberal education on the other—thereby, contrary to Krug, dissociating Dewey from the notion of social efficiency and actually making him the foremost opponent of the social efficiency movement. In this paper, I move the argument in a different direction; I show that social efficiency as an integral, self-contained concept began its career not in the US but in the UK, not with William Bagley in 1905 but with Benjamin Kidd in 1894, and that it was imbued with democratic values and humanitarian ideals even before it became part of the US educational discourse. In addition, I point out that no one else—including the members of Kliebard’s ‘social efficiency interest group’—wrote more distinctly about the topic and incorporated the phrase more conspicuously into his pedagogy than the author of Democracy and Education, John Dewey. [...]

: 1. Benjamin Kidd and the origin of social efficiency. 2. John Hobson, Lester Ward, and the humanitarian alternative. 3. Social efficiency as the main aim of education before 1905. 4. William Bagley, David Snedden, and the high tide of social efficiency. 5. John Dewey and the definitive meaning of social efficiency. 6. Social efficiency, democracy, and empowerment.

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