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The Dewey-Kerschensteiner Controversy about General and Vocational Education. In John Dewey and the Promise of Education: New Studies on Democracy. School and Curriculum.  New York: Lang (forthcoming).


Kerschensteiner’s followers in America

The discussion about the introduction of vocational education in the public schools was, of course, not new in 1910. Forty years earlier, American educators had considered setting up state-funded workshops for the training of young workers. Since then concepts had repeatedly been put forward to provide young people with a thorough vocational education despite the decline of the apprenticeship. The concept of the German general continuation school had been introduced around 1890, and the Munich model of vocational continuation school had been known ever since Paul H. Hanus, the Harvard professor and chairman of the Massachusetts Industrial Commission, Frank A. Manny, the educational activist and friend of Dewey, and Charles A. Bennett, the influential journalist and publisher, had reported in full on their visits to Munich in numerous speeches and essays whereas the Massachusetts Commission (1907) on Industrial and Technical Education had published several bulletins documenting the structure and course of study of divers continuation schools in Munich such as the schools for clerks, machinists, gardeners, gold and silver workers.

In fact, the Munich model was already so familiar to the American public that some cities in Massachusetts (Boston, Cambridge, New Bedford, Waltham, Taunton) had already provided facilities where trade and commerce could hold “continuing education classes” as early as 1909 – i.e. well before Kerschensteiner’s arrival in America (Commission upon the Plans for the Extension of Industrial and Agricultural Training 1911). In addition, the Ohio legislature had passed a law in the spring of 1910 that allowed municipalities to set up continuation schools or courses at their own expense. However, these offers were used timidly, in Massachusetts merely by a few factories, department stores, and wholesalers, in Ohio just by one city, namely Cincinnati. The reluctance can easily be explained. Despite all efforts of Hanus, Manny and Bennett, there was the widespread misunderstanding among American educators and politicians that the German continuation school was a trade school and a substitute, not a supplement, for the declining apprenticeship system. Only Kerschensteiner was able to clear up this confusion and show that the part-time school, not the full-time school, was the basic model of vocational education in Germany.

Kerschensteiner received praise and appreciation for his lectures. The New York Times headlined “German Educator Revolutionizes School Methods” and the New York Daily Tribune “We’d Be Fortunate to Get Such Trade Schools as These.” In particular, the German-language newspapers rejoiced. The New York Staatszeitung spoke of “Ein Wegweiser” (A Signpost), the Philadelphia Morgen-Gazette of “Anschaungsunterricht” (Object Lessons), the St. Louis Westliche Post of “Beherzigenswerte Winke“ (Hints Worth Heeding) and the Tägliches Cincinnatier Volksblatt of “Wahre Offenbarungen” (True Revelations) Kerschensteiner had imparted to the American people. Colleagues appreciated his work, too. For example, G. Stanley Hall (1911), the progressive educator and youth psychologist at Clark University, considered the “Munich System” as the “boldest, most comprehensive and interesting” attempt to solve the problem of industrial education (p. 586). Hall wrote admiringly: 

"No true pedagogue can read the rather detailed and systematic programmes, reports of each of these schools, etc., without growing interest and admiration, not to say fascination, if not, indeed, with the strong desire to take each course himself. One feels that a barber, butcher, cobbler, and the rest, may be an educated gentleman if he masters his craft."

Even a skeptic like Arthur D. Dean (1911), the vocational education consultant at the New York State Board of Education, could not deny Kerschensteiner his admiration:

"Many were happily surprised at the breath of his thought. Some had expected that he would merely discuss such topics as ‘the need for skilled workmen;’ ‘the progress of a nation depends upon material wealth;’ ‘the supremacy of a nation depends upon its industrial efficiency;’ etc. Such topics are usually associated with the German system of vocational education. However, we forgot two things: (1) That Dr. Kerschensteiner came from Bavaria, which although a part of the German Empire, is in reality very different from the northern state of Prussia. Southern Germany is made up of wholesome, simple-minded people who are less strenuous in their commercial and industrial activity than northern Germany. They do not think quite so much about the economic importance of affairs as they do about the human importance. (2.) We forgot that many German teachers are men of broad interests. Dr. Kerschensteiner is an artist, musician, and teacher as well as an organizer of schools. […] to listen to his broadminded discussions is to gain a new idea of what a liberally trained man can do to broaden a vocation education movement."

Now the ice was broken. In 1911, in addition to the Commercial Club of Chicago and the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education, two other organizations that were important for the development of vocational education, namely the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Federation of Labor, passed resolutions in which for the first time they gave preference to the continuation school over all the other types of vocational schools. Even the City Club of Chicago (1912), an association of progressive citizens with Dewey’s friend George H. Mead as chairman of its Public Education Sub-Committee, praised Kerschensteiner’s educational program for the working boys and girls. It recommended establishing schools “of the same general character as that in the continuation schools of Munich.”

However, the breakthrough came with Charles McCarthy in Wisconsin. McCarthy, a man of remarkable strength and energy, formed a broad coalition of politicians, business leaders and trade unionists, with the result that he could persuade the legislature in Madison to accept the continuation school as the foundation of a “wonderful system of democratic education” (Commission upon the Plans for the Extension of Industrial and Agricultural Training 1911). For McCarthy (1915), the new school was a medium for overcoming class distinctions and social differences.