ARTICLE 2 TEACHING THE "SCIENCE" OF CHARACTER: The Modernist Impulse and Progressive Approaches to Reforming Moral Education in the United States in the Early Twentieth Century

By Gunn, Dennis | American Educational History Journal, Annual 2018 | Go to article overview

ARTICLE 2 TEACHING THE "SCIENCE" OF CHARACTER: The Modernist Impulse and Progressive Approaches to Reforming Moral Education in the United States in the Early Twentieth Century


Gunn, Dennis, American Educational History Journal


INTRODUCTION

Rapid changes in American society in the early twentieth century fostered both a general sense of optimism for America's future and a perceived sense of moral dislocation affecting present and future generations of America's youth. Urbanization, modernization, and the increasing presence of immigrant populations were often viewed as challenges to traditional, largely Protestant, moral sensibilities. The growing influence of urban life, which included penny arcades, movie theaters, and vaudeville, were viewed by some as among the potentially corrupting influences of "the street" on young people (Nasaw 1985, 141). Middle class mothers who were concerned with raising their own children also expressed concern with the problem of what to do with delinquent urban youth. Articles such as "Keeping a Boy Straight" or "Bad Boy of the Streets" appeared in the early part of the century in popular magazines such as Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal, reflecting the moral concern of the rising middle class for America's youth (Nasaw 1979, 90). Immigrant children were often seen as particularly problematic and were frequently targets of new laws aimed at curbing juvenile delinquency, which included laws against begging, roaming the street, fighting, and spitting (Nasaw 1979, 95). Lawrence Cremin observes that those who worked among the urban poor "denounced the high rates of crime and immorality" among immigrant groups, emphasizing the need for moral training in "manners, cleanliness, health, citizenship, and ethical character" (1964, 67, 72). This concern for what came to be called the "youth problem" began prior to World War I and continued to accelerate throughout the 1920s in the face of changing social mores (Fass 1977, 15).

In response to the perceived moral crisis among American youth in the early twentieth century, educational reformers of various stripes sought to find new ways to address the problem of moral education. Traditional approaches to moral training in public schools in the previous century, which had emphasized Bible reading as an attempt at a non-sectarian "common ground" for moral education were viewed as no longer adequate for the demands of a rapidly changing modern society (McClellan 1992, 35). While reformers approached the problem in different ways, they shared a common concern for forming the character of America's youth. Among the resolutions of the National Education Association (NEA) in 1907, for example, there was an emphasis on the need for moral education in public schools: "The National Education Association wishes to record its approval of the increasing appreciation among educators of the fact that the building of character is the real aim of the schools and the ultimate reason for the expenditure of millions for their maintenance" (NEA Archives Box 147, Folder 158). Such sentiments,--expressed the growing concern educational leaders had for developing the moral fiber of America's youth and, at the same time, reflected the shift in the public educational discourse from "moral" education, with its more overtly religious overtones, to the more broadly inclusive category of "character" education. It was precisely "the battle to define the nature of character education" that would occupy educational reformers concerned with the place of moral formation in American public schools throughout the period prior to and after World War I (Setran 2003, 437).

Edward McClellan proposes that the battle for the reform of moral education in American public schooling was between "traditionalists" and "progressives" whom he argues offered competing visions, with the former representing an "effort to preserve character" and the latter offering "a more flexible and critical approach to moral education" (1992, 55). Similarly, in her study of youth in the 1920s, Paula Fass suggests "traditionalists viewed the 'youth problem' as representing cultural dislocation and disorder," while "progressives saw in youth positive forces for change" (1977, 15). …

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