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  • A Year in Review: The High School Journal in 1920
  • Jennifer G. Job

In 1920, the High School Journal had been up and running for a year and cost 15 cents an issue. Robert Goddard was ridiculed by the New York Times for predicting space travel (a retraction was printed in 1969), small countries like Ireland and Romania were fighting for their own governments, and American women voted for the first time in a presidential election. Immigrants were coming in waves to the United States, and education was facing an existential crisis, wondering what its purpose was in this new booming economy. To explore the journal's role in this era, I take a look here at what the HSJ was covering ninety years ago.

Pragmatism and Democratic Schooling

As I write this piece, the University of North Carolina is holding a celebration of John Dewey's 150th birthday entitled, “Democratic Education in the Spirit of John Dewey.” Learned scholars are speaking of democracy in education, appropriating power to pupils, and finding happiness in one's occupation. And as I read the first issue of HSJ from 1920, I realize that the first notes of our educational song could be heard almost ninety years ago in the title of the first article: “How Can the Aims and Purposes of Instruction be Made More Vital in Actual Practice?” by Dr. Thomas Briggs of Teachers College. APA citation and pulling from others’ work was long in the future for HSJ articles; Briggs bases his assertions on his own practice and the address to the Pennsylvania State Educational Congress.

Briggs did not believe in pragmatism (the prevailing critical lens of the day), but in a “golden rule which will guide without restricting” (p. 1). He proposed the following three duties for schools:

  1. I. The first duty of the school is to train pupils to perform better the desirable activities that they are likely to perform anyway.

  2. II. Second, [to increase effectiveness] by increasing the amount and effectiveness of skilled supervision of instruction

  3. III. Third, [to increase effectiveness] by seeing that specific, definite, and worthy purposes are proposed by pupils [End Page 43] or else comprehended, approved, and adopted by them as their own (p. 1).

The Dewey scholars who spoke and discussed this past weekend would have to agree entirely with Briggs’ assertions. Briggs argues for better vocational training, a topic still in contention today. He argues for better teachers, and when in education have we not argued for better-trained teachers? And finally, he argues for democratic education, involving students in their own instruction—exactly the purpose of the 2009 conference. His reasons are actually (despite his protests) quite pragmatic; he tells us:

pupils should be prepared to do better what they will be constantly called on in actual life to do—find problems and devise means of effectively solving them. Nowhere except in the classroom or in the lowest grades of employment are human beings regularly told exactly what to do, furnished all the necessary data and only those, and expected to find their satisfaction in the approval of a taskmaster

(p. 1).

Briggs believes that by following his proposals, “we should go a long way toward ridding the schools of the wasteful and all too common spirit of ‘getting-by’” (p. 1). In this day of high stakes testing and rote memorization of material, one wonders how far we have come in meeting Briggs’ standards (or Dewey's)—or how far away we have traveled.

Briggs does not suggest that vocational training and practicality should replace theory and discipline, and neither do authors in the rest of the issue. Two particular articles show translational theory in the classroom of 1920 and are of note.

The first, “Observations on Visiting Home Economic Classes,” by Edna Coith (then the State Supervisor of Home Economics for North Carolina), describes visiting two Home Economics classrooms in North Carolina. She begins by saying that she often meets superintendents of schools who tell her that they do not want theory in their classrooms; only practical work is worthwhile. Coith agrees that practice is important, but when it comes to theory, such a superintendent, “knows not...


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