Education’s Early 20th Century Debate: Classic vs. Progressive Education

A crowded Victorian classroom

Education’s Early 20th Century Debate: Classic vs. Progressive Education

Melina Druga
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If you were a student in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, you would have been given a classical education. This was especially true for boys. Girls were taught more feminine subjects such as music, needlework and home management, but increasingly they, too, were becoming educated.

Subjects Studied

Ontario Public School History of Canada textbook
Ontario Public School History of Canada textbook

Students of a classic education studied numerous subjects. Today, some of these subjects seem odd to teach children.

The subjects were:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Classic literature
  • Latin
  • Greek
  • Logic, examining and analyzing ideas
  • Rhetoric, debating ideas
  • Arithmetic
  • Music
  • Astronomy
  • Architecture
  • History

Students of a classical education often went on to a college or university where they studied subjects like medicine or law.

Progressive Education

Class photo from around the turn-of-the-20th-century showing 57 students
Class photo from around the turn-of-the-20th-century showing 57 students

Starting around the turn of the 20th century, classical education began being replaced with a progressive education. It differed from a classical education in that its goal was not to prepare wealthy students for university, but to level the playing field for all students.

Other differences included:

  • School was thought of as a form of community, preparing children to take their place in society
  • The belief that children learned by identifying and solving problems
  • Learning was more hands-on
  • Students could work to attain individual goals
  • Teachers instructed not just concepts but world experiences

Both forms of education still exist, although they have been modified to accommodate subjects contemporary students need to prepare them for adulthood.

Did you receive a classical or progressive education? Leave a comment below.

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Updated: 8 August 2018

Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.

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