Wilsons’ Schools for the Workingman

Woodrow Wilson

documents of the day


“It is imperative that we distinguish between education and technical or industrial training.”

“We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to forego the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks”

“The Meaning of a Liberal Education

Published in High School Teachers Association of New York, Volume 3, 1908-1909, pp.19-31 and Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 18:593-606



quoted from Woodrow Wilson’s address to the New York Teachers Association in 1909;

at the time, Wilson was president of Princeton University. as it was a century ago, America’s elite colleges like Harvard, Yale, Cornell and Princeton, continue their role atop the educational pyramid, training the teachers, credentialing its leadership, establishing the curricula and defining the purpose and intent of schooling in America.

as was the case then and remains today, standards and methods devised among them are delivered locally through public schools. the current institution of compulsory education was still propagating across the nation in the early decades of the 20th century. discussions among those steering its course were more candid as the documentation of the day presented here, suggests.

the superintendent of Middletown Public Schools offers an honest assessment of the industrialization of schooling in urban Ohio and the rest of nation in 1915.



N. D. O. Wilson, Superintendent, Middletown Public Schools
N. D. O. Wilson, Superintendent, Middletown Public Schools

“Now in my thinking, I regard all men as workingmen, except a few who have inherited great wealth, the care of which is entrusted to executors or guardians.”

“So where the question is raised, what the schools are doing and can do for the workingman, it is simply another statement of the question, what all must know and be, to properly live the American life, whether in Industrial, Commercial or Professional pursuits.”

 “Public Schools of Middletown, 

Their relation to the workingman and his children”

N. D. O. Wilson, Superintendent, Middletown Public Schools

The featured article published in the Armco Bulletin, September 1915 Vol. II No. 8





a century ago

as Middle America left the farm for the factory,

plans were prepared and set in motion to pacify the independent American spirit through schooling.

the success of American industrial development depended upon it.

the great tradition and promise of American free agency, where working for a wage was considered servitude, had to be subdued.  the new industrial organization demanded obedience to authority over the economic autonomy rural America was so well accustomed. public schooling would be the mechanism to dislodge the independent mind of the farmer and mold the modern American workingman into his new role as submissive and compliant employee.

the plans put in place a century ago perpetuate today. America’s educational institution continues to silently inculcate today’s children for purposes that have little to do with learning – but all that’s necessary to condition for control and conformance.

the process of establishing publicly funded schooling for the private use of the state by corporate interests occurred at both the national and local level in the early decades of the 20th century.

Superintendent N. D. O. Wilson’s article written for the local steel company’s newsletter, the Armco Bulletin presents a candid description for the purpose and intent of schooling delivered at the local level. He describes a school system built for the workingman and his family. He describes a system designed to set the path for a responsible citizen’s contribution to his community. He believes in his cause and is resolute in its purpose: to create a population content with their economic position and earnest at striving for the favor of those in authority – the model employee.

the American public school system is often described as ineffective and dysfunctional and yet no matter what reform efforts are proposed and implemented, the essential structure remains untouched – a structure implemented a century ago.


 for what purpose did this structure arise?

who devised its doctrine and how was it delivered?

does it continue today?


"Guardians of the Path" ; sculpture at eastern entrance to Miami University Middletown
“Guardians of the Path” ; sculpture at eastern entrance to Miami University Middletown; Robert Gaston, artist; dedicated 1976
The Public Schools of Middletown
Armco Bulletin September 1915 Vol. II No. 8














“To gain knowledge or understanding of, or skill in, by study, instruction, or investigation.”


learning American life

learning the American life a hundred years ago in the Middletown Public School system was extended not just to school age students but adults, often new immigrants valued for their labor.

local steel manufacturing in Middletown, Ohio was growing rapidly and the American Rolling Mill Company was desperate to train new workers. nineteen fifteen was a very prosperous year for American steel manufacturing; the US remained a neutral supplier for Europe’s war and fed both sides.

public schools became training centers filling the need for a desperate shortage of labor.


N. D. O. Wilson, Superintendent of Middletown Public Schools lays out the options for what a free, public education in America provided in 1915 to the workingman.


Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton University in 1909, describes the liberal education for those who will lead and inspire the human production of America’s public schools.


Professor Alexander Inglis, of Harvard University, presented several lectures on the topic of school design for industrial purposes. his Principles of Secondary Education written in 1918 is a dense, academic treatment of purpose and intent of public schooling as it came to be implemented across the nation.


John Taylor Gatto, Teacher, NYC Public Schools from 1961-1991, is one of America’s most dedicated researchers on the history of pubic schooling in the US. his analysis of Inglis’ work is distilled into The Six Functions of Schooling. he summarizes his analysis in this section of an article published by Harper’s Magazine in September 2003 entitled “Against School, how public education cripples our kids, and why.”



six functions of schooling


Inglis, for whom a lecture in education at Harvard is named, makes it perfectly clear that compulsory schooling on this continent was intended to be just what it had been for Prussia in the 1820s: a fifth column into the burgeoning democratic movement that threatened to give the peasants and the proletarians a voice at the bargaining table. Modern, industrialized, compulsory schooling was to make a sort of surgical incision into the prospective unity of these underclasses. Divide children by subject, by age-grading, by constant rankings on tests, and by many other more subtle means, and it was unlikely that the ignorant mass of mankind, separated in childhood, would ever reintegrate into a dangerous whole.

Inglis breaks down the purpose – the actual purpose – of modem schooling into six basic functions, any one of which is enough to curl the hair of those innocent enough to believe the three traditional goals listed earlier:

1) The adjustive or adaptive function. Schools are to establish fixed habits of reaction to authority. This, of course, precludes critical judgment completely. It also pretty much destroys the idea that useful or interesting material should be taught, because you can’t test for reflexive obedience until you know whether you can make kids learn, and do, foolish and boring things.

2) The integrating function. This might well be called “the conformity function,” because its intention is to make children as alike as possible. People who conform are predictable, and this is of great use to those who wish to harness and manipulate a large labor force.

3) The diagnostic and directive function. School is meant to determine each student’s proper social role. This is done by logging evidence mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records. As in “your permanent record.” Yes, you do have one.

4) The differentiating function. Once their social role has been “diagnosed,” children are to be sorted by role and trained only so far as their destination in the social machine merits – and not one step further. So much for making kids their personal best.

5) The selective function. This refers not to human choice at all but to Darwin’s theory of natural selection as applied to what he called “the favored races.” In short, the idea is to help things along by consciously attempting to improve the breeding stock. Schools are meant to tag the unfit – with poor grades, remedial placement, and other punishments – clearly enough that their peers will accept them as inferior and effectively bar them from the reproductive sweepstakes. That’s what all those little humiliations from first grade onward were intended to do: wash the dirt down the drain.

6) The propaedeutic function. The societal system implied by these rules will require an elite group of caretakers. To that end, a small fraction of the kids will quietly be taught how to manage this continuing project, how to watch over and control a population deliberately dumbed down and declawed in order that government might proceed unchallenged and corporations might never want for obedient labor.

John Taylor Gatto, “Against School” Harper’s Magazine, September 2003


implanting the myths of the state

it took years for this system to make its way into every American public school district.

after a hundred years, it might be a good time to reflect on the origins of a system where half of all teachers leave after 5 years;

where state funding comes tethered to ineffective standardized testing;

where the status of academic achievement lags an aptitude for sports;

and, where student debt is trapping a generation of talent into servitude, to name just a few of its deficits.

what the superintendent of public schools said a hundred years ago sounds innocent enough. the fact it’s offered in a periodical published by the local steel company establishes a mutually beneficial relationship. this is a relationship that’s worth exploring.

it’s offered here with actual text written by national, academic and local leadership of the period with the intent that an honest understanding of the origins of modern compulsory schooling can be brought to light.


Subsequent posts will explore how this system was implemented and how these six functions continue to be the real purpose and intent of American public schooling: to implant the mythology of the state.

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