December 2, 2023
Freedom Walker


Woodrow Wilson’s Educational Reform

Woodrow Wilson’s Educational Reform
Princeton is different than it once was. One man altered the small college in the heart of New Jersey, setting it on course to become one of the most prestigious institutions in America. Investigating the principles of Woodrow Wilson’s educational reform provides insight into the direction American education would go during the 20th century.

Woodrow Wilson
As President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson’s progressive agenda saw an expansion of federal regulation of business through anti-trust legislation and of federal programs to assist farmers and labor. When his oversight of America’s involvement in WW1 is taken into account, his presidency seems a microcosm of FDR’s. It is Wilson as educational reformer, though, that we want to cast a spotlight.

Ten years before Wilson ran for President of the United States, he was appointed as President of Princeton College. Under his guidance Princeton was transformed from a liberal arts college aimed at training Presbyterian ministers to a progressive university with a new science department and graduate school. As an alumnus of Princeton, Wilson was very much aware of the culture of Princeton, its strengths and weaknesses. Even during his student days, Wilson articulated a desire for Princeton to become more like European universities, opining that the level of scholarship achieved in Germany and England outstripped that of America. He saw that the American system of education promoted something less than true scholarship. And while students are partially at fault, he places the blame on the collegiate system for its failings.

In 1877, Wilson’s sophomore year at Princeton, he first addressed the concept of educational reform, writing:

When true scholarship offers so grand an opportunity for the exercise of our noblest faculties, we marvel that it should be so neglected. On the part of the student, misguided energy and insufficiency of enthusiasm are at fault; but we must believe that to our collegiate system a large part of the blame can be attached. Nothing is so utterly destructive of true scholarship as what is technically called “cramming.” To abolish the practicability of this operation should be the basic principle in the College regime. (The Princetonian, May 1877)

Wilson’s critique rings true even today, as students remain faithful to the hallowed tradition of “cramming;” learning everything for the final, but learning nothing of lasting significance.

At his inauguration as President of Princeton in 1902, Wilson articulated his understanding of two modes of learning:

There are two ways of preparing a young man for his life work. One is to give him the skill and special knowledge which shall make a good tool, and excellent bread-winning tool of him; and for thousands of young men that way must be followed. It is a good way. It is honorable; it is indispensable. But it is not for the college, and it never can be. The college should seek to make the men whom it receives something more than excellent servants of a trade or skilled practitioners of a profession. It should give them elasticity of faculty and breadth of vision, not upon their own profession only, for its liberalization and enlargement, but also upon the broader interests which lie about them, in the spheres in which they are to be, not breadwinners merely, but citizens as well, and in their own hearts, where they are to grow to the stature of real nobility. (Princeton University Bulletin, Dec 1902)

Wilson’s vision for not just Princeton, but for the entire educational system in America, was to provide an education that built upon the older subjects – Greek, Latin, mathematics, English, which he saw vitally connected with religious and moral values – the new areas of the natural sciences. This entailed laboratories, telescopes, museums, the stuff of empirical investigation. Wilson realized many of his goals. The museum of natural history opened in 1909. The graduate college was dedicated in 1913. He also diversified the school, moving it away from its conservative Presbyterian moorings to hire Jewish and Roman Catholic professors. By the end of his tenure, Princeton was well on its way towards becoming the dominant educational institution it is today. However, Wilson was not entirely satisfied. His address to alumni in Pittsburgh during April 1910, full of fire and fury, decried elitism and called for the democratization of private and public education. The voices of common men must “echo in the corridors of the universities.” Despite the censure he received for his fiery speech, the ideal won out; and rightfully so. A quality education ought not be the sole domain of an elite class.

working man operating a bandsaw in a technical educational reform movement
By 1909, Wilson already had a sense of the pitfalls of the new university, incorporating the older subjects with the emerging fields of technical science. He wrote, “The spirit of technical schools has not always been the spirit of learning. They have often been intensely and very frankly utilitarian, and pure science has looked at them askance.” To counteract this, he called for America to commit to the ideal of the liberal arts tradition:

There is an ideal at the heart of everything American, and the ideal at the heart of the American university is intellectual training, the awakening of the whole man, the thorough introduction of the student to the life of America and of the modern world, the completion of the task undertaken by the grammar and high schools of equipping him for the full duties of citizenship. It is with the idea that I have said that the college stands at the heart of the American university. The college stands for liberal training. Its object is discipline and enlightenment. The average thoughtful American does not want his son narrowed in all his gifts and thinking to a particular occupation. He wishes him to be made free of the world in which men think about and understand many things, and to know how to handle himself in it. He desires a training for him which will give him a considerable degree of elasticity and adaptability, and fit him to turn in any direction he chooses. (The Delineator, 1909)

Democratized access to this ideal of education would indeed equip America with thoughtful, engaged, accomplished, disciplined and enlightened citizens. Is the ideal achievable? Can it overcome the pitfalls of the technical school which squelches the spirit of learning? Wilson wants it all – the university training the hearts and hands by converging the ideals of the liberal arts college with the practicality of the technical school.

Wilson’s most mature expression of his educational philosophy came on the eve of his short term as governor of New Jersey, only two years before becoming President of the United States. He continues to articulate the dangers of the new university model. The specialization of subjects leads to special interests in the political sphere and in public discourse. The inability of doctors, lawyers, electricians, psychologists and the like to speak meaningfully to one another because educational specialization has meant that general knowledge has been sacrificed for professional ends. His solution continued to be a combination of liberal arts with technical schooling. Yet, the stark differences he identifies make it an impossible concoction. In his address to the New York City High School Teacher Association on January 9, 1909, he delineates the options available to the populace:

Let us go back and distinguish between the two things that we want to do; for we want to do two things in modern society. 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. You cannot train them for both in the time that you have at your disposal. They must make a selection, and you must make a selection. I do not mean to say that in the manual training there must not be an element of liberal training; neither am I hostile to the idea that in the liberal education there should be an element of the manual training. But what I am intent upon is that we should not confuse ourselves with regard to what we are trying to make of the pupils under our instruction. We are either trying to make liberally-educated persons out of them, or we are trying to make skillful servants of society along mechanical lines, or else we do not know what we are trying to do. (High School Teachers Association of New York, Volume 3, 1908-1909)

Democratization occurs through people’s choices to pursue one or the other option. But will institutions maintain a meaningful choice for people? Will all universities provide both a liberal arts education alongside technical training? Manual tasks, Wilson recognizes, are a necessary burden that must be born by the majority of students educated in America. Only the few can benefit from a liberal arts education. In the end, pragmatism must win out. The course of the twentieth century sees technical training win out over the liberal arts. Indeed, many of the liberal arts subjects were recast along technical lines. This occurred in part due to the use of scientific modes of investigation in the humanities. But it also occurred through the specialization of each subject, making each subject its own domain ignored by and ignoring other domains.

Idealism breaks easily on the shoals of pragmatism. It only takes one total war to inoculate a nation against idealism. To have undergone two total wars with an intervening decade of decadence followed by a decade of depression left a nation bereft of the liberal arts tradition that had upheld its founders. Fortunately a remnant have held tightly to the ideals of the liberal arts, and we are now seeing a renaissance underway. To what extent will it correct years of industrialism’s ascendancy in education?

Berg, A. Scott. Wilson. Berkley, 2014.

DiNunzio, Mario R. ed. Woodrow Wilson: Essential Writings and Speeches of the Scholar-President. NYU Press, 2006.

Heckscher, August. Woodrow Wilson: A Biography. Scribner, 1991.

Walworth, Arthur. Woodrow Wilson. 2nd Ed. Houghton Mifflin, 1965.


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