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Addressing a nation riven by civil war, Charles Eliot offered a solution for its dangerous disunity: education. “The American people are fighting the wilderness, physical and moral, on the one hand, and on the other are struggling to work out the awful problem of self-government,” he wrote. “For this fight they must be trained and armed.” In a word, educated.

Eliot’s essay, “The New Education,” published in The Atlantic 150 years ago this month, articulates a faith in the role of public education as an indispensable preparation for life. And by the 1920s, a free quality education for all had become an intrinsic value of American democracy. Yet today the majority of America’s close to 4 million public-high-school students say they are not learning enough or the right things in school; and as I’ve visited schools over the past 20 years, too many students have told me that they’re bored, uninspired, and unchallenged. These are not the inevitable complaints of existentially vexed teenagers. They are the well-founded fears and frustrations of 21st-century students attending schools designed in 1906—in effect, by Eliot, a few decades after the publication of his essay.

Students start out eager to learn. And for children living in poverty—a great number of them students of color—high school is most often their last chance to discover and develop their ability to make a better life. But many of today’s adolescents rightly reject a century-old teaching method and an outdated curriculum, by disconnecting while in school, skipping classes, or dropping out. Eliot’s essay is a reminder that education needs to periodically realign itself with the world young people face: As our world changes, so must schools.

A math and science professor, Charles Eliot was driven by an overriding ambition to understand the best way to educate Americans. As a young man, he left his teaching post at Harvard in 1863 for a two-year tour of Europe, where he studied the influence of school systems on their country’s culture and economy. France’s lycées and Germany’s Realschule impressed him with their ability to quickly turn apprentices into what he called “commissioned officers of the army of industry.” These French and German high schools gave adolescents the knowledge and skills to succeed in Europe’s growing industrial workforce.

America’s 19th-century schools inspired little hope in Eliot. “Common schools,” the country’s first free primary schools, expanded basic literacy and taught morality, but stopped short of serious academic or practical lessons; and in every state but Massachusetts, they excluded free blacks. Meanwhile, secondary schools—the linchpin of European learning—served mainly boys from elite families, who enrolled for short stints to learn some Latin and Greek before entering high society or college. Their teachers had widely varied capabilities and no clear or uniform goals.

The American experiment would not survive, in Eliot’s view, if high schools taught little more than dead languages to the rich, and largely denied education to the general public, or if teachers did not have adequate training or standards. The “thoughtful American,” he wrote in 1869, “… knows how ignorance balks and competition overwhelms … He is anxious to have his boys better equipped for the American man’s life than he himself was.” Passionate debates raged in journals and magazines over whether schools should be private or public, architectural monuments or humble structures, centered on classics or modern life. Few disagreed, however, that good schools were indispensable to individual advancement, national prosperity, and civic harmony in the United States, and many decried the country’s haphazard approach to something so crucial for its survival.

In “The New Education,” Eliot argued for a radical change. He proposed bringing Europe’s academic rigor, pragmatism, and inclusiveness to America’s sprawling territories and diverse population. It would take him 37 years to figure out exactly how to do this. But to start, he laid out the American education crisis in wonky detail.

American public schools, he argued, needed a broad organizing principle to unify them, and educators needed to work toward common academic ends. Above all, schools had to prepare students for a future that would not resemble the past. “[An American parent] will not believe,” wrote Eliot, “that the same methods which trained some boys well for the life of fifty or one hundred years ago are applicable to his son. The kind of man which he wants his son to make did not exist in all the world fifty years ago.” With agrarianism giving way to industry, more and more people were migrating to cities to work on assembly lines for low wages and in poor conditions. Young people needed to learn new skills—technical and intellectual—to optimize the new promise of the Industrial Age. Schools needed to be updated to help them.

Some American colleges and universities had already begun to take up the challenge when Eliot wrote, and he analyzed their changing curricula in order to inspire more schools to modernize. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, for instance, had renovated their pedagogical approaches to meet the demands of a changing society, teaching a more holistic, forward-looking curriculum of applied sciences, math, philosophy, and literature.

High schools, however, had yet to innovate, and their backwardness worried Eliot. From his travels in Europe, he understood that secondary schools were the fulcrum of any successful educational system: “The higher and lower institutions are, indeed, mutually dependent … [Universities and colleges] can only ask for what is to be had.” Institutions of higher education relied on high schools for a well-prepared incoming class, and students of primary schools prepared to be able to reach the bar set by secondary schools. Eliot underscored the interdependence of primary, secondary, and higher educational institutions. For adolescents on the cusp of shouldering adult responsibilities, the stakes were especially high: They needed an extremely well-considered preparation if they were to succeed at the next level of school or enter the workforce.

With this in mind, in 1906, the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie offered Eliot, by then president of Harvard University, the chance to realize the “new education” he had sketched out in his essay almost 40 years earlier. Eliot had, some years before, been influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s musings on the future of American education. So it was that an educator, an industrialist, and a philosopher revolutionized the nation’s approach to education.*

The time-based school system they designed will be familiar to most readers, as it has not changed in the past 113 years. The system is predicated on the Carnegie Unit, a measure of the time spent in a classroom, with a teacher, focused on a required subject. To graduate, students typically need to amass 24 Carnegie Units on their transcript, roughly the equivalent of six courses a year, taken over four years. In general, each course meets five days a week for 45 to 60 minutes a day. This stark regimentation effected a broad improvement in the nation’s schools, fulfilling Eliot’s notion that “without a wide-spreading organization, no system of education can have large success.”

The Carnegie Unit streamlined and, to some extent, democratized American education. Suddenly students in Nebraska spent the same number of hours in school and studied essentially the same subjects, to the same standard, as students in Massachusetts and Virginia. Eliot modernized the high-school curriculum to reflect the contemporary world. Greek and Latin were now accompanied or replaced by math, English, active foreign languages, applied sciences, and history.

Carnegie and Eliot’s system caught on fast. Colleges and universities were grateful for a better-trained group of applicants; parents, students, and educators welcomed a fairer and more organized process for college admissions. Decades later, the inequities of standardizing education for nonstandardized kids would receive more attention, but at the turn of the 20th century, the Carnegie Unit put students on more equal footing, if still not an equitable one. Meanwhile, Carnegie created the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to help elevate what he deemed “one of the poorest paid but highest professions in our nation.” The foundation accelerated the nationwide implementation of time-based learning by rewarding the colleges and universities that used it with a teachers’ pension fund.

In just a couple of years, Eliot and Carnegie had spearheaded the transformation of an archaic hodgepodge of secondary schools into a methodical, forward-looking, universal high-school system. It was a stunning and noble achievement, a “new education” that perfectly suited its time.

We are making our way again through uncharted territory. Like Eliot before them, today’s high-school students know that America’s secondary schools are not preparing them to meet the economic and ethical challenges ahead.

There is a tragic irony to the persistence of Eliot’s influence. “The New Education” is, in the main, an ode to ongoing educational innovation. It begs us to expect schools to make significant changes to keep up with a significantly changed society. And yet, a century later, American schools still rely on Eliot’s design.

Many of the jobs our 21st-century high-school graduates will do “did not exist in all the world fifty years ago.” To thrive in a complex, quicksilver world, high-school graduates need to be more adaptable than they were 50 years ago. Yet American public high schools are not teaching our teenagers what they need to learn. More than half a million students drop out every year, and $1.3 billion is spent annually on college remedial courses by high-school graduates and their families. Educators systematically underestimate even the most highly capable low-income students and students of color, and fail to challenge them. And across the United States in the past year, there have been seven teachers’ strikes, largely cheered by the general public, with more planned.

These are clear signals that our current system is faltering. At the same time, families and educators increasingly recognize that America’s public schools need to change. Will we be ambitious enough to rethink and reinvigorate the very way we teach? Local communities and state governments have started collaborating to bring 21st-century learning to high schools. The federal government could, and should, help move things along. Congress can legislate for a forward-looking public-school system, where teachers have cutting-edge training and resources, and students learn to thrive in the world they live in, not the one their great-grandparents inhabited.

The prospects of our nation’s youth, and therefore our nation, remain tethered to their education. In Eliot’s time, public high schools were the single best way to both unify a disparate populace and prepare young people to succeed. Many things have changed since then, but the promise of public high schools, for individuals and society, has not.


* This story has been updated to clarify the nature of Emerson's influence on Eliot.

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