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Getting to Scale With Moral Education: The Demands of Reproducibility and the Case of the Chicago Manual Training School, 1884–1904

by Jane McCamant - 2018

Background: Getting educational reforms “to scale” continues to be a primary preoccupation of scholars, but such studies tend to remain focused on the organizational or other characteristics of the school(s) receiving a given innovation.

Purpose: This article brackets the organizational elements of reform dissemination to consider the relationship between the ideational content of educational innovations and their success at being “scaled up.” It considers whether particular categories of educational outcomes are inherently less well suited to widespread reproduction.

Research Design: The article identifies a historical case of an educational reform effort that failed to be brought to scale as a method of considering these larger theoretical questions. First articulated in the early 1880s, the educational philosophy of manual training called for the incorporation of industrial training––in the form of tool work, metal shop, and technical drawing––into a rigorous and traditional academic curriculum. This combination of shop work and school work was intended to function holistically, developing the manual, intellectual, and moral capacities of the student simultaneously. Opened in 1884, the Chicago Manual Training School (CMTS) was intended to be an example of the implementation of this philosophy to be emulated by Chicago’s public secondary schools. Such emulation never occurred. The case study portion of this article is based on in-depth historical analysis of the records of the CMTS, the papers of its founder, Henry Holmes Belfield, and other contemporaneous materials relating to the manual training movement and the context of late-19th-century education reform efforts.

Conclusions: The case of the CMTS suggests two necessary (but not sufficient) criteria for a given educational philosophy to be susceptible to reproduction: intelligibility and measurability. These two requirements are found to be particularly unlikely in educational innovations that emphasize the subtle and intangible connections of mind, body, and spirit or that seek primarily to teach character or disposition—here termed “moral education.”

In February 1884, 74 teenage boys arrived at the newly constructed Chicago Manual Training School (CMTS) to take a course of study that was divided, “as nearly as possible, equally between manual and mental exercises” (Chicago Manual Training School, 1885). The school’s teachers and its director, Henry Holmes Belfield, presented metal shop, wood shop, and technical drawing alongside history, English, science, and mathematics in a curriculum that was intended to develop all aspects of the pupils’ minds, bodies, and characters. Through this combination of academic work and shop work, manual training would “put the whole boy to school” (Woodward, 1887, p. 217), providing intellectual, physical, and moral education that was appropriate for any student.1

The CMTS was understood by both its organizers and the popular press as intending to provide an example of a type of school that could be duplicated as part of the city’s growing public secondary education system (see Board of the Chicago Manual Training School, 1888; “The Chicago Manual Training School,” 1882). The organizers of the CMTS likely couldn’t have imagined the vast systemization of public education that in the 20th century made the project of such demonstration schools so important and contentious. Compared with some of today’s “model school” projects, the ambitions of the CMTS were quite modest, but the project was analogous: operating a school as a way of demonstrating pedagogical reform so that others might copy it.

But the organizers of the CMTS did not succeed in disseminating their reform. Some schools, claiming to be inspired by the CMTS, would be founded, and some schools would add “manual training” programs to their curricula; however, these efforts represented only the persistence of the label “manual training” and the use of shop work in schools, not the philosophy of the integration of mental and manual work that was at the heart of manual training as understood by Belfield and practiced at the CMTS. Belfield’s vision for the school was one of truly general education. He rejected vocationalism but also rejected the traditionalist notion that book learning was sufficient preparation for life. Both traditional classroom work and shop work were employed for their disciplinary value, not their direct usefulness for any particular trade. The school was meant to cultivate a reverential attitude toward work and the human power it represented. The shop classes of the CMTS emphasized machining, but they reflected a belief in the superior moral force of the culture of the machine shop and the disposition of the mechanical engineer, not an attempt merely to train people to be engineers. A manual training education was intended to combine the best of traditional and modern, providing for each boy, as Belfield put it, “the best knowledge of the world and of the age in which he lives, and the greatest power to subjugate that world to his own will.” Such an education would recognize “the culture of the mental and moral faculties as essential to, nay, as the foundation of, the highest development of the individual, whether artisan or artist, ploughboy or president” (Belfield, 1887, p. 373f).

Although this vision of education spoke to a wide range of late-19th-century American anxieties, and some manual training advocates did not shy away from suggesting that manual training would increase the supply of skilled labor, thereby protecting the economy from German manufacturers, Belfield himself was primarily interested in preserving the health and masculinity of America’s boys in the face of the insidious effects of urbanization and sedentary professions. He was happy for them to learn marketable skills, but the purpose of the holistic incorporation of manual work into schooling was to generate personal habits and attitudes of mind. It was thus, for Belfield and the leaders of the CMTS, fundamentally a moral project. By the first decades of the 20th century, shop work in schools was widespread, but shop work as moral education in this sense had disappeared.

Why did Belfield’s vision for manual training fade away? Why were he and the other CMTS organizers unable to reproduce the school? What makes some education reform schemes succeed where others fail? Indeed, what ought we to understand by the “success” (cf. Cuban, 1998, pp. 454-455) of a reform movement? In this article, I will, of course, not be able to answer these questions completely, for all have numerous interconnected and historically contingent answers. Rather, I will consider these questions, using the CMTS as a case study, and argue that the success of education reforms that attempt to “scale-up” from a model school depends in part on the specific content of the educational goals in question, not just on the material or organizational conditions of the schools that attempt implementation. The suitability or unsuitability of that content I refer to as reproducibility, and I identify two aspects of reproducibility that are necessary to its success: intelligibility of the reform in question by other educators, and measurability of the desired educational outcomes. I then argue that certain educational philosophical ideas can be inherently unsuited to this kind of reproducibility, namely, a category of ideas I am calling moral education, of which manual training is an example. It is widely acknowledged in the literature that it is difficult to isolate the causes of educational effects (e.g., Elias, Zins, Graczyk, & Weissberg, 2003, p. 310; O’Donnell 2008, p. 33), but I take the argument a step further, suggesting that for moral-education effects, that task of isolation is exceptionally difficult.


In much of the education reform literature, success means “getting to scale” (e.g., Elmore, 1996). Attempts at moving educational reforms from model schools to full scale, systemwide implementation are well studied, but those studies tend to focus on conditions in the receiving schools (see, e.g., Iatarola, 2016; Klein, Jaffe-Walter, & Riordan, 2016; Young et al., 2016). Studies often look at the level of an individual school (Datnow, 2005, p. 124) and put emphasis on the organizational culture, management style, material resources, or student diversity of the school that is attempting to implement some innovation (e.g., Blumenfeld, Fishman, Krajcik, Marx, & Soloway, 2000, p. 151; Lee & Luykx, 2005). In this article, I bracket those organizational and material factors and shift the emphasis from destination schools to model schools. To this end, I discuss reproducibility as an aspect of the scaling-up process. Reproducibility refers to the qualities of a given model school that would allow it to be implemented with fidelity as it is scaled up to some larger number of schools. It encompasses the supply-sides of both “fidelity of implementation,” which has been used widely in both education and health studies (O’Donnell, 2008, p. 34), and “scaling up,” without regard to conditions in destination schools that may affect implementation and scale-up. The power of a receiving institution to alter a reform as it is implemented has been documented (e.g., Cuban, 1992), but because reproducibility is a descriptor of the model school, not the destination school, it is concerned only in the abstract with “reform institutionalization” (Datnow, 2005, p. 123) and other terms related to the reception of reforms. Reproducibility is not an indicator of whether a reform has been scaled up, but an abstract indicator of whether it can be scaled up.

In this article, I both challenge and supplement that prevailing view by focusing on the relevance of the content of educational reforms to their ability to be reproduced on a large scale. My purpose essentially is to pull something out of the “black box” of evaluating effectiveness of education reforms (Century, Rudnick, & Freeman, 2010, p. 199) and into the light: the role of the specific educational philosophical details of a given reform in its ability to be reproduced. The “fidelity of implementation” literature addresses program characteristics but tends to focus on structural rather than ideational characteristics—for example, how specific a curriculum plan is, rather than the nature of the goals of that curriculum (Stein et al., 2008, p. 371).

For the purposes of this study, I use the phrase model school to include any school whose function (though not necessarily its entire function) is to demonstrate an educational innovation in order that it may be adopted by some number of other schools in a wider school system (not necessarily the entire system). Because of the limited scope of all secondary education in the city of Chicago at the time, the organizers of the CMTS necessarily had more modest ambitions for its reproduction than some reformers might today when considering innovation in an urban school system. It is important to emphasize that the modeling function of a model school need not be its only purpose. A model school will also seek to educate its current students, serve their families, be a stable institution in a local community, or fulfill any number of other purposes. For this reason, it is possible to talk of a model school failing (i.e., failing to be reproduced) without in any way impugning the education that school’s students receive. Thus, I will characterize the CMTS as a failure as a model school, which is not to say it was a failure as a school per se.

I argue that the CMTS stands as an example not just of a failed model school but as an example of a variety of education reform that is particularly susceptible to model school failure: reform for moral education. I define moral education as any scheme to intentionally form the character or disposition of a student, because of the inherent value of that character or disposition in itself. Each aspect of this definition clarifies the position of moral education relative to other concepts. First, moral education, as I define it, excludes the vast, amorphous category of experiences children have that shape their character, which might simply be called “socialization.” What distinguishes moral education from other kinds of socialization is not necessarily the details of the practice itself, but the attitude of teachers and administrators (and often students) toward that practice: an attitude of intentionality and awareness of moral ends. Second, the educational practice must address character or disposition. Provided the final condition is met, that the character is valued for itself, then moral education can be understood as a larger heading for concepts that go by many other names in the education literature. It would thus include education for “non-cognitive skills,” “social problem solving” (Merrill, Smith, Cumming, & Daunic, 2017 ), “motivational dispositions” (Blumenfeld et al., 2000, p. 149), “social-emotional needs,” and the practice of building “children’s mental health normatively” (Elias et al., 2003, p. 304).

The third condition requires that the desired character or dispositional outcome be valued for itself, rather than for its instrumental value in bringing about another desired outcome, such as academic achievement. This criterion reveals that moral education is an ideal type. In practical situations, the division is quite soft between character that is valued for itself and character that is valued instrumentally. Teachers want their students to have good moral character and to use that good character to get ahead in the world. A classification of a given educational scheme as moral education therefore must be based on emphasis. In the example used in this article, manual training is considered moral education because its moral outcomes, valued for themselves, were what set the reform scheme apart from others current at the time (despite the manual training advocates’ simultaneous desire for nonmoral educational outcomes). Manual training advocates emphasized the inherent moral and intellectual value of manual labor. Skills gained in the workshop, such as “care, close observation, exactness, patience, and method” (Woodward, 1887, p. 207) could be transferred to academic work and, more important, to life in general. Skills like precision were equated with honesty. The entire experience was also meant to instill a liking for hard work and a respect for the dignity of manual labor. By learning firsthand the intellectual challenges of technical pursuits, the students would come to respect and value the place of industry and industrial laborers in society (CMTS, 1902).

At the time that the CMTS was founded, the national conversation about the possible functions of public education in American society was diverse, but that diversity diminished as the school system centralized and rationalized. The most fundamental premise of a centralized school system is, as David Tyack (1974) pointed out, that there is “one best system” for all students (or for all students within a few, easily differentiable groups). That premise is inextricably linked to the demand that reform efforts be systematizable: able to be boiled down to curricula and guidelines that can be implemented in spite of local variations in student populations, teacher ability, or funding levels, and that can then be assessed with “accountability” measures (see Duckworth & Yaeger, 2015, pp. 243–244). Those demands are inherently opposed to certain kinds of educational ideas. The inability of the CMTS to be reproduced was not incidental to the content of manual training philosophy; on the contrary, the holism and subtlety that were the heart of manual training are inherently incompatible with the kind of unambiguous, measurable education outcomes that are required for bringing education reform efforts “to scale.” Thus, the further we go along the path of hyperrationalization that Arthur Wise identified 40 years ago (Wise, 1977, pp. 43–57), the further we move away from the kinds of educational ideas represented by manual training, those that are aimed at holistic well-being. This article will suggest that our habit of privileging reproducibility has led to a steady waning of our educational reform ambitions.

The article will proceed in four sections. The first will present historical background on the manual training movement, the broader landscape of educational thought in which it emerged, and a chronology of the CMTS itself. The second and third sections will develop my concepts of intelligibility and measurability, using the CMTS for illustration. The final section will conclude by summarizing the lessons the CMTS presents and discussing their implications for our broader understanding of the process of school reform and the likely fate of moral-education schemes of various kinds.


Almost immediately after the introduction of the term manual training, its meanings began to diverge. Each style of manual training occupied a slightly different position in a complex landscape of educational thought and thus faced different challenges in its efforts to be understood and adopted. This section will (1) describe the origins and early divergences of manual training, (2) present a schematic backdrop of educational philosophy from the relevant period, and (3) introduce a chronology of the school I use as a case study, the Chicago Manual Training School.


When the phrase manual training first began to appear in educational discourse in the 1870s, it was exclusively associated with postsecondary engineering education. At the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) president John D. Runkle saw an exhibit of tool work exercises that had been produced in a classroom setting. Inspired by this revision to the time-consuming business of teaching the engineering and machining trades (Kliebard, 1999, p. 4), he founded a preparatory school attached to MIT, the School of Mechanic Arts, and began to try to convince public school administrators that apprenticeships in such trades could be replaced by instruction in hybrid shop-classrooms.

Runkle was primarily concerned with the quality and efficiency of engineering education and sought to both prepare students for work in the present and resurrect the work ethic and artisanal craftsmanship that characterized the preindustrial past (Kliebard, 1999, pp. 5–6). In an 1877 report to the Board of Education for the State of Massachusetts, Runkle suggested that manual training was “the means to elevate and dignify the labor of our country” (Runkle, 1877, as quoted in Bennett, 1937, pp. 340–341) and that the student who had been taught to revere manual work would then “apply his knowledge in production” (Bennett, 1937, p. 345).

It was not long before people began to consider manual training not just for engineering education but also as a component of general education. Calvin M. Woodward, a professor at the polytechnic school associated with Washington University, joined Runkle in the campaign for manual training but broke with Woodward in seeking to combine tool- and shop work with the more traditional academic instruction of a high school. He started his own manual training school in St. Louis, in which the students received instruction both in traditional academic subjects and shop work. Woodward’s lead was soon followed by the businessman Charles Ham, who began to advocate for such a school in his native Chicago. Ham was instrumental in recruiting Henry Belfield—then principal of Chicago’s North Division High School—to head the Chicago school. Whereas the potential for efficiency and production in widespread technical training interested Runkle, it was the social and moral potential of such an education that struck Woodward, Ham, and Belfield. In his inaugural address as director of the CMTS, Henry Belfield—seeking to contrast his school with European trade schools that sold the products of their shops—said, “the fact never ought to be lost sight of for an instant that the product of the school should be, not the polished article of furniture, not the perfect piece of machinery, but the polished, perfect boy” (Belfield, 1884, p. 10).

It is this variety of manual training, as a vehicle for moral education within an otherwise traditional secondary school, that is the subject of this article. It was in the books and speeches of Woodward and Ham that this form of manual training was most clearly articulated (Cremin, 1961; Kliebard, 1999; see especially Ham, 1886, and Woodward, 1887). In their reimagining of the potential of shop-classrooms for general secondary education, the disciplinary and moral (as opposed to vocational or economic) value of shop-work was brought to the fore, and manual training emerged as a distinct educational philosophy. Manual training advocates believed that habits of mind learned in one context could be applied in other contexts. For example, they thought the mental discipline required by advanced mathematics would be of use in a business career and that a tendency toward precision gained in the machine shop would make all of one’s thoughts and words more precise and direct. They believed that the knowledge and skills shop work would impart were of secondary importance compared to the dispositions and moral characters it would form. Thus, despite a superficial similarity to vocational training, or certain kinds of engineering education, manual training stood in opposition to the “utilitarian tendencies already gaining in the schools” (Cremin, 1961, p. 113; see also Lagemann, 1989, p. 211).

It should be pointed out again that the vision of manual training that Belfield held was not the only one in play at the time. It is also not the case that the founders and funders of the CMTS, the Chicago Commercial Club, agreed fully with Belfield that the purpose of the school was fundamentally for character building and dispositional training. It was Belfield and likeminded thinkers like Woodward who envisioned the CMTS becoming a specific model for public secondary schools in Chicago; Commercial Club members were more interested in the long-term promotion of industrial education in the public schools for the purposes of undermining labor unions (see Wrigley, 1982, p. 77). Indeed, over time, as Belfield became a more and more prominent advocate for his particular educational philosophy, and as the CMTS seemed to drift further and further from any possibility in bringing about the radical change in industrial training that the Commercial Club hoped for, they lost interest in the CMTS and eventually moved to legislative action as a means to achieve those ends (Rathnau, 1967, p. 237). It is also not the case that Belfield himself envisioned manual training being reproduced in every public school in the city: At the time, secondary schooling constituted a niche market, and Belfield’s ambitions for “scaling up” manual training would have been modest compared to our standards today.


To paint a full picture of the landscape of educational thought in which manual training arose is a task beyond the scope of a single article. This section will instead present four ideal-typical educational philosophies, which can be thought of as the ends of two axes, which were both particularly salient to manual training advocates at the time and can serve as a general overview of the terms of the educational philosophical conversation at the time. Ideas about the purposes of secondary education can be imagined to exist along a spectrum from traditionalist to vocationalist. Simultaneously, ideas about how engineering education should be conducted differed in whether they emphasized the “school” (that is, classroom instruction and exams leading to formal credentials) or the “shop” (that is, traditional apprenticeship-style technical education-by-doing; this distinction originates with Calvert, 1967). These four are not meant to completely cover the conceptual space of educational thought in this period, but rather serve as a general orientation; each type’s specific relation to manual training will be detailed in the Intelligibility of Outcomes section.

Traditionalism and Vocationalism

The manual training movement emerged in the early 1880s, at a time when national concern had reached fever pitch over how the public schools should respond to the rapidly changing demands of a growing population and industrializing economy. Whatever task people imagined for the schools––to Americanize, to socialize for a life of menial labor, to provide opportunities for upward mobility, or to fundamentally shift the social order––it had become clear to many that America’s public schools were not accomplishing it. Public schools, featuring the stiff recitation of rigidly separate subjects, were seen as increasingly irrelevant to modern life. The broad outlines of the story that follows are well known: People streamed into the cities from the country and from abroad, and urban school systems expanded and centralized. The logics of business and industry permeated American culture and the schools rationalized, elevating efficiency above other values and beginning the process of enshrining economic ends at the center of our national understanding of the purposes of public education (Callahan, 1962; Tyack, 1974; see also Grubb & Lazerson, 2004, p. 3). The ideas underlying manual training—especially of the variety advocated for by Henry Belfield—can perhaps be seen as progenitors of the diverse Progressive education reform efforts that would follow in later decades. Both movements attempted to bring education into closer connection to modern life––as David Tyack and Daniel Rodgers described the goals of the Progressives, “ventilating the cloistered schoolroom with an unfamiliar gust of reality” (Rodgers & Tyack, 1982, p. 273). Educational thinkers differed on which aspect of reality they felt was most needed, and a varied landscape of reform ideas resulted. To some reformers (eventually John Dewey would be the most prominent), the relevant reality was the curiosity and natural learning ability of individual children: schools should be structured to nurture that curiosity. Others saw the relevant reality as a child’s future occupational prospects: schools should prepare people to play efficient roles in the economy. To adherents of arts and crafts ideology, society had strayed too far from the authentic experience of preindustrial life: schools could recreate aspects of that authenticity for those weakened by their urban, industrial lives.

It is helpful to consider educational ideas in this period as existing on a spectrum between the view that to be educated was to have assimilated a standard body of knowledge, deemed valuable by the passage of time, and the view that to be educated was to be well prepared to take up a position in the modern economy. That tension, between received knowledge and practical skill, was at the heart of all the education reform debates of the decades surrounding the turn of the century (see Veysey, 1965, ch. 2). It would become the primary axis of education reform discussions in the first decades of the 20th century, but already in the 1880s, conversations turned on the same ideas. The terms of the debate were so similar to those of later years that it is reasonable to label the camps with the same terms: Teachers and educational thinkers who believed the new industrial order had no place in the schools I will refer to as traditionalists, whereas those who believed the new industrial order should be the primary organizing force of the schools I will refer to as vocationalists (Anderson, 1926, pp. 155–157; London, 1968, pp. 25–26).

This question of the primary purposes of the schools was made particularly salient by a crisis of school attendance. In the 1880s, compulsory education and child labor laws were absent or weak—in the latter case, largely because neither parents nor employers wanted them enforced. Not only did compulsory schooling laws face such opposing incentives, but in many cases, there was simply not room for more children in the schools. The Chicago public schools of 1886––the first year of compulsory schooling in that city––had seats for only one third of the children in the city legally required to attend. Many children were accommodated by private and parochial schools, but tremendous numbers of American youth left school by age 14 (Herrick, 1971, p. 58; Sola, 1972, pp. 70–72; Tyack, 1974, p. 84). Many believed that the irrelevance of traditional school subjects to modern life pushed students out of school, and many sought reform that would make schoolwork more appealing. C. R. Richards, a professor of industrial arts at Columbia’s Teachers College, described the target population as “boys who do not take kindly to book education, boys of a practical minded temper” (“Industrial Education—Industrial Supremacy,” 1908, p. 20).

In 1884, the state superintendent of schools in California wrote that compulsory schooling was necessary to “save [citizens] from the rapidly increasing herd of non-producers” and that “labor schools, school ships, industrial and technical schools” should be established so that those children could be taught “how to work” (as quoted in Tyack 1974, p. 69). At their most extreme, vocationalist educators wanted the schools to explicitly prepare students to be employed in manufacturing, and traditionalist educators shunned any manual or technical instruction in the schools.

Shop and School

While the traditionalists and vocationalists argued about the overall purpose of the schools, a more contained discussion was occurring in engineering education circles (the following relies on Calvert, 1967). Reconstruction America suffered many anxieties over industrial competitiveness. As the turn of the century approached, such anxieties incorporated both specific fear of competition from Germany and general anti-unionism on the part of manufacturers, which was often disguised as a lament for the disappearing days of the preindustrial apprenticeship. Inspired in part by admiration for Germany’s highly regimented system of trade education, many believed that the solution to any and all of these problems was reformed technical education. Though allied with the vocationalists, whose efforts were focused on the elementary and secondary levels, many practicing engineers began to concern themselves with the postsecondary or professional education of the most elite of technological workers––the mechanical engineers.

The question of the superiority of the university classroom or of the entrepreneur’s shop for training mechanical engineers was at heart a question of whether engineering expertise could be systematized and put in curricula and textbooks, or if some part of it relied on the personal and intangible experience of the shop. Many engineers––who would soon come to consider themselves professional engineering educators––believed that the systemization of engineering education in universities was the best way to simultaneously democratize the profession and ensure its continued high status. These “school culture” advocates were in the contradictory position of wanting to replace the classical college curriculum with one that was directly practical, but also wanting the prestige of a formal credential. To them, the ideal engineering education ought to include neither the lowest spheres of learning (i.e., the manual skill of the mechanic or machinist), nor the impractical studies of a classical college curriculum. Mathematics and science were the order of the day, realms in which engineering talent could be systematically recognized and rewarded.

Opposed to this formalization of engineering education was “shop culture,” representing the self-made route to the elite ranks of engineering. Shop culture advocates believed the environment of the shop was the best way to identify future elite engineers, because of various intangible aspects of the experience of working in the shop. It was imagined that the business demands of the shop would ensure quality and precision, the mixing of masters and apprentices would foster respect for the moral value of labor and for one’s fellow worker, and the future engineer would design thoughtfully and well, having had intimate personal experience with machining and manufacturing processes.2 At the pitch of both of these debates about the nature of education, the Chicago Manual Training School was founded, representing the moral education style of manual training, which was a subtle compromise among all these extremes.


The CMTS was founded by the Commercial Club of Chicago, a group of the city’s most elite businessmen and industrialists, many of whom saw the city of Chicago as a kind of personal project (DiMaggio, 2010, p. 220). A group of archetypal wealthy reformers, the club met monthly for rich meals and self-congratulatory talks (see Glessner, 1910; Lears, 1994, p. 4). On March 25, 1882, the after-dinner talk was entitled “The Need for a School of Industrial Training in Chicago.” That very night, Marshall Field subscribed $20,000 for the founding of a school, and the rest of the club quickly raised the additional funds (Johnson, 1977, p. 122). They purchased a plot of land at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Twelfth Street, constructed a building, and enticed Henry Belfield––already a well-known advocate of manual training––to direct the new school.

The club instructed Belfield specifically to use the same textbooks as the city schools in order to keep them in “harmonious connection” (Rathnau, 1967, p. 76). In Belfield’s 1888 report to the trustees, he listed nine schools that he believed had, in the preceding year, felt the influence of the CMTS (Board of the Chicago Manual Training School, 1888). A Tribune article, reporting on the meeting of the Commercial Club in which the plan to form the school was first decided on, explained that one aim of manual training was, “as it ought to be, to make such schools supplementary to the present system of public schools, and thus give a practical turn to public education.” The author envisioned the CMTS eventually becoming the flagship institution of a citywide system of manual training schools and “supplementing the grammar schools as the high schools now do” (“The Chicago Manual Training School,” 1882).

After conducting entrance examinations, the school opened for the spring semester of 1884. It was widely praised and educated the sons of many of the city’s elite. But the school operated at a deficit, dependent on the Commercial Club’s continued support. By the mid-1890s, the Commercial Club’s interest in and patience with the CMTS were waning (Rathnau, 1967, p. 237). They offered to make a gift of the school to the University of Chicago. William Rainey Harper, the new university’s young president, was eager to take the school, hoping that its $50,000 scholarship fund, building, lot, equipment, and teachers could be cannibalized to help him start a new school of technology. By the time the agreement was finalized in the summer of 1897, it had become clear that the university would, contrary to Harper’s original plan, be forced to continue to operate the CMTS as a secondary school. The CMTS was thus attached to John Dewey’s Laboratory Schools, and the school of technology never materialized (“Harper Has a New Gift,” 1896; Storr, 1966, p. 133).

Belfield continued to run the school at its original location until 1903, when facilities on the University of Chicago campus were completed. Beginning with the 1904–1905 school year, the CMTS was subsumed under the new University High School, at which time the manual training classes became optional extracurricular activities. Intended as a hobby to refresh the mind from more serious and valuable work, this was the form in which shop classes would live on in elite private schools across the country, and it was deeply disappointing to Henry Belfield. In his opinion, proper moral and cultural education couldn’t be achieved with an occasional class in intellectual isolation from other subjects. To his mind, “the general culture, intellectual and moral, of the pupil” was “inseparably connected with the acquirement of technical skill” (MacClintock to Harper; MacClintock, 1904).

Not long after the CMTS was thus dismantled, shop classes found their place in the public schools as well: as part of increasingly differentiated curricula, where students were tracked toward either vocational or academic programs. While Belfield’s heart was breaking over the loss of his school, the Commercial Club was presenting their original support of the CMTS as evidence of their reforming zeal, lobbying in the Illinois legislature for the creation of separately administered public vocational schools that would increase the supply of nonunion, skilled workers. Over the course of the time that the CMTS was in operation, the movement for incorporating vocational education into American public schools in this way gained speed and strength. The Commercial Club’s efforts in Illinois did not succeed but were then superseded by the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917, which enshrined vocational instruction at the federal level. By that time, the phrase manual training had lost all its association with character-building general education and was essentially synonymous with “vocational education.” The particular style of manual training embodied by the CMTS was lost in the cacophony of competing educational ideas in this period (cf. Stombaugh, 1936, p. 20; Cremin, 1961, pp. 23-26; Kliebard, 1999).


Manual training, as implemented by the CMTS, was an attempt at moral education. CMTS teachers and administrators sought to form the dispositions and character of the boys in the school, instilling a tendency toward honesty and a reverence for labor. Belfield and other manual training theorists devised this understanding of education precisely because their desired mixture of dispositional and academic training was not available in either traditional schools or vocational schools. Manual training’s ambiguous compromise between those extremes, therefore, is not incidental to manual training philosophy, but at its very heart. Its value lay in its subtlety, a subtlety contemporary educationists were not ready or able to perceive.

Necessary though not sufficient to the successful reproduction of a model school are two aspects of the transparency of outcomes: (1) the clarity of the desired or intended educational outcomes and (2) the ability to assess the degree of their achievement, both in the model school and in reproduction schools. This section will explore the first requirement—intelligibility—considering how and why the desired outcomes of manual training never became clear to the larger educational community.

The concept of intelligibility has overlap with a term like specification (D. K. Cohen & Ball 1999, p. 19), in that it references the content of a particular reform scheme, but unlike specification, it is purposefully a relational term. It includes not just the articulation or specificity of the content of the reform (Desimone, 2002, p. 459), but also how able various audiences will be to understand that content, given the intellectual milieu in which they are situated. This relational aspect of intelligibility makes it historically contingent. The same educational idea may be more readily understood in different time periods.

In the particular intellectual milieu of education reform in the 1880s and 1890s, the deliberate compromises of manual training combined with general ambivalence on the part of its progenitors to perpetuate confusion. Like so much of American thought in that period, manual training philosophy was deeply ambivalent about the new industrial order. This ambivalence comes across strikingly in a description of the CMTS from the ambitiously titled Manual Training: The Solution of Social and Industrial Problems:

Smoke issues from the chimney-stack, and the hum and whir of machinery is heard, and the heavy thud of the sledge-hammer resounding in the anvil smites the ear. Up and down the boulevard, as far as the eye can reach, stretch miles of brick, stone, and marble dwellings; and to the north-east, through the branches of wide-spreading elms, there is a view of the great inland sea on whose bosom floats the commerce of an empire.

Has the secret of making diamonds been discovered, and this is the inventor’s factory?

No. This is a school; the school of the future; the school that is to dignify labour; the school that is to generate power; the school where every sound contributes to the harmony of development, where the brain informs the muscle, where thought directs every blow, where the mind, the eye, and the hand constitute an invincible triple alliance. This is the school that Locke dreamed of, that Bacon wished for, that Rousseau described, and that Comenius, Pestalozzi, and Froebel struggled in vain to establish.

It is, then, a diamond factory after all. . . . It is the philosopher’s stone in education. (Ham, 1886, pp. 1–2)

Here we have reverence for the mechanical, but not necessarily that of the factory. There is reverence for the city, but with a stately, almost pastoral air. The work described––with brain, eye, and hand in alliance––is not assembly-line drudgery, but craft. Manual training is presented as the long-awaited heir to the great educational philosophers.3 It was intended to appeal to manufacturers looking for better ways to produce skilled workers (better, that is, than union-controlled apprenticeships) and to appeal to the broader education reform community, much of which was concerned primarily with pedagogy. It had a distinctive air of antimodernism, of a longing for a time when “life, work, and education were inseparable” (Lazerson & Grubb, 1974, p. 7; see also Lears, 1994, ch. 2). It was both a reaction to and an embrace of industrialization.

Manual training advocates welcomed the new industrial order but sought both to shape it through education and to use it as a tool of education, a position of greater subtlety than any other at the time. Traditionalists were unambiguously resistant to the changes that industrialization threatened and wanted to preserve the classical academic and status-granting purposes of education. To them, manual training was no different from vocationalism, and they condemned the two alike as the materialization of education. Vocationalists were unambiguously welcoming to the new industrial order, and more than happy to reduce the purposes of education––for the masses at least––to straightforward economic efficiency. They mostly made the same conflation as traditionalists and believed manual training to be part of their larger movement. Similarly, education historians have generally seen manual training as either vocationalism itself or an imperfect precursor to it (Krug, 1964, pp. 9-15; Wrigley, 1982, p. 50; Spring, 1997, p. 233; Kliebard, 1999, ch. 2; see also Cuban, 1992; the exception is Lazerson & Grubb, 1974). Such confusions obscure the failure of manual training and thus obscure a particular aspect of the demands of reproducibility: their intolerance of philosophically subtle reform agendas.

This section is in two parts, each considering how manual training related to the each axis of the educational landscape, as described in the Manual Training in Context section.


From the perspective of traditionalists, manual training’s opposition to the status quo and its concern with students of a “practical minded temper” made it difficult to distinguish from other strains of reform that were emerging at this time. At the same time, from the perspective of vocationalists, manual training appeared to be an ally, despite it being, as understood by the likes of Woodward and Belfield, specifically opposed to narrow trade education. Manual training occupied an intermediate position between traditionalism and vocationalism, but one that was never successfully conveyed by manual training advocates.

Manual training advocates, especially Belfield, were often reminding people of this intermediate position. Manual training was not “merely the training of the hand and arm” that was going on in “the great majority of European trade-schools” (Woodward, 1883, p. 202), but was concerned with the unification of the training of the hand and arm with the training of the mind. The frequency of this refrain indicates the prevalence of the conflation of manual training with trade training. Belfield explained that trade schools aimed for “knowledge of materials and processes, and skill in the use of hand and machine tools, with the purpose of using the knowledge and skill thus acquired in obtaining a livelihood.” Manual training, in contrast, had “for its prime object the general culture, intellectual and moral, of the pupil, although it is inseparably connected with the acquirement of technical skill.” To Belfield, technical skill provided valuable mental exercise that was beneficial to general development. Unlike the trade school student, who “enters it with the express purpose of fitting himself for the particular profession or trade,” the manual training student “learns algebra and trigonometry, primarily for their disciplinary value” (Belfield, n.d., “Beginnings of Manual Training”). In other words, it was irrelevant whether or not the boy would go on to use trigonometry in his work, because the habits of mind acquired through trigonometry were valuable in themselves. This sentiment was repeated again to CMTS parents: “education, not manufacture, is the idea underlying the manual training” (CMTS, n.d.).

Belfield spent much of his career clarifying his aims and correcting misunderstandings. At a conference on school administration in 1888, Belfield explained to the gathering that “it is an erroneous notion that a manual training school is a trade school. The best equipped manual training schools do not profess to take the place of an apprenticeship. They teach the rudiments of several trades, and develop intellectual power to acquire several trades easily” (U.S. Bureau of Education, 1888, p. 39). In response to a solicitation for advice on an industrial training scheme, Belfield explained to Charles Payne, then president of Ohio Wesleyan, that “the term ‘industrial training’ has such a wide meaning and so many meanings, that I am almost at a loss to know how to reply to your questions within the limits of a letter. . . . I conclude that you have in mind industrial training with an industrial object in view, and not, as we have here, training of eye and hand for purely educational purposes” (as quoted in Rathnau, 1967, p. 228).

Vocationalists, with a similar “industrial object” in view, understood manual training to be a part of their opposition to traditionalism and expressed betrayal when schools like the CMTS did not seem to be making progress toward bringing industrial education into widespread use in the public schools. The 1906 report of the Douglass Commission of Massachusetts reads in part,

[manual training] has been urged as a cultural subject mainly useful as a stimulus to other forms of intellectual effort–––a sort of mustard relish, an appetizer–––to be conducted without reference to any industrial end. It has been severed from real life as completely as have the other school activities. Thus it has come about that the over-mastering influences of school traditions have brought into subjugation both drawing and the manual work. (Rathnau, 1973, p. 26)

The author of the report clearly recognized the proposed justifications of manual training but still faulted it for them. The same sentiment was repeated by C. R. Richards, who declared that manual training schools “now realize that they had been stopping short of their destiny. They had done more perhaps than was justified . . . on the basis of culture, and not enough on the ground of vocation” (“Industrial Education—Industrial Supremacy,” 1908, p. 21). In a 1910 National Education Association report, it was suggested that manual training had become “a pedagogical anachronism of little economic value” and that American manufacturers had lost faith in its ability to prepare people for the trades (Rathnau, 1973, p. 26).

To vocationalist reformers, manual training fell short of the industrial ideal, and to traditionalists, it sullied the scholarly character of the schools with what they perceived to be trade training. The extreme resistance of some traditionalists is represented in remarks by Thomas Gray, then president of the Minnesota State Normal School, which Belfield recorded in his own notes:

In the name of Christian manhood and womanhood of the coming generation, in the name of our illustrious statesmen and patriots, in the name of the glorious company of apostles, and saints, and writers, and thinkers, and philosophers, whose priceless wealth we inherit, I protest against the gross materializing attempt of the modern iconoclasts who masquerade under the name of friends to our boys and girls. . . . European Sabbath breaking, nihilism, spite at law and order, enmity towards capital, and manual training in the public schools [are] of the same unrighteous brood. (Belfield, n.d., “Beginnings of Manual Training”)  

Despite their repeated insistence, manual training advocates like Woodward and Belfield were not able to convey their vision of the subtle compromise between these positions that manual training represented. The term manual training survived—indeed, as the turn of the century approached, cities and states all over the country adopted programs they labeled as such (see State of Massachusetts, 1906, p. 14; Rathnau, 1973, p. 24)—but it gradually lost the specific meaning that it had in schools like the CMTS, where it was a means of moral education. Generally, when manual training programs were implemented in public schools, they consisted of the addition of shop classes to an already established curriculum (Anderson, 1926, p. 164).

Manual training as moral education, featuring the correlation between subjects and the requirement that manual work be done by every child, regardless of his other ambitions, did not survive as shop classes became either part of trade training or an extracurricular hobby of elites (cf. Lears, 1994, pp. 64–65). By the early years of the new century, the distinctive features of manual training as moral education were subsumed by the steady loss of distinction between terms used to describe technical education.4

Manual training was a reaction to the demands of a rapidly industrializing society, but it was a reaction that sought to develop dispositions and attitudes, rather than particular skills, that were suited to that new society. The attempt of manual training advocates to holistically combine the intellectual and economic purposes of schooling failed in an adversarial landscape of educational thought. Neither traditionalists nor vocationalists knew how to classify manual training, and thus both perceived it as a threat.


Manual training also occupied an intermediate position in the debates over whether elite engineers should be educated in shops or in schools. It was from this debate that manual training first emerged, and here too it occupied the middle ground: not a clear and appealing middle ground, but an ambiguous middle ground that, rather than striking both sides as a reasonable compromise, was mistaken by both sides as their enemies’ position.

Of our four poles––traditionalism, vocationalism, school culture, and shop culture––the CMTS itself perhaps came closest to shop culture because of its idealization of mechanical engineering as the modern profession that most exemplified the preindustrial ideals of masculine productivity. CMTS students’ shop work culminated in machining, having progressed through carpentry and forge work. About 50% of CMTS graduates did not go on to college, and many of those worked in shops where no doubt some of them followed time honored shop-culture paths to advancement (CMTS, 1901; University High School, 1904). School culture reformers believed that engineers required neither a liberal education nor the manual skills of the mechanic or machinist. Boys at the CMTS got both. They spent half their days in classrooms and half their days in shops. This characteristic division of the day was mandatory for all students and consistent across the life of the school (CMTS, 1889, 1894; University High School, 1907, 1911). The appeal of shop culture ideas was widespread. Even Frederick W. Taylor, patron saint of systemization, believed that when it came to training for technical professions, “one learned things better from a few knocks on the head than from an engineering book” (Calvert, 1967, p. 67). For CMTS students, it was a false choice: One could read in the morning and be knocked on the head in the shop in the afternoon.  

Despite its obvious allegiances to shop culture, the CMTS was also plainly sympathetic to some aspects of school culture. Far from resisting trends toward credentialism, the school sent high numbers of graduates to the nation’s new engineering schools. CMTS graduates were granted admission automatically to many schools, including the mechanical engineering school at Purdue. That program and the program of Cornell’s Sibley College accounted for huge proportions of CMTS matriculations. In the 1880s and 1890s, Sibley and Purdue took 30% or more of college-bound CMTS graduates in all but four years. In the most extreme example, fully 70% of those members of the class of 1897 who earned college degrees earned them at either Purdue or Cornell (University High School, 1904; see also Rathnau, 1967, p. 215). Many attended other schools, but a plurality of CMTS alumni throughout the history of the school earned engineering degrees. At the time of catalog publication in 1901, of the 658 living alumni who had returned the school’s inquiry card, 26% were either working as engineers or in school for engineering (CMTS, 1901).

Thus the CMTS had a hybrid culture, one that valued academic rigor and believed manual skills could be taught in a classroom setting, but also implicitly participating in a culture of elite labor that was tied up with the intangible benefits of working with your hands. Both elements of that culture contributed to the school’s nonreproducibility by making its position relative to other movements ambiguous.

As Monte Calvert pointed out (1967), the conflict between shop culture and school culture was a microcosm of the conflicts between traditional, entrepreneurial businesses and bureaucratic corporations. In the same way that the shop work of the CMTS occupied a middle ground between “shop” and “school,” the school as a whole occupied a middle ground between the conservative ideal of the academically focused school and the vocationalist vision of technical education for the masses. The relative ambiguity of manual training in the context of educational thought was not incidental to its desired outcomes. On the contrary, its attempt to combine the best elements of other strains of thought was at the heart of its educational philosophy. Its attempt to educate the person as a whole moral entity, rather than a vessel for practical skill or traditional knowledge, is both the characteristic that classifies it as moral education and the characteristic that made it unintelligible to the educational community more broadly.

Eventually, school culture triumphed over shop culture in the battle over how to conduct engineering training (Calvert, 1967, p. 281), and the forces of efficiency and rationalization came to dominate the American public education system. The particular goals of the manual training movement, so carefully poised between the more extreme positions of the time, were too subtle to be readily assimilated. It did not meet the most basic requirements of school reform: that the core idea of the reform be widely understood.

Manual training’s intermediate position between vocationalism, traditionalism, shop-based, and school-based models of engineering education made it difficult for observers to identify a single educational practice or philosophy. Because the rapidly centralizing school system needed reforms to be communicated systematically among schools, the very process of reproduction was biased in favor of reforms where the necessary practices were easy to delineate and the underlying philosophy was easy to explain. But because manual training, of the style illustrated by the CMTS, was primarily moral education, its practices and philosophy were inherently ambiguous.

The case of the CMTS thus illustrates how thoroughly the project of school reproduction is premised on the existence of an intelligible educational practice or philosophy. For an intended intervention to be reproduced with fidelity (Harn, Parisi, & Stoolmiller, 2013), the original intention must be discernible. Locating that core of practice and philosophy is thus the first task before any model school can be reproduced. Boundaries must be drawn around the parts of that model school that are necessary and those that are locally contingent and incidental to the desired educational outcomes.


Measurability is a property of the desired outcomes of an educational reform and constitutes those outcomes’ ability to be assessed and compared across some unit of analysis, such as schools, classrooms, or individual students. It does not speak to the preference of any people for any given outcomes, but the ability of those outcomes to be assessed at all. Like intelligibility, it is a theoretical construct. I do not argue that educators at the CMTS understood their attempted reforms in these terms, but rather that these terms can help us retrospectively understand why those reforms failed, and thus consider the demands of reproducibility more broadly. Provided that a set of desired educational outcomes has been communicated, for a model school reform effort to be successfully reproduced, it is then necessary for the achievement or nonachievement of those outcomes to be assessed. This occurs twice, first in the model school, as a proof of concept, and then in the schools that follow the model. In the case of the CMTS, this proof of concept never occurred. Two factors undermined the possibility of clear assessment of outcomes: the selection of students into the school, and the inherent unmeasurability of the desired outcomes.


Manual training did not succeed in clearly communicating what it was about, but even if its specific educational goals had been well and widely understood, the CMTS would still have failed as a model school because its student selection processes made a muddle of any causal relationship between those educational outcomes and the day-to-day practices of the school. “Model school” reform, being based on transferring a particular practice to another group of students, requires that the educational outcomes that made the practice desirable in the first place not be dependent on the particular students of the model school. Through its admission and disciplinary practices, the CMTS prescreened for the precise characteristics it claimed to impart. Thus, rather than demonstrating the power of a manual training curriculum to change students, it demonstrated that an easy way for a school to embody high scholarship, manual skill, and good character was to select students who had already demonstrated academic achievement, enjoyment of manual work, and personal integrity.

The CMTS was elite in part because, at that time, all high schools were elite. In the late 19th century, most American children left school not when they had completed a particular grade, but when their families could no longer spare their labor or wages. The rhetoric of the national manual training movement, rather than recognizing the economic circumstances that necessitated low attendance, blamed dull and irrelevant traditional school subjects for having driven students away. Both manual training and various vocational education programs were suggested as beneficial for that part of the population that was benefitting least from traditional schools, whom C. R. Richards, secretary of the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education, described as “boys who do not take kindly to book education, boys of a practical minded temper” (as quoted in Sola, 1972, p. 72). Manual training shop work would provide the “stimulating mental activity” and change of pace that would hold students’ attention (Belfield, 1884, p. 9). Yet the CMTS students were not those who had left school out of boredom; they had not left school at all. The CMTS did not have a population of students at all analogous to the population that the expansion of manual training was intended to aid.

In 1890, only 5.6% of American 14- to 17-year-olds were in high school. Enrollment didn’t reach 50% (including enrollment in private high schools) until 1930 (Hess, 2010, p. 178). All high schools at the time also had some degree of student selection. The CMTS had an examination in “reading, spelling, writing, geography, English composition, and the fundamental operations of arithmetic as applied to integers, common and decimal fractions, and denominate numbers.” A short essay demonstrated “ability to use the English language correctly” (CMTS, 1883). The presence of an exam is not itself evidence of the CMTS’s selectivity, because at the time, the city’s public high schools had entrance examinations too. More indicative of the particular demands of the CMTS was its application form.

The school’s application form changed slightly over the life of the school, but its general style and tone was consistently that of establishing a prospective student’s attitude toward his education. Manual training was an educational philosophy that was all about attitude. The form addressed more than just academic or manual aptitude. Each boy had to provide a character reference, a list of books he had read lately, and his father’s occupation. He had to declare whether or not he used tobacco or profane language, and answer the question, “Is it your intention, if admitted to this school, to conform to all its requirements cheerfully, to abstain from all conduct calculated to bring discredit upon yourself, your parents or the school, and to make the best possible use of your time?” Such a question was not there to obtain an answer––indeed, every boy said yes––but to make plain the culture of the school (CMTS, 1886, 1896).

The philosophy of manual training was about inculcating boys into a culture that valued manual skill and technical expertise as a necessary complement to traditional academic achievement. Yet the CMTS did not put that philosophy to the test because it began by selecting students who already were part of that culture, such that their mission of inculcation could not fail. At no point did Belfield acknowledge his understanding of this irony. On the contrary, he was proud that “admission was by examination only,” failing to see how this undermined the school’s ability to serve as a model. In unpublished retrospective notes, he recalled that “idlers and weaklings, if by any chance admitted, were promptly dismissed,” and “boys showing immoral tendencies were removed as soon as their true characters were revealed” (Belfield, n.d., “Beginnings of Manual Training”).  

Belfield unceremoniously dismissed students he believed to be unsuitable. Boys were often dismissed after a single offense or for general personal deficiencies, and usually with a very brief letter from Belfield to the parent. A typical memorandum reads, in its entirety,

Dear Sir, During the month which your son Joseph has been a member of this school I have been led to conclude that his character is such that he is not a boy that we desire to keep. You will therefore oblige me by withdrawing him from the school immediately. (Belfield, “Letter to unknown parent,” 1889)

Such a method, while no doubt effective in preserving an orderly environment at the CMTS, was a luxury not allowed to public schools.

In the process of replicating a given educational reform, student selection is an epistemological problem. It is not just that in selecting students, you may be excluding disadvantaged populations—though that idea has been widely remarked on. For example, there is not consensus on how charter school populations compare with regular district school populations, but many have concluded that for various reasons, charter school populations are easier to educate (see Garcia, McIlroy, & Barber, 2008, pp. 201–203). But by selecting students, you muddy the waters of causality. Student selection may contribute to (or entirely account for) your desired educational outcomes. This problem is only compounded when the selection is with reference to the very characteristics that are your desired educational outcomes. In striving to make a great school, Belfield selected great students. The CMTS claimed to produce academically accomplished, well-rounded boys of excellent character, but its admission practices suggest that most of the boys came into the school that way. Through some combination of what the students brought and what the school gave, the CMTS achieved local success. But it seems Belfield did not carefully consider how that kind of success was to be translated in reproduction.

Henry Belfield and other manual training advocates did not talk about bringing manual training “to scale,” but they were facing the same essential challenges that the term brings to mind today. Of the specific challenges I have identified that limited the reproduction of the CMTS, the problem of student selection is the one most commonly addressed by contemporary studies of model school reforms. Debates rage on over how charter school populations compare with their district counterparts, whether charter schools skim the cream of the “more advantaged of the disadvantaged” (Carnoy, Jacobsen, Mishel, & Rothstein, 2002, p. 46). There is not consensus on this point, given that it seems both to vary by charter school and to be difficult to positively identify in any situation. Thus, rather than clarifying the causes of a charter school’s success, it adds yet another potentially unknowable variable.


In the 1880s and 1890s, manual training advocates would not have spoken of the measurement of educational outcomes as we do now. The true scientization of American education, so ably recounted by Lagemann (2000), was yet to come. My claim that the reproduction of model schools demands measurable outcomes and that the moral education goals of a school like the CMTS were not measurable is an analytic claim, an imposition of a theoretical construct onto a historical case. It is presentist in that sense, but this theoretical construct—in addition to making the case of the CMTS relevant to our current understanding of how education reform functions—sheds new light on the fate of manual training reforms themselves, even if it is not presented in language those reformers would have used.  

If the specific desired educational outcomes of a particular reform agenda can be readily identified––a criterion manual training did not meet––it is still necessary to identify and determine the causes of those educational outcomes. Contemporary education scholars operate with a wide variety of conceptions of the plausibility––and even the desirability––of making such a determination (see Phillips, 2006, 2009). This is the central epistemological problem of all education research and reform. In the case of the CMTS, student selection procedures already introduced significant uncertainty, but in this section, I suggest that the real unmeasurability of manual training’s goals inhered in the nature of those goals.

The logic of the model school requires that a reproduction be able to tolerate unavoidable differences in local context, be they different student demographics, different teacher abilities and dispositions, or different funding levels. A reform must be boiled down to that which can travel across those differences and remain effective. This is a hopeless project if effectiveness itself cannot be established. This dependence on measurability is perhaps the most instructive feature of the demands of reproducibility, for it is what limits the nature of our educational ambitions. The measurability of a particular educational outcome is not an incidental feature––it is not something that can always be overcome with technology or methodological innovation––it is deeply, inexorably tied to the content of the outcomes themselves. Manual training didn’t fail to survive because of exogenous forces alone. The broader changes taking place in our national understanding of the meaning of public education were biased against the kind of reform manual training called for. The holism of manual training philosophy made it inherently unmeasurable.

Manual training’s emphasis on the correlation of subjects and its idealization of craftsmanship and manual work––those things that most distinguished it from both vocationalism and the new styles of engineering education––were its least tangible aspects. Far from being preparation for a particular trade, manual training was meant to be preparation for life and thus was a tangled mix of intellectual, moral, and physical training. More than simply passing down a received canon of knowledge, the CMTS sought to correlate that knowledge with practical skills. Rather than simply preparing people to take particular roles in the industrial economy, or trying to crank out as many trained engineers as possible, the CMTS sought to preserve the culture of the machine shop and all the pride, status, and reverence for craftsmanship that entailed; it sought to form men with a particular attitude toward manual work. Rather than seeking to preserve that shop culture at all costs, the CMTS also embraced the scientific and mathematical knowledge that could increase the prestige and authority of technical workers. The CMTS was a great compromise but entailed subtlety and complexity to a degree that would prove impossible to replicate.

The hand work of the CMTS was to teach students “to respect labour, and to reverence true manhood, whatever may be its outer garb” (Belfield, 1884, pp. 13–14). Belfield’s own translation of the motto of the school (mente atque manu ad virtutem), “through brain and hand to manhood” (Belfield, n.d., “Beginnings of Manual Training”), shows how the manual work of the CMTS curriculum was not meant to prepare anyone for a trade or increase the supply of skilled laborers, but, most fundamentally, to turn boys into men in a society where the mechanisms of that process were increasingly a source of anxiety. The idealization of manual labor cannot effectively be separated from this masculine ideal.

Were CMTS students properly appreciating the connections between all their academic subjects? Were they gaining a reverence for “true manhood”? Such skill- and attitude-based educational goals are dramatically more difficult to identify than the assimilation of content. Belfield hoped for connections among kinds of knowledge to be made in the minds of the students, and the subtlety of those connections was a mark of their success. Manual training sought particularly unmeasurable outcomes, but through its example, we can see how, in general, variation in the visibility of different kinds of educational outcomes leads to variation in their measurability. Thus, reproduction of a model school depends not just on, for example, the administrative structures of the school or teacher incentives (Elmore, 1996), but on the specific content of the model school’s educational philosophy. Moral educational goals are inherently less measurable and thus less likely to be successfully disseminated by a model school style of reform.


The case of the CMTS reveals not just a particular effort at education reform that could not be scaled up, but a category of reform that is incompatible with the demands of the process of scaling up. For an educational reform—as embodied in a model school—to be reproduced, that reform must be intelligible relative to other educational ideas current at the time, and the desired outcomes must be measurable.

Intelligibility is a historically contingent feature of a reform plan in that the context of the educational discourse at the time determines people’s ability to perceive the proposed reform as distinct and understandable. Moral education reforms are particularly likely to be unintelligible because of their tendency to focus on subtle aspects of students’ inner lives. The more highly rationalized a given society’s discourse of educational philosophy, the less likely a moral education intervention is to be intelligible. The CMTS’s particular blend of educational philosophy was ambiguous in relation to other strains of reform current at the time. Parents, members of the public, and other educational theorists and reformers frequently confused and conflated manual training with other schemes.

Measurability, on which all assessment of outcomes depends, is inherent in a given model school, both in its structure—for example, its methods of student selection—and in its content. At the CMTS, the student body was selected in such a way as to obscure the causal relationship between the practices of the school and its educational outcomes. Admission and disciplinary practices meant that the student body was elite in every way, particularly––and ironically––in all of the characteristics that the school set out to encourage. Most important for my argument here, manual training’s moral education outcomes were by their nature not easily measurable. The school intended to use “the influence of physical labour and manual skill” to form “sterling character” (Belfield, 1887, p. 372), a process too subtle and a goal too holistic to be reduced to easily observable practices and results.

The CMTS existed at the start of the most intense period of standardization and bureaucratization in the history of American schools. The landscape of competing ideas that was beginning to be articulated by manual training theorists in the final decades of the 19th century would develop into much more coherent movements in the first decades of the 20th century. Under the broad banner of progressivism, reformers of that period demanded that subjects of obvious practical use to students be taught in schools. Simultaneously, the administrators of university schools of education demanded that research of obvious practical use to school administrators be conducted in their institutions (Tyack, 1974, pp. 127, 136–137). These demands were part and parcel of one ethos of pragmatism, efficiency, and the elevation of the model of natural science. Many reformers imagined that just as you could use scientific methods to parse a manufacturing process and then scale it up to a factory assembly line, one could use scientific methods to parse a successful school and scale it up to serve the growing masses of children.

The leaders of the CMTS invoked the metaphor of the small artisan’s shop to explain the local success of their school—as it inspired tremendous loyalty in its alumni and their families—and they did not see the irony that the same artisanal methods and subtle goals that would make the school such a tremendous success at the level of its own classrooms would make it a dismal failure as the vanguard of citywide reform. In addition to its failure to be reproduced, the school itself remained in operation for only 20 years before being absorbed by another school that abandoned its primary logic: the combination of academic work with shop work. This more particular institutional failure was the result of particular historical circumstances. The CMTS was a victim of larger projects of the Commercial Club and the University of Chicago, entities that found the educational philosophy of manual training uninteresting rather than unintelligible. The Commercial Club’s waning enthusiasm for the school and the movement’s failure on the national stage both might also be attributable to the growing prominence of other balms for the educational anxieties of the time. In this same period, the number and enrollments of elite preparatory schools were multiplying (Baltzell, 1964, p. 127), and many of those schools were increasingly emphasizing the character-forming role of athletics (see Bungaard, 2005; Putney, 2003; and, in the British case, Mangan, 1981). In the fight against the weakening effects of urban affluence, Commercial Club members may have seen the playing fields of Groton or St. Paul’s as a more appealing weapon than the class-ambiguous work of the school shop. In the final years of the CMTS as an individual institution, the Commercial Club was also beginning to turn its attention to advocacy for state-level legislation that would institute public vocational training schools.5

The metaphor of the school as factory is no longer as resonant as it was in the time of the CMTS, as some aspects of the progressive pedagogy that thrived in the decades after the CMTS have become standard practice, and charter schools push the boundaries of local innovation. The kind of entrepreneurial attitude toward education held by the CMTS can be present in any kind of school. Individual teachers and administrators, even within highly bureaucratized public school systems, can treat their work more like craftsmanship than manufacturing. Yet the simultaneous success (in providing valued education to its students) and failure (to be reproduced) of the CMTS can also serve to remind us that however much the entrepreneurial attitude can thrive at the level of individual schools and classrooms, the industrial mindset lives on in the study of education reform: in its language and, most especially, in its scientistic demands (see Heckman & Montera, 2009, p. 1331). The process of taking any successful program and “scaling up” to a curriculum or policy that can be implemented across a large school system demands simplification and standardization. If individual teachers bring more to the classroom, it is precisely they, and not the standardized curriculum, that are the source of that “more.”

The failure of the CMTS highlights two necessary if not sufficient demands of reproducibility: (1) a clear and well differentiated philosophy and (2) measurable goals, including independence from uncontrollable factors like student selection. These demands preclude our most subtle educational ideas from being reproduced in this way. If moral education reforms are particularly prone to unintelligibility in the face of a highly rationalized education landscape, then the last century of American educational change has been a steady retreat from a place where those ideas made sense to us.

Any sufficiently new educational reform will challenge core ideas of educational practice and therefore face obstacles of institutional inertia. But, as the case of manual training shows, it is not merely the fact of such challenge that inhibits reproduction of model schools, but the specific content of the challenge. The details of an educational philosophy matter for how successfully reforms based on that philosophy will be reproduced. In this article, I have argued that educational reforms that fall under the heading of “moral education”—schemes that have as their goal changes in student character or disposition—are by their very nature not suited for “scaling up” or any other style of reform that is dependent on the unambiguous communication and measurement of educational outcomes.

Character and disposition have come back into vogue recently—consider, for example, the aftermath of the idea of “grit” (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). Many such schemes are not precisely what I have defined as moral education, as when they advocate character or dispositional means to what remain individual academic ends. In such cases, test scores will work as well as ever as a measure of outcomes. But as soon as the desired outcomes go beyond the transfer of information and skills, when the desired outcomes are moral states, we can no longer rely on familiar techniques of reform dissemination.

I have argued that moral education reforms (as opposed to academic or behavioral reforms) are particularly ill-suited to a model-school style of reproduction. Moral goals cannot be readily assessed for their “fidelity of implementation.” But whence this demand for fidelity? The assumptions of a school system that calls for “effectiveness accountability” and “doing what works” are the assumptions of a culture that has replaced philosophical, historical, and sociological inquiry with quantitative measurement as the centerpiece of education research (see Katz, 1966, p. 328). This shift has created a separation between education scholars who work with subtle ideas and those who work with the small variety of ideas that are reproducible (see S. Cohen, 1976, and Lagemann, 2000, pp. 73–76). It is the imperative of measurement that leads to the demand for fidelity, an imperative that comes from a particular view of the role of the schools as instruments of externally imposed goals (Cuban, 1998, pp. 457–458; cf. Mehta, 2013, pp. 2–3).

I have argued that the failures of intelligibility and measurability of the CMTS can lead us to a richer understanding of the limitations of “model school”-style reform dissemination. In the full arc of 20th-century American education reform, the failure of Belfield’s philosophy of manual training appears overdetermined. As the political machinations of the Commercial Club hinted, economic arguments for vocational training would eventually win the day, and certainly it was not the failure of this style of manual training, but much bigger cultural forces that would lead to the widespread rise of industrial education. But at the turn of the century, other paths still seemed possible, and in his memoirs, Henry Belfield speculated about why the use of industrial training in the schools was so contentious. He believed firmly that the schools must neither provide cultural education at the expense of preparation for participation in an industrial economy, nor provide that preparation without connecting it to a cultural education. He understood the objections to his vision to be grounded primarily in conservative teachers’ unwillingness “to believe that they had totally misconceived the true end and means of education” (Belfield, n.d., “Beginnings of Manual Training”). We should ask ourselves if our methods of reforming our school systems would even allow us to perceive if we were laboring under such a misconception.


This project rests on a collection of documents expertly curated and retrieved with unflagging cheerfulness by the librarians of the SCRC at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library. My early thoughts about the project were clarified in conversation with Nicki Dunnavant, Kara Takasaki, Charles Lee, and Le Lin. For their invaluable comments, I would especially like to thank the Teachers College Record anonymous reviewers, Barnaby Riedel, Sara Martin, Andrew Abbott, and the late Charles E. Bidwell.


1. Though the CMTS was a boys’ school, and the manual training movement began with a focus on technical education, it would eventually also advocate for the philosophy’s applicability for girls, with sewing, cooking, and other more “feminine” kinds of manual training.

2. As Calvert explained, in reality, the process was less “self-made” than shop advocates let on, as tight social networks among the mostly White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and northeastern engineers served to control upward mobility. That image of upward mobility associated with the “shop culture” was manufactured by elite engineers to bolster their position. In the mid-19th century, most mechanical engineers were from privileged backgrounds and had been groomed in shops by men of their own class (Calvert, 1967, p. 277).

3. Rousseau’s thoughts on education are reflected particularly strongly by manual training practice, though manual training advocates were less willing than Rousseau to acknowledge the extent to which they were motivated by concern for elite education, preferring to emphasize, in public at least, benefits to society at large. Nevertheless, one can hear the voice of the tutor Jean-Jacques echoing in the shop classroom: “The goal is less to learn a trade in order to know a trade than to conquer the prejudices that despise a trade. . . . do not work out of necessity; work out of glory. Lower yourself to the artisan’s station in order to be above your own” (Rousseau, 1979, p. 196).

4. The absence of distinction between the terms manual training, industrial education, vocational education, and technical education can be seen in their use as subject headings in the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature between 1890 and 1951. That use shows a shifting landscape of vocabulary, without any indication of there ever being significant differences in meaning. Industrial education rises dramatically between 1900 and 1910 (when the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education was founded and the National Association of Manufacturers took up the issue), and vocational education peaks between 1915 and 1918, at the time of the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, also known as the Vocational Education Act. But throughout the first half of the 20th century, all four terms appear, and all four list the other three under “see also.” By around 1910, manual training had made a noticeable pivot toward handicrafts and woodwork in particular, but that is the only differentiation of the terms that is obvious from article titles alone.

5. There is an irony to the successes and failures of manual training, too, that suggests the potential of the Hawthorne effect to further undermine the reproduction of model schools. The loyalty and love inspired by the CMTS was in some part a result of the uniqueness of the school. If we take as a definition of reform institutionalization “the point at which an innovative practice, having become implemented, loses its ‘special project’ status” (Berman & McLaughlin, 1974, p. 16), then the CMTS remained special, and its students and teachers remained aware of that special-ness because its model of manual training was never reproduced on a large scale. Thus, its local success was enabled by its outside failure.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 7, 2018, p. 1-38
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22170, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 12:56:34 AM

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About the Author
  • Jane McCamant
    University of Chicago
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    JANE MCCAMANT is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Chicago. Her research is on the history of moral and religious education in the United States.
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