Scaling Up and Student Agency

by Connie Goddard - April 15, 2021

This commentary responds to and builds on a previously published TCR article titled “Getting to Scale With Moral Education.”

A few weeks ago, TCR ran an intriguing article titled “Getting to Scale With Moral Education,” using the brief history of the Chicago Manual Training School (1884–1904) as an example of a model school that intended to be replicated, but wasn’t. The article analyzed the myriad reasons why that did not happen. As such, it raises a host of valuable questions about the concept of getting to scale, the possibility of fostering subtle traits, such as morals by fiat, and the intentions of manual training and related progressive-era innovations. Given that educators and policy makers are still perplexed by dichotomies the era brought to the fore—in particular, academic versus practical education—the article resonates with a host of contemporary concerns. Among them are those raised in Michael Sandel’s new book, The Tyranny of Merit, which questions the outcomes of our valorizing academic expertise at the expense of common sense.

As someone who shares with Jane McCamant, the article’s author, an interest in the Chicago Manual Training School (CMTS), I was fascinated by the questions she raises, and I have shared some of these with her. Her current work focuses on moral education and authority in parochial schools, and mine on progressive-era manual training schools and the long-term consequences of related issues great and small. For example, were there similarities between CMTS and the Laboratory School? Why did John Dewey ignore CMTS when it was under his purview? And, most important today, was the northern philanthropists’ drive to establish manual training and industrial schools in African American communities wholly racist?

For the past few years, I have been delving into the history not only of CMTS but also of an iconic—in the Deweyan sense—school in New Jersey known for most of its life (1886–1955) as the Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth (MTIS). Among things apparent when comparing the priorities that some New Jersey authorities—MTIS was a boarding school largely supported by the state—had for the school and how students put their education to use is student agency. One of the state’s intentions for the school may have been to produce workers for industrial agriculture, but its graduates had other ideas; they opened small businesses—as electricians or mechanics or beauticians, dressmakers or carpenters—or took the trade they learned at MTIS and used it to pay for higher education. Dewey advocated those forms of industrial education that made students masters of their own fate, which appears to be what graduates of both CMTS and MTIS were equipped to do—though the starting line for the former was far ahead of that for the latter.

Reading Dr. McCamant’s article and listening to Dr. Sandel’s book, I am wondering whether the lesson of both is that too much discourse about schools focuses on the intentions of those in charge rather than on the priorities of those affected. And have the former, with all their grand ideas, ignored the practical use the latter will make of those ideas? A third school I’ve been studying, North Dakota’s State Normal and Industrial School in Ellendale, was founded as the state’s Manual Training School in 1899 but soon “went where the crowd led,” in the words of its first principal. It offered a host of courses that enabled students at a variety of ages to learn bookkeeping and farm mechanics, or to teach in country schools, and thus either launch or enhance their work lives in ways that suited them. In 1915, when Dewey, David Snedden, and others were arguing over whether secondary schools should offer a comprehensive education to all or direct some into trade programs, the little school in Ellendale had become, in the words of its then principal, a “living symbol of democracy.”

McCamant asks why attributes of the CMTS resisted “getting to scale”—a valuable question, but perhaps reformers and policy makers should instead ask, as Sandel indirectly suggests, What practical use are students making of the schooling they are getting? And then respect them for their choices, even if they do not include a four-year degree. As those making policy for secondary and higher education address challenges of adapting to a post-COVID environment, they might look at uses students have made of past reforms—and consider those lessons as well.


McCamant, J. (2018). Getting to scale with moral education: The demands of reproducibility and the case of the Chicago Manual Training School (1884–1904). Teachers College Record, 120(7), 1–38. (This was rerun in mid-January 2021)

Sandel, M. J. (2020). The tyranny of merit: What’s become of the common good? Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 15, 2021 ID Number: 23676, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 10:21:49 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review