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Franklin Bobbitt (1876–1956)

Social Efficiency Movement, Bobbitt's Contribution

Professor of educational administration at the University of Chicago, Franklin Bobbitt played a leading role during the first three decades of the twentieth century in establishing curriculum as a field of specialization within the discipline of education. Born in English, Indiana, a community of less than 1,000 people in the southeast part of the state, Bobbitt earned his undergraduate degree at Indiana University and then went on to teach, first in several rural schools in Indiana and later at the Philippine Normal School in Manila. After receiving his doctorate at Clark University in 1909, he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, where he remained until his retirement in 1941. As part of his university duties Bobbitt periodically undertook surveys of local school systems in which he assessed the districts' operations, particularly the adequacy of their curricula. His most famous surveys were a 1914 evaluation of the San Antonio Public Schools and a 1922 study of the Los Angeles City Schools' curriculum.

Scientific Curriculum Making

Bobbitt is best known for two books, The Curriculum (1918) and How to Make a Curriculum (1924). In these volumes and in his other writings, he developed a theory of curriculum development borrowed from the principles of scientific management, which the engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor had articulated earlier in the century in his efforts to render American industry more efficient.

The key principal for Taylor was the task idea, the notion that each worker should be given a narrowly defined production assignment that he was to perform at a specific rate using certain predefined procedures. It was the responsibility of an emerging profession of efficiency experts to identify these precise steps. The procedures for curriculum planning, which Bobbitt referred to as job analysis, were adapted from Taylor's work and began with the identification of the specific activities that adults undertook in fulfilling their various occupational, citizenship, family, and other social roles. The resulting activities were to be the objectives of the curriculum. The curriculum itself, Bobbitt noted, was comprised of the school experiences that educators constructed to enable children to attain these objectives.

Some of these objectives, according to Bobbitt, were general in nature and represented the knowledge that all children needed to prepare for their responsibilities as adult citizens. Such an education, he maintained, would provide students with the large group consciousness necessary for them to act together for the common good. Other objectives, however, were more specific and constituted the skills that youth needed to prepare for the array of specialized occupations that adults held in modern society. The curriculum that Bobbitt advocated included elements of general education for all youth, but was for the most part differentiated into a number of very specialized vocational tracks. Influenced no doubt by the then-popular mental testing movement, Bobbitt believed that schools should assign children to these specialized curricular tracks, on the basis of assessments of their intellectual abilities, which fore-told their ultimate destinies in life.

Social Efficiency Movement

Bobbitt along with a handful of other early-twentieth-century educators, including W. W. Charters, Ross L. Finney, Charles C. Peters, and David Snedden, gave life to what has come to be called the social efficiency movement in education. The schools, for these individuals, were a key institution in dealing with the disruptions and dislocations in American life that they associated with the nation's late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century transformation into an urban, industrial society. The purpose of education, they argued, was to prepare youth for the specific work and citizenship roles, which they would hold when they reached adulthood, and in so doing render society more orderly and stable. The test for the schools and its program, as these thinkers saw it, was its utility in fulfilling this social purpose.

Bobbitt's Contribution

Bobbitt's legacy falls into four areas. First, he was one of the first American educators to advance the case for the identification of objectives as the starting point for curriculum making. He, along with the authors of the National Education Association's Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, argued that the content of the curriculum was not self-evident in the traditional disciplines of knowledge, but had to be derived from objectives that addressed the functions of adult work and citizenship. Education was not important in its own right for Bobbitt. Its value lay in the preparation it offered children for their lives as adults. Second, his so-called scientific approach to curriculum making served as a precedent for the work of numerous educators during the next half-century in spelling out the procedures for designing the course of study. It was a method that became and has remained the conventional wisdom among American educators concerning the process of curriculum development.

Third, Bobbitt along with other early-twentieth-century efficiency-oriented school reformers made the case that the curriculum ought to be differentiated into numerous programs, some academic and preparatory and others vocational and terminal, and that students ought to be channeled to these tracks on the basis their abilities. His work lent credence to efforts to vocationalize the curriculum, and provided legitimacy to what has become one of the most questionable features of the modern school curriculum, the practices of tracking and ability grouping. Finally, Bobbitt was one of the first American educators to define the curriculum as an instrument of social control or regulation for addressing the problems of modern society. True to the ideals of social efficiency, he saw the task of the schools as that of instilling in youth the skills, knowledge, and beliefs that they required to function in the urban, industrial, and increasingly heterogeneous society that America was becoming during the early years of the twentieth century.



BOBBITT, FRANKLIN. 1918. The Curriculum. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

BOBBITT, FRANKLIN. 1922. Curriculum Making in Los Angeles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

BOBBITT, FRANKLIN. 1924. How to Make a Curriculum. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

FRANKLIN, BARRY M. 1986. Building the American Community: The School Curriculum and the Search for Social Control. London: Falmer.

NATIONAL EDUCATION ASSOCIATION. 1918. Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education: A Report of the Commission of the Reorganization of Secondary Education. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.


Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia: AACSB International - Program to Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987)