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Isaac L. Kandel (1881–1965)

History of Education, Comparative and International Education, Educational Theory

A pioneer in the field of comparative education, Isaac Leon Kandel conducted extensive studies of educational systems around the world. Kandel was born in Botosani, Romania, to English parents. He attended the Manchester Grammar School and earned his B.A. in classics in 1902 and M.A. in education in 1906 at the University of Manchester. From 1906 to 1908 he taught classics at the Royal Academical Institute in Belfast, Ireland. After summer study with William Rein at the University of Jena, Kandel enrolled at Teachers College, Columbia University, completing his Ph.D. in 1910. Kandel served there as instructor and then as associate professor until 1923, when he became professor of education and an associate in the Teachers College International Institute until 1946. He then taught at the University of Manchester from 1947 to 1949. From 1924 until 1944, he edited the Teachers College International Institute's Educational Yearbook, the journal School and Society from 1946 to 1953, and Universities Quarterly from 1947 to 1949.

Over his long and prolific career, Kandel received many honors, including honorary doctorates from the University of North Carolina and the University of Melbourne, and the title of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor from France. Kandel's principal scholarly contributions were in the areas of the history of education, educational theory, and, notably, comparative and international education.

History of Education

Kandel's History of Secondary Education (1930) represents his major contribution to the history of education. For Kandel, history should inform efforts to resolve contemporary problems. As he put it, the historical study of education should be based upon

the sincere conviction that progress in any social field, and especially in education, is possible only with a clear understanding of the factors that have brought about the present situation, and with an intelligent appreciation of the forces that must be analyzed in order to construct a new philosophy or a new body of principles to guide in its further reconstruction. (p. x)

Accordingly, as he traced the history of secondary education, he devoted his greatest attention to developments that had the most direct bearing on the problems of his day.

Kandel identified liberal education as the "central tradition" in secondary education in Europe and the United States. He traced its foundations in ancient Rome and Greece and its development during the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment periods, and detailed the emergence of systems of secondary education in France, Germany, England, and the United States, emphasizing the latter two. He also devoted special attention to the education of girls. Kandel examined the impact of contemporary developments, including knowledge expansion, new social and economic circumstances wrought by the industrial revolution, and the widening acceptance of democratic ideals, on the tradition of liberal education in the secondary school.

Specifically, Kandel discerned among recent trends in secondary education in industrial democracies a recognition of the role of education in promoting national welfare and economic growth and an increasing respect for achieving the full development of the individual regardless of social origins. Kandel identified the potential conflict between provision of educational opportunity to all individuals and selection for social and economic roles as a central problem of secondary education.

Comparative and International Education

Kandel's approach to comparative education comprised more than sheer description of administrative, curricular, and instructional practices in particular countries. Such descriptions and the compilation of data pertaining, for example, to national expenditures, per pupil costs, enrollment figures, and dropout rates were necessary but insufficient tasks for understanding educational systems. He presciently warned of the limitations of comparative use of statistical measures of student achievement to determine educational purposes and standards of student performance. Kandel maintained that the sociopolitical milieu exerted a greater impact on school practice than educational theories. Kandel conceived comparative education as the study of the ways particular countries addressed educational problems in the context of their respective social, political, and cultural traditions. Comparative studies of education were therefore premised upon an understanding of the social and economic life of the culture under study.

In his most important work in the field, Comparative Education (1933), Kandel stated, "The chief value of a comparative approach to [educational] problems lies in an analysis of the causes which have produced them, in a comparison of the differences between the various systems and the reasons underlying them, and, finally, a study of the solutions attempted" (p. xix). Kandel viewed each national education system as a "laboratory" in which solutions to educational problems were tested and implemented. Kandel hoped that comparative education, by distilling common principles from variegated national contexts, would contribute to the development of a philosophy of education, that is, an educational theory, based not merely on metaphysical and ethical ruminations, but on practical, empirical grounds as well. Additionally, Kandel sought through comparative study of national education systems to promote international understandings and sympathies.

Educational Theory

Kandel's work in the area of educational theory largely took the form of a critique of Progressive education. He wrote his most significant work in this area, The Cult of Uncertainty (1943), in a tone and temper marked by a vehemence uncharacteristic of his scholarship on educational history and comparative education. In this work Kandel detected "the American traditions of rootlessness, of practicality, and of desire for new sensations" manifest both in the philosophy of pragmatism and in Progressive education (p. 90). Kandel rejected the tendency of child-centered Progressives to advocate a "nothingfixed-in-advance" approach to curriculum in which education began and ended with the individual student's present interests and inclinations. Kandel advocated inculcating "common understanding, common knowledge, common ideals, and common values" through liberal education (p. 126). Although Kandel advanced an incisive critique of the excesses of child-centered forms of Progressivism, his over-generalization of his criticisms to all Progressive education (exclusive only of John Dewey and Boyd Bode, both of whom he evoked to attack other Progressives), undermined his argument.

An avowed essentialist, Kandel viewed subject matter not as potential evidence for the resolution of social problems, but as a stable source of values to guide social behavior. He criticized science as overly relativistic and touted the primacy of the liberal arts curriculum. Scholars have argued that Kandel's commitment to traditional liberal arts education contradicted his recognition of the need for reform engendered by changing social, economic, and political values and conditions. Indeed, Kandel's principal, if not sole, concession to Progressive education involved a recognition of its value for improving "traditional methods of instruction," although he gave principal credit for that to psychology (p. 94). Although he viewed essentialism as occupying a sort of educational middle ground between traditionalism and Progressivism, he held little hope for a synthesis of the two approaches.


BRICKMAN, WILLIAM W. 1951. "I. L. Kandel: International Scholar and Educator." The Educational Forum 15:389–412.

CREMIN, LAWRENCE A. 1966. Isaac Leon Kandel (1881–1965): A Biographical Memoir. Chicago: National Academy of Education.

KANDEL, ISAAC LEON. 1930. History of Secondary Education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

KANDEL, ISAAC LEON. 1933. Comparative Education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

KANDEL, ISAAC LEON. 1943. The Cult of Uncertainty. New York: Macmillan.

KANDEL, ISAAC LEON. 1955. The New Era in Education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

POLLACK, ERWIN W. 1989. "Isaac Leon Kandel: A Pioneer in Comparative and International Education." Ph.D. diss., Loyola University of Chicago.

TEMPLETON, ROBERT G. 1956. "Isaac L. Kandel's Contributions to the Theory of American Education." Ph.D. diss., Harvard University.


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