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Charles Prosser (1871–1952)

An important figure in the vocational education movement, Charles Allen Prosser is particularly known as the architect of the 1917 Smith-Hughes Act and as the figurehead of the 1945 campaign for life adjustment education.

Prosser, born as a steelworker's son in New Albany, Indiana, received B.A. (1897) and M.A. (1906) degrees from DePauw University, the LL.B. (1899) from the University of Louisville, and a Ph.D. (1915) from Teachers College, Columbia University. He worked as superintendent in the post office, practiced as lawyer in Missouri, served as teacher, principal, and superintendent in Indiana, went to New York for doctoral studies, became, under David S. Snedden, assistant commissioner of education in Massachusetts (1910–1912), and acted as executive secretary of the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education (1912–1915). From 1915 to 1945, the rest of his professional life, he served as director of the William H. Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis, interrupted only by a short but crucial period as the first executive director of the Federal Board for Vocational Education (1917–1919).

Beginning in 1903 Prosser, like all Progressive educators, criticized the high school curriculum with its traditional emphasis on scholarship and college preparation. After the sixth grade, he argued, education should be differentiated because of marked difference in interests, aptitudes, and occupational opportunities that were open to the young. What the great majority of pupils needed was vocational education, that is, "real vocational education" and explicitly not manual training, homemaking, or industrial arts, since the traditional practical subjects had failed to help children "to get a job, to hold it, and to advance to a better one."

Like Edward Thorndike, Prosser believed that knowledge could not be transferred from one field of learning to another; like David Snedden, he maintained that learning, to be effective, had to be specific and directed to immediate ends; and following Georg Kerschensteiner, he pled for separate secondary schools which–apart from the traditional high school–offered as many specific vocational courses or groups of courses as there were occupations. In 1911 Prosser began campaigning for federal funds to provide social and economic opportunities for practically inclined children above fourteen years of age through the creation of specific vocational schools and programs. From his view, the duties, tasks, and problems of shop, home, and farmwork had to be learned in practical ways, preferable by the activity and project method. Pointing to the German model, he propagated a system of "dual control," that is, the vocational schools and courses were to be administered not by the general boards of education which already existed, but by separate boards of vocational education, which had to be newly established. For the most part, Prosser wrote the influential Report of the National Commission on Aid to Vocational Education (1914), and many of the ideas and proposals he expressed there were included into the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 and the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917–federal laws that he shepherded through Congress. At Dunwoody, the school for workers he directed, Prosser made sure that the students carried out their exercises and projects under conditions as much like those of real work in industry as possible. Since he was convinced that specific industrial methods changed rapidly in the face of changing science and technology, he institutionalized in his school short-term courses for retraining and updating skills and knowledge.

In the "Prosser Resolution" of 1945 he once again accused the secondary schools of failing to prepare the great majority of children to take their place in adult society. He claimed that 20 percent of the high school population was receiving an appropriate college-entrance education and another 20 percent was being well served by vocational programs, but that the remaining 60 percent desperately needed "life adjustment education"–they needed practical training that included personality, etiquette, health, home, and family living. In essence, the resolution revived Prosser's old idea that the principal function of schooling should be the adjustment of individuals to the social and occupational circumstances in which they live. In the long run, most of Prosser's initiatives did not prevail; nevertheless, more than any other single person, he was responsible for the fact that vocational education in the United States became the most successful curricular innovation of the twentieth century.


GADELL, JOHN. 1972. "Charles Allen Prosser: His Work in Vocational and General Education." Ph.D. diss., Washington University.

GREENWOOD, KATY L. B. 1978. "A Philosophical Rationale for Vocational Education: Contributions of Charles A. Prosser and His Contemporaries, 1900–1917." Ph.D. diss., University of Minnesota.

KLIEBARD, HERBERT M. 1986. The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893–1958. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

PROSSER, CHARLES A. 1939. Secondary Education and Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

PROSSER, CHARLES A., and ALLEN, CHARLES R. 1925. Vocational Education in a Democracy. New York: Century.

PROSSER, CHARLES A., and ALLEN, CHARLES R. 1929. Have We Kept the Faith? America at the Cross-Roads in Education. New York: Century.

PROSSER, CHARLES A.; HAWKINS, LAYTON S.; and WRIGHT, JOHN C. 1951. Development of Vocational Education. Chicago: American Technological Society.

PROSSER, CHARLES A., and LOCKWOOD, GEORGE B. 1905. The New Harmony Movement. New York: Appleton.

WIRTH, ARTHUR G. 1972. Education in the Technological Society. The Vocational-Liberal Studies Controversy in the Early Twentieth Century. Scranton, PA: Intext.


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