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David Snedden (1868–1951)

One of the most prominent educators of the Progressive era, David Samuel Snedden was probably the most articulate advocate of social efficiency–a term popularized by Benjamin Kidd in Social Evolution (1894) and taken up by Snedden for his approach to design an educational program that reconciled the demands of industrial society with the capabilities and interests of children.

Born on a farm in Kavilah, California, and educated by his mother, Snedden attended St. Vincent's College in Los Angeles, taking the B.A. (1890) and the M.A (1892). He received his second B.A. from Stanford University (1897) and another M.A. (1901) degree from Teachers College, Columbia University. For ten years he served as teacher, principal, and superintendent at California's schools, then he taught as assistant professor at Stanford (1901–1905), and as adjunct professor at Teachers College, Columbia University (1905–1909). In his dissertation, "Administration and Educational Work of American Juvenile Reform Schools" (1907), he presented the practical and useful education of reform schools as a model for the improvement of the public school system. With Samuel T. Dutton, he coauthored the first school administration textbook, The Administration of Public Education in the United States (1908), in which he pled for a legislative reform that safeguarded the democratic rights of the people, but took school government from politicians, placing it in the hands of experts.

From 1909 to 1916 Snedden served as the first State Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts with Charles A. Prosser as deputy for vocational education and Clarence Kingsley as assistant for secondary education. In 1906, the Massachusetts (Douglas) Commission on Industrial and Technical Education had found that the public schools–including manual training and household arts–did not furnish the skills and industrial intelligence that "students needed to participate effectively in industry and life." As adherent of Herbert Spencer and Edward A. Ross, Snedden shared the commission's view that the American school system was "unefficient" and "undemocratic" since it answered the needs of the small band of theoretically inclined students bound for college, but neglected the interests of the great majority of practically minded youth, who in the United States–contrary to "autocratic" Germany–had no chance of preparing themselves early and thoroughly for their life's work. To deliver industry, commerce, and agriculture the skilled and intelligent workers they needed, Snedden advocated the spread of the project method of teaching and the expansion of the common school system by establishing, besides the traditional high schools for "officers," new vocational schools for the "rank and file." In fact, he institutionalized a wide range of specialized schools and courses in Massachusetts, which taught the skills and techniques of specific callings and reflected their students' intellectual capabilities, vocational interests, and future careers. Like Charles Prosser and Georg Kerschensteiner, Snedden propagated part-time and full-time industrial education and practical project work nationwide as means to secure, through differentiation and learning by doing, equality of opportunity for the individual and economic and social progress for the community.

During his second term at Teachers College as professor of educational sociology (1916–1935) Snedden elaborated his concept of social efficiency and applied it to curriculum construction, civic education, and character building. In Sociological Determination of Objectives in Education (1921), Snedden argued that production, as the ability to do, and consumption, as the ability to appreciate, were the two main components of adult life; but to make the liberal and vocational elements of life effectively teachable, social life had to be divided by empirical analysis into thousands of minute objectives, called "peths," which were to be organized into "strands" and the more complex "performance practices." Here, Snedden adopted the concept of scientific management originally developed by Frederick W. Taylor for the raise of industrial productivity, and transferred to school and teaching by Franklin Bobbitt. Like Bobbitt and W. W. Charters, Snedden believed that scientific curriculum-making took school education out of the stone age into the industrial present. It supplied teachers with lists and catalogs enumerating in detail the abilities, attitudes, habits, and forms of knowledge that would increase their students' social efficiency and would help them to survive and advance in the struggle of life. His book Educational Sociology (1922) became a standard in the field; it promoted the idea that each subject–history as well as Latin and mathematics–had to meet the test of social usefulness and that the efficient society resembled a winning "team group" with above-average people as leaders and the rest as followers: each group was trained for its specific role and fulfilled its proper function. Like all Progressive educators, Snedden opposed the traditional ways of abstract, unreal, and bookish instruction; at the same time, he criticized his colleagues for an over-emphasis on growth, creativity, and self-realization. His debates with John Dewey, Boyd H. Bode, and H. Gordon Hullfish about liberal education, democracy, and social predestination demonstrate his belief in the value of specific instruction, expert knowledge, and scientific inquiry.


BODE, BOYD H. 1927. Modern Educational Theories. New York: Macmillan.

DROST, WALTER H. 1967. David Snedden and Education for Social Efficiency. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

HULLFISH, H. GORDON. 1924. "Looking Backward with Snedden." Educational Review 67 (February).

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

SNEDDEN, DAVID. 1907. Administration and Educational Work of American Juvenile Reform Schools. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

SNEDDEN, DAVID. 1910. The Problem of Vocational Education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

SNEDDEN, DAVID. 1913. Problems of Educational Readjustment. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

SNEDDEN, DAVID. 1920. Vocational Education. New York: Macmillan.

SNEDDEN, DAVID. 1921. Sociological Determination of Objectives in Education. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

SNEDDEN, DAVID. 1922. Civic Education: Sociological Foundations and Courses. New York: World Book Company.

SNEDDEN, DAVID. 1922. Educational Sociology. New York: Century.

SNEDDEN, DAVID, and DUTTON, SAMUEL T. 1908. The Administration of Public Education in the United States. New York: Macmillan.

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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