Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

Women of Washington is an educational organization with a focus on understanding local, national, and global issues that are critical to our world today.

Pavlov’s Children

In the first installment in this series, we learned that at the beginning of the 19th century, the Prussians developed a system of education, the purpose of which was to break the will of students - to teach them to be obedient and subordinate to the German elite. They created a compulsory system designed to make the state sovereign over the family, one in which teachers would be trained in education methods, rather than subject mastery. In 1843, U.S. Representative Horace Mann went to Germany, liked what he saw and brought it home to America.  Within 50 years, the Prussian education system replaced traditional education in the U.S.  Horace was rewarded with the title of “Father of American Public Schooling.”  

Once children were compelled to participate in a state-run system designed to make them obedient, the next step was to determine the most efficient way to ensure they would learn the preferred doctrine - and not be able to think for themselves.  Once again, America looked to Germany for the answer.  

Born in Germany in 1832, Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt established the first laboratory in psychology at the University of Leipzig in 1875 and is credited with being the founder of experimental psychology.  Wundt’s theories revolutionized the study of psychology, education and how academia viewed the very nature of man.   

Wundt believed that man is devoid of spirit and self-determinism but is summation of his experiences.  One must wonder how Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859) might have influenced his thinking.  Wundt and his followers worked to remove God from education long before the 1962 Supreme Court decision (Engel v. Vitale) removed school prayer.  

Wundt believed that a child is not capable of volitional control over his actions or decisions but is instead a “stimulus-response” mechanism.  One of his students, Ivan Pavlov, went on to study conditioning in dogs (yes, Pavlov’s dogs).  The classical conditioning techniques described by Pavlov continue to be a widely used technique in the classroom today.  

Wundt believed a thing makes sense and is worth pursuing if it can be measured, quantified and scientifically demonstrated.  Since the goals of traditional education (i.e. love of wisdom, character and the appreciation of beauty) are not quantifiable, clearly, they are were longer worthy to be taught.   

As revolutionary as Wundt’s theories were, perhaps his most damaging impact was his influence on those that would go on to remake education.  In America, Ph.D.s were not yet available so if a student desired to pursue a higher degree - he went to Leipzig.  Wundt is credited with having supervised the Ph.D.s of 33 American students.  With the credentials of having studied under Wundt, these students found it easy to find jobs at the most prestigious universities in America.   
Wundt’s students form a veritable “who’s who” in psychology and education.  It was his first American student, G. Stanley Hall that brought Wundt’s ideas home.  It was Hall that first welded experimental psychology to child education.  Now that all American children were held captive within a compulsory school system, they could be subjected to educational experiments and “trained” using the very same conditioning techniques that the experimenters used to teach chickens to play the piano.   

In the next installment, we will look at G. Stanley Hall’s most famous student, John Dewey, known as “The Father of Progressive Education.”