The great energy that drives modern schooling owes much to a current of influence arising out of the psychology laboratory of Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig in Saxony. With a stream of international assistants,Wundt set out to examine how the human machine was best adjusted. By 1880, he laid the basis for Pavlov's work and the work of Watson in America, for the medical procedure of lobotomy, for electroshock therapy, and for the scientific view that school was a ground for social training, "socialization" in John Dewey's terminology.
Among Wundt's principal assistants was the flamboyant American, G. Stanley Hall, who organized the psychology lab at Johns Hopkins in 1887, established the American Journal of Psychology, and saw to it that Sigmund Freud was brought to America for a debut here. Stanley Hall's own star pupil at Hopkins was the Vermonter, John Dewey. Wundt's first assistant, James McKeen Cattell, was also an American, eventually the patron saint of psychological testing here. He was also the chief promoter of something called "the sight-reading method," the dreadful fallout from which helped change the direction of American society. Cattell was the first "Professor of Psychology" so titled in all the world, reigning at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1894, he founded The Psychological Review. Over the next twenty- five years, he trained 344 doctoral candidates. In these stories and many others like them, the influence of Wundt and Prussia multiplied. Cattell later created the reference books Leaders in Education, American Men of Science, and The Directory of American Scholars and, for good measure, founded Popular Science, all of which boosted the stock of the infant discipline.
Other Wundtian Ph.D.s in the United States included James Baldwin who set up the psych lab at Princeton, Andrew Armstrong who did the same at Wesleyan, Charles Judd who became director of education at the University of Chicago, and James Earl Russell, president of Teachers College at Columbia. There were many others.
Russell's Teachers College, the Rockefeller-sponsored, Prussian-inspired seminary on 120th Street in New York City, had a long reign dominating American pedagogy. By 1950, it had processed an unbelievable one-third of all presidents of teacher-training institutions, one-fifth of all American public schoolteachers, one-quarter of all superintendents. Thus the influence of Prussian thought dominated American school policy at a high level by 1914, and the Prussian tincture was virtually universal by 1930.
Some parts of the country were more resistant to the dumbing down of curriculum and the psychosocializing of the classroom than others, but by a process of attrition Prussianization gained important beachheads year by year — through private foundation projects, textbook publishing, supervisory associations, and on through every aspect of school. The psychological manipulation of the child suggested by Plato had been investigated by Locke, raised to clinical status by Rousseau, refined into materialist method by Helvetius and Herbart, justified philosophically as the essential religion by Comte, and scientized by Wundt. One does not educate machines, one adjusts them.
The peculiar undertaking of educational psychology was begun by Edward Thorndike of Teachers College in 1903. Thorndike, whose once famous puzzle box became the Skinner box of later behavioral psychology after minor modifications, was the protege of Wundtians Judd and Armstrong at Wesleyan, taking his Ph.D. under Wundtian Cattell before being offered a post by Wundtian Russell at Teachers College.
According to Thorndike, the aim of a teacher is to "produce and prevent certain responses," and the purpose of education is to promote "adjustment." In Elementary Principles of Education (1929), he urged the deconstruction of emphasis on "intellectual resources" for the young, advice that was largely taken. It was bad advice in light of modern brain research suggesting direct ties between the size and complexity of the brain and strenuous thought grappled with early on.
Thorndike said intelligence was virtually set at birth — real change was impossible — a scientific pronouncement which helped to justify putting the brakes on ambitious curricula. But in the vitally important behavioral area — in beliefs, attitudes, and loyalties — Thorndike did not disappoint the empty-child crowd. In those areas so important to corporate and government health, children were to be as malleable as anyone could want them. An early ranking of school kids by intelligence would allow them to be separated into tracks for behavioral processing. Thorndike soon became a driving force in the growth of national testing, a new institution which would have consigned Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Carnegie to reform school and Edison to Special Education. Even before we got the actual test, Thorndike became a significant political ally of the semicovert sterilization campaign taking place in America.
That pioneering eugenic program seemed socially beneficial to those casually aware of it, and it was enthusiastically championed by some genuine American legends like Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. But if you find yourself nodding in agreement that morons have no business with babies, you might want to consider that according to Thorndike's fellow psychologist H.H. Goddard at Princeton, 83 percent of all Jews and 79 percent of all Italians were in the mental defective class. The real difficulty with scientific psychology or other scientific social science is that it seems to be able to produce proof of anything on command, convincing proof, too, delivered by sincere men and women just trying to get along by going along.