Herbert Spencer:  Social Darwinism in Education

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was known as one of the leading Social
Darwinists of the 19th century.  An English philosopher, Spencer declined
an offer to attend Cambridge University and instead gained much of his
higher education through reading.  As a Social Darwinist, Spencer helped
gain acceptance of the theory of evolution which also became the basis for
most of his books and teachings.  The principle of evolution believed in
the process whereby all things change from the simplest of forms to the
most complex.  It was Herbert Spencer who actually coined the phrase
"survival of the fittest" which depicted a constant struggle amongst the
species.  As a result of this continual struggle, the stronger species
survived and multiplied while the weaker species perished. His work
"Synthetic Philosophy" applied this evolutionary process to all branches
of knowledge specifically biology, psychology, sociology and ethics. 

Spencer was an agnostic who believed that the only way to gain knowledge
was through a scientific approach.  He felt that religion was a futile
attempt to gain knowledge of the unknown.  Spencer wanted to replace the
theological systems of the Middle Ages with his philosophical system which
stated that all knowledge could be placed within the framework of modern
science.  Science was the only way to gain "useful"  knowledge.  It was
through this "scientific" knowledge that people learned to live in

Spenser perceived society to be a progression of small homogeneous groups
evolving into large complex groups over an extended period of time.  This
theory was proven true through the Industrial Revolution.  Industry rose
dramatically during this time accompanied by specialized professions. 
People uprooted from their small towns and farmlands and moved to these
industrial areas to find work.  This migration eventually led to the
emergence of large cities. Spencer used his Social Darwinism in all
aspects of society - social, political, economic, and education. 
Spencer was a noted non-conformist who detested authority and strongly
emphasized individualism.  In Spencer's work "Social Status", he stated
that individual freedom was extremely important and that the government
should play a limited role in society especially in the schools.  He did
not believe in the public school system. His major criticism of the school
system was that it did not prepare children to live in society.  Instead,
Spencer believed in the private school system which competed for the
brightest students.  Because of his belief in competition, conflict and
struggle, Spencer felt that the most exemplary schools would eventually
acquire the best teachers and students. 
Spencer, not surprisingly, stressed the importance of the sciences in the
schools.  Learning should be a sensory experience where a student
interacts within his/her environment; a slow, gradual, and inductive
process.  Children should be encouraged to explore and discover which
would allow them to acquire knowledge naturally.  Education should also be
a pleasant experience for children with the least restrictions possible.
Rote memorization and recitation were strongly opposed.  A student should
only engage in those activities that would ultimately allow him/her to
survive in society.  Special emphasis was placed on the physical,
biological, and social sciences while English grammar and literature were
believed to be outdated.
Spencer became one of the major proponents of modern curriculum theory. 
He created quite an uproar in England with his curriculum theory because
the major focus of education continued to be the Latin and Greek languages
and literature.  In his work "What Knowledge is of Most Worth?" Spencer
stated that this question needed to be answered before any curriculum was
chosen or any instruction commenced.  Once this question was answered, it
should be made certain that the curriculum aid in advancing survival and
progress.  To achieve this advancement Spencer believed that there were
five activities necessary in curriculum.  These activities assisted in
self preservation, performance of occupations, child-rearing, social and
political participation, and recreation and leisure.  Once again, the main
goal was to teach subjects that would contribute to successful living. 
Spencer's ideas concerning curriculum were widely accepted in the United
States where change was not resisted. 

Education today continues to be influenced by Spencer's Social Darwinist
theories.  In fact, his curriculum activities based on human needs are
still being implemented in one form or another.  His influences are still
felt as education continues to discuss voucher systems for private
schools, the smaller role of government in education, and in the stressing
of teaching skills that will assist students in becoming individuals who
contribute to the good of society.
Several of Spencer's works are being utilized in today's most prestigious
universities. His "Principles of Biology" is a text at Oxford University. 
His "Principles of Psychology"  text can be found at Harvard.  The "Study
of Sociology" is Spencer's work used not only as a textbook at Yale, but
was the textbook used for the first course in Sociology in the United
States.  Sociology became a discipline in the United States because of
Spencer's impressive work. 


Foundations of Education, Ornstein & Levine
Educational Philosophy, Edward J. Power
Educational Ideologies, William F. O'Neill
Herbert Spencer on Education, Andreas M. Kazamias

Prepared by Julie Ann Keb