The Manual Training movement was the precursor to the vocational training programs in our schools today. First used in the United States in the 1870’s in the training of engineers, the movement spread rapidly to general public education.

Manual training emphasized the intellectual and social development associated with the practical training of the hand and the eye. In its most basic sense, manual training was the teaching of both wood and metal working, with the accompanying argument that this teaching improved perception, observation, practical judgment, visual accuracy, manual dexterity and taught students the power of doing things instead of merely thinking about them, talking about them, and writing about them. Manual training was not, however, intended to teach a specific trade. This was perceived as too narrow and intellectually limiting for a general education. Manual training would instead be an enhancement to the traditional curriculum, not a replacement, and would thereby help achieve the full development and potential of the individual. The student would learn to skillfully use tools in drafting, mechanics, wood or metal working and then would be able to transfer this knowledge to almost any kind of tool or setting.

Efforts to introduce the practical and manual arts into the traditional humanist curriculum in the United States goes back at least as far as the late 18th century with the establishment of colleges devoted to mechanics and agriculture. Interest in including manual arts in general public education across the country developed partly as a result of an acute shortage of skilled labor during the Civil War. Leaders of industry and statesmen turned to the schools to develop training programs to replace and supplement the apprenticeship system.

Some American educators looked to Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) for inspiration. Pestalozzi, a Swiss educator who is considered the "father of manual training", established a school in Europe where manual work was combined with general education. He believed that a sound education needed to include both vocational and general education. He influenced a number of prominent American educators in the late 1800’s, including John O. Runkle, president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and professor of mathematics and Calvin M. Woodward, dean of the Polytechnic faculty at Washington University in St. Louis.

Following Pestalozzi’s ideas, John O. Runkle sought to infuse into the training of engineers a more practical knowledge of tools and basic mechanics. Another influence came at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, where Runkle was exposed to the series of graded exercises designed to teach technical skills to students of the Imperial Technical School in St. Petersburg, Russia. Runkle became a proponent of using this Russian system of manual training in teaching technical skills in general education as well as in engineering.

In 1879, Calvin M. Woodward opened the Manual Training School for boys in St. Louis. His curriculum included science, mathematics, language, literature, history, drawing and shop work. Shop was included to keep instruction more interesting, to provide learning in the use of basic tools common to a variety of jobs and to increase general education. Woodward felt that manual training was essential for proper intellectual and moral education and was also a way of restoring the value and dignity of hand labor. He advocated adding manual training to the traditional curriculum in order to bring education in line with the demands of modern society. Manual training would help students realize at any early age the connection between knowing and doing. "The contrast between the listless and often inattentive attitude of children occupied with some ordinary class-lesson, and the eager eyes and nimble fingers of the same children at the carpenter’s or modeling bench, is most instructive," wrote Sir Philip Magnus, one of the early supporters of manual training.

Critics of the manual training movement argued that manual training did not belong in the schools and if introduced would hinder students’ intellectual and moral development. Debate centered on whether schools should respond to the pressures of the industrial society’s desire to have students prepared in specialized skill areas. Proponents recognized the potential for intellectual development through the training of the hand and the eye as well as the potential for occupational payoff. Initial introduction of manual training ideas into the schools at large was encouraged on the basis of the perceived economic benefits to the boy or girl receiving the training and to the overall economy of the region.

As manual training programs were developed in schools by adding study in the areas of drafting or mechanics, the curriculum retained its rigorous preparation for college entrance requirements and, unlike vocational programs today, did not represent any educational dead end for the student. Manual training received strong support and spread rapidly. By 1900, 100 cities provided it in high schools. In 1915 when Woodward’s Manual Training School closed, the St. Louis public schools accepted the responsibility for vocational training. The direct benefits of occupational skills as opposed to the remote values associated with completing a liberal education "through the hand" began to have a greater appeal. In the years following, manual training became more subject centered, required the completion of specific exercises and was oriented to skill development. Vocational education in secondary schools had become an accepted part of American education.


Firth, G.R. and Kimpston, R.D. The Curricular Continuum in Perspective. F.E. Peacock Publishers, Inc., Illinois, 1973.

Kliebard, Herbert M. The Struggle for the American Curriculum 1893-1958. Routledge & Kegan Paul, New York,

Woodward, C.M. The Manual Training School. Arno Press and the New York Times, New York, 1969.


Prepared by Diane Westerink