Source Book for Sociology

Author: Kimball Young  | Date: 1934

81. Cultural Lag in Present-Day Education2

So far as education is concerned, we are confronted, on the one hand, with the values and standards which belong to the primary-group, pre-industrial period, wherein theological formulations weighed very heavily. . . . In contrast, we have the close connection of modern education with industry and business, necessitating changes in our school curricula. . . .

The school receives the child at six or seven with the bulk of his attitudes, stereotypes, and habit patterns already rather thoroughly grounded in the primary-group norms. And the school boards which control our institutions of learning insist that the educational training shall reflect the family attitudes. As Williams puts it:3

"If the child learns ideas in school that contradict the cherished beliefs and ways of doing, parents are incensed against the school, and there develops a feeling in the neighborhood against the teacher. Teachers are therefore apt to take the parental attitude instead of attempting a thorough training."

Thus from the outset the teachers are compressed into the frames of behavior in teaching laid down by the community. And as a rule the teachers unconsciously follow the negative methods which the ordinary child has known at home. This means that the school takes over the function of the home only in a wider sphere and the child is continued in a negative, repressive atmosphere where he is inducted into the culture of the past, especially in those phases which touch on social-moral conduct. In the matter of skills and information of a practical material sort there is much more freedom than in those matters touching conduct. Yet, in both, the negativist pedagogy continues. The usual methods used to incite the child to master his materials are punishment, ridicule, blame, sarcasm, encouragement, praise from the teacher and ridicule, praise, and rivalry from the other pupils.

The formalized procedure of the past continues because the public consciousness is not yet prepared to give up the old and to reorganize the school in terms of present-day social-economic-political reality—the reality of rapid communication, specialized industry, secondary 255 groups, a complex economic order. The school has thus, in many sections, become one of our most conservative institutions. In the contest of progressive change versus tradition, it is usually on the side of tradition. J. M. Williams is of the opinion that, on the whole, "the educational system is, in every civilized nation, a reactionary influence" as a consequence "of the repressive influence of the family, the church, the influential economic classes and the state" which predetermine its course. . . .

The writer does not mean to imply that such movements as the platoon system, the Dalton plan, the Winnetka scheme, socially progressive schools, and others have made no impression on our education. In certain cities these social devices have worked out very well, but over the whole country these modern educational organizations have made slight headway. The school continues, in the by and large, in the hands of our most conservative elements.

The outstanding phases of education which reveal the persistence of the older norms are first, in the schoolroom practice, such as the daily program, arrangement of work and the like; second, in the curriculum; third, in the personnel; fourth, in the wider political organization of the school. . . .

The little child is inducted into the schoolroom with its straight seats fastened solid to the floor, arranged in rows with the teacher’s desk at the front. Often even with boasted "activity" teaching and learning, where the pupils sing, work, and play according, in theory, to their own desires, the whole matter degenerates quickly into nothing but ready compliance with the energetic suggestions of the teacher.

Throughout the elementary school period, the straight rows of seats, the formalism of teacher-pupil relationship persist. The teacher to this day carries with her the mediaeval notion of preacher and moral preceptor. The very arrangement of desks and seats of the pupils is borrowed from the church with its rows on rows of pews, just as the method of teaching continues in the mold of the church catechism or formal preaching.

Docility of attitude, quietness, and the like are in the scheme of the classroom. Noise is taboo. Silence broken only by consent of the teacher is insisted upon. The somewhat noisome hum of children working at separate projects, as seen in the experimental schools, is often misunderstood by parents and conventional teachers. Teachers are hard to convert to new points of view and new methods. It is so much easier and simpler to impose on the docility of the pupils and to produce obedience and quiet than it is to enlist their active interest. . . .

In the learning process itself, ignorance is taboo. Just as universal education, as a method, is part and parcel of our democratic mores, 256 so within the educational machine proper to show ignorance is severely frowned upon. The child reads or is told facts and instructed as to conduct and belief. Thereafter to profess "not to know" these matters is indeed serious. This produces in children, adolescents, and in adult college students alike certain methods of covering up any lack of knowledge through protective devices of various sorts.

Another common belief of the older American tradition is the conviction that everyone has equal ability with everyone else. This, of course, is rooted in our democratic theory of equality and was certain, in the course of history, to become fundamental to our educational practice. The newer contributions of applied psychology dealing with individual differences in intelligence and emotional capacities have, in most localities, come face to face with the older stereotypes and attitudes about the commonality of intellectual powers. The theory of individual differences was certain to come into conflict with these older mores and folkways based on the democratic thesis. Our schools are, in fact, based on the belief that education can wipe out any distinctions as to information, skill, or talent that may exist in the general population. . . .

There is no better instance of a universal folkway which hangs over us than the credit system. This is related to the older attitude of rewards and punishments. It is also, of course, related to our whole trend toward quantitative formulations in education and in society generally. In the grading system which we employ so universally in our credit arrangement, there goes a kind of ambivalent reaction to the theory of democratic equality. By the grading system we integrate our own secret, partially unconscious, attachment to the notions of superiority and inferiority with the opposite notion of common education for everybody. That is, all individuals are admitted into the scheme of education as equals, but by giving them marks for superior, average, or inferior performance we indicate that they are not equal. Thus, both beliefs—for and against the equality doctrine—are made possible without conflict. . . . We get the sense of both aristocracy and dead-level democracy without being confronted with any conscious contradiction in terms. . . .

In the matter of the curriculum the force of primary-group mores and folkways is well seen. As Sumner puts it, there is a tremendous faith in the significance of book learning. The hold-over of the belief in the efficacy of the classical training is one of the most evident illustrations of this. Throughout the country one finds Latin still a basic high school course, even in rural districts where the social-economic, or even aesthetic, need for this subject is nil. This is because Latin, once a genuine value in education, has come to be a mark of leisure class standing and a key to further education. . . .


Although formal theological or religious instruction is forbidden in our public schools, except in a few places where more or less perfunctory reading of the Bible is permitted, there is a distinct theological tinge put upon much of our history and civics teaching. And in dealing with matters of moral conduct the theological attitudes persist throughout. While the teacher must not teach Methodism, Catholicism, or Christian Science in the schoolroom, any agnostic or non-theological expression on the part of pupils is also distinctly taboo. Infractions here bring very severe rebuke. Stories told children at Christmas or Easter time are distinctly phrased in current theology. Primitive ideas of God, prayer, and miracles are given children even though they may come from homes which are either agnostic or more thoroughly socialized in their Christianity.

It is in the field of the social sciences, particularly, where the elementary and secondary schools have felt the most severe pressure from the older traditions from the outside. . . .

Even in the higher institutions of learning there is often pressure exerted upon historians and sociologists who put any extensive emphasis upon the economic or ecclesiastical interpretation of history, especially American history. History, political economy, political science, and sociology touch so intimately upon our socio-economic values that we are likely, as Sumner says, to have "orthodox" interpretations in these subjects. . . .

In both elementary and secondary schools, and even in colleges, there is considerable hold-over of older taboos on the teaching of the biological sciences. We have only too recently witnessed and are still witnessing the conflict between legislatures and courts, on the one hand, and between bodies of citizens and the public schools, on the other, regarding the teaching of currently accepted biology in tax-supported schools. . . .

In regard to both the social sciences and biology, the family, the church, and the state conspire to keep up the ancient taboos. In certain sections of our country health regulations in the schools have been greatly interfered with through the activities of members of sects which oppose health education and health regulation for the school population. And in sex education the whole Christian tradition prevents any adequate approach to the fundamental problems. . . .

The content of the school curriculum, in short, is honeycombed with ancient, traditional material, especially on the side of the valuational subject-matter. Our curricula and our pedagogical methods in the drill subjects may be somewhat inadequate and unscientific, but for the most part they keep fairly close to our economic needs. In the field of social values, however, the primary-group norms of another age still confront and control us. . . .


A whole host of ancient definitions and irrational practices surround the selection of educational personnel. Likewise, the personnel itself tends to take on certain attitudes and valuational interpretations which keep up outworn procedures.

First, as to the selection of personnel, the religious factor is highly important. Communities controlled by particular churches pay much attention to the church affiliations of their public school teachers. Protestant towns do not employ Catholic teachers if they can avoid it. . . . In many communities Jews are under the ban as teachers. . . .

All school boards and school authorities demand that their teachers conform to the mores and manners of the community. Where dancing is taboo, teachers who are known to dance are dismissed or are certainly not re-employed. The writer recently became thoroughly conscious of this rural attitude when in speaking before a parent-teacher organization in a small town, he incurred the severe criticism of one of the school board members for defending well-regulated high school dances as preferable to the admittedly bad practice of the boys and girls going to a nearby larger town to public dances. This man remarked, "As long as I am a member of this school board I am against dancing in this community.". . .

Not only do primary-group methods and attitudes continue to function in our American education in the daily procedure, in the curriculum and in the kind of teachers we employ, but also the very nature of the organization of our schools shows the same backward lag of the older culture norms. . . .

It is with reference to rural education that we find the greatest backwardness, the greatest resistance to change from the older to the newer standpoint in organization of the school. One of the best illustrations of this is found in the continuation of antiquated county and local school district organization. . . .

In brief, the entire question of political organization of public education in large part reflects the current political organization and condition of the larger community. In more progressive urban and semi-urban sections the schools may take up a program and develop an attitude of first-rate conception of education in modern terms, but the school as a social institution can hardly rise higher than its source in the general political level of the community in which it is found.

2 From Kimball Young, "Primitive Social Norms in Present-Day Education," Social Forces, June, 1927, vol. 5, pp. 572–76, 578–79, 580–81, 582, 583. Reprinted by permission.

3 J. M. Williams, Principles of Social Psychology, 1922, p. 367. By permission of F. S. Crofts & Co., publishers.


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Chicago: Kimball Young, "81. Cultural Lag in Present-Day Education," Source Book for Sociology in Source Book for Sociology, ed. Kimball Young (Cincinnati: American Book Company, 1935), Original Sources, accessed March 1, 2024,

MLA: Young, Kimball. "81. Cultural Lag in Present-Day Education." Source Book for Sociology, in Source Book for Sociology, edited by Kimball Young, Cincinnati, American Book Company, 1935, Original Sources. 1 Mar. 2024.

Harvard: Young, K, '81. Cultural Lag in Present-Day Education' in Source Book for Sociology. cited in 1935, Source Book for Sociology, ed. , American Book Company, Cincinnati. Original Sources, retrieved 1 March 2024, from