Herbert Spencer’s Educational Theories Essay

Herbert Spencer’s Educational Theories Essay
Herbert Spencer’s theories on education have had a profound effect on contemporary pedagogy and curriculum design. His advocacy of individualism and a highly competitive ethic amongst students and schools plays an

important role in education today, e.g. standardized testing and the competitive SAT examinations in the US. Spencer’s pragmatic approach to curriculum design, where the time, money and energy spent towards teaching a particular subject are weighed against the rewards derived from its study have also had a strong influence on modern day curricula. And perhaps most interestingly, his supposedly anachronistic theory of social Darwinism is often implicitly applied by policy makers who want to [“hold schools and students accountable”, with monetary awards and sanctions distributed according to schools that “make progress” or backslide].

In recent years one of the most contentious educational debates has been the one between social promotion vs. grade retention. If Herbert Spencer were alive today he would undoubtedly advocate the latter over the former, but I wonder if his competitive model of education addresses all of the variables that determine student achievement. His notion that the most academically fit students are the only ones deserving of grade promotion overlooks many important discoveries in the emotional and intellectual development of children and teens.

The fact that all children do not mature on the same time scale is an example of one of his potential oversights. Educational policies that stress high stakes testing, especially in the elementary and middle school grades, clearly ignore the wide range of emotional and intellectual maturity that students in these grades fall into. For example, early to mid adolescent females typically outperform their male counterparts when it comes to reading and writing but by late adolescence, both genders show similar performance in these areas. With differences like this in mind, it is likely that rigorous testing of young adolescents and educational streaming based on these exam results will undoubtedly place as many high achievers in remedial level courses as it will put low achievers in accelerated courses.

In her paper on the debate over social promotion versus grade retention, Anne Wheelock addresses another important consideration which Spencer’s Darwinist view on the subject would likely fail to properly consider and that is the correlation between poverty and grade retention. According to the National Educational Longitudinal Survey of 1988, approximately one fifth of all eighth graders had been held back at least once and amongst those, 33% came from low-income families. Zealous advocates of social Darwinism might argue that those figures support the evolutionary basis of their theory, i.e. poor students account for the majority of grade repeaters because their parents were also low achievers, who consequently could not secure well paying jobs. What social Darwinism fails to address here is the extra set of challenges that only poorer students must overcome if they want to succeed academically. One of the main assumptions of Darwin’s theory of evolution is that each individual is born into the same environment. Human society is highly stratified and as such cannot be modeled by Darwin’s theory.

Wheelock also notes that many students who are held back often become “bored with their schooling [and] the threat of withholding a diploma rarely stimulates them to engage in school.” Many of these students ultimately develop the belief that “school is not for me” and drop out. In these cases learning no longer becomes competitive at all.

One of the most obvious influences of Spencer’s theory on education is the idea of grading students on a bell curve. This system of grading assumes that intelligence is distributed amongst students according to a bell shaped curve, i.e. the number of A students equals the number of F students, the number of B students equals the number of D students and the remainder of students work at a C level. When educators evaluate students according to this model, students compete with each other for grades. Although some might argue that this competition motivates students to work harder others note that it often fails to asses students on their mastery of the material being studied since some students will always fail and some others will always get A’s. A criterion based approach to grading is clearly superior because it assesses students in terms of their mastery of class material.


Johnson, W. L., Johnson, A. M. (2000) “The Theory of Evolution: An Educational Perspective” U of British Columbia Library, 26 November 2005

Wheelock, A. “Social Promotion & Grade Retention” Retrieved 26 November 2005