For someone called the “philosophical architect” or “father of the welfare state”, you’d expect to hear about the guy. But I hadn’t until recently (recently being around Dec 21, so this wasn’t due to Razib highlighting the domain). I found an article about his perspective on education, which makes the interesting point that Ward himself was self-educated. The source wasn’t very pleasant to read in one go, so as in the post before last I am compiling it onto one page.

By Stephen J. Sniegoski

The prevailing philosophy of education in the United States and Europe is largely centered on the belief that education can and should be used to change the existing social order, in order to “improve” society according to certain preselected principles. Such an idea is not novel, but was fundamental in the establishment of public education in the United States during the 19th century. The most comprehensive presentation of this viewpoint was evinced by the turn-of-the-century American sociologist Lester Frank Ward, who believed that the public educational system could play a pivotal role in bringing about the metamorphosis of American society from individualism to collectivism. Thus, the noted American historian Henry Steele Commager considers Ward to be the “philosophical architect of the welfare state,” (1) and a study of his doctrines serves to highlight many of the substantive issues at stake in the ongoing struggle between supporters of a nationwide, statist system of the education versus the proponents of parental choice in the educational process.
Born in 1841 in Joliet, Illinois, Ward was the youngest of ten children of an itinerant mechanic and a clergyman’s daughter. Ward’s boyhood and youth were spent in poverty as his family moved from place to place in what was then America’s western frontier — Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa. As a boy, Ward was obliged to work to supplement the family income — on farms, and in mills and factories — to an extent that allowed little time for formal schooling. But Ward had a massive appetite and capacity for self-learning, mastering the fundamentals of biology, physiology, French, German, Latin, and Greek by the time he had reached twenty years of age. With the onset of the Civil War, Ward, a fervent opponent of slavery, enlisted in the Union army in 1862, serving for two years until severe battlefield wounds led to his discharge. (2)
After leaving the military, Ward entered the Federal civil service in Washington, D.C., where he moved through low level posts in various agencies — the Bureau of Statistics, Bureau of Standards, Census Bureau, Bureau of Immigration — until in 1881 he became chief paleontologist of the U.S. Geological Survey, remaining there until 1905. In Washington, Ward entered Columbian College (now George Washington University), receiving a B.A. in 1870 and an M.A. in 1872.
Ward also began a career of research and writing in the newly emerging field of sociology. In 1869 he started his magnum opus, Dynamic Sociology, which would be published in 1883. Psychic Factors in Civilization came out in 1893, followed by Outlines of Sociology (1898), Pure Sociology (1903), and Applied Sociology (1906).
As a result of these publications, Ward gained international recognition. In Paris in 1903, he was presented with France’s highest academic award, the honorary degree of Officer of Public Education. In 1903 he also served as president of the International Institute of Sociology at its Paris meeting and in 1905 he became the first president of the American Sociological Society. That same year Ward resigned from his post in the Federal government to accept the newly-created chair of sociology at Brown University, where he remained until his death in 1913. The course Ward taught at Brown had the ambitious title, “An Outline of All Knowledge.”
Widely read in both the natural sciences and social sciences of his age, and strongly influenced by the revolutionary French thinker, Auguste Comte, Ward sought to provide a sociology that would be comprehensive and relevant for social “improvement.” American society in the second half of the 19th century was characterized by the rapid growth of business and industry. The intellectual underpinning for this business-oriented society was provided by the philosophy of Social Darwinism, best represented by the Englishman Herbert Spencer and his American disciple, William Graham Summer. Social Darwinism preached the inevitability of social progress through competition. Laissez faire in human society was portrayed as analogous to the struggle for survival in nature. Progress in human society was just as much a result of natural forces as was evolution in nature — and again, like evolution in nature — unplanned. Thus, Social Darwinism totally rejected collectivistic, government directed reforms, on the grounds that government attempts to direct social progress would be counterproductive, since they would impede human initiative, which expressed itself freely in a natural competitive state of society.(3)
Although very much a materialist, Ward believed that the existence of mind made human society radically different from the rest of nature. Ward held that human society did not have to rely on the slow, unplanned effects of natural selection to progress, since, as a collectivistic entity, it could plan for and direct its own progress. Man, in Ward’s view, was not merely the subject of natural laws, but the master of his own fate. Fundamental to Ward’s thinking was the superiority of purposeful, human-directed, teleological processes over natural (“genetic”) processes.
Social progress in Ward’s view required collectivistic action by society to achieve its own improvement. Private individuals could only work for their own personal advancement, which in the long run, Ward acknowledged, would result in some social progress. But progress by natural evolution was slow and wasteful, and was largely in terms of technical, academic and scientific achievement (learning, scientific inventions) with little improvement for society as a whole. One of Ward’s cardinal contentions was that only minimal social improvement had resulted so far in history from the great advances in science and technology. “The reason why achievement produces so little effect,” Ward concluded, “is that it is not appropriated by society.” (4) Ward believed that immense social improvement could be achieved if society acted as a collective entity to purposefully direct its own betterment. Ward lauded the government intervention of his age (in which he as a government official participated), and believed that history showed an irreversible trend towards increasingly greater government intervention in social and economic affairs.
While sympathetic to many of the particular statist reforms advocated by the leading movements for social change in his era, Ward gave these his own particular twist. For example, the American Populists of the last two decades of the 19th century believed that if the will of the people could prevail — in contrast to that of the bankers, railroad magnates, and industrial monopolists — social reform would automatically be achieved. Radical socialists claimed that positive social change could be attained only by a revolutionary overturning of the capitalistic economic structure. Ward, in contrast, maintained that neither reform nor revolution was possible in the existing American society because the overwhelming mass of the American people supported the individualistic status quo. This included the lower classes whom he portrayed as being too ignorant to realize that they were being exploited by the existing system. Before attaining social and economic change, Ward emphasized it was first necessary to alter the climate of opinion, “The general conduct of mankind is determined by the opinions held, and without changing those opinions it is wholly impossible perceptibly to change such conduct … Instill progressive principles, no matter how, into the mind, and progressive actions will result.” (5)
Ward believed that sufficient knowledge — especially scientific knowledge — already existed, which if put to use would achieve vast social improvement. “What is needed as a guide to action and a condition to progress as well as to happiness is complete possession of truth, absolute faith in the laws of nature.”(6) Ward believed that the social sciences attained this knowledge of the “laws of nature” just as did the natural sciences. And in acquiring this scientific knowledge it was necessary to jettison all religious and metaphysical thinking. The reason why this extant scientific knowledge was having so little impact on society, he held, was that it was possessed by only a very few people. Social improvement required that this knowledge be diffused to the masses, whom Ward saw as a great untapped reservoir. Opposing the predominantly hereditarian views of his day, he placed emphasis on environmental influences in determining intelligence. While Sir Francis Galton maintained that as a result of a process of competitive selection the lower classes inevitably tended to be innately inferior intellectually to the upper classes, with resultant limitations on their capacity for intellectual improvement, Ward although admitting to the existence of innate differences in mental capability among individuals and perhaps among races, held that there was no reason to assume any equation between socioeconomic class and intelligence, and that the intellectual superiority of the upper classes was solely the result of the greater opportunities available to them for the acquisition of knowledge.
Knowledge, however, could not be effectively acquired by individual effort alone, Ward held. (This position was ironic, since Ward was himself largely self-taught). For alongside knowledge or “apprehended truth,” there was much worthless information and “few intellects can distinguish the chaff from the wheat, at least in youth, where the deepest impressions are made.” (7) What was required was formal education — “An artificial system for the assorting of impressions, for causing their systematic presentation, for precluding the introduction of false ones, and the drawing for erroneous inferences, is therefore absolutely necessary to the successful creation of progressive states of the human mind.” (8) Formal education, Ward regarded “as a systematic process for the manufacture of correct opinions.”(9) And such “Education is the mainspring of all progress. It is the piston of civilization.” (10) Ward’s emphasis on a formal system of planned education put him at odds with the laissez-faire disciples of Herbert Spencer who stressed the virtues of voluntarism, parental influence and of self discovery in education — there being no better example of the latter than Ward himself. (11)
For Ward, formal education could not be left in private hands but had to be the “exclusive work of society itself,” (12) which meant, in effect, the central government. Private schools were anathema to Ward because to exist they had to cater to the desires of parents. Schools shaped by the unscientific preferences of parents, he argued, could not possibly harmonize with the true needs of society. In fact, he regarded private education as being worse than no education at all because it acted “to increase the inequality in the existing intelligence.” (13) Here we find a clue to Ward’s concept of the “improvement” of society — whatever attributes might be embraced by his concept of “improvement,” equality was certainly, fundamental.
Only state schools could address society’s actual needs and “the result desired by the state is a wholly different one from that desired by parents, guardians, and pupils.”(14) Free from attempting to placate the whims of parents, teachers in state schools would have “time to plan true educational work.” (15) But the teachers in Ward’s proposed state system would be far from free agents since the determination of educational methods would be the duty of the “supreme authority.” (16)
Ward held that state schooling should be universal and compulsory. He observed that given the choice, a few parents might be willing to bear the cost of private education rather than send their children to free government schools which taught values they could not accept; but Ward regarded that group as “not sufficiently numerous to command respect.” (17) Ward, however, was concerned about the large number of “poor and ignorant” parents who would oppose sending their children to public schools because they “know nothing of education or its value.”(18) While using the term “compulsory schooling”, Ward believed that in his ideal society positive inducements would be sufficient to encourage parents to support the public schools, making actual coercion unnecessary.
Ward stressed that the public schools system should be controlled by the central government, not by states or local authorities as was the case at that time in the United States. This would facilitate the maximum degree of uniformity. While dealing only briefly with the question of the specific content of curriculum (sciences would be emphasized), Ward stressed the importance of a similar curriculum for the whole country, to be determined by national “educational experts.” During the early years of school, the curriculum would be the same for everyone. In the later years, the curriculum would be adjusted to the individual student’s aptitude, but the students themselves, however, would have no choice in determining their studies. These would be determined solely by teachers, who would rely on scientific aptitude tests when making their decisions. Only at the university level, did Ward allow for some measure of choice by students as to what they would study.
To complete the centralization of education and of all thought processes, Ward not only sought to prohibit private education, but also to establish a central university in the political capital, Washington D.C., where the “truths” of social science would be taught to all who had been selected to undergo such education, and who on successful graduation from this course would be qualified to run the state.
Ward’s support for educational uniformity rested not only on his belief in the ability of “educational experts” to determine a curriculum rooted in objective truth (educational alternatives would impart only error), but also flowed inevitably from his desire for equal opportunity for all as a necessary social goal.
The problem with the prevailing nineteenth century educational system, Ward believed, was not only that it provided what he regarded as a deficient education for all, but that it also provided unequal educational opportunities. Wealthier individuals could attain a superior education. Such differences in educational background acted to reinforce existing economic and social inequality. By providing an almost identical educational environment for everyone, Ward thought that his educational system would establish equal opportunity at last for all. Individuals would be able to advance according to their inherent mental capability. In essence, Ward’s system would not lead to equality of conditon but to a meritocracy. (The system, of course, actually would define merit). But Ward assumed that the inequalities in this system (reflecting natural inequalities) would be far less than the “artificial” inequalities in his contemporary society. This was quite different from the modern liberal’s emphasis on equality of condition, as expressed by the contemporary liberal philosopher, John Rawls who denies that superior innate abilities should entitle superior producers to the wealth that they create, writing, “there is no more reason to permit the distribution of income and wealth to be settled by the distribution of natural assets than by historical and social fortune.” (19)
While Ward assumed that the diffusion of extant knowledge among the whole population would lead to greater social progress, he did not believe that progress would cease when optimal diffusion had been achieved. Rather, he assumed that new knowledge would continually come into being at a much faster rate than in the past, since there would be many more educated people capable of discovering new knowledge. Furthermore, Ward held that knowledge acquisition actually increased brain capability. “The truth apprehended acts objectively upon the brain, and effects transformations and permanent alterations of tissue, gradually but slowly building up a better tissue.”(20) And following erroneous Lamarckian concepts, Ward believed that such acquired traits would be inherited by future generations. (21) Hence, there would not only be greater knowledge in the future, but people with superior minds capable of learning far more than Ward’s contemporaries. Social progress thus would be never-ending.
Central to Ward’s thinking was the idea that social science would eventually reveal the basic truths about the nature of human society, and that there were therefore certain ideal, scientifically-determined ways in which society should operate. Such social truths were totally independent of the will of the people. Simultaneously, however, Ward believed that government and the democratic popular will would be as one. Good reforms could not be imposed on a recalcitrant population. Rather, through proper formal education the people would come to desire the social changes that would be of benefit to society. Formal education in the Western system was the motor force from which all other positive social changes ineluctably would result. Thus social change was not to be violent or revolutionary, but would come about gradually as the peoples’ understanding of what was good for society increased. Ward called this evolving system “sociocracy,” a word he borrowed from Auguste Comte. Unlike socialism or capitalism, “sociocracy” was a dynamic rather than a static construct, but the movement was in the direction of statist collectivism. (22)
Wardian ideas are widely accepted throughout the Western world today, and are fundamental to any understanding of the contemporary controversy between exponents of compulsory, uniform, state-controlled educational systems as opposed to those who support freedom of choice, both of schools and of curricula, by parents and students. Superficially attractive like most ideal systems, Ward’s ideas call for closer scrutiny. Let us examine a few of his contentions.
Critical to the validity of Ward’s entire construct is the answer to one basic question: How can anyone be assured that the possessors of genuine scientific truth will be in control of the educational system, rather than the holders of erroneous doctrines? It would seem that Ward’s belief rested more on faith than on logic. As John Passmore writes in his The Perfectibility of Man, “If men are to be perfected by educators or legislators this can only be by a series of fortunate chances, as a result of which the right sort of men come to power and choose the right successors. There is nothing to guarantee, or even faintly to suggest, that these conditions will be fulfilled.” (23)
Furthermore, it is not apparent that the statist collectivism Ward sought would advance the public good or that the social scientists have yet determined — or are capable of determining — what the public good might be. Ward assumed that scientific knowledge could be used to direct society. Yet, science provides no information as to what people ought to desire, nor what they will, in fact, desire at a future date. In essence, as Ludwig von Mises originally pointed out, socialism (statist collectivism) cannot solve the question of calculation. (24) Economic goods (and political values as well) do not have any intrinsic value to be discovered by science. (25)
As Ward himself acknowledged, his sociological views largely derived from his own personal experiences. (26) Coming from a background of poverty, Ward had been unable to attain a formal education. If educational opportunities had been provided to all, Ward believed that he could have been a far greater success at a much earlier age. And as government offical, it was natural for Ward to believe that government was a beneficial agent. But Ward neglected to realize that it might also have been his freedom from the shackles of formal schooling that enabled him to develop his independent thirst for knowledge. It would seem unlikely that the Wardian “sociocracy” would produce many individuals of the calibre of Lester Frank Ward, who thrived and improved himself in the prevailing nineteenth century system of freedom and private enterprise, — not in a society controlled system that would have deprived him of any role in his own educational progress. In short, Ward achieved considerable success in a non-directed society. Was it reasonable to have thought that he would have done even better in a controlled order? Ward assumed that government would reward merit; but in point of fact, government rarely rewards bureaucrats who show the capacity for independent thought.
Although his writings never became well-known among the general public, Ward’s ideas exerted considerable influence in sociological and educational circles. During his long residence in Washington, Ward became a close friend of William Torre Harris, the U.S. Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906. At the turn of the century, Harris was regarded not only as America’s foremost educator, but also its leading philosopher. Although espousing Hegelian philosophy and conservative economic views, Harris’ belief in the sociological foundations of education revealed the impact of Ward’s ideas.(27) At Harris’ request, Ward prepared a section on the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Education, 1899-1900 on sociology, especially focusing on the sociological presentations at the Paris Exposition of 1900 which Ward attended. (28)
Ward’s ideas probably gained their greatest circulation through the work of Albion W. Small, who was a dominant figure in American sociology in the early decades of the 20th century. Small, who was a personal friend of Ward’s, was highly influenced by the latter’s thinking, remarking that “I would have rather written Dynamic Sociology than any book that ever appeared in America.” (29) As the head of the first department of sociology in the United States at the University of Chicago, where he remained from 1892 until his death in 1926, Small played a leading role in training a whole generation of sociologists, who staffed the newly created sociology departments in universities throughout the United States. As late as 1930, the University of Chicago had granted as many Ph.D.s in sociology as all other American universities combined. Furthermore, Small published the first introductory textbook in sociology in 1894 and edited the American Journal of Sociology, the official journal of the American Sociological Society. (30)
The imprint of Wardian thinking was clearly evident in Progressive education, which came to dominate American education during the 20th century. As John Dewey (who had previously authored a favorable review of Ward’s The Psychic Factors of Civilization) stated in 1897, “education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform” and that “the teacher is engaged not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of proper social life.” (31)
Ward had a more direct impact on Charles Van Hise, the president of the University of Wisconsin from 1903 to 1918. As a member of the U.S. Geological Survey from 1883 to 1903 Van Hise had become personally acquainted with Ward. Under Van Hise the University of Wisconsin assumed a pivotal role in the reformist action of that state, which was considered to be a model for the Progressive movement. Acting on Ward’s faith in the diffusion of knowledge, Van Hise established extension services and correspondence courses, placing particular emphasis on the social sciences, which Van Hise stressed would be a service to the state, and many of the University’s graduates found positions in the state government. As one recent historian has written, “Van Hise’s practical demonstration of the social reform potential of state education confirmed the possibilities of Ward’s theoretical position.” (32)
The main thrust of Ward’s thinking still serves as a foundation for the liberal philosophies of contemporary educationists, though with certain significant modifications. While Ward believed that Western science was committed to objective truth, the dominant trend of modern liberalism tends toward cultural relativism. Nor was Ward attuned to the Rousseauian child centered notion of progressive education. Children were to be required to adapt to his knowledge-oriented educational system; his system was not intended to adapt to the whims of children. Possibly in this respect the educational systems of the Communist controlled countries of eastern Europe correspond more closely to Ward’s ideas, even to the extent that they assume that once the people are properly ‘educated’ they will accept the state-controlled system with its ideals and doctrines freely and without question or objection. However, Ward’s goal was to establish equality of opportunity (as he saw it), while modern Western liberalism generally aspires to equality of condition. Most contemporary liberal educationists are still at one with Ward in the desire to promote state control over education, to limit private alternatives to the state schools, and to insist upon compulsory education of all children in the state school system. In such programs as values clarification, global education, and nuclear war education, the objective seems to be the fostering of views that run counter to those held by the majority of the American people. It is these Wardian educational tendencies that have brought about a strong reaction by parents, as evidenced by the increasing use of private schools and the demand for greater parental influence in the public schools, tuition tax credits and education vouchers that would have the Federal and state governments actually fostering the choice of private education. The present demand for greater parental influence by people over the education of their children is a clear revolt against the concept of total state-control over the education of each generation as envisaged and advocated by Lester Ward and those who follow in his tradition.


(1) Henry Stecle Commager, ed., Lester Ward and the Welfare State (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1967), p. xxxviii. Commager is a strong advocate of the liberal welfare state, but a similar view of Wards’s influence is held by the noted conservative anti-collectivist scholar, George C. Roche, who currently is Chairman of the National Council of Educational Research of the U.S. Department of Education. Roche writes: “Lester Ward is one of the patron saints of the modern American collective idea.” George Charles Roche III, The Bewildered Society (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1972), p. 150.
(2) For biographical information on Ward see: Clifford H. Scott, Lester Frank Ward (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976), pp. 13-41.
(3) For a discussion of Social Darwinism see: Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, Revised Edition (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1959).
(4) Lester F. Ward, Applied Sociology: A Treatise on the Conscious Improvement of Society by Society (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1906), p. 276.
(5) Lester F. Ward, Dynamic Sociology: Or Applied Social Science, Second Edition, Vol. II (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1898), p. 547.
(6) Ward, Applied Sociology, p. 86.
(7) Ward, Dynamic Sociology, p. 549.
(8) Ibid., p. 547.
(9) Ibid., p. 548.
(10) Lester F. Ward, “Unpublished Manuscript on Education,” p. 311 quoted in Elsa Peverly Kimball, Sociology and Education: An Analysis of the Theories of Spencer and Ward (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932), 0. 216.
(11) Kimball, pp. 76-124.
(12) Ward, Dynamic Sociology, p. 571.
(13) Ibid., p. 588.
(14) Ibid., p. 590.
(15) Ibid., p. 510.
(16) Ibid., p. 591.
(17) Ibid., p. 609.
(18) Ibid., p. 609.
(19) John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971), pp. 72-73.
(20) Ward, Dynamic Sociology, p. 551.
(21) Ward’s Lamarckianism would seem to conflict with his belief that the upper class was not inherently mentally superior to the lower class. For if people did inherit acquired traits, children of educated parents would be innately more intelligent than the offspring of the uneducated. Lamarckian views were prevalent among social scientists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. See: George W. Stockton, Jr., Race, Culture and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (New York: The Free Press, 1968), pp. 234-270.
(22) Like Karl Marx, Ward viewed the state as a vehicle of coercion and expected mankind to ultimately evolve into a stateless condition when it had become totally socialized. But in the present age, government, with its coercive aspects, reflected the interests of society. This view is emphasized by James Ernest Fleming, “Political and Economic Radicalism in the Theories of Lester Frank Ward.” (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, University of North Carolina, 1946); Fleming, “The Role of Government in a Free Society: The Conception of Lester Frank Ward,” Social Forces, 24: 3 (March 1946), pp. 257-266.
(23) John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970), p. 145.
(24) Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, New Revised Edition (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1963), pp. 698-715.
(25) The term is Friedrich Hayek’s. See: Chiaki Nishiyama and Kurt R. Leube, eds., The Essence of Hayek (Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, 1984), pp. 259-264.
(26) This is the thesis of Edward F. Shaughnessy, Jr., “Lester Frank Ward: The Development of an Educational Theory,” (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Boston College, 1971).
(27) Kimball, p. 168; Scott, pp. 62-63.
(28) Kimball, p. 168.
(29) Quoted in Lawrence A. Cremin, The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957 (New York: Vantage Books, 1961), p. 98.
(30) Nicholas S. Timasheff and George A. Theodorson, Sociological Theory: Its Nature and George A. Theodorson, Sociological Theory: Its Nature and Growth, 4th Edition (New York: Random House, 1976), pp. 70-72.
(31) Quoted in Cremin, p. 100.
(32) Scott, p. 64.