Culture of technology in secondary education


Image of the physics textbook by A. Ganot, Cours de Physique purement expérimentale à l’usage des gens du monde… (Paris, 1859, p. 510).

Is a telegraph a scientific instrument? If the answer is no, why then was it included in most physics textbooks in the second half of the 19th century, supposedly to teach physics?
Education is not an isolated element of society. On the contrary, it reflects shared cultural views and has an influence on them. In this process, technological values are no exception: The way they are present or perceived in education depends on the role society -and more specifically legislators and its associated governments- attributes to technology.
Although each country had its peculiarities, during almost all the second half of the 19th century, in most European countries secondary education was mainly focused on the middle class and mainly intended to provide general culture and as a preparation for the university.
As the century went on, several general changes were introduced under the influence of different factors related mainly to technological changes (such as the Industrial Revolution or the factory system -see the post on this blog) and to both social and economic transformations. As stated some years ago by Carlo M. Cipolla in his work Literacy and Development in the West, where he raised issues that still remain open (p. 103):

The Industrial Revolution created a break with the past. In an industrial society people have to operate on a totally new and different plane, and the educational sector obviously does not escape the common fate. Advanced technology and the pace at which it makes further advances create new and unique problems of training and education. It is true that more and more machines simplify man’s work. But as our mastery over our environment increases, more knowledge becomes the prerequisite to our action. Some common sense and the skills of reading and writing were great assets until not long ago; and they were more than enough to place a man high upon the social ladder.

Although many are the circumstances conditioning these changes, we will only make reference to some of them (leaving aside, among others, influences coming from Thinkers of the French Enlightenment such as Rousseau).
In the first place, education goals and target groups started to widen. During the second half of the 19th century, it grew strong the belief in the power of education to shape the future of nations and individuals. Legislators in some European countries, such as Spain, also attributed to it the duties of educating for life and enabling students to enter into medium level professions. This last goal gave secondary education an important role because of its middle possition between superior education and the labour market and because it reached those students who didn’t attend either university or technical schools. Later on, some attempts were made to include vocational training in secondary schools and to combine both studies, although, at least in Spain, these initiatives were not very succesful (González y Guijarro, 78).
In the second place, the rise of industrialism and capitalism, together with other circumstances such as the efficiency and high degree of development reached by science and technology, or the showcasing of these advances in exhibits like London’s Great Exposition in 1851, contributed to give these fields a greater prestige. Education was expected to take account of these new challenges and, as a consequence of these and other factors, some proposals for change were introduced in education organization and curricula. Concerning the first changes, the “factory model of education” was adopted (, a model that continues to be in use to this day (see the post “factory system” on this blog). Concerning the second ones, the curricula also started to change very slowly, resulting in the introduction of newer kinds of knowledge outside the traditional humanities. As the German Emperor WillIam II put it “It is our duty to educate young men to become young Germans and not young Greeks or Romans” (
Then, and although conditioned by the interests of the government in power, secondary education started to pursue the introduction of both scientific and technological contents, but in very different ways. Science, unlike technology, was explicitly included in the secondary schools: that’s the case regarding physics. Technology, on the contrary, was apparently outside the sphere of this level of education because hardly any subject related to industry, such as industrial arts (the term used at the time to refer to techniques) or agriculture was included; and, if they were, they didn’t last long. However, a closer look reveals the abundant presence both of technological contents in physics textbooks and programs, and of technological items in physics cabinets. Why then if technology was considered convenient content was it introduced under the cover of the concept of science?
At the time, two main views of science co-existed: on the one hand scientific scholarship pursued science for its own sake and tried to safeguard this perspective from the pressure of being useful, giving rise to the idea of pure science. On the other side, politicians both defended and helped to consolidate an utilitarian view influenced by the belief of the contribution of science and technology to progress and wellbeing, and thus, in order to contribute to the country development, pursued the inclusion of this type of contents in this educational level (see the post “Progress” on this blog).
This belief, consolidated in the 19th century, continues to exist, although several current studies question the idea of the direct contribution of education to economy and progress. Good examples are the following words by G. S. Drori and Fritz Ringer:

Whereas science and education are commonly regarded as intrinsically being linked with social benefits and, thus, by definition carrying a teleological tone, I argue that such definition evolved in the cultural environment of nineteenth century Europe.
Science and education are regarded as being beneficial to society and the definition of their social role rests on this justification. In other words, the social understanding of science and education is essentially teleological, and modern science and education are regarded as being linked to, and defined by, their utility. […]

The definition of the social role, or the designated value of this social role, is exemplified in the “science education for development” model. This model is, however, a general and widespread article of collective faith, rather than an observable reality. In other words, the science education component in national development is a myth, rather than a proven agent for national progress. (“A Critical Appraisal of Science Education for Economic Development”, en W. W. Cobern (ed),Socio-Cultural Perspectives on Science Education: An International Dialogue, Springer-Science + Bussines Media, 1990, pp. 49-74, pp. 68-69)

… the economic funcionalist approach to educational change is seriously flawed in several respects. To begin with, no one has ever succeeded in specifying the functionalist case by demonstrating the usefulness of particular curricula for particular technical or business positions. […] To raise such issues is just to indicate that the economic functionalist account of educational change (and the educationalist account of economic growth) must be questioned in detail, even though it seems initially plausible when stated at a very high level of generality. (Fritz Ringer, D. K. Müller, and B. Simon (eds.), The rise of the modern educational system, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, and Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris, 1989, p. 2)

In any case, as we have said, it was this economicistic and utilitarian rethoric (prevailing today in certain sectors) the one that conditioned the introduction of scientific and technological knowledge in secondary schools. Hence the emphasis was placed in applied science. Science then, being more attractive, was the general term used to refer to both topics bluring the distinction between them.
This ideal of a scientific knowledge that comprises technology, shown explicitly in decrees and educational laws, can be illustrated analysing the terms used (even in the title) in a largely used physics textbook, Elementary Treatise on Physics Experimental and Applied, by A. Ganot, that was translated into several languages in more than half a century. While the terms “science” and “arts” appear in it about fifteen times, the term “applications” appears twenty five times –forty nine in the 1859 french version–.
As a consequence of this view, technological contents were introduced in both physics textbooks and programs, and technological objects were purchased for the physics cabinets, but all of them classified always as scientific, and considered as the result of scientific work (to see other equipment used in education see the post “Educational technology” on this blog).

References and further reading
Carlo M. Cipolla (1969), Literacy and Development in the West, Penguin; W. W. Cobern (ed) (1990), Socio-Cultural Perspectives on Science Education: An International Dialogue, Springer-Science + Bussines Media, pp. 49-74; Víctor Guijarro and Leonor González (2015), La comprensión cultural de la tecnología, Madrid, Universitas;  Fritz Ringer, D. K. Müller and B. Simon (eds.) (1989), The rise of the modern educational system, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, and Paris, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris;  Federico Sanz Díaz (1985), La segunda enseñanza oficial en el siglo XIX (1834-1874), Madrid;  Ulrich Wengenroth (2000), “Science, Technology, and Industry in the 19th Century”, Munich Center for The History of Science and Technology, Working Paper.