Herbert Spencer: Scientific Education

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was an English social scientist whose contribution to education was his emphasis on bringing science into the curriculum of schools. In this post, we will examine Spencer’s views and his impact on education.

Spencer’s Views

Spencer was influenced by the work of Charles Darwin and applied evolution to the social sphere. In Spencer’s view, societies were evolving to more advanced societies.  Those who did not keep up would disappear.

Due in part to his support of evolution, Spencer was a critic of religion and other fields of the humanities. He viewed them as impractical and unrelated to contemporary life. The current school system was not providing students with the skills they needed for the modern world.

For Spencer, students should be taught how to think instead of what to think. This could
be done through focusing on the teaching of science. The benefit of science is due to its focus on progress and usefulness. It is the application of scientific breakthroughs that lead to a more advanced society.

Spencer’s Influence

Spencer’s influence runs deep in education. His principles about science in the curriculum have been a key component of secondary education since the early part of the 20th century. Spencer’s focus on using scientific knowledge in an industrialized society is literally the total focus of education today in the 21st century. The Humanities have long taken a back seat to science due in part to Spencer.

Spencer also laid the foundation for progressivism. His beliefs influenced John Dewey as Spencer looked not only at science but also at the need to develop social relationships and citizenship, which are components of progressivism. Dewey took Spencer’s views and systematized them in his scientific approach to education.

Edward Throndike‘s views on behaviorism were also influenced by Spencer. Behaviorism is still one of the major focuses of education to day due to its emphasis on observing changes in behavior.  This has contributed to the development of behavioral objectives in education.


Spencer’s views were controversial in their time. De-emphasizing religion and raising science above it was not popular with many. Now, his views can be seen as a major part of education.

Spencer’s desire to downplay and even remove the humanities on the curriculum puts too much emphasis on material gain and survival. Humans are more than just resource developing beings. Humans were created to express themselves in artistic and humanistic ways. The reason that music, art, and even history are a part of the human experience is that they are components of the humanity that make them human.

Spencer does provide for some role of the humanities but only in the leisure moments of home and family. This is a disservice as great art can only be developed the same way as great science and that is through a professional commitment to the field. To have a balanced society calls for both science and the arts. This was something that Herbert did not see.

2 thoughts on “Herbert Spencer: Scientific Education

Leave a Reply