©2000 NewFoundations

The Educational Theory of Herbert Spencer

Tom Seidenberger,
Mary Weiss


edited 8/18/11

1. Theory of Value: What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning? What are the goals of education?

... importance of study of nature and fundamentals of science (Eiseman, p. 153); development of independent thought; importance of presenting the "natural history of society" (Eiseman, p. 153); sociology; goals of education-promote competition, individualism, "survival of the fittest"; learning as an individual effort; education should be directed to self-preservation, care of offspring, preparing adults to enjoy nature, literature, fine arts, prepare to be good citizens; knowledge of science worth more than any other knowledge (Spencer, p. ix); train the memory, cultivate judgment, impart an admirable moral and religious discipline; advocacy of instruction in public and private hygiene

2. Theory of Knowledge: What is knowledge? How is it different from belief.? What is a mistake? A lie?

... knowledge as the scientific study of education, psychology, sociology, and ethics from an evolutionary point of view (Eiseman, p. 153); two fundamental beliefs -- importance of science, sanctity of political and economic laissez-faire; philosophy is knowledge of highest generality; knowledge of lowest kind is reunified knowledge, science is partially unified knowledge; philosophy is completely unified knowledge; universal truths v. particular truths (used for proof); man can only know from experiences; all thought founded on relations -- humans think in terms of differences and likenesses; ideas are expressions of relationships between things (Frost, p. 260)

3. Theory of Human Nature: What is a human being? How does it differ from other species? What are the limits of human potential?

... notion of intelligence as mental capacity (Borgatta, p. 941); individual organisms, species, political systems, and entire societies are alike in that all tend to evolve from relatively simple and homogeneous entities into complex and heterogeneous ones; only the fittest survive and perpetuate their kind; concept of organic evolution--all nature moves from the simple to the complex -fundamental law seen in the evolution of human society as it is seen in the geological transformation of the earth and in the origin and development of plant and animal species, natural selection; "If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die." (Eiseman, p. 154); man if of the universe -- result of evolutionary processes; man is result of adaptation to the environment; man is what he is because his universe, his environment, makes certain consistent and definite demands upon him (Frost, p. 77); man as a part, a stage of evolution

4. Theory of Learning: What is learning? How are skills and knowledge acquired?

...learning as an individual effort; learning as synthesis of all thought; learning should be collaborative; good training of the senses to observe accurately; "rational explanation of phenomena" (Spencer, ix); pupil sees and records for self-, children habitually experience the normal consequences of their conduct; importance of motivation and interest of students; variety of instruction

5. Theory of Transmission: Who is to teach? By what methods? What will the curriculum be?

... science as the most important subject matter; curriculum to be a synthesis of thought based on science (especially evolution), and including philosophies of education, biology, psychology, sociology, ethics, and politics (Magill); sciences are superior in all respects to languages as educational material; history -- nature and action of government, intellectual condition of the nation, description of people's food, shelters, and amusements, importance of drawing in education (Spencer, p. xiv); individual to teach self, aided by teachers, books, observation, laboratory work

6. Theory of Society: What is society? What instruments are involved in the educational process?

Society evolves from relatively simple and homogeneous entities into complex and heterogeneous ones; should include unbridled competition; progress of all kinds should be maximized by societies and governments that allow free competition to reign in all spheres of activity; unregulated free enterprise; survival of the fittest; right of the individual and non-interference; society as an individual organism (Eiseman, p. 153); competition in harmony with nature and in interest of general welfare and progress, Social Darwinism (Spencerism): total view of life which justified opposition to social reform on the basis that reform interfered with the operation of natural law of survival of the fittest; narrow view of role of state; society as an organism (Magill); objection to constant exercise of authority and compulsion in schools, families, and the state; survival of the fittest dependent upon group life, society is essential -- each individual restricted by rights of others; danger of complete state control-- suppression of individual (Frost, p. 204); natural selection process guiding force of social development; in society consciousness exists only in each member (Osborne, p. 137)

7. Theory of Opportunity: Who is to be educated? Who is to be schooled?

All young people should be taught; education open to competent children or adults without fee; survival of the fittest

8. Theory of Consensus: Why do people disagree? How is consensus achieved? Whose opinion takes precedence?

No beliefs are wholly false; they are true to the point to which they all agree; eliminate the discordant elements and observe what remains after; this is truth and should take precedence


Borgatta, E. F. (Ed.). (1992). Encyclopedia of sociology (Volume 1-2). New York: Macmillan.

Eiseman, C. H. (Ed.). (1973). The McGraw-Hill encyclopedia of world biography (Vols. 1-12). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Frost, S. E. Jr. (Ed.). (1962). Basic Teachings of the Great Philosophers. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Magill, F. N. (Ed.). (1987). Great lives from history: British and Commonwealth Series. Salem Press.

Osborne, R. (1992). Philosophy for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, Inc.

Spencer, H. (1911). Essays of education and kindred subjects. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd.