Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/March 1885/A Project in Industrial Education


THE "children of the public," as the street Arabs are called by that agreeable writer, Edward Everett Hale, are known for their acuteness rather than for their docility. The mots of the Paris gamin give to the French feuilleton not a little of its spice, and his Anglo-Saxon prototype, though more subdued, is no less ready at repartee. Each gives evidence of an acute mind and a keen perception. But playing in the street, vending the public prints, running of errands, and like employments, do little to instruct or elevate, and, though by no means barring the door to more praiseworthy and remunerative vocations, are so beset with allurements as to dissuade the average youngster from entering. Reared in the street, he is accustomed to excitement, and, as he grows up, discovers neither aptitude for trade nor inclination for any other occupation. In the city of New York are thousands of these street urchins: some live in the street from choice, while others are driven thither; some go to the public schools, some to the reformatories in lieu; while others, again, add variety to their existence by devoting a part of the year to the one and a part to the other. But public schools, excellent as they are in New York, could scarcely be expected to succeed in teaching those not inclined to learn; and there are those who assert that reformatories do not reform, and hence it is that the lad who has spent the allotted time in the process of being schooled and reformed, often starts active life too young for manual labor, and too ignorant and unskilled for the work of the artisan. As a result, those are led into a career of crime or indolence whose instincts, under more favorable conditions, would have inclined them in the contrary direction, and whose latent abilities gave more than ordinary promise. Having once tasted the pleasures of untrammeled existence, they evince impatience under restraint and cold indifference to persuasion, and have, therefore, come to be looked upon as incorrigibles, and beyond the reach of charitable effort.

Dissenting from the prevailing opinion as to these lads, a number of New York business-men, having succeeded in other fields scarcely more promising, determined to see for themselves if kindly treatment and careful instruction would not serve to wean them, or some of them, from the street, and encourage them to employ their energies to better purpose. Led by Felix Adler, whose theories on this subject they had come to adopt, they established, some seven years ago, what is called the Workingman's School,

They sought to base their system upon common-sense principles, in which the manual labor of the artisan and the mental work of the scholar should go hand in hand, and both be rendered attractive. It was, too, a theory with these men, that the children of the poorest, even those of the professional mendicant, could be made, with intelligent treatment and instruction, the equals of their fellows reared amid more fortunate surroundings; and from the inception of the enterprise down to the present time they have eagerly sought out those children who, from appearance and situation, might not unreasonably be looked upon as the least promising subjects for instruction. How well they have succeeded it is not the purpose of this paper to decide. It will be sought simply to lay before the reader a general synopsis of the plan of the school and of its practical working; and, as the system has been in operation nearly eight years with the most gratifying results, it may not, perhaps, be found a difficult task to estimate what effect, if any, such teachings, if generally introduced, are likely to produce in the condition of outcast children.

The system may be said to be original, since it is not founded upon any other known to exist. It is best adapted to a country where republican ideas prevail, and where, as in the United States, the political equality of the whole people is the fundamental principle of government. The underlying principle of the system, and one which it is sought to impress upon the minds of the little workingmen is, that all labor is honorable, and that greater dignity should attach to hand labor. The managers maintain, and few will be found to dissent from the opinion, that the most effective means of raising the dignity of hand-labor is by improving the condition of the workman; educating him in his calling, making him self-reliant, original, progressive; and to this end they bend all their energies.

It may not at once appear how hand-labor is dignified by making expert artisans of children plucked from the streets. But it should be remembered that in this country there is no class distinction: men may rise as far as their abilities will take them; the lowest in origin may aspire to the loftiest position, with none to ask them whence they came.

Unlike the industrial school, no age is fixed upon for entrance into the Workingman's School. That period of a child's life at which it breaks things in order to see what makes them go has been selected as the best time to begin to instruct its mind and direct its hands. In the industrial school certain trades are taught; youth is forced to look upon the stern realities of life, the coming struggle for bread, and to fix upon particular vocations ere yet the natural preferences are sufficiently developed to enable it to do so. When the course is completed, there is no time to change; the daily bread must be won, and thus it not unfrequently happens that he who would, perhaps, have been successful as a decorator, proves but an indifferent carpenter; and one who could easily have earned a competence as a mason is forced to eke out a scanty livelihood as a molder, a locksmith, or perhaps a brass-finisher. In the Workingman's School, though all the principal trades are represented, no effort is made to incline the little workingmen to the one or to the other.

Again, in the public school from which many of these little fellows are deserters, no allowance is made for the grades of intellect or rather for the various conditions of intellectual development. It is a ponderous educational machine, in which a certain amount of raw material being put in at one end will, in a given time, be passed out at the other in a more or less finished condition. The bright subjects, always in the minority, arc, no doubt, much benefited; the others, upon leaving, can have scarcely more than a confused idea of what they are supposed to be proficient in. At given times they have been served with a given quantity of mental nourishment, but, as those seated at table are not always able to partake of the same food in the same quantities at stated periods, so pupils, however endowed by nature, can not always digest new ideas nor investigate new subjects with equal readiness.

The theory of instruction is based upon natural inclination. A child visiting the circus, menagerie, museum, or theatre, is all eyes, all ears. Question it upon its return home, and you will, doubtless, be surprised at the amount and variety of its information. It has seen and heard that which you have failed to see and hear.

It is this faculty of the child of absorbing itself in what pleases or interests it that has been seized upon by the managers. In the public school, the young, restless with the impatience of childhood, are forced to remain quiet while attempts are made to describe to them a something which they have never seen, and, not being based upon anything in which their interests have previously been excited, leaves, at best, but little impression on their minds. When it has begun to dawn upon them that Columbus was a man and not a fish, and that he came hither in a sailing-vessel and not in a steamship; when they are a-hunger and a-thirst for information as to his reasons for believing there was a New World in the West, the bell rings and they are ushered into the awful presence of an arithmetician, who knows all about the denomination of numbers, circulating decimals, and the like, and who, having memorized all the rules, thinks everybody else should be compelled to do the same. This system of opposing the natural inclinations of the young is, perhaps, best expressed in the retort of the lad to his mother when she told him to go to bed early in the evening: "You make me go to bed when I'm not sleepy, and get up when I am!"

An inclination of the visitor to the Workingman's School, as he looks over the heads of the children at work, is to compare their lot to his own when a boy. Unless he was unusually gifted, he will recall the tedious hours he spent while trying to memorize the rules in his grammar—rules which he didn't always understand—the struggle with the coefficients of the nth. power of binominals, and so on. He will remember with what reluctance he sometimes entered the school-gates and with what satisfaction he often closed them behind him. Holidays were marked with a red letter in his diary, and vacations not infrequently looked upon as the condemned are wont to look upon temporary respites. But now, as he looks about him, he sees children absolutely interested in their studies and their work. And such work!—molding with moist clay, cutting, sawing, and planing with real tools, fashioning artistic designs, and so on.

The youngsters of his day often absented themselves from school, and stolidly took the punishment which such dereliction entailed, in order to witness work of this nature at a neighboring manufactory or workshop. Now, he beholds a school which is a workshop in itself; where the boys, instead of having to content themselves with looking on, are permitted to take an active part. He sees whole classes of children interested in arithmetic, algebra, and geometry, and listening to talks upon geographical and historical subjects with evident relish. In his day the allurements of geography were by no means so strong as those of foot-ball; and he never could get himself to look upon mathematics with that ardor of affection which he was wont to bestow on mumble-the-peg.

By what arts, it may be asked, do the teachers at this particular school succeed in suddenly awakening the interest of children in subjects which heretofore have not particularly attracted them? By making them interesting instead of tiresome. How many children will be attracted by the statement that Africa is the division of the world which is the most interesting, and about which the least is known; or that Afrigah, from which its name is supposed to be derived, is said to mean "colony" in the ancient Phœnician, and, having been given by the founders of Carthage to their territory, is supposed to have spread to the whole continent?

But children are ever ready for stories and the relation of exciting adventures, and through this faculty, it has been found, they may be led on from one event to another of African history, from one point to another of African topography, till, finally, what heretofore they may be said to have regarded as an unpalatable dose, is successfully administered in the form of a sugar-coated pill.

Instead of beginning at the commencement of African history, at least at the point where our knowledge begins, and gradually working forward through all the dry details, the contrary course would be pursued at the Workingman's School. The children would be told about Stanley and how he found Livingstone. This would naturally lead to Livingstone, and to why Stanley went in search of him. Then would follow the mission that brought Livingstone to Africa; the Nile, and the various conjectures regarding its source, and the reason of the world's impatience to know it; the Niger, and the interesting story of the finding of its course by Richard Lander, after his master had failed in a similar attempt. Egypt and the Suez Canal would be gradually worked in, as well as the history of the Continent of Africa and its relative position on the earth's surface.

By such a course, it has been found, connected ideas are given of geographical points and historical incidents and eras. The mention of ancient Greece to one so instructed would mean something more than a portion of land included in the most easterly of the three peninsulas in the south of Europe, and which, beginning at latitude 40° north, is bounded by a chain of mountains extending from the Thermaic Gulf on the east, and terminating with the Acroceraunian promontory on the Adriatic in the west. It would bring to his mind a connected chain of events.

In teaching algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, objects are used as much as possible. Thus, in the latter, the reason why the angles are not employed as in geometry, but in their stead certain of their functions are used, is practically demonstrated. Then a system of triangulation might be begun by the scholars, in which a base is measured from a single known point, the latitude and longitude of which are computed, and the azimuth-compass brought into play to find the true direction of the line. From this base, other triangles and finally quadrilaterals might be laid off and computed as well as the curvature of the earth, which is traversed and comprehended by the scheme of triangulation. The amount and variety of the information which the young are capable of receiving when their interests are excited would surprise those who, perhaps, have had neither the time nor the inclination to observe them.

The little workingmen are instructed in decorating, molding, turning, the work of the forge, carpentry, and are made to take an active part in experiments in mechanics, hydrostatics, hydraulics, sound, heat, light, electricity, and magnetism. They are retained in the school until they thoroughly comprehend their work and studies.

The children who fill this great building from top to bottom look to be those of well-to-do people, for their clothing is tidy, their faces clean, and their eyes bright. Such, however, is not the case. The school-workshop is recruited from districts the most squalid, from abodes the most humble. No origin is so low, no intellect so dull, that it may not demand and receive admittance within these hospitable, catholic walls.

In the eyes of many this will, perhaps, be looked upon as the most commendable feature of the institution.

Those whom curiosity or other motive has led into the by-ways and the somber courts that mark the abiding-places of the very poor laboring-man have often recorded their conviction that here is the best, though perhaps the most difficult, field for philanthropic work.

The difficulties that stand in the way of such an enterprise as the Workingman's School are sufficient to dissuade the ordinary enthusiast in such projects. They can best be understood by those who are sufficiently interested to inquire into the whole scope of the undertaking. Children, especially those of the poor, are often very hungry early in the day, and to attempt to instruct or even amuse them under such circumstances is alike idle and illogical. Again, poor children frequently lack proper clothing to protect them from inclement weather. All this has been foreseen by the managers. A midday meal is provided for the children, and clothing when required is distributed with no niggard hand.

As might be expected, children are continually being received into the school who are unclean and accustomed to uncleanly habits. These are washed and taught to keep themselves clean. Those come, too, into whose young lives no spark of happiness has ever entered, who are sad and do not smile, and it requires no little skill to induce them to forget their childish woes, and take part in the games and occupations of their comrades.

But it is in dealing with character in its various phases that the managers would seem to have scored the most marked success.

There are those who, like Henry George, believe that humanity is much the same; that a cruel instinct may be traced to a childhood which no spark of kindly solicitude ever served to brighten, and sullenness and obstinacy to a novitiate of injustice and ill-treatment. Others there are who insist that, as the father, so is the child, and these may be set down as agreeing with Hesiod, who distributed mankind into three orders: The first, he says, belongs to him who can by his own powers discern what is right and fit, and penetrate to the remoter motives of action; the second belongs to him that is willing to hear instruction and can perceive right and wrong when they are shown him by another; but he who has neither acuteness nor docility, who can neither find the way by himself, nor will be led by others, is a wretch without use or value.

"If any one denies," says Herbert Spencer, "that children bear likenesses to their progenitors in character and capacity, if he holds that those whose parents and grandparents were habitual criminals, have tendencies as good as those whose parents and grandparents were industrious and upright, he may consistently hold that it matters not from what families in a society the successive generations descend. He may think it just as well if the most active, and capable, and prudent, and conscientious people die without issue, while many children are left by the reckless and dishonest. But whoever does not espouse so insane a proposition must admit that social arrangements which retard the multiplication of the mentally-best and facilitate the multiplication of the mentally-worst must be extremely injurious."

Now, with no desire to affirm the proposition of the one, nor to point out the fallacy of the other, let us see what has been the experience of the managers of the Workingman's School in this regard; let us see how much heredity of temperament and inclination has there been exhibited by juvenile humanity while under treatment.

As may readily be seen, if only the promising children could be permitted to enjoy the benefits of the school, and the vicious and stupid children were excluded, the work of the projectors, if it did not fail utterly, would, at least, be greatly restricted in its scope, and wanting in that particular attribute whence the most important results were looked for.

It is, perhaps, not immediately obvious how it can affect a scheme by which it is sought to train a certain number of poor children, if the vicious be excluded. But the theory of the founders of the institution is that children are not naturally vicious, but are rendered so by surroundings or influence; and hence, if they failed in successfully dealing with them, they would be compelled to fall back upon the assertion that bright and well-behaved children may be made into expert artisans—a proposition which no one has ever denied.

Fortunately for them and fortunately for those whom they especially set out to aid, not one child out of that multitude which has applied for admission has been found, to be beyond the reach of intelligent treatment; not one has been found where evil propensities were more than skin-deep.

Strange to say, the lad who upon entry proved the most stupid, most stubborn, and ill-mannered, rose by rapid stages until, finally, he reached the head of his class! This lad, upon his first appearance, was found to be not only dirty and ragged, but so obstinate that he would only answer questions when it pleased, him to do so. His eyes were half closed, he rarely looked up, and altogether he seemed, if the description of those who saw him may be relied upon, more fitted for the career of a cow-boy or that of a bandit than for such peaceful occupations as those of the mechanic and decorator. The manager of the school called up the official physician and asked him what ailed the lad. The physician made a careful examination, and then reported that, besides being naturally vicious, the lad was weak-minded. But this was by no means satisfactory to the manager. He examined the lad himself, and made an altogether different diagnosis of the case. In his opinion the lad's behavior and appearance were due to a long course of ill-treatment and neglect. He had him thoroughly washed, fed, and clothed, and prescribed good treatment.

At first he was dull, very dull; his mind seemed never to have been called into action, but little by little he began to wake up; day by day his eyes opened wider and wider; the cloud that seemed to have settled over his face was gradually dispelled; and finally one day, when something more interesting than usual was afoot, he so far forgot himself as to smile. Henceforward he gave no further trouble. His teachers say he made rapid progress, and they finally discovered that, instead of being mentally weak, as the physician had said, he possessed a mind unusually acute.

Many of the children when first entered exhibit that viciousness which, it is alleged, is inherent in those whose parents are of a class essentially vicious. These children, or many of them, may be said to have been reared in the gutters, and they found even the gutters more agreeable than the darkened, squalid chambers provided for them in the adjoining tenement-house, and willingly risked the dangers of the crowded street without rather than endure the ill-treatment to be had within. At first they show a disposition to repel the advances of those who would do them a service, as if, unaccustomed to kindly treatment, they felt these advances only concealed new projects for their discomfiture. A supply of new clothes and a few comfortable and palatable meals do much, it has been found, to dispel this feeling, and the round of interesting tasks set before them, in which the hands as well as the mind are called into action, has a still more powerful effect in awakening the better instincts of childhood.

The experience of the Workingman's School tends to verify the conclusion of an eminent writer, that the theorem relative to the moral and intellectual debasement of societies would, when pushed too far, have consequences even more inadmissible than that relative to their physical debasement, and that the principle of mental and moral debasement is by no means so much to be relied upon as the law of physical heredity.

This conclusion has not been reached by a course of reasoning but by actual observation, and though, of course, it does not go far enough to be conclusive, furnishes, nevertheless, valuable data; data which may yet do much toward refuting, at least in part, the arguments which have from time to time been put forward by learned reasoners.

The children of what might be called professional mendicants have shown, when their intellects were polished up and dusted off, as we might say, not a whit less intelligence nor more uncanny characteristics than their fellows; the children of intelligent workingmen; and he would be a bold man who, after observing the present condition of these children, should predict that, when cast loose with an artisan's education, both practical and theoretical, they will fall back upon the charitable institutions instead of earning their own bread and butter; and he would be no less bold who should prophesy an ultimate career of crime for those children who were gathered, while very young, from the haunts of the criminal and the outcast.

This is no scheme of indiscriminate charity in which those who are the most importunate get the most relief, nor is it an institution where the children of the well-to-do may get an artisan's education gratis. There always has been plenty of encouragement for the workers in the great human hive, but here is a project to stimulate those who might not unreasonably be expected, on account of their surroundings, to be the drones and the criminals of the future, into honest activity, and enable them to obtain by their own industry more wealth or comfort than could be hoped for in a career of crime or indolence.