Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/February 1889/The Story of a School



IN this age of wholesale educational machinery the faithful record of any school, individual in its character, ought to be of interest to all who seek better results in practical ability than our present systems of instruction succeed in giving. But, when the school departs widely from recognized standards, its record is of double value, as calling in question' prevalent customs, and affording a new criterion for the judgment of current methods. The tendency of instruction is to become set in its ways. Teachers follow precedent and reach formalism.

But from time to time particular individuals are found who ask the reason of this or that practice, and call in question its value as a means of culture. Hence arose the "teachers' institutes" in this country. They were first organized in the State of New York, in 1846. They grew naturally out of the progress in liberty of thought. Time-worn methods of teaching were brought up for discussion and judged by their results, and in the light of reason.

Credit is surely due the founders and conductors of institutes, in that they brought about and persisted in this habit of questioning and discussing educational practices and principles. This was their special field of work. Their method was the true one, but the laws of life and of mental development were not then well enough understood, even by the best thinkers, to furnish safe guidance in this difficult work.

"The new education" means a revolt against all precise, ready-made forms, and an adoption of such methods as science may from time to time discover and point out. The "Story of a School" tells of the trials and triumphs of an experiment designed to test educational principles at which I had arrived through many years of "institute" instruction. In this constant comparing, discriminating, and sifting of methods I had obtained a special preparation for normal-school work. Herbert Spencer, in his treatise on education, had laid a solid foundation for scientific education, and Prof. E. L. Youmans had with voice and pen succeeded in arousing among thinking people a lively interest in the subject.

In the year 1872, through the agency of the Hon. John Monteith. Superintendent of the Schools of Missouri, I received a call to take charge of the newly established normal school at Warrensburg in that State. In the interview with Mr. Monteith I said suggestively to him, "You do not want me, and your board of regents will not want my services when they learn the conditions I shall exact."—"What may these be? "said he, with some curiosity in his tone. "Entire control of the school, without interference from the superintendent or from the regents," was my reply. Laughing, said he, "You are the very man we want," and added, by way of caution: "You understand that liberty implies responsibility. Give us right results, and we will trust to you for methods." I accepted the situation, and took up my work under circumstances singularly propitious to the experiment I was about to make.

The first thing that engaged my attention was the preparation of a course of study. It was an easy matter to select the required document from the catalogue of some noted institution, or I might have made a mosaic, adopting parts from several. A brief inspection of various catalogues showed that little thought had been bestowed upon the order of subjects in the course. One study might be made to take the place of any other, without the slightest disturbance in their relations. Of the natural order of growth in mind, and of the corresponding sequences in the sciences, they had taken no account. To these laws I now turned for guidance, and tried to forget that a school curriculum had ever been constructed, so that custom should in no wise interfere with the free play of philosophic principles.

The subjects were arranged in their order of dependence as determined by comparative science. The course of study thus worked out differed quite materially from the ordinary, in spirit and in principles. It emerged as an organic whole, rather than as a loose array of disconnected subjects.

The physical sciences had first place, their treatment beginning with an observation of material objects and passing to a consideration of forces and of the laws of physical relations.

Another line of study treated of man and his environment. It began with a consideration of man as an inhabitant of the globe, dealing with geography, and it led up through history, literature, civil government, to mental and moral philosophy, and later on to rhetoric, logic, and political economy.

Besides these two main lines of thought, there were two subordinate ones, dealing respectively with language as a science and with mathematics. In our treatment of language the widest departure from the customary was made. Latin and Greek were excluded, as the State University already offered a much more complete course in the classics than our school could hope to give. But a still weightier reason constrained me in this decision. The time at our disposal for linguistic study was needed chiefly for constructive work in the vernacular. I determined to make the study of English thorough; I realized the power gained by an accurate and easy mastery of our own tongue, and I fully appreciated the æsthetic value of English literature in the cultivation of a refined and discriminating taste.

The constructive work was so managed that familiarity with composition preceded analysis, and the principles and rules of language were developed out of the pupil's own work. Grammar came out of language, not language out of grammar. The critical work of grammar and rhetoric was placed in the advanced course along with logic.

In this spirit, and by the general method here indicated, the whole course of study was arranged. The place occupied by each subject was not a matter of accident, but of philosophic dependence. The success of my scheme demanded intelligent and harmonious co-operation on the part of the faculty. I needed a select corps of teachers, and the freedom of choice secured to me by Mr. Monteith now proved of great importance.

For my first assistant I chose Prof. L. H. Cheney, who some years later was accidentally killed while making an excavation in connection with the work of a geological expedition under direction of Prof. Staler, of Harvard. In years long gone by Prof. Cheney had been a pupil of mine; later we had worked together, so that I knew well his peculiar worth and fitness for the place.

Next came Prof. and Mrs. Straight, representatives of the most advanced thought of the time in educational philosophy. They brought original and fruitful contribution to the work now in progress, and henceforth were to me as my right and left hand. At the close of his stay in Missouri, Prof. Straight was called to the charge of a department in the Oswego Normal School. Later he went with Colonel Parker to the Cook County Normal School, Illinois. He gave all the energy of an intense nature to his profession, but died in middle life, his mind a storehouse of educational material, ripe for use. Mrs. Straight's refined intelligence and professional skill found equally ready appreciation, and she took a high position in each of these normal schools. Since her husband's death, she has been called to a responsible position in one of the state schools of Japan. The remaining members of the faculty were chosen for their fitness in special directions. The plans of each had their recognized place in a co-ordinate work. One of the chief defects in colleges and academies to-day is this lack of co-ordination. Without it the scientific method in its integrity is impossible, and instruction proceeds as though each science were independent. Time and strength are laboriously frittered away, with the result of chronic discouragement on the part of both professor and students.

"I declare," said one of our most observant pupils, as he came out from recitation one day, "the teaching in all the classes is somehow alike! It makes no difference whether we are in natural science, mathematics, or language, we are going the same road, and each lesson throws a new light upon all the others."

When the summer school at Penikese was organized, we made prompt application for a share in the rare opportunities offered. Only fifty students could be accommodated. Three of our teachers received the appointment, and accompanied me across Buzzard's Bay on that eventful summer morning in 1873. Agassiz "the master" was there, his face hopeful and inspiring. The last and noblest experiment of his life was about to be tried, and everything promised success. The promise was fulfilled. The many summer schools of science, springing up all over the land, are the direct offspring of Agassiz's realized dream; and the increasing recognition of the fundamental value of science by numerous prominent schools is also largely a result of his Penikese experiment. Our teachers again, the second summer, made haste to profit by the advantages of the Penikese school, and returned to their work in Missouri with added skill and devotion.

Our pupils represented every class of society. We opened with seventeen, and rapidly increased till the roll contained four hundred names. Within the limits of this paper only the bare outlines of our methods can be given. We began with the properties of things. The gardens and fields were open to us and furnished us the objects. When familiar with these and their relations, books were brought in to extend our knowledge beyond the limits of personal experience. The zoölogy and physiology classes, under Prof. Straight, were at once engaged in laboratory practice. They obtained their knowledge of the animal world from direct observation and through actual dissections. The neighborhood was laid under contribution for cats. Any feeling of repugnance at first shown for the work soon passed away as interest in the study grew eager and absorbing. The absurdity of rote-teaching was shown by an incident in the professor's classroom.

One day he called the attention of the class to the description of a certain sea-animal, as given in a popular text-book. This description he asked the pupils to commit to memory, which they proceeded to do, wondering why. One morning, only a few days later, the table was furnished with a specimen of this same animal preserved in alcohol. Not a member of the class recognized it. The elaborate verbal definition had given them no correct idea of the animal, if, indeed, any image whatever had been present in their minds.

In botany, books were unopened, except to aid in analysis. Materials for study the students found in their walks, and the keen delight awakened when examination revealed to them this new world of facts left no doubt that this was the very method of nature. The study went deeper than systematic botany, and led to an extended investigation of life processes in the plant.

Physics was taught in the laboratory and illustrated by apparatus which teachers and pupils united in making. This proved of double value; for, while primarily it helped to solve the problem in physics, incidentally it constrained the pupil to test knowledge previously gained by its practical application. The inventive powers were also stimulated, and a long step was taken in the development of faculty.

The teacher of geometry followed the method of Prof. Krüsi, of Oswego. This, in essentials, is the same as that outlined by Herbert Spencer in his work on education. It was developed incidentally out of the needs of constructive art, and was carried forward slowly, as the gradual progress of the pupil called for further applications of its principles. It was specially gratifying to witness the cheerful activity of pupils in this line of work, so often dreaded and shirked, and to watch the stimulating effect of power gained in mastering a difficult problem.

Drawing came in everywhere, being a mode of expression as natural as language, and indispensable to the acquirement of clear ideas; pupils soon made constant use of it, though, from lack of early training, their efforts had no pretensions to artistic merit.

Our lessons took various forms, depending upon the object we had in view. In the development exercises, by a series of questions quite in the Socratic spirit, we brought together the wandering, disconnected ideas which the class possessed upon any subject, and directed attention to the more obvious relations. The pupils were then left to work over the lesson, and arrange and present it in due order. This process became a guide, and pointed out the way for the next step in investigation. Lessons of instruction were usually given in the form of lectures. We, however, varied this exercise by substituting for the formal lecture a more or less familiar conversation, in which, after a little, all pupils took part.

Topical recitations included all knowledge obtained from books or reported from investigation. Day by day pupils were called upon to tell what they knew of given subjects in clear and connected discourse. The words of the text-book were not accepted; so every lesson became a language-lesson of the most practical kind. As a matter of fact, we found that, whenever a new thought was clearly understood, the mind sought expression in some form, either through constructive work, drawing, or language, and was not content until it had clearly imparted its meaning to another mind. The mental circuit was then complete.

In this reaching out after words and forms individual character asserted itself, the imagination was awakened, the invention quickened, and the dead monotony of the old-school recitation disappeared completely. This training finally resulted in an unusual mastery of spoken language.

"Written work held a large place in our school. Our plan made provision for at least one written exercise a day for each pupil. As these exercises were in connection with the studies pursued at the time, the pupils entered upon them without any consciousness that they had begun the dreaded composition. Lessons from textbooks, and aided by books of reference, were treated topically, and were frequently written out. Investigations in science were reported in writing, and in due time the pupils came to think easily and naturally, pen in hand.

In another regard we made a serious innovation upon custom. The teachers were not required to correct the wearisome mass of papers prepared daily. For this we had good reasons. The free use of criticism is a dangerous practice. It paralyzes the imagination of the pupil, and so depresses and discourages him that original constructive work is next to impossible. And if, as so often happens through the training given, the critical faculty of the pupil is developed in advance of the constructive ability, and of the power to use language with ease and accuracy, the result is fatal to progress in composition. The first rude efforts fall so far short of the polish demanded by the critical spirit that the sense of discouragement is overmastering.

There is still another view of the case that makes for the same distrust of promiscuous criticism. The errors of the early compositions are soon naturally and spontaneously outgrown through the constant effort at clearness of expression, and through the rapidly increased power over language gained by this continuous practice. In this way the mastery of language came incidentally, and we avoided the stiff awkwardness of the conventional composition.

In the study of English we did what we could to awaken the literary sense to some degree in all our pupils. We knew that each one came into the world with definite mental limitations. The literary sense, like any other form of the artistic faculty, seems, with rare exceptions, to require several generations of culture in a scholarly atmosphere before it attains to a fine discrimination. But we could at least make a real beginning. We could find out the present state of their taste, and carry forward their development by guiding their course of reading. Advantage was taken of events to bring before them some special poem, or some impassioned prose composition, having relation to the event in question. We could thus awaken a susceptibility of the soul, that through repeated impressions would develop into an instinctive sense of the beauty of true literary art-forms.

This was our aim, and quite subsidiary to this was the acquisition of knowledge about literature. The history, bibliography, and philosophy of English literature must come later instead of usurping the first place, as is commonly the case in schools.

In language. Prof. Campbell prepared an exercise which proved of great value. He selected about three hundred of the most productive roots of English words, and gave them one by one to the class. They traced these roots back to the various languages entering into the English tongue, and thus acquired a broader view of the origin and relations of English words. The study thus bestowed upon the vernacular was further valuable as furnishing a basis for the study of other languages.

When the student in Latin, French, or German finds that a large number of the new words he is learning have the roots with which he is familiar in his mother-tongue, the difficulties of his work are greatly diminished.

Mental and moral philosophy were taken up objectively and without the aid of books. Prof. Straight first developed the relations which knowledge sustains to mind, and the action of mind under varying conditions. He then took up some familiar subject and called upon the class to apply the knowledge thus far gained. For example, a flower was brought in and analyzed according to the laws of systematic botany. Then came introspection: what powers of mind had been used, and in what order? A lesson in geometry came next, and this was followed by the other school studies, until the list was exhausted. Next came the industries: what mental powers are brought into play in raising a crop, in building a house, in boiling a potato, in the making of bread? By this plan mental philosophy was lifted out of the fog of dreary abstractions and set on its feet in the broad light of every-day life.

Moral philosophy fell to my share. No books were used. My methods were quite similar to those of Prof. Straight. In a series of discussions, extending over several weeks, the human being was taken where Prof. Straight left him, and the relations developed that existed between him and other human beings. Needs were shown to exist by virtue of the "constitution of things," and deeper than this we did not attempt to go.

Human beings were seen to be potentially equal in needs, hence the necessity for equality before the law, that all might have opportunity for their natural development. Out of needs grew rights, and out of rights duties. A study of experience soon showed that duty assumed two phases—positive and negative. Confucius is credited with a maxim covering the ground of negative duty—forbidding injury to your neighbor; Jesus enunciated a law that summarized both positive and negative duty.

Next, the principles derived from this preliminary study were applied to the conditions which exist in school, home, and neighborhood. Why should a person work? What time should be given to recreation? What shall we do with the tramp? What with worthy but destitute men and women? What with needy orphans?

The discussion was conducted almost solely by the pupils. When it took too wide a range, the teacher quietly led it back to the question at issue. The lesson on one occasion dealt with card-playing. One young woman charged that it led to gambling and bad company. To this another replied that she had often played but never for money, nor had she the least inclination to gamble. As for bad company, she played with her sister, who was no worse company at the card-table than at the dinner-table. When I found that the discussion had become a mere assertion of opinion, I interposed: "You seem to disagree. Why?" "Yes," said one, who recalled my method of treating such cases, "we have not facts enough to enable lis to form an intelligent opinion." "But," said another, "what is your opinion?" "My opinion is not the question. What are you to do next?" Wait, observe, and continue to study, was the conclusion.

Our history grew out of our geography, and, as we labored to build up in the mind of the pupil a connected and distinct picture of the skeleton—the mountain system of the globe—and then clothed these gaunt outlines with the trailing robes of continental divisions, showing also the necessary dependence of the water systems upon the great backbone of the continents, so in history we aimed at a unity of conception, we sought to develop an historic sense, which, once acquired, serves as a guide through the mass of unrelated facts filling so large a space in historical works, even of the higher order. This kind of training is too complex for description here.

And so of our methods of discipline: they were all intricate and intimate parts of our whole work. We had no rules, no class-markings, no roll of honor. We rejected the whole military system, as tending to produce mechanical, routine work. The abrupt tone of command was not heard within our walls. Directions were given in the form of requests. Teachers and pupils observed toward each other the usual courtesies of social life. No premium was offered for study. We relied on the natural incentives. Exercise of faculty is the chief source of pleasure in the young, and we furnished abundant scope for it. The time being filled with pleasurable occupations, calling into activity the whole nature, there was less temptation to misdemeanors than in the ordinary conditions of home-life.

Herbert Spencer's essay on moral education will best describe the work as it went on in our school, subject to the imperfections of human nature it is true, but with a result in general most gratifying.

The school as a whole soon attained a character of its own, derived from the aggregate of its members, and, reacting upon them, it became a potent force in stimulating the moral growth of individuals. This aggregate moral power was exerted for the most part unconsciously, but it was effective, and in time reached proportions which rendered my interference unnecessary.

An incident will here illustrate the operation of this power. A youth entered our school who had formerly been employed as train-boy upon the railroad. His experiences had greatly sharpened wits naturally keen, and as he came among us he was plainly seen to be an alien element. His evil propensities soon showed themselves. He told foul stories, but could get no listeners. He tried to pick quarrels with the younger members of the class, but a quiet word from one of the older pupils soon put an end to that; and, finally, he became angry and disgusted, and took himself away permanently. I watched this affair with much interest as a psychological experiment, but with some anxiety lest the moral leprosy should spread; but the character of the school told, and I was superfluous.

Another instance discloses something of the spirit prevailing among our students. The use of tobacco was discouraged incidentally in a variety of ways. We had a beautiful new building, and great care was taken to preserve it free from filth of any kind. A tobacco-stain, when observed, was removed at once with scrubbing-brush and sand. The physiology class, too, came upon the question of the action of tobacco upon the tissues of the body, and, besides, there was felt to be a social discredit in its use. One evening, while waiting for the mail at the post-office, a number of students on the same errand gathered about, and our talk turned on school matters. Allusion was made to our freedom from the restraint of rules. A late comer remarked: "But you have one rule, I understand. No one must use tobacco on the school premises." I assured him that, though I was opposed to the use of tobacco, I did not prohibit it. "But," I said, "no gentleman will soil the floor of a room occupied by ladies; and this fact, being understood, prevents its use more effectually than a positive prohibition." So powerful was the social reprobation of this filthy habit, that forty young men, of their own will, gave up the practice. It will thus be seen that our moral training, too, was largely incidental; it was implicit in every detail of school-life.

As will already have been anticipated, we dispensed with all distinctive religious services. I had carefully observed the effect in school and college throughout a long period of years, and had been forced to conclude that the evil results vastly outweighed the good. I had noticed that stated Bible-reading often became a mere lifeless form, in which many took no interest. This was contrary to the whole spirit of my system, "Vain repetitions," leading to a habit of regarding words apart from thought, were to be carefully avoided. Then, again, the teachings were dogmatic, appealing to authority, while science regards authority as an impertinence. Besides, the Constitution of the United States places its whole machinery upon a strictly secular basis, and religious services in a State school are there upon sufferance. No matter how carefully guarded, the daily performance of any religious service degenerates into formalism, and excites in the community sectarian animosities.

But, above all, I wished to place morals upon a scientific basis, so as to furnish a safe guide to conduct, independent of the shifting standards of theological belief. We, who received our appointments from the State, could not, honestly, either promote or attack any form of religious belief. Happily, the scientific method equally forbids doing either of these things, and, if strictly adhered to, will prevent all possibility of such quarrels between religious sects as have recently agitated Boston, and have from time to time interrupted the work of many schools in this country.

Our position on this question occasioned wide-spread comment, and, among the clergy of the more ignorant and bigoted sects, there arose an opposition, instinctive rather than outspoken.

The Missionary Society voted us a Bible, and I received a formal note from the secretary announcing the fact, and requesting me to appoint a time for the presentation to take place. I had been informed privately that, as soon as I fixed the time, a public meeting was to be called, and an address made denouncing our neglect of religious observances. In answer to the secretary, I informed him that our library was richly supplied with Bibles, but that, as a token of confidence and good-will, their gift would be highly prized, and we would gratefully receive the promised Bible at the president's office in the normal-school building, at such time as was most convenient to the secretary. The Bible never came.

Prof. Campbell, of our faculty, gave testimony of considerable significance concerning the moral atmosphere of our school. He had been educated in a sectarian college, and had been graduated at a theological seminary. All his prejudices were enlisted in favor of a daily religious service. He said: "I am at a loss to account for the uniform good feeling existing between teachers and pupils here. No student seems disposed to annoy or vex a teacher, and the moral tone of the school is much higher than I have before known." At first, he had thought that the good-will prevailing was in spite of the omission of religious services, but a more careful study had convinced him that the system, in its integrity, had created the moral atmosphere that pervaded the school.

Examinations, as usually conducted, had proved fruitful of serious evils. They gave opportunity for cram, and were often an occasion for cheating. When formal and stated examinations are held, on which class promotion depends, there is a strong inducement to make spasmodic efforts of memory serve in place of sound learning. We avoided these evils by a simple device. Examinations were held at irregular intervals, and were of such a nature that no miraculous feat of memorizing could meet our requirements. Repetitions of text-book formulas were habitually in disfavor, and necessarily there grew up habits of genuine study. These reviews were found sufficient aids in. testing progress, and we dispensed with all other examinations.

After some effort toward conformity to prevailing custom, we found ourselves constrained by the guiding principles we had adopted to devise some more genuine representation of our year's work than is possible in "closing exercises" of the regulation pattern. Essays upon the subjects usually chosen had no essential relation to the student's past researches, and, being prepared for the occasion, represented nothing in particular. Besides, they are not uncommonly doctored by the teacher of rhetoric till they are of doubtful originality. We finally dispensed with all special preparation, and discarded all the spectacular features of the ordinary commencement.

One day was given to the public. Every four weeks during the year our pupils had been accustomed to select some subject having close relation to their studies, and to give time and care to the preparation of an essay upon it. These papers were preserved, and from among them each member was required to choose and bring one. On the last day of the term the public came in, and those interested stayed and listened to the reading of these essays. The truthfulness of every step was plain to all concerned, and was thus in accord with the spirit of the school.

Our experiment came to an end. Of the various innovations made upon custom each had justified itself. The effort to make character the end of education had more than fulfilled expectation. During the last year not a single case of misconduct was reported to me, nor was the behavior of one of our students criticised by the citizens. We had a reign of influence. The forces that govern conduct came from a growth within of just and kindly impulses. A watchful supervision had always been maintained, but into this had entered no element of espionage. The peculiar character which the school attained, both on its mental and moral side, was due to the several factors of influence—scientific methods in study, philosophic succession of subjects, and a never-ceasing but an apparently incidental attention to moral training.

Through the strong personal influence of the State Superintendent, Hon. John Monteith, my independent position had been maintained. I had enjoyed entire freedom in the management of the school and in the selection of teachers. During the three years of my stay in Missouri, educational affairs were in a transition state. At the close of the war, the public-school system was organized and protected by constitutional provisions. The best results of Puritan experience for two hundred and fifty years were incorporated in its provisions, and made secure so far as legislative enactments could compass it. More progress was made in the State during the few years of the so-called carpet-bag rule than in all its previous history. A State Board of Regents, non-partisan and largely professional, were in control throughout our first year. But the rebels were enfranchised, and reaction at once set in. The State Board was abolished, and a local board created, by its very constitution hostile to ideas.

Naturally, personal and sectarian interests would find expression. Members of the local board could see no reason for holding the office, when their functions were restricted to paying over money into the hands of Yankees, to be largely spent in the East during vacation.

Of the special influences that finally brought our experiments to a close it is unnecessary to speak in detail. Suffice it to say that our chief opponent stood before the people as a representative of wealth, and as the most prominent supporter of all religious enterprises. But below the sanctimonious exterior were the predatory instincts of the barbarian. His betrayal of trusts, his flight from outraged justice, his disappearance in the wilds of the Far West, his discovery at a lonely wayside inn, on a road leading to a mining-camp, prostrated by illness, without help, and hunted to the grave by detectives, afford a spectacle so gloomy that even retributive justice is shocked at the recital.

Recent experiments, introducing as we did the constructive arts as a means of expression, have again demonstrated their educational value; and I am persuaded that some time in the future the scientific method, with its freedom from arbitrary restraints, its ethical aims and accomplishment, will in its completeness take control of our leading educational institutions.